Bristol City and Walsall get set for Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final
WHEN Luke Freeman walks out under the Wembley arch today, he will not just be Bristol’s City’s talisman.
The midfielder – 23 today – will be the JPT final’s star attraction; its Messi, its Ali, its Hulk Hogan or Ultimate Warrior. The man widely tipped to be League One’s player of the year in May is the player every neutral wants to see. And yet, by his own admission, it has taken Freeman a long time to live up to expectations.
Aged just 15 when he made his debut for Gillingham in 2007, the fresh-faced schoolboy was the youngest player in FA Cup history. A week later, he was playing in League One.
Gills boss Mark Stimson called Freeman a “special talent”.West Ham and Newcastle offered trials and made bids. Arsenal eventually won the day, paying a fee of £200,000.
Asked to recall those days, when most kids are squeezing GCSE revision into a packed schedule of Playstation and doubles down the park, Freeman laughs.
“At the time, you don’t even take it in,” he says. “I was too young. Now, I look back and I think ‘Bloody hell, did I really do that?’ It was a big achievement. I think I’m still the youngest player in the FA Cup to this day. I was playing for Gillingham’s first team.
“But at 15, you’ve got no perspective. It’s just the next step. Your mum or dad picks you up at school, drops you at football, you get told where to go and what to do.
“Then one day someone says ‘You’re in the team’. I just drifted through the whole thing without acknowledging that it was even unusual.”
But then Freeman disappeared, swallowed up by the academy system. He learned from the best. He played with the best; Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin, Wojciech Szczesny.Yet in four years at Arsenal, he played just 20 first team games – 13 of them for Yeovil and the other seven for Stevenage.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says Freeman. “I’m very grateful to Arsenal. I don’t think I’d be the player I am today without them. Every day is a football education and from what I was then to where I am now – in a technical sense – is night and day.
“But you have to remember that I’d had a taste of first-team football at 15. I didn’t want to be playing in youth and reserve games. I wanted to play in big games in front of big crowds. I wanted it to mean something. That always played on my mind.
“Besides, I’d seen the way other players chucked themselves in at the deep end at an early age and reaped the benefits later in their career.”
It doesn’t come much deeper than Stevenage, the club Freeman joined in January 2008. Though just 30 miles and a couple of train stops north of the Emirates, Broadhall Way may as well have been a different planet. For Freeman, though, it was the perfect next step.
“I left Arsenal thinking ‘I need to restore my reputation’ but the truth is I didn’t really make a name for myself in the first place,” he says.
“It’s not like I left Arsenal as some kind of wonderkid who’d played in the first team. Nobody remembered Gillingham. I was essentially starting from scratch. That’s why I went to somewhere like Stevenage. I wanted to prove I could make a name for myself on performances, not just because I’d been at Arsenal.”
He did, too, scoring 17 goals in 128 games, helping Boro reach the League One play-off semis in 2012 and sweeping the board at last season’s player of the year awards.
Moreover, a man many regarded as a luxury player thrived under the management of Graham Westley, whose devotion to uber-fitness, double training sessions and obsessive
analysis have broken many an experienced veteran. At the end of the day, everybody has different thoughts and philosophies on how to play the game says Freeman, who who joined bristol City in the summer following Boro’s relegation to League two.
“Graham’s is just another one. You’ve got to be mentally strong for it. You’ve got to work hard. But it didn’t hinder me.
“Some players, it maybe gets too much.They can’t handle the physical demands and levels of focus he requires. But, for me, I just bought into it and cracked
on. “It has done me good because I’ve developed that physical side to my game. I sometimes speak to people who haven’t seen me for a few years and they say ‘You’ve changed – you can do the mileage as well’.
“You need that as a player. You look at someone like Alexis Sanchez, who has come to the Premier League and absolutely lit it up.That’s not just because he scores goals – it’s because he works incredibly hard off the ball. The modern-day player has to do both sides.
“It’s funny, because if you’d told me how my career would pan out when I was 15, I’d probably be disappointed.
“But looking at it now – going to Arsenal and getting the technical aspects, then to Stevenage and learning the physical side – I see it as the perfect education.”
It is this combination of beauty and brawn that has helped City climb to an almost unassailable position atop League One and odds-on favouritism in today’s final against Walsall.
Steve Cotterill’s Robins have won all but one of their last seven games and Freeman says today is due reward for supporters who have spent the last five years watching their team on a grim downward spiral.
“The last few years have been a real struggle,” says London-born Freeman, who will have 22 friends and family watching from the stands. “But you just need to come to our games to see that there is real buzz around the city again.
“Right from August, the manager has seen what we are capable of. And the longer the season has gone on, the more we’ve realised it, too.
“There’s so much belief and the team ethic is the best I’ve known.The club is going places and it’s great to be part of it. We’ve dominated this season – I just hope we dominate today.”
YOUNG GUN: Playing for Arsenal RUNNING FREE: Luke Freeman on the burst for Bristol City against his first club, Gillingham