It was on a bright spring Saturday afternoon in deepest south London that Serge Gnabry made his first impression on English football. Charlton’s training ground was the venue. In attendance were a few parents and a couple of scouts. No one else was much interested.
It was an undistinguished setting for the 15-year-old who, 10 years on, is about to play in the biggest game in club football at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon.
Everyone in English football knows Serge Gnabry’s name now, not least Tottenham, against whom he scored four goals in 35 minutes in October, and Chelsea, who conceded twice to him in March.
By Sunday evening he may have earned the right to be judged the best player of this year’s extraordinary Champions League, his two goals for Bayern Munich in the semi-final against Lyon taking his total to nine in the tournament this season.
As Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo depart the stage, unable to dominate the Champions League, Gnabry is part of the new generation now outshining those great players. But it is Arsenal fans who may feel the most excruciating pain when they tune in to the final and perhaps West Brom fans, wistfully recalling how he could not get a game for them while on loan in 2015.
It was Arsenal Under-16s he was starring for back in 2010. Peter Clark, Arsenal’s German scout, coincidentally sacked as part of their restructure earlier this month, stood watching nervously. It was on his recommendation this cheerful, bright German teenager had been brought over to play the trial game to see if he was worth signing.
Head scout Steve Rowley was there to check on the protege, as was head of youth development Liam Brady. ‘He was magnificent that day,’ said one spectator. ‘He was cruising it. It was too easy for him.’ What impressed most, however, was his vision and tactical intelligence. After 10 minutes, Rowley turned to Clarke. ‘Bloody hell, this boy is really good,’ said the man who had instigated signing Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy and Robin van Persie.
At half-time Brady joined Clark and Rowley. Evidently he did not need to see any more.
‘We’ve got to have him,’ said Brady. For Clarke it was a vindication. He had spotted Gnabry playing for Stuttgart’s youth team. He had got to know the family, dad, Jean Hermann, who was originally from the Ivory Coast and mum, Birgit, who is German.
‘Peter was going mad about him and virtually camped out with the family, getting to know them, winning their trust,’ said one source close to the deal.
‘He would drive them to games, take them out to dinner. That’s part of scouting. It’s not just spotting the player but being able to build the relationships. Peter was superb at that. He’s still in touch with Serge and the family now thanks to the time he put in.’
Arsene Wenger was informed. His first question was: ‘Is he intelligent?’ The scouting team answered emphatically in the affirmative. Gnabry maybe did not have quite the profile that Fabregas did when he came to Arsenal at 16, but internally he was rated as highly. Initially he settled well. The club rented him a house where he lived with his father.
‘It was a big move leaving my family and friends behind and leaving my area in Germany,’ he told Sportsmail. ‘But the interest from Arsenal was huge and knowing Arsene Wenger was the guy who gives young players a chance, I felt why not? Give it a chance. I wanted to experience something new and get out of my comfort zone.’
The only initial issues were academy manager Steve Bould’s Potteries dialect. ‘I could speak a bit of English but when Steve talked in his accent, I couldn’t understand anything,’ says Gnabry.
He still name checks Bould and former Arsenal coach Neil Banfield as key influences who helped his career. He made his debut coming on as 17-year-old in the Capital One Cup in a 6-1 win against Coventry in September 2012 and made his Premier League and Champions League debuts the following month. The following season he played 14 times, starring in a Premier League over Crystal Palace when Tony Pulis was in charge.
The following season was lost to a knee injury but the question of where it all then went wrong and how he slipped through Arsenal’s net is a tangled tale with a cameo role for Pulis and West Brom.
In 2015, aged 20, having had the injury setback, he was excited to get a chance on loan at West Brom under Pulis, to prove himself at a Premier League club.
He ended up with 12 minutes against Chelsea in the Premier League, 57 minutes against Port Vale in the Capital One Cup, followed by the crowning glory of his West Brom career, 68 minutes in the 3-0 defeat by Norwich in the Capital One Cup.
What went wrong, I asked him earlier this year? ‘Tony Pulis,’ he said, without rancour but succinctly and with a shrug. ‘Ask Tony Pulis,’ he added.
A colleague from the Daily Telegraph did. ‘Serge was miles off it,’ said Pulis. ‘We talk about the demands of playing at that level. He would come in to see me about why he was not playing and we would have a chat. I would say what I always say, that you can have all the talent in the world but you need attitude and application. Physically and mentally, he just was not prepared.’
Where you stand on Gnabry’s West Brom debacle has become a touchstone for debate in English football. Are we still so insular that we ignore such extraordinary talents simply because they do not fit a pre-conceived mould? Or was Gnabry just a young man some way short of full maturity, who needed time and love to blossom?
Gnabry maintains he was ready to play but was left holed up in his Birmingham home, a young man miles from home with, it seemed, no hope of playing and no understanding of why.
‘I was fit and hoping to play,’ he said. ‘And I was told I’d be getting a lot of game time. They really seemed like they were going to play me and I spoke to the manager before.’ His father was with him and some at Arsenal, like Rowley, called but otherwise he was left alone to stew in his failure.
The loan was called off in January but Gnabry returned to Arsenal seemingly damaged goods. ‘It didn’t look good when I didn’t play at West Brom,’ he said. ‘But looking back I can say: “I don’t know why?” I’m sure I have proved to everyone [that they were wrong].’
In the summer of 2016, with one year left on his deal, Arsenal tried to get him to sign a new contract. He would be representing Germany at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the club wanted him tied down before he went.
But he left for Brazil with the deal not quite signed and returned as one of the stars of the tournament, a silver medal and with offers from across Europe. ‘After the Olympics, I could have stayed but I said I just want to play regularly for a club,’ he said. ‘We had so many wingers. I said there is no way here for me to start playing regularly, so I just had to go. Sadly.’
Accepting he would leave either then or for a free in 2017, Arsenal cut their losses and sold him to Werder Bremen for £5million. Eleven goals that season and a hat-trick for the German national team, albeit against San Marino, earned him the move to Bayern Munich.
They loaned him to Hoffenheim, which is where he feels he kicked on under Julian Nagelsmann. ‘I should have gone to Bayern but Douglas Costa was still here, Franck [Ribery], Arjen [Robben] and Kingsley Coman and there weren’t going to be many opportunities. I had a good season at Bremen and wanted to keep that rhythm going and keep learning from Nagelsmann. His philosophy drove me to go there.
‘I knew a lot of players from the national team who said he made them better. We played against Hoffenheim and the way they played, I said: “What the hell!” I need to learn from this guy.’
From there, he returned to Bayern and is now on the cusp of glory. ‘From a young age until I played in the first team at Arsenal it always went so well,’ he said. ‘And then suddenly, I learned: “Woah, it doesn’t always go up.” And I learned to deal with that.’
Maybe Arsenal and West Brom can at least take some solace from the fact that they honed the character of one of the world’s best players.