Arsenal and Arsenal Foundation have helped to keep Act One stay in action to support young disabled people, and put their abilities into focus. Act One had expected their organisation to have been unable to keep going by Christmas due to lack of funding, but Arsenal stepped in and gave that needed boost. Not just with money, but with time, facilities and care.
You can check out who Act One are here: http://www.artsbase.org.uk
The Telegraph | Per Mertesacker: 'I couldn't believe it when I was made Arsenal captain'
It was while Per Mertesacker was back home in Hanover, just one week after major knee surgery, that his mobile phone flashed up with a call from Arsene Wenger.
The manager wanted to talk about the Arsenal captaincy following the departure of Mikel Arteta and, having been confined to his bed at the start of five long months of rehabilitation, Mertesacker was fully prepared for another big blow.
“It was a tough decision and I would have understood everything if he had said that he needed someone nearby the team,” says Mertesacker.
“He knew how long I was out but he told me that he still saw me as a big figure for the club and that I was his first choice. I couldn’t believe it. It was huge for me. I was really buzzing as it came at the time I didn’t think it was going to happen. You want to be on the pitch, giving advice, making the difference, but sometimes that is not the role and you have to let it go. I needed to learn that. I felt very confident that I could still fulfil the role by being myself. That was what the manager demanded as well. He said, ‘Do not force anything; be natural, be yourself and don’t exaggerate the captaincy’.”
Mertesacker suffered his cartilage injury during the final minutes of Arsenal’s first pre-season game at Lens in July following what he thought was a routine pass.
“There was fluid all over the place but it didn’t hurt that much,” he recalls. The diagnosis was surgery and, for fully three weeks, Mertesacker was confined to a bed at his parents’ home.
“I couldn’t do anything – I had a machine to help me move my knee and I couldn’t walk or play with my kids,” he says. What got him through was a mixture of escapism and a rigorous focus on diet that meant drinking copious amounts of water and eating much less than usual.
“I tried to take the best out of the situation,” says Mertesacker.
“It really helped me to switch off completely and try not to watch every football game. I loved the Olympics. I started reading (Stephen King) and saw my childhood friends. We played cards again like we used to do when we were 15. I lost several kilos. I wanted to be lighter to give myself maybe two or three weeks’ advantage so that I did not have to spend time reducing (fat) first.”
Mertesacker unveiling an ‘Arsenal Foundation dream jar’ at the Emirates, which celebrates the club’s work with Save the Children - creating football pitches for children in Iraq, Somalia and Jordan
It must have taken an iron will and, after six weeks, he returned to London. The subsequent programme has involved a very gradually increased load on his knee and, as he looked out across the training ground on Friday, you could visibly see the delight at being able to report that he was back running again outside. “You lose almost everything muscle-wise so it needs patience but it is looking good,“ he says. “It will be new year when you see me hopefully back out on the pitch playing football.”
An added feature of Mertesacker’s recovery has been the time to reflect over what he calls “what has been done already and what lies ahead” in his career.
He is realistic about the uncertainty following such a significant set-back, especially now that he in the final year of his contract, but he is also hugely determined and optimistic about the role he can still play.
The “priority” is a new contract and, having only just turned 32, Mertesacker believes that playing into his late 30s remains feasible.
“It is the target to convince people,” he says. “At some stage you have to do a trial to show you are able. I have a really good feeling. I want to come back obviously to full fitness but, on that path, there are sometimes concerns. Will I be able to do what I could before? If I cannot come back to what is demanded here you have to look around; find other stuff and things you have a passion for.”
Mertesacker’s interests extend well beyond football but, equally, you do not need long in his company to understand why his importance to the Arsenal dressing-room cannot simply be qualified on the pitch.
On Saturday, Wenger and the players will give up a day’s wages for the Arsenal Foundation and, on Monday, Mertesacker could be found doing yoga with young people with disabilities at the club’s Inclusion Day.
He has previously been a regular visitor to a football therapy programme for refugees escaping torture. Mertesacker also once spent a year working in a mental hospital back home in Germany and knows, from personal experience, the two-way benefit of community interaction.
“I wasn’t that good at football aged 14 or 15,” he says. “I didn’t take it too seriously. My father said, ‘You’re not going to make it’. That took a lot of pressure from me. I took football like a hobby. Working in a mental hospital gave me a huge boost. On the one hand, I was training every day and seeing the glamour world – where everything was sorted – and then I would get the keys for the mental hospital, where everything was locked, and the people did not recognise me.
“I found I could help people who were not able to live without help. Doing something for others helped to not put that focus too much on football and to put things into perspective of how fortunate we are. For us now, it is not only about raising money – which is important – because it means more to children and young people that we can meet each other and have a chat. With Arsenal’s power, we can reach a lot of hearts”
Mertesacker’s perspective also extends now to watching the team from that enforced step back. It has meant sometimes restraining an off-field instinct to lead but, in seeing how the squad has a strength in depth that was previously lacking, he cautiously senses that there is something “different” about the group this season.
“We haven’t lost major players and had some great additions,” he says. “It says a lot how you deal with set-backs, even during the games, and I think there is a different mentality in how to take it; to stick to the plans we create; not to lose or let ourselves down.
"We always finished around the top but have never been consistent enough to lead the Premier League at the end. There is a stronger feeling but still there is proof needed because there are a lot of doubters. We want to stay the course desperately. It takes more than what we gave in that last few years. These are the next steps.”
Arsenal’s match against Stoke City will be dedicated to The Arsenal Foundation. Arsène Wenger and the first-team squad will donate a day’s wages to support projects which use the Arsenal name to make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of beneficiaries. For more information and to donate visit www.arsenal.com/thearsenalfoundation