BUKAYO SAKA’s new contract means he will have been at Arsenal for nearly two decades by the time the deal runs out in 2027 – and only then just be approaching the best years of his career.
The young Londoner has been the best of many successful graduates from the club’s famed Hale End Academy in recent years. He started out there aged just seven!
Highbury Hero Liam Brady, one of the greats Saka has followed into the NO.7 Arsenal shirt, was the club’s Head of Youth Development back then.
He recalled recently: “The system was set up to brings these young boys in at a very early age and Bukayo was about 12 when I retired and he was already making in-roads. I am delighted to see how he has gone and and fulfilled his potential.”
Saka’s long-standing relationship with the club and the coaches there was a factor in his decision to sign his latest contract.
Perhaps the biggest influence, however, was Super Swede Freddie Ljungberg. The former Arsenal winger became a a trophy-winning legend after Arsene Wenger signed him and then went into the club’s youth coaching system on his retirement as a player.
It was at Hale End that he started a crucial relationship with the eager-to-learn Saka, something he acknowledged when he emerged as an England star in the European Championships and World Cup under national coach Gareth Southgate.
Saka recalled: “He (Freddie) has been really good with me. From 14, when he took over my development, he challenged me in a way other coaches didn’t. He pushed me and saw my potential in a way other coaches didn’t.
“All the way to the under-23s he was still pushing me and even in the first team he was still helping me, even until today. He has had a big influence on my career.
“He says different things. Because he was a winger himself he had a lot of experience himself and learning points to give me.
“It is not just the football side, he is a man who helps me with my personal life as well. He is such a top guy and I really appreciate that message from him.”
And for Ljungberg the admiration is mutual, as he explained when asked for his views on the emergence of such a talent in Arsenal’s youth ranks.
He also explained how he went to great lengths to make sure the rest of the club’s coaching staff were aware of players such as Saka – and his youth team-mate Emile Smith Rowe.
Ljungberg commented: “I was Bukayo’s head coach for a while. As a coach, as a young youth coach, you have to believe in what you see and not hear all the noise behind, ‘Oh, they can’t do this and they can’t do this.’ I always try to say, ‘Concentrate on what they can do. Let’s try to make it better and be positive in their mindset and we can make something’.”‘
It was indicative of how much respect and affection Saka feels for his Hale End roots when he returned there the day after scoring his first for Unai Emery’s first team in the Europa League in 2019.
His mission was to hand over the shirt he wore when he scored his debut goal against Eintracht Frankfurt as a thank you to the people who had helped him achieve his aim of becoming a professional footballer.
Now he is the best player in the entire club – and one of the best paid too – a cue for new shirts and more celebrations all round for the Arsenal family.