Arsenal forward Reiss Nelson: If it wasn't for my brother, I might have got caught up in drugs or gangs

Ask anyone at Arsenal and they will tell you they always knew Reiss Nelson was destined to be a professional footballer.

From an early age, Nelson’s talent was evident and it was not uncommon to see him dribbling round players in youth games as though they were cones on the training ground.

But his journey to the Arsenal first team has not been so easy.

Nelson grew up on the Aylesbury Estate in south London — one of the roughest in the capital and described by one newspaper as ‘Hell’s waiting room’, where the pitfalls of drugs, gangs or knife crime were there for any youngster to fall into.

“It’s easy to say you’d be doing this and that, but I’m from a neighbourhood where I don’t know what I’d have been doing if I didn’t have football,” says Nelson.

“A lot of my best friends were doing the wrong stuff, got caught up in the wrong stuff, and they were top, top footballers.

“It could be drugs or involvement in gangs, things like that. A lot of the time it’s like that in south London.

“There was even one kid who was at Arsenal with me and then he went on the wrong path and unfortunately he isn’t doing that any more.

“It’s hard, and hard for me to see that as well because there are so many talented kids out there who maybe don’t really get the nurturing they need to go on to be really good.”

Luckily for Nelson he was kept on the right path by his brother, Ricky, and sister, Tessa. Both of them were youth workers but they had another job in ensuring their younger brother fulfilled the footballing talent he clearly had.

“My brother was a big influence on me, he always pushed me in that direction of just playing football and that’s it,” says Nelson.

“All the time after school I didn’t really have another choice, I’d either go to my brother’s youth work in Peckham or my sister’s in Albany Road.

“My brother would always have his arm round me to keep me going in the right direction. I think that’s helped me and without him I don’t know if I’d be here today doing the good things I’m doing for Arsenal.

‘Hell’s waiting room’: The Aylesbury Estate in south London

“From a young age as a kid you always want to be the best, of course, but it’s so hard to always do the right stuff like go to sleep on time, go to training and have the right people around you.

“But  my brother was the one drilling it into my head that he didn’t want anyone to distract me so he was always there.”

It was not until Nelson made his Arsenal debut, against Chelsea in the Community Shield in 2017, that Ricky felt his work was done, embracing his young brother at Wembley and saying: “Reiss, you’re on the way to the top now so I can leave you be, you know what you want to do”.

Long before Nelson was making his bow at Wembley, he was honing his skills on the streets around his estate. They are times he can remember easily, particularly on this day as he unveils a new artificial turf pitch at Duncombe Primary School in Islington.

It is one of the 35 pitches The Arsenal Foundation have upgraded in Islington, Camden and Hackney at a cost of £500,000, and Nelson knows the seven-year-old him would be jealous.

“Seeing primary schools with AstroTurf now is crazy,” says Nelson, who has scored twice in 14 appearances for the Gunners this season.

In the frame: Arsenal star Reiss Nelson, taking pictures with pupils at Duncombe Primary School in Islington (Lucy Young)

“That’s the new thing with these pitches being free — as when I was growing up we used to see these pitches but you’d have to pay.

“You’d be jumping over the fence and getting in trouble just to play on them. Before that we had the gravel [pitches], the ones with little stones in them, so when you fell over you’d get them in your knees and palms.

“A lot of my friends used to wear shorts but I used to cover up with a tracksuit and gloves.

“I was always the one getting fouled so I used to come prepared for any knocks. You’d find your friends there, that’s where you’d build your skills.

“A lot of the time it was just people kicking each other, it was a bit like the Royal Rumble in wrestling!”

It was in such an environment that Nelson, as well his best friend Jadon Sancho — now at Borussia Dortmund — developed their football skills.

From a young age, the pair, who lived five minutes away from each other, were known for their talent and a constant source of debate among other kids was which one of the two was the best footballer.

“It got a bit annoying and boring,” says Nelson. “We’d be out, in a nice place, and someone would throw a ball and say: ‘These two, battle each other!’

“It got to a point where we were both just like: ‘Nah, we can’t just go messing around with each other all the time’. He’s like my brother, it’s not a battle like some people say.”

Star man: Boyhood mate Sancho has been linked with a move back to the Premier League (Bongarts/Getty Images)

One suspects that, over the years, Nelson may have to get used to answering who is better out of him and Sancho — particularly if the latter’s star keeps rising.

Sancho has shot to fame in Germany, which is where Nelson spent last season, on loan at Hoffenheim. It was a tough period for the 20-year-old, who battled with injury and being away from home for the first time, but now he is ready to finish the journey he started all those years ago with his brother, Ricky, and sister, Tessa.

Nelson has left Hell’s waiting room and is ready to live out his dream at Arsenal.