Thomas Eisfeld could barely believe what was happening on 31st January, 2012.
As all the drama elsewhere captured the headlines, Eisfeld was flown from Germany on a private jet and found himself sat in Arsene Wenger’s office.
He was just 19 at the time, and a few years earlier his agent had asked him the dream outcome of his career.
Somewhat out of the blue, his golden opportunity arrived.
“The deal was quite last-minute,” he recalls. “I was on a plane over, did the medical then was sat in Arsene’s office.
“Obviously as a young player it’s very, very exciting to meet someone of the calibre of Arsene Wenger.
“Especially because at the time I played for Dortmund Under-19s. I hadn’t had much to do with the first-team yet, I had trained with them only two or three times.
“I was quite new to senior football and now I was sat in Arsene Wenger’s office, talking to him about the way he wanted to play football, him giving me compliments.
“I think he said that I seemed to be a technically gifted player, and coming from him that was very, very special.”
The compliments Eisfeld received that day in Wenger’s office were nothing compared to those uttered by the legendary Frenchman after his first Arsenal start.
Having put together an impressive run at Under-23s level, the youngster caught the eye against West Bromwich Albion in a League Cup game in September 2013.
He scored the opener and was a live wire throughout, prompting Wenger to compare him to one of the stars of his Invincibles side.
“He is a Pires type,” Wenger purred.
“He appears to be in the box without being noisy and appearing suddenly. When he is there, he finishes well.
“He has that kind of quality that some midfielders have – not many. They have the timing to get in dangerous situations. When they have those dangerous situations, they are like snakes. They bite you to death because they don’t miss their first touch.
“He’s cool enough in front of goal and he finishes well.”
They were comments which, understandably, generated plenty of noise and excitement.
“I read at the time that Arsene Wenger had compared me to Pires after the game,” Eisfeld recalls.
“Obviously that was very, very special but I’m really not one to read too much in the media about games or performances.
“I’ve always known that football is a very forgetful environment – one day you are the hero then the next time you can be the villain, so I tried to stay away from that.
“But I remember the Pires thing very fondly because it came from Arsene Wenger, who, for me is such an important person in football.
“You could go as far as to say Arsene Wenger changed the landscape of football as a whole, to a degree, not just Arsenal, so to hear that from him was very special.
“To be part of a team that was part of that era with him, with the freedom he gave the boys to play a unique way, that was a massive honour and something I’ll always look back on fondly.”
Eisfeld’s Hawthorns masterclass proved the only start he ever made for Arsenal, but his other competitive appearance was just as memorable.
The League Cup again provided a platform for first-team action but, when introduced against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium the previous season, the Gunners looked dead and buried.
What ensued was what can only be described as chaos, with Arsenal completing a remarkable comeback to eventually win a 12-goal thriller after extra-time.
“I had never been in a game like that and I never have been since,” he recalls. “Coming on at 4-1 down and then winning the game 7-5? That’s a memory I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
“I made a few key passes to help with the turnaround, so it was a very satisfying debut for me and made me very proud. I’ll never forget it.”
The circumstances of Eisfeld’s introduction mean that day has taken on a even greater significance.
Serge Gnabry was the man to make way for his introduction, a fellow German who has grown to become a close friend and gone on to achieve stardom elsewhere.
“It was very, very special, especially some of the details,” he states. “I actually came on for Serge Gnabry, who is obviously doing very well for Germany and Bayern nowadays.
“I still have very close contact with Serge and he became a really good friend of mine during our time at Arsenal.
“To come on for someone who is now a close friend, win the game in those circumstances and play a good game as well is something I’ll always remember.”
By that stage, Eisfeld was under no illusions as to the magnitude of the club he had joined.
That became perfectly clear on a pre-season tour of Asia just a few months after he arrived.
“The first six months, I trained quite a bit with the first-team and played mostly for the reserves, but that actually went really well,” he explains.
“When the pre-season tour came, it was a real success for me. I scored a few goals and at the end I was voted as the player of the tour by a section of the supporters, I think maybe the Asian supporters’ club but I’m not quite sure who it was exactly.
“I obviously knew before that Arsenal was a big club, but I think it was when we went to Asia that I realised what a massive following they have around the world.
“When you arrive on the other side of the world and there are about 10,000 people at the airport waiting for you, going crazy for the squad, it felt a bit like being a pop star.
“It really left a lasting impression about the significance of the club but also how big the opportunity was for me as a player.”
Despite flashes of his potential and Wenger’s bold comparisons, circumstances conspired against Eisfeld in his quest to make the grade at Arsenal.
The emergence of Jack Wilshere, the form of Aaron Ramsey and, in 2013, the signing of Mesut Ozil meant competition for places was high.
“It was one of those situations where as much as I loved my time at Arsenal, for me to be a regular in the senior squad in a team that plays at the highest level, I needed to play more,” he explains.
“At that time I had significant competition in my position, world class players with international reputations.
“We had Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey then Mesut Ozil joined as well, and they’d all proved they could perform at a high level.
“I just felt at that time I needed to find a club where I could play senior football week in, week out. I was sad to leave, but considering the competition I just didn’t see that being possible at Arsenal.
“There was a moment where we thought about extending my contract for a year and loaning me out, but I had a very good conversation with the guys at Fulham, including Felix Magath who was manager at the time, and got the feeling I would feature there much more regularly.
“I had a fantastic time at Arsenal, I still look back at it very proud and happy about the time I spent there, but I also look back with a bit of sadness after leaving.”
On paper, the move to Craven Cottage made perfect sense.
In reality, things could barely have turned out worse.
Magath’s sacking just seven games after Eisfeld’s arrival spelt the end of his first-team chances.
“Hindsight is a beautiful thing,” he admits. “In hindsight, the move to Fulham was maybe not the best.
“But that’s not something you can know in that moment. I had very good conversations with Felix Magath about how he intended to develop me, develop the squad and the role I would play.
“The overall project just seemed really solid and really positive at that moment, and based on that information it was a good decision.
“But Felix Magath got let go after seven games there, that didn’t help, and the manager from the reserves, Kit Symons, came up to manage the first team.
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“On the very first day of training I was put in the second training group, training on a separate pitch nearby and it was pretty clear there was change coming and not for the better.
“It was quite demoralising, but I never gave up the fight, I had a few good games for the reserves, scored a few goals, and tried to get in contention for the first-team.
“But the whole reason for leaving Arsenal was to really find my feet and become a constant presence in a first-team somewhere, and it became quite clear after a few weeks under Kit Symons that it was not going to be the case at Fulham.”
With his Premier League dream in tatters, Eisfeld opted to head back to his homeland.
“When I decided to leave Fulham, I initially went to Bochum on loan,” he says. “They are a very traditional team in Germany, having spent many years in the Bundesliga and never being lower than the second division.
“They’re a big club, and I knew the area around Bochum, too, because Dortmund is about 16 miles away.
“They’re neighbouring cities, I played a lot against Bochum growing up, and my childhood sweetheart, who I’m still with, still had a place in the area.
“To go there was quite an easy option, being a solid club and an area I knew well, and it was a good move for me.
“Under Gertjan Verbeek as a manager, a very technical manager who likes to play attractive football, I had a very good time.
“When I came back to Fulham I was hoping I may have made the impression they were looking for to get another chance, but it was clear in the pre-season that wouldn’t be the case.
“When it dawned on me that the Fulham chapter wouldn’t work out, I decided to join Bochum permanently and I’ve been there since.”
After six seasons at Bochum, Eisfeld’s contract is up in the summer and he is still uncertain as to what the future will hold.
Still only 28, the playmaker admits a return to England would have a certain degree of appeal.
“There are various exciting opportunities for me,” he says. “But because of circumstances mostly not within my control, it felt like I never quite had that window of opportunity to show what I could do in England.
“It feels a little bit like I’ve got unfinished business there. I loved the culture, loved the people and I could definitely imagine playing there again.”
Whilst the ship has sailed with Arsenal, Eisfeld retains fond memories of his whirlwind few years living the dream in North London.
He also watches on with intrigue with a former team-mate, Mikel Arteta, now filling the void left by the legendary Wenger after his retirement.
Arteta’s transition comes as no surprise to Eisfeld, who is confident he is the right man for the job.
“From my point of view, it was always clear in the dressing room that Arteta had the ability to move on and become either a manager or a sporting director,” he recalls.
“He’s an intelligent individual, extremely committed. He was always one of the earliest guys at the training ground, he would do things extremely diligently and correctly.
“When you heard him talk in team meetings and things you could just hear his leadership skills and his people skills, so I wasn’t surprised to see him move into the managerial side of the game.
“Obviously Arsenal had a lot of change after Arsene Wenger, but I think Arteta has got what it takes if he’s given time to bring the club back to the level that they belong.
“That’s in the top four of English football, for sure. With that stadium, those supporters and with that squad, they belong in the Champions League and I have faith that with Arteta that can be possible again in the future.”
[email protected] (Rich Jones)