This week Jack Wilshere does not have the brackets after his name. It is not Jack Wilshere (injured). He is back in training, back in contention at West Ham United and although he says every injury feels like a darkness descending “until you see the light and you go from there”, this time Wilshere was only out for a matter of days with a minor groin problem.
“It’s been really strange,” he explains. “Because most of my injuries have been six months and this has been 10 days so it does give me confidence in my body and confidence that the work that I do helps me. I didn’t really know how my body would respond but it’s responded really well.”
There is the perception, which must frustrate him, that Wilshere is always injured. “If you don’t play then people forget about you, I suppose,” the midfielder says. “All I can do is train well and as someone once said to me, ‘the best ability is availability’, and that’s what I am thinking. I haven’t been playing and I need to play games. I am at a stage of my career where I have missed too much football and I want to play. I want to play whenever I can.”
Wilshere has been working hard and before he sits down in the first-team dressing room at the London Stadium to talk role models, his future and also whether he believes he can play for England again, first there is his important part in West Ham’s Players’ Project, a huge and admirable community programme involving all the club’s players, men and women.
There are 11 strands, with 30 programmes involving 50,000 people covering health, education and so on and Wilshere, who is strongly committed to charity work and helping others, has chosen to be involved with Local Enterprise. “I know how much effort, commitment and dedication it takes to set up your own business and those who try to do it for the benefit of people in the community deserve as much help and support as we can give them,” he explains.
“And the club is a massive part of the community. We need to give a little back. When you are younger you maybe don’t have any interest in anything like that. When I became a dad I started to grow up a lot more and wanted to be involved.”
Wilshere became a father when he was just 19. By then, though, he already had three years experience in Arsenal’s first team. “When I was training, playing, taking everything for granted you don’t really think about the positive influence you can have on people and how they look up to you. But you have to set an example and be a role model,” he says. “If you look at all the senior players here they are brilliant – Noble, Snodgrass – they’ve been in the game for years and are top professionals on and off the pitch.”
At 27 – 28 in January – Wilshere counts himself as one of those senior players. “When does a footballer finish – 34, 35? So I am over half way and another thing is I started really young, I’ve been in the game a long time. My debut feels like ages ago. So I do accept that,” he adds.
Wilshere also accepts the concept of footballers being role models. “You are,” he says. “I think about my son (Archie) and he tells me everything about every player – good or bad - and how that influences him and goes through his mind. If someone does something wrong he will be asking me why. As a dad they can be difficult questions to answer so if you can be a role model then that’s what you should do. You have to behave the right way.”
For Wilshere that has not always been the case. “Everyone knows that I made mistakes and did stuff when I was younger but as you get older you learn and you grow up. I became a dad; I became a family man. I grew up,” he says.
Those mistakes are well-documented and mainly centre around being caught smoking, incidents outside nightclubs and whether Wilshere looked after himself as best he could with the expectation that he was the 'next big thing'. At times the criticism was harsh. “It’s part and parcel of it and especially being English,” he explains. “English people, English media are looking for the next big star. They want them to do well and if you make a mistake then sometimes a small mistake is made into a big mistake and you have to pay that price. But you have to accept that and set the right example.”
The injuries, mainly ankle damage, have hit hard. There is no way they cannot be discussed given the huge chunk they have taken out of Wilshere’s career, although his own take as to why they have happened is interesting.
“I’ve always had injuries but I’ve always done what I can to try and avoid injury,” he argues. “Most of my injuries have been contact injuries – a kick or something. My game is running with the ball, opening things up in midfield and you always open yourself up to those challenges.
“I’m not really quick. I want to get close to a player to beat him, I want to feel the player near and that comes with risk. When you watch me dribble I get tight to the player. I’m not the type like Sterling who’s going to kick it past them and use his pace. I never had that. So I had to get close to players, get in tight areas and get through that way. And unfortunately there are times in my career when I have paid the price for being that type of player.”
Wilshere acknowledges the debate about whether he will ever be the same player again but illness to Archie – he also has two daughters – three years ago put a lot of that in perspective. Archie suffered mysterious daily seizures, with Wilshere and his wife Andriani sitting up most nights fearing the worst, often rushing him to hospital. Thankfully, Archie has fully recovered.
“Part of being a footballer is to be criticised, that’s life I suppose,” Wilshere says. “But sometimes you don’t know what is going on in someone’s life, they might have issues with their family - and maybe just lay off a little bit. When my son was ill I almost forgot about football, almost forgot about my rehab and that’s why I speak so highly of Arsene (Wenger) because he knew I was going through that and kept it quiet for me and always stuck up for me in tough times – when I was injured, when I came back and I wasn’t quite performing.”
Archie is also gluten and dairy intolerant so Wilshere cut those things out of his diet as well as part of a programme he says has made him even fitter, although there is a frustration that it is not since August last year that he has played a full 90 minutes. “But at the same time I’ve been fit for a while now apart from this little injury. So it’s obviously been down to the manager (Manuel Pellegrini),” he says. “I’ve played a few games and he’s brought me off so I don’t really look too much into it.”
Last year there was the disappointment of not making the final cut for England’s World Cup squad with Wilshere taking to social media to argue he was worthy of inclusion. “I watched the tournament,” he says. “It was disappointing at first because I was close. I was out of the squad for a while and then I came back into it towards the World Cup. It was a bit like - I didn’t expect to go and then I had a chance after a good season. So it was tough to take. But as soon as the first week went by I went on holiday and tried to forget about it.
“It was also a difficult stage of my career because I was leaving Arsenal and I didn’t know what I was going to do so my attention turned to that. I watched all the games as a fan but my thoughts were elsewhere.
“I was thinking about what club I was going to go to in terms of my family, what would be best for us - and first and foremost what would be best for me as a player. It was a tough decision because I had a few options. I thought about going abroad, I thought about everything really. But at that time when I weighed it all up I wanted to stay in the Premier League.”
Has England now gone? “I need to play (for West Ham),” Wilshere adds. “I need to play not just one or two games, have two good games, I need to play a period of three or four months, stay in the team, find some form and then we will see. But to be honest with you I don’t really think about that.”
And, finally, was there ever a time he feared he would not get back to playing? “I had some tough injuries in the past where I had thought, ‘you know what, I’ve finally found some form’, and had been playing for a long time and then, bang, I got injured,” he says. “I remember in 2015 I had just come back, played a couple of games for England, played well, played in pre-season and got injured. That was hard. Sometimes you do question it, you do. Last year when I got injured I thought, ‘I’ve joined a new club, I want to play’, and that was tough because I didn’t feel like I was part of it. I felt like I was just on my own, training on my own and trying to get back for ages and ages. When you are injured you look for little steps and as soon as you are back on the pitch you sort of see the light and you go from there.”