WHEN 15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri stepped on to the pitch on Sunday, the words “F*** me, we’re looking old” uttered by a Brentford player hit home with Granit Xhaka.
Arsenal’s midfielder, 29, is already preparing for when he hangs up his boots and has even coached the schoolboy as he works on his badges.
When Nwaneri reaches Xhaka’s age, the Swiss hopes to be an imposing presence on the touchline as a grey-haired boss.
He broke a record held for 58 YEARS by Sunderland’s Derek Forster, who made his league debut aged 15 and 185 days.
Nwaneri even had to change into his kit in a separate dressing room to his team-mates because of child protection rules.
Born in March 2007, he was not alive when Arsenal moved to the Emirates or when they played in their only Champions League final- a 2-1 defeat by Barcelona – in 2006.
Xhaka said: “We have to check the passport first! I am joking. To have a guy who is 15 and is nearly 15 years younger than me.
“He looks old when I see him, but the club can be proud of a player like him.
“He has a big future. I am doing my coaching licence and I have trained the under-16s.
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“You can see a big difference with him and the other guys. He is very, very special.
“You have to protect him as he is very young but if he keeps going like this with his hard work he has a big, big future.
“It’s not only me that feels old. I spoke with one Brenford guy and I told him this guy was 15 and he looked at me and said: ‘f*** me, we are looking old!’.
“When you have 15 years difference you think ‘OK the time is not gone but it is on the way’. But we are enjoying him, he is enjoying us as he has the quality.
“He is not with us a lot in training. I have maybe seen him twice or three times now.
“He is very shy, of course, but the time will come when he will be more with us but you have to protect him and help him.
“Football is not everything for him and for us but yes, the club will help him and the experienced players have to help him.”
Mostly used as a No 10, Nwaneri came to the attention of Gunners fans by scoring on his Under-18s debut last year at just 14.
He was then promoted to first team training in the week after instantly impressing Emirates chief Mikel Arteta who had a “pure gut-feeling” to include him in his plans on Sunday.
Cesc Fabregas held the previous Arsenal record at the age of 16 years and 177 days when he faced Rotherham in a League Cup match in 2003.
Xhaka said: “Mikel is so smart and clever he knows before everyone. I am taking a lot from Mikel with my coaching and I am enjoying it.
“Since last March. I am trying to do my next step and I am nearly done with my B licence. This week was twice as we did not have a midweek game. I am enjoying it.”
Xhaka knows all too well how quickly fans can turn on players in the Prem, and that the club will have to protect Nwaneri.
On Sunday when Arsenal keeper Aaron Ramsdale pushed the kid towards the away end to receive a standing ovation, Xhaka’s name had just finished blaring out.
The Switzerland international famously clashed with supporters during a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace in 2019, which led to him being stripped of the captaincy by former boss Unai Emery.
He has come close to leaving the Emirates on more than one occasion but his relationship now with the Arsenal faithful is better than ever.
Asked if he was emotional about fans chanting his name, Xhaka added: “Absolutely. I never ever thought one day this would happen, if I am being honest.
“To be in front of them, to have them singing my name is very, very special and emotional. I always wanted that.
“I always wanted to give them something back after what happened. We were working a lot to try and change their minds of what they had for me and I am happy for what has happened. There is more to come from myself.
“After what happened again three years ago, to be the captain and be in front of this team and to have the fans back me means a lot for me.”