It’s been a year like no other for Arthur Okonkwo.
As last summer approached, the future of Arsenal’s young goalkeeper was unclear, with his contract due to expire at the end of the 2020-21 campaign.
There were suggestions of a possible move away from north London, with several clubs interested in taking the giant 6ft 5in shot-stopper.
However, in July, he ended all the speculation by signing a new long-term deal and was officially promoted to Mikel Arteta’s first-team squad in the process.
It was a huge moment for a player who first joined Arsenal as a seven-year-old – and one Okonkwo will never forget.
“Signing for the first team with the club I had grown up supporting was just an unreal experience,” the 20-year-old tells GOAL during an exclusive interview.
“Every young player dreams of one day getting to the first team, so it was one of the best feelings of my life.
“I don’t think a lot will ever top that feeling.”
Since then, Okonkwo has been almost ever-present with the senior squad, working alongside Aaron Ramsdale and Bernd Leno every day in training.
He may still be waiting to make his senior debut, but he has featured on the bench several times this season and believes the progress he has made in the past 12 months has been undeniable.
“I’m a completely different goalkeeper now than I was in pre-season,” he says. “Being in and around the first team every day, you improve not only as a keeper, but as a person.
“You learn how to communicate better, you understand your environment better.
“I’ve obviously also had a few games with the Under-23s, so it’s all been really positive for me and I’ve seen a huge improvement in myself in the games I’ve played in.
“Hopefully, next season, I will get more games and I’ll push on again.”
It could be that those games next season will be for another club, with Okonkwo likely to spend the 2022-23 campaign away from Arsenal for the first time since he arrived as a young boy.
Arsenal are aware that a loan move is the logical next stage of Okonkwo’s development and he is very keen to go out and get a taste of what it’s like to play week in, week out.
“Going out and getting some senior football will be very important to my career and future,” he says.
“Getting loads of games will prepare me for one day hopefully being No.1 and playing in the Premier League. That’s my goal.
“Then, my future goal is winning trophies. But it’s all in stages.
“I just have to keep working every day, staying focused and, hopefully, in time, it will come together.”
Unlike most youngsters who first fall in love with football, it has never been about scoring goals for Okonkwo.
His passion has always been about keeping shots out, even from a very early age.
“I’ve just always loved making saves,” he enthuses. “I get the same feeling from that as anyone who scores a goal.”
Okonkwo started out playing his football for Hampstead Academy as a young boy before his father’s friend helped get him a chance with the Gunners.
He was invited in for a trial and he signed soon after, securing a place at the club’s Hale End Academy at the age of just seven.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Okonkwo as he progressed through the age groups, with confidence issues and struggles with his height often getting in the way.
“When I first joined Hale End, it was very difficult because I wasn’t that good,” he admits.
“I wouldn’t have described myself as a confident person when I was growing up, but I got a lot of help from my coaches.
“It was difficult for me, though. I was always growing and I struggled with managing my height, especially with the ball at my feet.
“But, as the years went on, I got better at the academy, especially towards the end. So, it was all a good progress for me.”
Despite having overcome some struggles, Okonkwo did enough to earn his first professional contract in 2018 when he turned 17.
He then moved permanently from Hale End to Arsenal’s senior training center at London Colney. Like many others, though, he initially found the step up difficult.
However, now he looks back on that time as a moment that helped him grow – not just as a player, but as a person.
“Colney changes you because you have to gain a different character there to survive for a long time,” he explains.
“That’s where maturity comes in. You learn how to communicate better and you gain more confidence.
“The transition from Hale End to Colney really helped me with that.”
Okonkwo adds: “When you first go to Colney, you have all the senior players there and your changing room is quite close, so you know you always have to find a way out past the older guys.
“It’s kind of like the things you have to deal with at school. It’s fun, but it’s a challenge. You have to gain more confidence or you won’t succeed.”
Four years on and Okonkwo very much feels like part of the first-team picture at Arsenal, even though that elusive senior debut still eludes him.
He is rated extremely highly by Arteta and his coaching staff, and has played a key role in keeping Aaron Ramsdale and Bernd Leno on their toes throughout this season.
The trio have forged a strong bond within the goalkeeping unit and Okonkwo has nothing but praise for his two senior colleagues.
“As soon as Aaron came in [last summer] you could see his character and how he presented himself every day,” Okonkwo reveals.
“I have to say, I’ve never met anyone like Aaron before. He’s a little bit crazy, but an amazing guy and he’s a great person to be around.
“Both he and Bernd are amazing and I’m so privileged to have worked with them. They are two top keepers.”
Focusing on Leno, Okonkwo says: “Bernd has sat out most of this season after playing almost all of the games last season.
“But he’s been amazing. He hasn’t once changed his character or the way he has trained.
“Day in, day out, he’s still good around everyone. He’s still the same Leno I knew last season and that shows me a lot from a learning point of view.
“As a keeper, especially at top teams, there are going to be times when you are not playing and I have to take all of that on board.”
Okonkwo lists Leno and Alexandre Lacazette as the two players who have helped him the most since he joined the first-team.
He regularly asks both for advice, with the youngster describing Lacazette as “an amazing character” who “always helps the young players” when it comes to advice.
The current Gunners captain is also one of the two team-mates Okonkwo singles out as the best finishers he faces in training, along with Gabriel Martinelli.
But who are the players he hates to face when Arteta decides it’s time for some shooting drills at London Colney?
“I don’t hate facing anyone,” he said. “I enjoy facing everyone because I just want to make saves.
“The Hardest shot? Eddie Nketiah can hit the ball. Granit [Xhaka] as well.
“He doesn’t do much finishing so I always forget about him, but when he does, you know about it!
“I would say those are the people to be afraid of in training.”