Jack Wilshere made his Premier League debut at 16 – younger than Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes or Frank Lampard. He played for England at 18 and has scored Goal of the Season more than once, something only Wayne Rooney and Dennis Bergkamp can also boast over the past 30 years.
Yet Wilshere hasn’t had a career like any of those illustrious names, mainly due to chronic bad luck with injuries, partly because of a self-destructive streak.
Now 28 and two years into his West Ham career after leaving boyhood club Arsenal, Wilshere is hoping this enforced break will prove a turning point in his career as he returns fit and refreshed.
‘I still feel like I’ve got unfinished business at West Ham. It’s not worked out how I wanted it to and I want to change that,’ he insists.
‘When I’m done at West Ham, I don’t want the fans to think: “That was a waste of time.”‘
Wilshere has made only six Premier League starts since joining the Hammers in the summer of 2018 and last played in October when Manuel Pellegrini was still manager.
‘He’s only been stopped by a series of injuries,’ is Arsene Wenger’s summary of an unfulfilled career. The Arsenal manager gave Wilshere his early opportunity and is frustrated the midfielder didn’t go on to become a true Gunners great.
It’s hard to overestimate the hype surrounding Wilshere when he broke into the Arsenal side in 2008. He was tipped as the obvious successor to England’s Golden Generation with his low centre of gravity, passing range and dribbling skills.
He made his Premier League debut aged 16 years 256 days – he remains Arsenal’s youngest player – and was still 16 when he bagged his first goal in the League Cup against Sheffield United.
Wilshere was also a teenager when he impressed against Barcelona. Their legend Xavi would later say: ‘With all respect, he doesn’t play the English way. If he can overcome injuries, he can go on and be one of the best midfield players in the world.’
It turned out to be a big ‘if’. Physiologically, Wilshere’s body struggled to cope with the demands of Premier League and international football.
Critics would cite off-the-pitch misdemeanours, suggesting his lifestyle was not conducive to staying injury-free. He also seemed reluctant to adapt his game to avoid getting kicked. One of Wilshere’s assets was keeping the ball glued to his feet and inviting challenges, knowing he would either be able to shift the ball past his marker or win a free-kick. He has never shirked making a tough tackle either.
Sixteen separate injuries are listed during his career, many of them connected to his suspect ankles.
He missed Euro 2012 and was controversially selected for Euro 2016 having started only one game of the previous campaign after breaking his leg in pre-season and then struggled with calf and shin problems.
On loan at Bournemouth in 2017, he fractured his leg against Tottenham after a collision with Harry Kane to bring about a premature end to his spell on the south coast.
In 2018, he moved to West Ham hoping for a change of luck. But a persistent groin injury has kept him out of action most of this season.
‘Jack continues every week trying to work, but when he works harder he starts to feel pain,’ explained Pellegrini shortly before he was sacked and replaced by David Moyes.
Of course, there is a lot of sympathy for Wilshere, who has still won 34 England caps despite long spells on the sidelines.
His goal against Norwich was crowned the best in the country during the 2013-14 season after a series of dazzling one-touch passes involving Santi Carzola and Olivier Giroud that summed up the best of Wenger’s Arsenal.
For good measure, he won the award the following season as well for a left-foot smasher against West Brom that ‘went in like a rocket’, according to commentator John Motson.
‘It’s very sad with Jack,’ says Mikel Arteta, one of Wilshere’s former Arsenal team-mates and now manager at The Emirates. ‘When I watched him every day in training, you could say he could be one of the best midfielders.
‘But he always had something. He would start to rebuild his career and then another injury, another setback. I was impressed with how strong Jack was mentally. He could be phenomenal.’
His detractors would say not all of Wilshere’s disappointments were purely down to bad luck. As far back as 2010 – the year he made his England debut as a sub replacing Steven Gerrard against Hungary – he was arrested for assault and eventually cautioned following a nightclub brawl.
The misdemeanour sheet grew steadily after that, including a police warning for spitting on a taxi driver, pictures on more than one occasion of him smoking and a two-match ban for making an obscene gesture at Manchester City fans.
He also hijacked Arsenal’s FA Cup parade by grabbing the microphone and singing a foul-mouthed anti-Spurs song.
A couple of months before Euro 2016 he was caught up in another 2am nightclub brawl. Wilshere was one of the England players who flopped against Iceland that summer and hasn’t played for England since. To put it in perspective, he was still only 24 at the time – the same age the uncapped Jack Grealish is now.
Wenger always tried to defend Wilshere but did say pointedly: ‘It’s down to him to master his life.’
Wilshere is definitely not a kid anymore. Lockdown means he has missed fewer games than he otherwise would. Once football returns, he has to impress Moyes and become a mainstay of the West Ham side.
One has to wish him well. ‘If you’re injured, people forget about you,’ he admits.
It may not be his destiny to have a career like Gerrard or Lampard but he’s still young enough to show Grealish and James Maddison they’re not the only creative Englishmen about.