London – Per Mertesacker recently got in touch with Wojciech Szczesny to invite him to the FA Cup final and the Arsenal squad’s end‑of‑season get-together. The gesture was genuinely appreciated. Loan players can easily feel out of sight and out of mind. The Polish goalkeeper would have gladly made the trip back to London but there is a clash with his last game of an accomplished season for Roma. It may well be his farewell to the Giallorossi after a two-year loan that has made its mark for both club and player and he is sure to get a warm send-off.
When he first arrived in the Italian capital the Romans had enough trouble trying to merely pronounce his name. Two seasons on and he is held in high regard for his authoritative performances and upbeat personality. Please excuse the simplistic formula to rely on a taxi driver as a barometer for local sentiment, but you will not find many who do not agree with the Romanista who turned from his wheel to proclaim affectionately that not only is Szczesny an impressive player, he is also “a good boy”.
Such is the lurching, changing, life of football, the relationship between this club and player looks likely to be fleeting. Szczesny has a pivotal summer ahead. With one year left on his contract at Arsenal, playing to what he feels is the highest standard of his career so far, he is at a crossroads. Will he return to his home club for a single season? Sign an extended deal and go back to London to compete to be first-choice goalkeeper if that is on offer? Look elsewhere for a new challenge?
Szczesny contemplates the upcoming decision. “The one thing I want to do is make sure I don’t stay still,” he says. “I was quite still for five years – sometimes I played better, sometimes worse, sometimes phenomenal, sometimes rubbish. You take steps forwards and backwards. It is not very good for your head if you go up and down and up and down. I want to try to keep going up, with my quality and with my decisions that I make. I am 27, the best I have ever been, I still have room to improve and I want to make sure that room doesn’t stay empty. I want to go into that room. It feels like a big moment.”
The Roma experience has been such an invaluable one it would be foolish for Arsenal’s hierarchy not to have noticed what Szczesny has to offer now that is different to the homegrown boy who was effectively pushed to the side a couple of years ago.
“The season before I left I had a very bad season – performances, injuries, off field – it was terrible,” he recalls. “I could have stayed in an environment that was going negatively for me. Instead the opportunity that came gave me a fresh start. You get a new perspective. You get new coaches and influences. You learn new drills. You do new things. Now I am very happy that it happened, even if the first impression was that I might be out of Arsenal, which was very painful. Now I think it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
“The biggest thing I have taken away from these two years at Roma is the fact I grew as a goalkeeper. It’s just raising your levels, your standards. I absorbed a bigger knowledge of football, the tactical side of the game. You don’t see me with that rush of blood that I used to have as a younger keeper. It’s not that I don’t feel that rush of blood but tactically you are more aware of when to be involved, when to let the defenders recover.” In the victory against Juventus last weekend Szczesny patrolled his area with presence but also notably focused on control. That overconfident or reckless streak he had as a younger keeper was nowhere to be seen.
Having to adapt and make the best of the situation you find yourself in is part of a footballer’s lot. Uncertainty is part of the package. One moment London, another moment Rome, next year who knows? “We don’t sign 10-year contracts,” he says. “You can be wanted at one club and the next day you may not be. Look at the situation of Joe Hart. For me he was probably the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, you get a new manager, and two weeks later you are going on loan to Torino.
“That’s the life of a footballer these days. It’s a bit strange. I spoke to him a lot when he signed. We share the same agent so we know we have to keep each other’s secrets! He has done well. It’s difficult as he went from a team that challenges for every trophy to a lower mid-table team. He has gone from facing two or three shots a game to facing eight to 10 shots a game.”
Szczesny found it easier to settle in Rome in his mid-20s than he did when he left Poland for London as a teenager. “When I came to Arsenal I was on a scholarship earning £80 per week away from my family. You don’t have much money to do anything. You basically stay at home. The way I remember my first two or three years at Arsenal is I would go training, go home, go to sleep, recover and go training again. That’s it. Here I came with my life and it is completely different. I am a married man now. Back then I couldn’t just call my mum and say ‘I miss you’ and she could jump on a plane. I didn’t have the money to buy her a ticket.”
The Rome lifestyle is not without its attractions. The day after Roma beat Juventus – second v first in front of a raucous crowd at the Stadio Olimpico – Szczesny takes a stroll downtown, feeling the sunshine on his skin, and heads to a lovely spot for a bowl of pasta for lunch. “There is so much good energy, people being out in the sun.”
Joining Serie A has allowed Szczesny to tick off a few things on his wish list. For a start he always wanted to play against Gianluigi Buffon. They embraced at the end of the game last weekend and Szczesny wants Italy’s No1 to win the Champions League this season: “I want Juve to win it for different reasons – first of all to say I have only lost the league to a team that is the best in Europe would make me feel better. For Buffon, if anyone deserves to win the Champions League it’s him.” Roma are four points behind Juve going into the last two fixtures of the season so Serie A is still mathematically open even if the Turin heavyweights remain huge favourites.
Being team-mates with Francesco Totti has also been an education. “The way they treat him in Rome, the power that he has, is unheard of in football, and he is a really humble, nice guy,” Szczesny says. “To reach that status without losing your head is a great example. It has been unreal sharing a dressing room with him.”
Szczesny’s greatest influence has been Bogdan Lobont, the veteran third‑choice goalkeeper who took the younger man under his wing, constantly giving out reminders – to give his maximum or get plenty of rest or analyse his efforts. “We watch a lot of films about concentration and stuff not related to football,” Szczesny says. “It is a friendship that is based on being a real friend rather than just a team-mate.”
Those kind of connections are the exception rather than the rule in a dressing room, the ones that transcend which club you play for in the moving football world. From his Arsenal days Szczesny remains close to Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs, pals from the youth set‑up.
He still has his parent club, the team he supported as a boy in Poland, very much under his skin. He makes an interesting observation about moving to a new club from one where you have an emotional attachment. “For 10 years I played for a club I loved. The thing that sticks out not playing for Arsenal is, although when you lose it hurts just as much, when you win it doesn’t taste as good. I would never say I give less to Roma than I do to Arsenal, it is just that the emotion is different.”
This season has been a weird one to follow Arsenal from a distance. “Whenever I can I have watched every single game – sometimes if we play at the same time I watch the highlights. You can’t get rid of that. It hurts being an Arsenal fan watching as it has been a painful year. Being 1500 miles away helps! You can’t stop supporting the team, though. You follow them and that’s it. This year in the league has been disappointing, in the Champions League has been disappointing, so as an Arsenal fan you look for that FA Cup final to save the season. I will be watching. I will keep my fingers crossed.”
When the football is finished both in Italy and England, Szczesny is heading to Greece for some downtime before his big decision. “It has been a tense season in terms of we have been near the top and every game in the last three months has been a cup final. The uncertainty over my future is also quite draining,” he says. “In a way it has kept me going. You don’t know what is going to happen or what your options are going to be and that pushes you subconsciously. You want to perform well enough that you are not short of options. There is a bit of adrenaline, you don’t know who is watching you. It’s not a pleasant feeling but it was a motivating one.
“I think I can be better now than I thought I could be when I was back at Arsenal. I have grown more than I would have hoped for. Now I think with the right work, the right attitude, I can go a long way. I always want to be the best but now I feel a bit closer to it.
“When I have my head on the 2017-18 season, then we make a decision – first Arsenal has to and then I have to. I want to make sure I take my time, clear my head of this season, and then focus on doing the right thing. What that is time will show.”
The World according to Wojciech
Born 18 April 1990, Warsaw The son of Polish goalkeeper Maciej, Wojciech spent his initial youth career at Agrykola Warsaw, where he was spotted by Legia Warsaw scouts and snapped up aged 15. Just one year later, he joined the youth setup at Arsenal, where he would begin to make a name for himself.
Loan to Brentford November 2009 Szczesny joined Brentford for the season and gained plaudits for his excellent performances, including being named “keeper of the decade” in a club poll. In 2011, he criticised club’s decision to sack manager Andy Scott. “What a joke!” he tweeted.
First choice Gunner January 2011 Having made his Arsenal debut in 2009, Szczesny had to wait more than a year for his second appearance. By January, he was established as Arsène Wenger’s first choice, moving ahead of Lukasz Fabianski and Manuel Almunia. Season ended with League Cup final defeat.
Fall from grace February 2014 Won two FA Cups and the 2012-13 golden glove at Arsenal, but despite his talent, trouble seemed to follow him. Incidents included making an offensive hand gesture after being sent off at Bayern Munich, and a £20,000 fine for smoking in the showers at St Mary’s.
Roma to the rescue June 2015 Opportunities were limited by Petr Cech’s arrival, so Szczesny joined Roma on loan. His form has been good, but his antics have continued, evident in again being caught smoking after a defeat to Barcelona, prompting his exclusion from Rudi García’s next squad.
The Guardian Sport