LONDON -- It¹s January 2008, and David Beckham, chasing appearance number 100 for England, has been given permission by the L.A. Galaxy to join the Arsenal squad for training. After a session with the first-team, he waits to join the reserves for some extra practice. As he approaches the squad, one player shouts out, "Hey, what¹s your name? Are you here on trial or what?" Beckham laughs and says, "I'm David and I'm just here for a kick-around." The player who asked the question was only 17, and his name was Wojciech Szczesny.
Confidence is not a problem for the Arsenal goalkeeper, who turned 22 last week. But whereas too much of it can be a problem for some players -- the example of Nicklas Bendtner comes to mind -- sometimes it¹s no bad thing for a goalkeeper.
One former Arsenal player remembered Alex Manninger, the Austrian international who spent five years at Highbury (from 1997-2002). "He had great talent but he could never get over conceding goals," he told SI.com. "He couldn't find any calm about it, would spend all week wondering what he did wrong, and with all that stress inside, was perhaps never as good as he could be."
If anything, Szczesny goes the other way. On the day after Arsenal's calamitous 2010 Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham City -- when the winning goal came about after a mix-up between Szczesny and defender Laurent Koscielny -- Szczesny was said to have met a fan while out shopping, who expressed his condolences for the match-changing error. Szczesny claimed to have no idea what he was talking about, and insisted he had made no mistakes the previous day.
That self-belief was not always there. When Arsenal first wanted to sign Szczesny, who was 16 at the time, he did not want to go. He supported Legia Warsaw, the team with whom he was training, and his hero was Piotr Wlodarczyk, a fairly average striker on the Legia books who had made four Poland appearances. The Legia coach at the time, Dariusz Wdowczyk (once of Celtic and Reading) also didn¹t want Szczesny to leave, but the goalkeeper¹s father Maciej, a former Poland international goalkeeper, made a personal appeal to club president Mariusz Walter. "I thought for a long time before I agreed to the move, but the truth is it would never have happened without Mr. Walter's blessing, and for that I am grateful to him," Szczesny said in an interview with Orange Sport's Matthew Swiecicki.
He was nervous before his first training session, and seeing the likes of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Jens Lehmann in training soon made him forget about Wlodarczyk. "It was like a different world." But his nerves soon settled and it quickly became apparent that Szczesny was heading for the top.
That didn't stop Arsene Wenger from trying to sign a new goalkeeper in summer 2010. Frustrated with Manuel Almunia, and with Szczesny back from a year on loan with League One side Brentford, Wenger reportedly tried to sign Pep Reina from Liverpool, and when that was knocked back, made a cheeky (and low) bid for Fulham's Mark Schwarzer.
Wenger started that season with Almunia as his first-choice, but after he injured his elbow giving away a penalty against West Brom, in October 2010, Lukasz Fabianski stepped in. Fabianski then injured his shoulder during a warmup the following January, and Szczesny, five years (to the day) his compatriot's junior, had his chance. His Premier League debut came in a 1-0 loss at Manchester United, and in the next match, he made a point-blank save from Leeds United striker Luciano Becchio's header that Wenger said kept Arsenal in the FA Cup.
From that point on, Szczesny was his No. 1, even after the lowest point of his career, when he had to go off injured 20 minutes into the Champions League Round of 16 second leg at the Camp Nou. He had dislocated his finger and could not catch the ball because the finger would not straighten. "I was annoyed because I thought the doctor was protecting me from another injury, but actually I couldn't do anything on the pitch,²"he said. "It was the worst moment of my career." He was back six weeks later and ended the season as first-choice for club and country.
It's easy to forget that Szczesny made his top-flight debut less than 18 months ago: this season he has been one of Arsenal¹s outstanding players in an up-and-down-and-up-again season. He was in the headlines far too often for the club's liking because of his Twitter account (he caused a scandal when joking Aaron Ramsey looked like a rapist), which he closed down in January. "It was nothing to do with my football career, it was just a way of being in touch with the fans," he said, "but I decided to have no outside distractions."
His inspiration in training is Robin van Persie -- "he trains like a mega-professional, and is perfect even with the simplest of exercises and I have to be the same" -- and, for all the bluster, you can see he is getting better. His right-handed lunge to keep out Kevin Doyle's header in the recent win over Wolves was sensational. Szczesny may not yet have Peter Schmeichel's dominating personality (the Great Dane would make saves just by intimidating opponents) or Joe Hart's physique, but he is getting there.
"He has improved his focus and the consistency of his focus," Wenger said in a recent news conference. "I like that he is a good communicator and the mental part of a goalkeeper is vital."
Szczesny may be brash and occasionally get himself in trouble with his big mouth, but he is also sensible: he has invested in property in Warsaw and London, and though he recently bought a new car, he gave his old one to his brother. He wears a fake designer watch which costs over £10,000 ($16,146) less than Theo Walcott's -- "I can¹t even tell the difference" -- and wants to start his own business when he stops playing.
He has also solved a huge problem for Wenger, who spent three years looking for a replacement for Jens Lehmann. Missing out on Reina and Schwarzer, plus a few timely injuries to others, has handed Szczesny his opportunity. He does not look like letting go for a while.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.