As like-for-like replacements go it is difficult to imagine a more suitable one for Gael Clichy than Kieran Gibbs.
Arsenal fall back on deputy Gibbs
LONDON // It speaks volumes for the depth of squad Arsene Wenger has expertly assembled that news of an injury to their premier left back, Gael Clichy, last weekend was not accompanied by the same level of distress you might expect at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge had Patrice Evra or Ashley Cole been sidelined. There was no need for the Arsenal manager to contemplate playing a right-back out of position on the left or ponder a change in formation. As like-for-like replacements go it is difficult to imagine a more suitable one for Clichy than Kieran Gibbs. In fact, the England Under 21 international slotted in so seamlessly on Wednesday night against AZ Alkmaar in their Group H Champions League fixture, as Arsenal produced yet another spell-blinding performance, that Clichy was barely missed. It is not the first time Gibbs has been asked to fill the France international's boots.
Indeed, given the way he played with such maturity, vibrancy and authority in the final 15 games of last season when deputising for the injured Clichy, Gibbs could probably count himself unfortunate not to have started the season as the first-choice left-back at the Emirates Stadium. But he now has an opportunity for an extended run in the side, one he is not about to let slip through his fingers.
"It's disappointing for Gael but it's a good chance for me to get a few more games under my belt," says Gibbs. "It's easier now than it was last season as I know what to expect." Arsenal fans have also become accustomed to their club fielding a remarkably high number of distinguished left-backs. Gibbs is the latest addition in a pantheon that includes Kenny Sansom, Nigel Winterburn, Cole, Clichy and Armand Traore who is third choice under Wenger yet would walk into most Premier League sides.
"It's a tradition at the club and I can only hope I can be as half as good as any of them," says Gibbs who shares the same birthday as Sansom, the most capped England full-back. Gibbs, 20, shares something in common with Winterburn, too: both joined the Gunners from Wimbledon. Gibbs was a promising midfielder who had aspirations of representing his boyhood club when, at the age of 14, Wimbledon disbanded. Amid interest from West Ham, Liam Brady, head of youth development at Arsenal, was quick to swoop, persuading Gibbs to move across London to join as a scholar.
"I wanted to stay in London," explains Gibbs. "It was sad to leave Wimbledon as I was a fan when I was younger and used to be a ball boy there. I always wanted to play for them. I used to love going there in the evenings after school." The fact teammates Abu Ogogo and James Dunne, who now play at Dagenham & Redbridge and Exeter City respectively, also made the move smoothed the transition. "I still keep in touch with them," he says.
The decision was a particularly emotional wrench for Gibbs as it meant parting ways with his twin brother, Jaydon, who was also on the books of Wimbledon. The pair are as thick as thieves. Jaydon joined MK Dons and, on reflection, it was probably for the best, allowing Kieran, in particular, to find his feet and establish his own identity. "I never really did anything without him, but we'd been together for too long," explains Gibbs, who shares a flat with his brother ? a semi-professional footballer for Whyteleafe ? close to the family home and has his own house near Arsenal's training ground in London Colney.
"We moved out of mum's nine months ago," says Gibbs. "Jaydon is a nightmare to live with and can be a pain. He's never changed but he's a funny boy. "He's an important person in my life. We envy each other a lot. When he was going out and enjoying himself I couldn't do that but then he wishes for a lot of things I have now." The trappings and lifestyle Gibbs now enjoys are a result of the decision he made as a teenager to dedicate himself to becoming a professional footballer.
"It was hard to make certain sacrifices at the time as I had my brother and we had the same group of friends and I knew when they would all be going out," he says. "I had to live professionally from a young age and I will continue to stay on the right track. It would have been easy to go down the wrong path." Gibbs, by his own admission, owes a lot to his mother. The family spent their adolescence on a "tough" estate in Waddon but their mother astutely moved house to ensure her sons were in the catchment area to obtain a place at Riddlesdown, a secondary school in Purley that boasts supermodel Kate Moss, Aston Villa midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker and Klariza Clayton, who plays Karen in the teenage drama series Skins, among its former pupils.
"Mum was very strict and she did well to keep me and my brother on the straight and narrow," says Gibbs. "It's all down to my mum. I'm going to pay her back one day for everything she has done for my brother and I." Gibbs's mother must have looked on with immense pride when she saw her son line up against Manchester United in last season's Champions League semi-final. Many remember the mistake Gibbs made in handing Park Ji-Sung the crucial first goal in the second leg at the Emirates Stadium but what slipped under the radar was the confidence he played with during the first leg at Old Trafford, highlighted by the audacious nutmeg he performed on Cristiano Ronaldo.
"My friends reckon I should have called 'nuts' but I didn't say anything," smiles Gibbs, who believes the gallows humour of his peers was crucial in his recovery from that costly slip in the second leg. "I didn't want anyone pussy footing around me," he explains. "I wanted to deal with it myself. But my family and friends were making jokes within a week. It was an experience that made me stronger."
Unfazed by the vagaries of football at the elite level, Gibbs finished the season with a flourish and transferred his form to the summer where he played a starring role in helping England to reach the final of the U21 European Championship in Sweden, eventually losing out to Germany. Wenger is among a growing band of experts who believe Gibbs is capable of making the transition to Fabio Capello's side in time for next year's World Cup, possibly at the expense of Wayne Bridge.
"It is flattering but, if I think about it, it will distract me," he says modestly. "I've got a lot of experience to get yet." Capello will be provided with a genuine selection dilemma if Gibbs adds experience to his burgeoning talent. firstname.lastname@example.org Wolves v Arsenal, KO 9.30pm, Showsports 1 & 2