Nico Yennaris: From Arsenal injuries to Brentford resurgence
By Dan Long
Last Updated: 26/12/17 7:32am
There are ex-Arsenal trainees throughout the EFL, such is the vastness of the youth policy at the Emirates.
There's Aston Villa midfielder Henri Lansbury, QPR's Luke Freeman, Vito Mannone at Reading, Luke Ayling at Leeds and Chuks Aneke at MK Dons, to name but a few.
Many depart without having made a first-team debut, yet for Nico Yennaris - now at Championship club Brentford - it became a reality.
As a seven-year-old, the Gunners' fan enlisted in the club's youth system and rose through the ranks to skipper an U18 side - featuring Besiktas midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup and Emmanuel Frimpong - to Premier Academy League success in 2009/10.
At the tail end of 2011, he forced his way into Arsene Wenger's first-team plans - in the League Cup - before his unexpected Premier League bow in January 2012, against Manchester United.
"I remember a lot about that day actually - it was my dad's birthday," he tells Sky Sports ahead of the Bees' Boxing Day clash with Aston Villa, live on Sky Sports Football.
"[Manchester United winger] Nani had been running down the left pretty freely, so Pat Rice came and said to me at half-time: 'Nic, get ready you're going on.' It didn't really hit me. I was a young lad of 18, and I just thought to myself, 'You've got nothing to lose, just go and enjoy yourself.'"
So surprising was his appearance from the bench, there were no words of prior encouragement from Wenger, who later said: "Dreams do come true sometimes when you really want it. Nico is a fantastic player, but also has an excellent attitude."
Loan spells with Notts County and Bournemouth followed before the Leytonstone-born midfielder realised he'd have to depart the Emirates in search of regular game-time.
"We all know that football waits for nobody," he says. "We had some top, top players at the club and I learnt a lot, seeing how things are done and how they approach games - it's experience that you can't buy.
"But at some stage, you need to make a decision if you are going to play regularly or if you are just going to sit and wait - there were so many players in front of you. I made that decision to move on and learn my trade somewhere else because I just wanted to be playing week-in week-out."
In January 2014, he joined then-League One outfit Brentford and was rewarded with a two-and-a-half year contract and a part in owner Matthew Benham's Moneyball-style approach to establishing the Bees in the higher echelons of English football.
It was less of a culture shock for Yennaris than many would have expected.
"The biggest difference was the facilities," he recalls. "When I first came here, it was absolutely freezing and most of the pitches were waterlogged.
"But the style of football was very similar to Arsenal and it's stayed that way throughout the time I've been here. Both clubs are keen on passing and moving and trying to play football the 'right' way; I think that's benefitted me because then I've not had to change my game too much."
Much like his Arsenal days, injuries hampered the progress of the midfielder as his new chapter in west London began and - after just 11 first team appearances in two seasons - the end seemed nigh in February 2015, when the club confirmed he'd joined League Two Wycombe on loan.
"The first two seasons I was in and out, but then the loan opportunity came and again, it was just the simple matter of me wanting to play regularly and to get some minutes under my belt. I think I played 17 games on the bounce there, so it really got me going again and got me back into the groove.
"It's always tough when you are not playing for a long time - it's a big mental challenge - so to go and know that I was going to play every week got me back on my feet and enjoying football again.
"I always knew my abilities and I always believed in myself knowing that I'm good enough to play at this level. I think it was just a bit unfortunate, but I just kept my head down and at the end of the day, I've pushed through that little spell now and I've come out stronger."
Interim boss Lee Carsley handed the 24-year-old a lifeline when he selected him at right-back in the absence of Maxime Colin, but since the arrival of Dean Smith, Yennaris' midfield berth has been almost guaranteed ever since.
"I prefer playing in midfield but again, at the time, there were a lot of injuries at the club - I think Maxime [Colin] was injured quite a lot that season - I slotted in when he was injured and played a lot of games under Carso.
Nico Yennaris' career stats (correct at 25 December 2017)
|Arsenal||2001-14||4 apps 0 goals|
|Notts County (loan)||2012||2 apps 0 goals|
|Bournemouth (loan)||2013-14||0 apps 0 goals|
|Brentford||2014 - present||118 apps 12 goals|
|Wycombe (loan)||2015||17 apps 1 goal|
"He knew I was a midfielder as I played against him when he was at Coventry, I played against his team in League Cup at Arsenal so he knew I was a midfielder but there was players who were fit, playing week in week out in midfield and there wasn't anyone really to fill in at right-back. Dean moved me into midfield towards the end of that season and I've been there ever since.
Ever-present in 49 games last season, he has turned out 118 times for the Bees - more than any other current squad member and, after a barren start at the club, a keen eye for goal has also surfaced - including one against Villa in January.
"I think at the back end of that season when the manager put me in midfield, I think I got two goals and in the last eight games. He'd said that I had goals in me because I've got good reading of the game and the ability to arrive in the box late.
"I started to work on it in training, arriving in the box, working on my finishing and then started working on my finishing from outside the box. I'd still like to add more goals to my game, but I think they'll come."
On the face of it, the Bees have been below par this season. Currently 12th and having registered 10 draws from 23 games, it's been far from an ideal fourth season in English football's second-tier.
But Yennaris feels there is still plenty to come from Dean Smith's men.
"Our aim is to be in touch with the playoffs by the end of the season and I think with the way we play, we should definitely be up there. Results haven't gone our way but it's only down to us to turn it around.
"There's an unbelievable amount of talent in that dressing room. If we start fine tuning the errors in these games and we start learning from them, I think this club can go a long way.
"I think we're one of the best footballing teams in the league and on our day, I don't think anyone can get near us."
Don't miss the Sky Bet Championship clash between Brentford and Aston Villa on Boxing Day, live on Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Main Event from 7pm.