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'This is just the start, I want more' - Arsenal's NXGN wonderkid Patino eyes big future after dream debut

7:00 pm AEDT 23/3/22
Charlie Patino Arsenal 2021-22
The 18-year-old midfielder scored on his Gunners bow in December, and is eyeing a permanent spot in Mikel Arteta's first-team squad for next season

There have been very few debuts quite as memorable as Charlie Patino’s for Arsenal.

With the clamour from fans growing for the teenage midfielder to be given a chance in the first-team, Gunners boss Mikel Arteta had remained unmoved during the early rounds of this season’s Carabao Cup.

But that all changed on December 21, when League 1 side Sunderland travelled to the Emirates Stadium for a quarter-final clash.

Patino, who had spent large chunks of the campaign training with the senior squad, was given an opportunity and named on the bench for the first time in his young career.

And, with Arsenal leading 4-1, he was finally introduced with 10 minutes remaining.

The Hale End academy product was roared onto the pitch, with more than 50,000 Arsenal fans chanting his name.

And within 10 minutes he had given the night the perfect ending, slotting home Nicolas Pepe’s cross to score his first senior goal and put the gloss on a 5-1 success.

“It was an amazing night,” Patino recalls, as he speaks exclusively to GOAL following his 28th-placed finish on the NXGN 2022 list of world football's 50 best wonderkids.

“When I came on, it was an amazing feeling hearing everyone chanting my name. It gave me so much confidence. I felt free, I felt like I could play like I normally play.

“Then when I got my first pass off, it brought even more confidence. Then to score after Pepe crossed it in, it was just amazing, honestly.”

Patino adds: “I remember afterwards I was just hugging the staff and all the players were coming over to me and saying, 'congratulations, you deserve this, enjoy your night'.

“My family and my agent were watching in the Adidas box, and just walking in and seeing their faces afterwards was great because they’d all spent so much time travelling up and down the country watching me play over the years when I was at St Albans, Luton and Hale End.

“I said to my family that night, 'this is just the start, I want more'.”

Patino’s debut goal came just two months after his 18th birthday, and the way he handled the occasion was an indicator of his character and demonstrated why Arsenal value him so highly.

It is a night the midfielder will always hold dear, but his focus now is on ensuring that he goes on to add many more memorable chapters to his Arsenal story.

“This season has been great for me,” he says. “Playing games with the Under-23s, whether that be in Premier League 2 or against men in the Papa John’s Trophy. Then getting the call-up to be with the first team for eight or nine weeks was amazing.

“I know the difference now between the first team and the U23s and it’s massive. The speed of the game, the quality, how quick they move the ball, the strength of the players.

“Just getting that understanding of where I need to be, how much gym I need to do, the technical and tactical side of the game. It’s all been so important.

“Now I just want to kick on, hopefully be with them in pre-season and try to establish myself a spot in the dressing room.”

Patino joined Arsenal when he was 11, arriving from Luton Town where he had quickly established himself as one of the most exciting young talents in the country.

Top Premier League sides went head to head to sign him, with Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham all in the running.

But it was Arsenal that captured his attention.

“It just felt right,” he says. “I felt at home.”

Patino soon began to impress as he progressed through the Gunners’ famous Hale End academy, and has always played in age groups higher than his own.

He got his first taste of U23s football towards the end of the 2020-21 season, and he started the current campaign hoping to establish himself firmly within Kevin Betsy’s squad.

While other youngsters have been earmarked for loans, the plan for Patino was always to stay and develop at Arsenal, getting game time with the U23s and spending some time training with the first team.

But some impressive sessions at London Colney saw him become a regular face at first-team training, and an eye-catching performance against Brentford in a behind-closed-doors friendly last summer thrust him further into Arteta’s plans.

That culminated with the midfielder being handed his debut against Sunderland, and he was rewarded with his first senior start soon after, in the FA Cup third round at Nottingham Forest.

But this time there was no fairy-tale outcome, with Arsenal suffering a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Championship side.

It was a difficult evening for everyone involved, and for Patino, it was an early example of just how tough senior football can be.

“In a way, it’s something I needed to learn then, rather than in a couple of years' time,” he says.

“Now I have an understanding of Mikel being annoyed with the players, saying this is not good enough, rather than just, ‘well done boys, fantastic performance’.

“It was a big game to be a part of. Nottingham Forest obviously have a rich history and the fans were lively.

“I enjoyed the game even though it didn’t go our way. We were all hurt the next day, we knew we could have done better.”

Patino’s full debut at the City Ground saw him become the latest graduate from Hale End to go on and make a start for the first-team at Arsenal.

He, like many others currently coming through at the north London outfit, have been inspired by the rise of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe during the past two years.

Both Saka and Smith Rowe have played an important role in taking Patino under their wing, as he begins on a journey that they themselves have only just started on.

Unsurprisingly, he looks up to the pair of them, and insists that their success does not bring added pressure to youngsters from Hale End who are now attempting to follow in their footsteps.

“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, it’s something I want to take into my stride,” says the 18-year-old. “I just want to try and do what they did.

“Every day I’m just going to go into London Colney and working hard on the things I need to work hard on.

“Bukayo and Emile are obviously very talented players, but I think what also separates them from a lot of other talented players who have come through is their attitude, their mindset and how humble they are.

“It’s very difficult coming straight from Hale End to London Colney and then getting straight to the first-team without really going on loan.

“That’s credit to their work ethic and what they do every day.”

Patino has always been a student of the game. Born into a football-loving family, there was rarely a time when he did not have a ball at his feet.

Growing up he idolised Barcelona great Andres Iniesta, while his time at Arsenal saw him inspired by Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere, arguably Hale End’s most famous graduate.

During Wilshere’s recent return to Arsenal, when he spent some time training with the senior squad and coaching the youth teams, Patino took the opportunity to sit down with the former Gunners star to watch Arsenal’s 2011 clash with Barcelona in the Champions League.

Wilshere produced what Patino describes as the "best individual performance" he has even seen during the 2-1 success at the Emirates, and the teenage midfielder says the chance to study the match alongside one of his idols provided him with invaluable insight.

“We watched that game together,” he said. “Jack dominated against the likes of [Sergio] Busquets, Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta, so it was really good to watch it with him.

“We talked about the game and went through his highlights. He showed me things he does in a game that I may not do. It was an interesting chat.

“Being close to Jack while he was working at Arsenal was great. Having him around the building was massive for the youth players and a lot of people grabbed information from him.”

Patino’s season has been disrupted by injury in recent weeks, but he has just returned to full fitness and his focus now is on finishing the campaign as strongly as possible.

With Arsenal pushing for a top-four spot in the Premier League, he is aware he might have to bide his time for his next opportunity with the first-team.

But that is not a problem for a player who is just determined to keep on learning and improving within an environment he believes is testament to the work Arteta and his coaching staff have put in since they arrived at the club in December 2019.

“Coming to work here every day, you can see the vibe when the team wins,” Patino said. “You can see smiles on faces, you can see everyone is training well together.

“When I go out to train on the first-team pitches, I see a phrase that says, ‘train to win’.

“What that means is if you work hard in training and do all the extras you need to do, it will put you in good stead to get the three points when it comes to match day.

“That’s a really important message because if you work really hard, then talent will rise to the top.

“The club has turned around massively. The players, the coaches, the staff, everyone gets on with each other. It’s just a good culture to be a part of.

“I enjoy myself every day when I drive into London Colney.”