At 27, Daniel Boateng should be in the prime of his career. But, the ex-Arsenal prospect is currently without a club after a number of testing spells across Europe and he is now desperately searching for a route back into the game.
The Enfield-born defender was last seen playing professionally in 2019 with Romanian second division side Aerostar Bac?u. Having signed a six-month deal, it was a move he hoped would get his career back on track. It turned into yet another nightmare.
“That was a dreadful experience,” recalls an emotional Boateng.
“I had teammates who had spoken well about Romania, but it was a risk that didn’t work out.
“The place I was in was like a little village and no word of a lie, we used to train at a military camp. The grass that people had in their gardens was better than what we were training on.”
It was a far cry from the manicured training pitches at Arsenal’s London Colney training base, where just less than 10 years previous a young Boateng has been learning his trade from the likes of Kolo Toure, Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny.
Memories of Santi Cazorla and others
He’d mixed with some of Arsenal’s best in the early to mid-2010s, telling Dan Mountney: “Santi Cazorla’s technique was second to none.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen on the ball. Right foot, left foot, he was a joke of a player. He was so good.
“I trained with Cesc Fabregas as well and he was next level. Samir Nasri was the best I trained with. Nobody could get the ball off him and he was so good. Abou Diaby was next level as well.”
Spotted by Arsenal playing Sunday League football at the age of 10, Boateng was initially told he needed to improve. Despite an offer from Tottenham, he idolised Patrick Vieira and only had eyes for the red half of north London. He was signed a year later.
Coming through the ranks with the likes of Chuks Aneke, Benik Afobe and Nico Yennaris, he worked under club legend and then academy director Liam Brady. Despite admitting to not knowing who the Irishman really was as a youngster, one of his teachers did.
“I didn’t really know about his career because he was a lot older, but one day he called my school to see how I was doing and my teacher who answered the phone was Irish. She was so happy, like over the moon. He was a great player,” said Boateng.
Brady was a player who went abroad during his playing career, representing Italian sides Juventus, Sampdoria, Inter Milan and Ascoli. Boateng also left England when his time at Arsenal came to a close, but his move to Swedish side Södertälje FK would be one he would regret.
“With me, I’ve made some terrible decisions,” admitted the 27-year-old.
“I had opportunities to stay in England, but at the time I knew I could go somewhere else in Europe and get something better.
“In hindsight, I would have stayed in the UK. I went to Sweden and it was a bit of a panic move.”
Before his 2014 release, Boateng did get his chance in the first-team during a 2011 League Cup tie against Bolton Wanderers at the Emirates, coming on for his debut when he replaced Thomas Vermaelen.
“It was what dreams are made of,” remembers Boateng.
“There are thousands of players who join Arsenal, but not many get the chance to be on the bench let alone play.
“I was so nervous. Wenger just tapped my shoulder and said, ‘you’re going on Dan, just be composed and relax’.
“Being out on the pitch was a surreal moment. I think there were over 50,000 fans there and you can’t hear anything when you are out there.
“You have to make sure you know what you are doing because you are basically along despite having 10 other teammates. If you make a mistake it could be a disaster, so you have to concentrate.”
Arsene Wenger’s influence will always stick with Englishman, adding: “Arsene is exactly like everyone thinks.
“He’s cool, calm and collected. During training sessions, you’d never hear him shout and he’s a very good man-manager.
“He knows when to put an arm around players and talk to you, but he’s always giving you quality gems of help.
“I will never have a bad thing to say about him.”
Boateng’s first loan move away from the Emirates couldn’t have seen him paired with a more polar-opposite character to Wenger, as he joined Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon Town.
“Di Canio as a manager and a coach was brilliant,” said Boateng.
“His sessions were full of energy and intensity. He would join in as well and he was brilliant.
“With him, I think when he’s off the field he’s full of passion, he’s patriotic and I think that’s where the problem is, his passion gets the better of him sometimes. He might be trying to tell you something good, but it’s just the way he would say it.”
But after just two games and a personal issue, Boateng returned to Arsenal. Unsuccessful loan moves to Chris Wilder’s Oxford United and Scottish side Hibernian followed and these were spells that the defender believes ended his time at Arsenal.
He would be released in 2014, but he admits it was a decision he saw coming.
“Time and tide wait for no one at Arsenal,” he said.
“Initially it was strange because I came back from Hibs and the mannerisms from certain people change because it’s not an easy thing to tell someone who has been at the club since 10.
“It was difficult, but everyone gives you there best and you go on your way.”
Then came that spell in Sweden, followed by a 20-game period in Scotland with Airdrieonians before returning to mainland Europe with Polish side Raków Cz?stochowa.
Despite going into the move with plenty of hope, it would just be another spell to add to the long list of nightmares for Boateng.
“It’s a good place and the football is up and coming because they are trying to mirror the German style of doing things,” he said.
“When I went there the contract was supposed to be a three-year deal, but the manager had this thing about making a decision after a year. What I was initially told wasn’t true and it happened to plenty of players.”
Fellow Poles Olimpia Grudzi?dz were next for Boateng before that dreadful spell at Bacau.
He believes poor advice and guidance from his agent just after his Arsenal release played a big part in his turbulent career, and he has seen others fall out of the game in similar circumstances.
“A lot of players get released and at that time you need a good agent with good contacts,” he said.
“I had an agent who kept on waiting and waiting and who didn’t tell me about things that were coming up for me. One day he just came clean about it all.
“As a player, when you get released that is when you need the most help. If you aren’t strong mentally you can fall into anything.
“I grew up with so many players who don’t play anymore and are now bus drivers or in other jobs.
“When you are younger and you are at Arsenal, people think the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree so even if you get released people think you’ll end up somewhere good.”
Boateng is now trying to find a way back into the game, and despite a turbulent career, he doesn’t believe it was all for nothing.
“I believe it’s all part of something bigger. I’m a man of faith and I think things will get better,” he said following a lengthy pause for thought.
“I’m looking to stay in western Europe, somewhere like German or Holland or I would even go to America.
“I want to be playing regularly and have somewhere settled because 27 is the peak age for a footballer.”
As he continues to look for his next destination, Boateng almost perfectly sums up his career in one sentence, ending our conversation by simply saying: “Football is just so many up and downs.”
Dan’s article first appeared in the Islington Gazette.