Jack Wilshere’s oldest son, Archie, has already done Sportsmail’s job for us. ‘He’s like a journalist!’ says the dad of four. ‘He was asking the other day, “Are you going to play again? Loads of teams need midfielders, why don’t they sign you?” I don’t really know how to answer him.’
The arrangement was always that he would regain fitness and confidence while looking for a new team, and Wilshere is grateful for that chance. He has been unattached since leaving Bournemouth in May, after which there were three months training alone in his local park.
Jack Wilshere has been training with former club Arsenal’s senior squad since October
The 30-year-old midfielder has been unattached since leaving Bournemouth in May 2021
Ten-year-old Archie is now getting ready for football practice elsewhere in the family’s Hertfordshire home. Sportsmail’s role of inquisitor is resumed.
So, then, are you still good enough to play in the Premier League? ‘Yes. I’m confident I could deal with the physical side and have an influence,’ declares Wilshere, whose last top-flight appearance was for West Ham 18 months ago.
‘I always said when I went back to Arsenal that I would make a decision about my next step at the end of January. When you’ve been out the game, you never know which way it will go.
‘But it has convinced me that my playing career isn’t over. The manager is top class, and I wouldn’t still be training with the first team if I was bringing the standard down or couldn’t keep up.
‘I can still beat a man, and these are top players. That’s a sign, for me, that I can still do it and want to keep doing it.’
There are, however, no Premier League offers. In fact, other than his own January deadline, nothing is particularly close. He is getting a Cypriot passport through his wife, Andriani, and that would open up Eastern Europe.
Wilshere sounds in a positive place. But it was not supposed to be like this. Not for the most gifted player of his generation.
New Year’s Day, for example, is ordinarily a time to look forward. This year, Wilshere found himself reflecting on the previous decade. It was his 30th birthday, and a surprise party at his local golf club in Essendon.
‘It was small, obviously, I didn’t want to bring the whole of Arsenal down with Covid! But it was a strange day. Conflicting emotions,’ says Wilshere, who is part of Arsenal’s training camp in Dubai this week. ‘I achieved a lot in my 20s, but not what I wanted to.
‘Yes, I went to a World Cup, won a few trophies, but I didn’t reach the levels I thought I would.
‘But I also looked back on the good times. I made my debut at 16. That made me feel proud.’
Sportsmail interviewed Michael Owen last month. Like Wilshere, he wrestles between pride and frustration. The younger man accepts the comparison, but only to a point.
‘Yes, I have that conflict. And yes, Owen was outstanding at 18, 19 and suffered injuries, but he still played for big clubs later in his career, like Man United. He still got that opportunity. I don’t feel I’m getting that.’
Wilshere played for England at the 2014 World Cup – they were knocked out in the group stage
Wilshere made his Arsenal debut at the age of 16 as a substitute against Blackburn Rovers
Why? ‘Clubs look at players differently now, they think about sell-on value. In my case, that’s a no. The harsh truth is that I’ve missed too much football through injury. I might look good in training, but it’s Saturday at 3 o’clock that matters, and I’ve missed far too many. I’m paying the price now.’
Ah, Saturdays at 3 o’clock. It is a reference point Wilshere uses repeatedly. If birthdays are an annual juncture at which to take stock, then Saturday afternoons are a weekly cause for reflection.
‘It’s a strange feeling, but it was worse last year. I’d find myself on a golf course at 3 o’clock, not even checking the scores. It had been my whole life and suddenly I’m in a different world.
‘It’s been better lately. I love being part of the matchday routine with the Under 18s. But when I go to the Arsenal games, I’m almost jealous of the players. I miss it. I want to be part of it.’
At times, Wilshere has even found himself in a soft play area at that most sacred of hours. ‘It’s a bit weird, and I don’t actually mind soft plays — it gives you a chance to sit down and breathe!’
But time alone also leads to thinking. Be that the soft play, lying in bed or watching day-time TV, as was the case before his return to Arsenal in the autumn. He wants to revisit that period now, using it as motivation to avoid such feelings in the future. He very nearly called time on his career.
The unattached midfielder admits he is ‘jealous of the players’ on a matchday for Arsenal
Wilshere (pictured playing for Arsenal in 2018) very nearly called time on his career last year
‘I was in denial,’ he begins. ‘I did a TV interview in August and was asked about getting a club. I said, “Yeah, hopefully something in the next week or so”. It just went on and on and I slipped… I don’t want to use the word “depression”. There are many people in worse positions.
‘But I had depressive, negative thoughts. I would lie in bed until midday, not even sleeping, just arguing with myself. What am I training for? Who am I doing this for? I was lost.
‘I started my coaching badges but I wasn’t involved with any club. I would just sit around all day. I even missed Jeremy Kyle when it got cancelled! That is the closest I’ve been to quitting.
‘I had an honest conversation with my wife. I said to her, “If I’m embarrassing myself, if I’m mugging myself off here, I expect you to tell me”. She promised she would. But now, it’s different. I have that plan, a pathway. The questions I was asking myself before, I have a lot of answers to. The key one being, ‘‘Can I still do it?’’ I believe I can.’
Wilshere produced a man-of-the-match against Barcelona in 2011 on a memorable occasion
Wilshere is also able to smile at what some of the past year has taught him. ‘You know what, it has helped me grow up. When you’re a footballer, everything is done for you. Look at that (he points to a clock on the wall). I put that up. I learned to use a drill. I’ve mastered it.
‘Little things, too, like cleaning my own boots. And you know the difference between training on an Arsenal pitch and in the park by yourself? The mud.’
A clean start is what Wilshere craves.
In June 2015, Wilshere scored two stunning goals for England during a 3-2 win in Slovenia. He was 23 years old.
‘I thought I’d stay at that level for ever,’ he says. ‘Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard had retired and Roy Hodgson was using me as the holding midfielder. I was all over it, watching videos of Andrea Pirlo.
‘Then, on the last day of pre-season, I broke my leg. Just when I was on the way up. I played three times that season.’
Wilshere scored two stunning goals for England during a 3-2 win in Slovenia in June 2015
Hodgson still took Wilshere to Euro 2016 and the last-16 defeat by Iceland marked his final England appearance. His 34 caps are on display behind him. There is pride as he looks back at them. But then, like Owen, irritation. Take his emotions during the Euro 2020 final.
‘I watched it with my kids, all in England shirts. I was a fan. But there were moments when I thought, “I wish I was part of that”. And you know, I could and probably should have been. I was only 29. If you’d asked me 10 years before, “Will you still be playing for England?”. Definitely, why wouldn’t I be? That’s still there in my head.’
But there is, he says, only so much looking back he can do. He wants to shape the next 10 years, not wistfully dissect the past.
So, what will he be doing in a year? Will he be a footballer? A radio presenter? He loves his Thursday afternoon slot on talkSPORT. A coach or on the couch?
He admits it is difficult to predict what he’ll be doing in a year – but he wants it to be a footballer
‘That’s tough to answer.’ He pauses. ‘I have struggled with this before. I was always known as “Jack Wilshere, the footballer”. When I didn’t have a club, I still had people saying, “There’s Jack Wilshere from Arsenal, can we have a picture?”
‘But I didn’t believe it. I was having an identity crisis. I still think like that — what do I see myself as? A father, a husband, yes. Beyond that, I still don’t know.
‘I’d like to think you’ll see me as Jack Wilshere the footballer in a year’s time. That’s been my life. That’s what I want more than anything.’