When Sutton United walk out at Green Gander Lane in their FA Cup Fifth Round game on Monday night, you wouldn’t begrudge U’s star Roarie Deacon from thinking of what might have been.
When the winger looks across at their opponents he will see some familar faces and a hint at where his own career could have taken him.
As a youngster Deacon was brought up in the academy of the U’s opponents Arsenal, although never made a first team appearance for the Gunners.
He was a regular in the club’s youth teams, made a number of appearances for the reserves and signed his first professional contract in 2010.
For all of his promise he was released by the Gunners in 2011, going on spend two years with Sunderland before moving into the Football League with Stevenage and Crawley Town.
His career moved into non-league last summer, as he snubbed Football League interest to join Sutton United.
And despite his career moving on from Arsenal, he still holds the Gunners in high regard.
“It was a great club to be at, where the standards are always set high on and off the pitch” said Deacon.
“You knew what was expected of you, no matter what level of the club you were playing at. The coaches let you know what you need to do day-in, day-out to help you improve as a footballer.
“Being there was an amazing experience and when I got the call to train with the first team the first thing you do is look around the training pitch.
“I was playing alongside world-class players like Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie.
“It was a dream for a young player to be able to do that”
It has been an uneasy few weeks for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, culminating in calls for him to leave the club following their 5-1 Champions League hammering at the hands of Bayern Munich in midweek.
It’s now thirteen years since Wenger’s invicibles side of 2004 took the Premier League title to the Emirates and, although the club has won three FA Cups in the years since that historic triumph, the Arsenal supremo is under pressure to deliver one of the big trophies.
Deacon understands the frustrations of the Gunners faithful, although he does believe that Wenger deserves respect for his acheivements in his twenty year stay at the North London club.
He said “Arsenal are such a big club with such high standards.
“They want to win things every year, big competitions. They haven’t really challenged in the league or the Champions League and the supporters find it frustrating.
“They want to win a big competition.
“But the manager deserves respect, he has been there for twenty years and he has been there for that long for a reason.
“He has earned the right to be Arsenal manager for so long and he deserves a lot of respect for doing that”
“When he called me into the first team training it was amazing.
“The manager was always encouraging me, giving advice during the sessions.
“It was only occasionally that I trained with the first team but he always wanted me to get on the ball.
“You wanted to impress him because of who he was, because he is a legend at the club.
“He always believes in his players and he was like that with the young players too.
“It was great to have that belief from him”
There could be a couple of familiar faces in the Arsenal line-up when the two sides walk out at Green Gander Lane on Monday night.
Left back Kieron Gibbs, who captained the Gunners in Munich, and midfielder Francis Coquelin were reserve team team mates of Deacon’s during his stay with Arsenal.
And another couple of U’s stars will find themselves in familiar company.
Just as Deacon did, Craig Eastmond and Jeffrey Monakana began their careers at the Emirates Stadium club, before moving on elsewhere.
The trio have discussed the FA Cup tie at length, much to the amusement of their Sutton team mates.
But Deacon believes that everybody at the club has a right to be excited about a historic fixture.
“The likes of Kieron Gibbs and Francis Coquelin were at Arsenal when I was there. Although we haven’t really spoken since I left the club but it will be good to see them on Monday.
“Craig Eastmond, Jeffrey Monakana and myself all started at Arsenal and we have been talking about the game.
“The boys have given us some stick, telling us to let it go that we aren’t there any more.
“It’s just them joking with us but we are very excited to be going up against Arsenal, everybody is really”
I suggested that the fixture against his old side is the one that Deacon wanted.
That suggestion was quickly refuted, with the winger revealing his was a Manchester United fan as a child and they were his preferred choice of opposition.
However he did insist that the meeting with the Gunners will be the “highlights of his career”.
“I was a Manchester United fan growing up so I wanted them in the next round but obviously when you get drawn at home to Arsenal you can’t really complain can you?
“You want a big club in the draw and we have one of the biggest, at home as well so to have them at Green Gander Lane is something special.
“It’s amazing for the club, it’s amazing for us as players and it is brilliant for the supporters because they will get to see top class players at their home ground.
“But we aren’t there just to watch them play, we aren’t thinking it is just the occasion. We believe, we are confident, we know we can give them a game.
“For me, playing Arsenal, live on television, will definitely be the highlight of my career.
“It’s what dreams are made of”
And as they walk out at Green Gander Lane you would expect Deacon and his team mates will be daring to dream of one of the biggest FA Cup shocks all of time.
Interview: Mark Carruthers (@marknldaily)
Images: Reuters Media (Action Images)