Gillingham’s youth set-up is still reaping the benefits a year after Luke Freeman completed a £200,000 move to Arsenal last January, possibly rising to £2m.
The striker made his debut at the tender age of 15 for the Gills after appearing against Barnet in the FA Cup. Newcastle and West Ham were two clubs vying for his signature with Arsenal but the Gunners won the race as the young striker impressed with his maturity and intelligence, to go with his ability.
I met the boy and I like him,” said Arsene Wenger when he signed the striker. “He has personality and he looks alert. He’s a striker and to play in a first team at 15 years of age is something special.”
While Freeman has yet to appear for the Gunners’ first team, he has four goals in nine games for the club’s under-18 side this season and played for England under-16s last summer. With his low centre of gravity and turn of pace while being able to play as a support striker or more conventionally, he has been likened to Bojan Krkic of Barcelona.
Although the move meant Gills were deprived of making the most of Freeman’s talents, the transfer significantly raised the profile of the club’s youth set-up.
He said: “We get a lot of people who contact us now wanting to come here and I think a lot of that is off the back of the publicity from Luke. There’s also the fact [first team manager] Mark [Stimson] promotes them quickly into the first team, which is very helpful. The experience of that for the kids is worth so much, you can’t put a figure on it.”
The loss of Freeman has not put Stimson off blooding the best young players in the first team. When Gills played Aston Villa in the FA Cup three weeks ago, five of the squad were under 19.
He said: “If a big club is looking to take a chance, then 100 per cent guaranteed they could take them and complement other team’s squads. They’re a great bunch of lads. Some will fall at different levels, but I think there’s one or two who might just get to the Premier League.”
Gillingham are not the only club who have been reaping the benefits of such a transfer as the signing of Francis Coquelin boosted the development of Laval’s youth players. Head of youth development at Cornellà, Andrés Manzano had also claimed the transfer of Ignsasi Miquel has benefited the club greatly. The fee paid by the Arsenal (a six figure sum around £900,000) to such a modest side “will fund 700 kids in our youth set-up.”