POMPEY’S FA Cup clash against Arsenal will be particularly poignant for Christian Burgess – and not because the defender starts a two-match ban when the final whistle blows on Monday night.
The centre back began his career at the Gunners academy aged just seven, but he found his dreams of a future under Arsene Wenger’s guidance shattered before he had even become a teenager.
The ruthless nature of the Premier League saw the Essex-born defender jettisoned by the club he’d set his heart on playing for, and he admitted it was a bitter blow.
“I’d been there (Arsenal) for four or five years, it was all I knew, and to be rejected at that age was fairly upsetting for me,” said Burgess, who is expected to start the fifth-round clash before a ban kicks in for registering his tenth booking of the campaign in the 3-0 win over Rochdale on Friday night.
“At the time it seemed like the world was over for me, as a kid. As it turned out it was the best thing for me.”
Burgess now sees the rejection as a blessing in disguise as he went on to combine football with his education, earning a place to study for a degree in history at the University of Birmingham.
It was while he was playing football for the university that he was handed a trial at Middlesbrough, which led to his first professional contract at the relatively late age of 20. He continued his studies part-time at Teesside University while playing professionally at both Boro and on loan at Hartlepool.
After Middlesbrough, the history graduate moved to Peterborough before signing at Fratton Park in 2015, the defender enjoying the best football of his career so far this season.
Despite the 16-year gap since his Arsenal rejection, Monday will be the first time he’s played against the Gunners, but there will be no grudges held by the 28-year-old.
“If I get the nod, I’ll be really excited at the prospect of hopefully causing an upset,” added Burgess, who manager Kenny Jackett hopes to tie down to a new deal before his contract expires at the end of the current campaign. “We have to go into the game believing that we can win it.
“There are obviously no hard feelings towards the club (Arsenal), it’s not like I harbour any of that sort of thing... I’ve always been fond of the way they play and wanted them to do well, and still do actually. So it’ll be an exciting time, we want to do well and we want to win. That’d be a great story to tell.”
Pompey have fitness doubts over skipper Tom Naylor and Ronan Curtis, both picking up knocks against Rochdale, but Jackett expects they’ll be fit for the Gunners visit.
Arsenal come into the game on the back of a demoralising Europa League exit at the hands of Olympiakos; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was guilty of a glaring miss late in the game at the Emirates and he is expected to start at Fratton Park. Defender Pablo Mari, signed on loan in January, could make his debut for the Gunners.