The Night The Boy Turned Into A Man by Dan Smith
History might show that our late winner against Benfica was not just a crucial moment in our season, but also a defining moment in the career of Bukayo Saka.
If you just checked the score on Thursday, you might assume it was as simple as Aubameyang coming to our rescue, and if we were to lift the Europa League it might be easy to forget just what the 19-year-old did in midweek.
In the 88th minute most players would have just hoofed the ball back into the penalty area and hope for the best. For the teenager to instead deliver a world class cross proves he has the mentality to play at the highest level.
When comparing our academy graduates, I have always said talent wasn’t in question. You don’t get promoted from the youth team to the senior squad without having shown various coaches your quality.
What a youngster then has to prove is; do they have the personality to play for a club our size? That’s what separates those from playing for one of the big six compared to a midtable club. Can you handle the expectation of having to win every week and get the microscope on you if you don’t?
Of course you can only find out by giving these talents chances.
Who’s brave enough to demand the ball?
Who believes they can make the difference?
Who’s not afraid to take a risk and fear not getting something wrong?
That’s why Saka is starting every week and a Willock and Maitland Niles (both older) are out on loan. Reiss Nelson is two years older but is way down the pecking order and should have been also sent out on loan. Those three play it safe, play like they are happy to be involved, like they don’t quite believe they are good enough for this stage.
That’s why Saka’s second assist was a huge moment in his development.
With everything at stake, with our season on the line, with us due to lose everything, an exit which would have huge financial implications…. The teenager didn’t hide. He demanded the ball and had the composure to deliver the ball into an area where any top striker can’t miss.
Whatever Saka goes on to achieve, we might look back as that night in Athens when the boy turned into a man.