My Arsenal team-mate Jack Wilshere was like a young Lionel Messi - Christian Burgess on his remarkable route to Portsmouth

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Arsenal team-mates Christian Burgess and Jack Wilshere dreamed of representing their club in the Premier League.

Wilshere accomplished his goal, featuring on 197 occasions for the Gunners, scoring 14 times and triumphing in two FA Cup finals.

As for Burgess, following release at under-11 level, his career path followed a divergent path toward footballing achievement.

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The Pompey centre-defender numbered Wilshere, Emmanuel Frimpong, Luke Ayling and Jonjo Shelvey among colleagues of an all-conquering Arsenal youth team.

Christian BurgessChristian Burgess
Christian Burgess | Other 3rd Party

Yet while the development of such contemporaries retained an upward curve, the lad from north-east London would have to forge a return to the profession through the University of Birmingham.

These days he thrives at Pompey, having amassed 207 appearances during a five-year spell reaping the League Two title and Checkatrade Trophy honours.

And on Monday evening in the FA Cup fifth round, the 28-year-old will face the club he served from under-7 level – Arsenal.

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Burgess told The News: ‘The other day I was doing a presentation for my Uefa B licence in coaching and thought I’d dig out a photo to go along with a statement about my football philosophy.

Christian Burgess has established himself as a popular figure at Fratton Park since his arrival in the summer of 2015. Picture: Daniel Chesterton/phcimages.comChristian Burgess has established himself as a popular figure at Fratton Park since his arrival in the summer of 2015. Picture: Daniel Chesterton/phcimages.com
Christian Burgess has established himself as a popular figure at Fratton Park since his arrival in the summer of 2015. Picture: Daniel Chesterton/phcimages.com | JPIMedia

‘Looking through my laptop of football pictures, I found my Arsenal team – and there were some serious players.

Jack Wilshere, Emmanuel Frimpong, Luke Ayling, Conor Henderson who was at Coventry and Crawley, there were some good players in the squad.

‘For whatever reason, Jonjo Shelvey isn’t in any of the photos, perhaps he had left by then, but he was another team-mate. A fair percentage made it.

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‘I played for four or so years up to the under-11s, we travelled to Belgium twice, facing teams like Ajax, Club Brugge, PSG and Juventus. I think we won both tournaments, I still have a Juventus shirt I swapped.

Christian Burgess (far left) sat next to Jack Wilshere during their Arsenal youth days togetherChristian Burgess (far left) sat next to Jack Wilshere during their Arsenal youth days together
Christian Burgess (far left) sat next to Jack Wilshere during their Arsenal youth days together | Other 3rd Party

‘Our age group would win everything, beating teams six or seven nil every game, although as we got a bit older, it would be less so.

‘I was a centre-half, three of us rotated, including Luke Ayling, while sometimes all of us played across the back four.

‘Jack Wilshere was on Luton’s books at seven and then Arsenal bought him at the age of nine. At the time, everyone in that area of London knew good money had been paid for him.

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‘He was one of our better players, he looked like videos of Lionel Messi when younger, dribbling through everyone with his left foot, tight control, nippy and very special.

Christian Burgess scored his 12th Pompey goal in Friday night's 3-0 victory over Rochdale. Photo: Barry ZeeChristian Burgess scored his 12th Pompey goal in Friday night's 3-0 victory over Rochdale. Photo: Barry Zee
Christian Burgess scored his 12th Pompey goal in Friday night's 3-0 victory over Rochdale. Photo: Barry Zee | Freelance

‘Jack was small and didn’t grow a lot, yet he was the one earmarked to make it out of the whole group, although a few others also did quite well.

‘He was a top, top grade England played at one point, he tore it up for Arsenal, but unfortunately injuries played their part.’

Wilshere went on to reach almost a double century of appearances for Arsenal, before leaving on a free transfer for West Ham in the summer of 2018.

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He continues to be hampered by injury, with 16 outings and one goal during a difficult Hammers spell.

Frimpong made 16 first-team appearances for the Gunners, while had loan spells at Wolves, Charlton and Fulham.

After leaving the Emirates for Barnsley in January 2014, he featured in Russia, Sweden and Cyprus, before retiring through a knee injury last year at the age of 27.

Christian Burgess (back row, second in from right) celebrates another trophy with ArsenalChristian Burgess (back row, second in from right) celebrates another trophy with Arsenal
Christian Burgess (back row, second in from right) celebrates another trophy with Arsenal | Other 3rd Party

Ayling never made an Arsenal appearance, yet rebuilt his career with Yeovil and then Bristol City.

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He has now made 143 appearances for Championship promotion-hunting Leeds, scoring in Saturday’s 4-0 victory over Hull.

As for Burgess, it took him until the age of 21-and-a-half to re-emerge into the Football League, initially with Middlesbrough.

The 28-year-old added: ‘I just can’t praise Arsenal enough, the setup, the professionalism, how well they looked after everyone.

‘I remember they outlined Bobby Zamora as an example, apparently he was him go by Arsenal at quite a young age – but still made it.

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‘One time he had scored against them for West Ham and Roy Massey, the head of the Academy, told us: “Just because we are letting you go, doesn’t mean you won’t make it”.

‘At the time Arsenal were so good and so highly respected that we were reassured we’d have our pick of teams after being released.

‘I received phone calls from Fulham, Tottenham, West Ham and Wimbledon asking me to go along.

‘Now, while at Arsenal, we would drive to Highbury on a Thursday evening for training and the traffic was mayhem. My parents were teachers and it would be manic trying to get there, I was always running late.

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‘There was a guy called Mark Ellis whose son, Harrison, also played for Arsenal, and eventually Mark kindly picked me up in his builder's truck on the way through.

‘When it came to leaving Arsenal, suddenly there was the option of West Ham, whose training was around the corner from my mum’s school, you could have walked there. It was perfect.

‘Considering I’m a massive West Ham fan from a big West Ham family, we didn’t bother with any other offers. Besides, it possessed a better reputation for bringing through players.

‘I was there for a year, it backfired unfortunately, and found myself in Sunday League youth football.’

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Burgess focused on education, studying A-levels in sixth form at The Coopers Company and Coborn School in Upminster, Greater London.

During that period, he turned out for youth teams at Harlow and then Conference South side Bishop’s Stortford, progressing into the latter’s reserve side, before training with the first-team, but failed to be involved on match days.

Then came a trial at the most unlikeliest of Premier League clubs – Spurs.

He said: ‘Just before my 18th birthday, I was invited for a two-week trial with Tottenham, whose Academy was headed by John McDermott, with Alex Inglethorpe as coach.

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‘I can recall Harry Kane being in the dressing room one time. He was a year younger, I didn’t really know of him at the time, but what stuck in my head was the kitman asking what Under Armour he wanted and whether he preferred a shirt to be long sleeved or short sleeved.

‘It turned out he was getting fitted having been called up to the first-team squad for the first time, a 2-0 Carling Cup win over Everton, for which he was an unused substitute.

‘There was no reserve side at Spurs, instead the development policy was to loan out those to have graduated from the Academy.

‘Of my age group, there were John Bostock, Ryan Fredericks and Nathan Byrne, but I wasn’t taken on. They told me I wouldn’t have been ready to head out on loan after just seven months with the club.

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‘They said they’d keep an eye on me, though, and advised I finished my A-levels and went to university. Which I did – the University of Birmingham to study history.

‘And that is where my return into the professional game began.’

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