Arsenal reunion a fine reward for Chorley

Ben Chorley is relishing Sunday’s FA Cup derby more than most.

The Leyton Orient defender began his career at Highbury as a key member of Neil Banfield’s youth team over a decade ago.

Chorley, a 28-year-old south Londoner, picked up an FA Youth Cup winner’s medal in 2001, scoring in the second leg against Blackburn as the Gunners comfortably won 6-3 on aggregate.

He, like virtually all others who started their footballing life at Arsenal’s celebrated academy, has nothing but praise for his first club.

“I have great memories, just lots and lots of great memories. The pinnacle was winning the FA Youth Cup,” Chorley, who was suspended for the first leg at Highbury, tells Ham&High Sport.

“The club had won it the previous year, although a knee injury kept me on the bench so I didn’t get on. It was much harder to win it the second year – we won a see-saw semi-final 7-6 on aggregate against a very good Ipswich side but we were raring to go for the final.

“In that first leg we demolished Blackburn, which made the second leg a formality.”

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The class of 2001 alumni makes impressive reading; current Premier League stars Steve Sidwell, Jermaine Pennant and Jerome Thomas were all in the starting line-up.

Jeremie Aliadiere, who reached the Gunners first team, also featured, as did Rohan Ricketts, later of Wolves and Spurs, Moritz Volz, who later moved to Fulham, and Ryan Garry, now at Bournemouth.

“You know, I think I speak to pretty much all the boys in that team,” says Chorley.

“We had a fantastic spirit – we were all so close. I mean, we literally were together 24-7; many of us were Londoners and would get the same train up to Highbury from Waterloo and we would even go in on our days off.

“It was a wonderful time and a genuinely great bunch of lads who sparked off each other.

“That great spirit was fostered by our coach Neil Banfield and Don Howe. Personally, I learned so much from Don, who had so much experience.

“You look at all the players who have gone on to have good careers. Most of us have done alright out of the game, some have done really well and played Premier League football.

“The bottom line is you could not get a better education than we got. That is why we have done OK – because we were taught so well by Arsenal.”

Chorley later moved to Wimbledon, who in turn became MK Dons, and then played for Tranmere and Gillingham, before his move to Brisbane Road.

“It was tough for me at Arsenal. I obviously wanted my chance in the first team but I had players like Martin Keown, Pascal Cygan and Sol Campbell in my way. I could have stayed but it would have been hard,” he adds.

“I had eight months left on my contract and went to Wimbledon, which was a great move for me. We finished eighth in the Championship and it was all good. I’ve been at some good clubs.”

Looking ahead rather than back, Chorley can’t wait for the first FA Cup tie between Orient and Arsenal since the 1978 semi-final, when Malcolm Macdonald scored twice as the Gunners won 3-0 at Stamford Bridge.

Now, on the back of an extraordinary run of just one loss in 20 matches, the O’s are moving up the League One table and Chorley insists they can pose Arsenal problems on Sunday.

“We’ve been away in every round up until now. Dagenham was a tough game, then we had Droylsden and I think after beating Norwich and Swansea, we deserved a big tie,” he says.

“I felt like we’d played the two teams in the Championship with the best home records and we beat them both, so I felt we needed a reward and it’s nice to get Arsenal.

“For sure we’ll give them a game. This is the kind of thing you think about all of your life. With all of your family here and your loved ones, you don’t want to disappoint anyone.

“We know it’s going to be very tough, but we’ve got to go out and give everything. We’ve got to play our game the way we play and you never know.

“If the gods are smiling on us on Saturday then we might have a chance.”