OPINION | By Arsenal correspondent Tony Hughes
Jack Wilshere turned 23 last month.
He is in his seventh full season as a professional, all of which have been spent at Arsenal in an environment befitting one of the world’s elite sporting institutions.
The midfielder is an established England international and a virtual automatic selection for club and country when fully fit. He has been around long enough to know the boundaries of acceptable off-field behaviour.
Yet there is a growing sense that Wilshere’s career could prematurely run out of puff if he does not act more professionally and make the sacrifices that are needed to stay at the top.
At the very least, being photographed this week with three young women in a Piccadilly nightclub while grasping a shisha pipe is careless. To do so while in the final stages of recovery from the latest in a series of debilitating ankle injuries and after twice being pictured smoking in the previous 16 months is foolish in the extreme.
‘Jack the lad’ needs to grow up. He is no longer a hugely promising youngster making his way in the game. He is a father and a figure who young football fans look up to and revere, as he admitted himself after being pictured smoking at a Las Vegas pool party last summer. “Of course I regret it. I have been seen before doing it. I said then I made a mistake and I have made a mistake again. People make mistakes. I am young and I will learn from it. I realise the consequences it has and the effect on kids growing up.
“I have kids myself and I don’t want them growing up to think their dad smokes and it is OK for a footballer to smoke, because it’s not. It is unacceptable and I will accept the consequences and I will move on.”
Sensible words. But they read particularly hollow today, especially for those forced to defend Wilshere’s conduct, not least his employers at Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger, who will no doubt remind the player of his responsibilities when he addresses the subject at his media briefing on Friday.
The growing perception is that Wilshere does not learn from his mistakes, that he considers himself above the inevitable scrutiny that accompanies a top footballer.
The whispers that his lifestyle is not as professional as it could be appear particularly merited when judged in the light of this latest controversy. There is no smoke without fire.
There are those who will shrug that having a crafty ciggie never harmed Zinedine Zidane or Johann Cruyff, that athletes deserve ‘down time’ away from the pressures of their highly scrutinised profession.
Yet Wilshere has not played since November after undergoing ankle surgery for the third time in his career. Indeed, he has missed more matches than he has played since sustaining a stress fracture to his right ankle at the end of his 2010-11 breakthrough season, when he was widely regarded as the midfielder England had been waiting for.
Time, and injury, have taken some of the gloss off Wilshere’s reputation. Notwithstanding a mediocre goals and assists return for a player of his creative gifts, there is a sense that his buccaneering style of play invites more tackles than his troublesome ankles can withstand.
More than most 23-year-old Premier League A-listers, Wilshere needs to treat his body like a temple and maintain a wholesome lifestyle.
The nutritional, dietary, medical and fitness support available to the modern sportsman is far superior to that of previous generations. Behind the gates of Arsenal’s luxury training base, the midfielder will not be short of sage words and best practice. He also needs to heed the advice of the British Heart Foundation. Smoking shisha not only reduces the body’s ability to carry oxygen around the blood but can mean inhaling the same amount of smoke in the average hour-long session “as from more than 100 cigarettes”.
That is an alarming statistic. Wilshere needs wise counsel at this crucial time in his career. He needs to look at how former international colleagues Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have maintained outstanding careers into their mid-30s. Like Wilshere, both made mistakes when they were young. But both learned from them and prospered.
It is perhaps revealing that Wilshere split last summer from his long-standing agent Simon Bayliff. Football Insider understands that chief among the Arsenal man’s reasons for doing so was that Aaron Ramsey had just negotiated a more lucrative new contract than Wilshere had been able to when agreeing his most recent deal.
Wilshere should put his ego to one side and concentrate on what matters, which is making the most of his considerable potential. If he does that, the rewards will come. He will not have to go looking for them.
The alternative is seeing a potentially brilliant career go up in smoke.