BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Aaron Henry believes his loan spell at Wealdstone will allow him to come back and stake a stronger claim for first-team involvement at Charlton next season.
The 18-year-old midfielder, capped four times by England at U16 level, joined the National League club at the start of February before his stay was extended until the end of the campaign.
Henry produced eight assists and one goal in his first 10 games for the Stones. The highly-rated teenager made his professional debut for Charlton in an FA Cup tie against West Brom in January 2020. Nine months later he signed professional terms until at least 2023.
“If you’d asked me at 15 what I’ve now achieved at 18 then I’d have been buzzing,” said Henry. “But now I’ve got mixed emotions.
“After the year I had when I made my debut, I wanted to be playing regular first-team football for Charlton at 18 and it hasn’t worked the way I wanted it to.
“The loan has really helped me get back to the stage where I can be asking to be pushed more at Charlton next season. My performances at Wealdstone have allowed me to ask for that chance.
“I’m still very young and there is no point rushing into it, but if I can have something quick then I don’t understand why that can’t happen.”
Pre-season is often the optimum time for the youngsters to showcase their developments.
But Henry described the last one as “tough” under Nigel Adkins.
“I won’t say too much but I’m not sure he was my biggest fan,” said Henry. “I don’t think he pushed me as much as other managers did since they came in – the likes of [Lee] Bowyer and Johnnie Jackson. Compared to Nigel, that was completely different.
“I was hit with Covid quite badly in the last two weeks of pre-season in terms of my breathing, so I was starting pre-season all over again. For the first month or two after that I wasn’t even starting for the U23s. That was something I haven’t had for a long time, being on the bench week in and week out.
“I kept my head down and got to the other side of it. I got to the stage where the U23s was comfortable for me and I needed a loan. I’ve been playing U23s since 16, and there is only so much time you can do that before you have to be chucked into a men’s environment – and if that wasn’t possible at Charlton I was very keen to go out on loan.
“The staff completely agreed with my point of view.
“I was looking to do that early on in the season but what happened with Covid, and the fact I wasn’t playing for the U23s, made that very difficult. Wealdstone came up and I was happy to go there. Charlie Barker went there and spoke highly of them.
“They are a team in a physical league who like to play, that suits me and means I can be that focal point – which I feel I have been since I went there. By the end of the season, if all goes well, I should have 20 games in the National League at the age of 18, which isn’t bad at all.”
Henry turns 19 on August 31. It made it harder to place him in academy teams as if was born just 10 minutes later he would have qualified for the age group below.
He started playing for Arsenal at the age of five but was released at eight.
“I wasn’t at a high-level Sunday league team,” said Henry. “You hear about those teams that go on to provide loads of academy players but I just played with my mates.
“I went to a summer camp and the dad of one of the kids was a scout for Arsenal, he came to pick him up and we were playing a little game at the end. He spoke to my mum [Kim] at the end.
“For me and my dad [Gary], both Arsenal fans, we thought my mum was on a wind up. I was just buzzing.
“Within the first two weeks of me being there, it’s a bit poor from Arsenal really, they said they were going to offer me a two-year deal when I was old enough to get that.
“But the head of the academy at the time pulled me out of a training session after I’d been there a year-and-a-half or two years and said: ‘We’re not going to sign him anymore’.
“My dad still says to this day that he couldn’t believe my reaction, because I was such a young kid and he remembers us walking to the car and I said to him: ‘It’s fine dad, we’ll just go on to the next club’.
“I knew even at that age how much it meant to my dad. That just calmed him down. Imagine how frustrated he would’ve been that his son had been promised a two-year deal to then being released?
“I just loved football – so wherever I ended up, I ended up.”
And that next step was at Charlton as an U10, trialling with the South Londoners for a year. But not before he had also spent time with Tottenham before fracturing his arm in a match for his Sunday league side.
“I got tackled and landed on my arm, I actually got up and took the free-kick and hit the crossbar,” said Henry. “I walked off crying my eyes out and went straight to hospital.
“I didn’t really enjoy it at Tottenham and so I didn’t go back. They bring players through who are very good one-v-one skills players but I’m more of a passer of the ball. I could see that it didn’t suit me.
“I came to Charlton where it is more ‘if you’re good at this then we’re going to work on that’ – not try and make you something that you’re not.
“I played down a year for my first year at Charlton, being so young and I would’ve been small as well. I really kicked on at U12s, which was one of my better seasons.”
Henry debuted for the young Three Lions against Albania and also featured against Moldova, Turkey and Russia under former Fulham and Wycombe midfielder Kevin Betsy, now U23 head coach at Arsenal.
Before that he went to a training camp with the squad. He had also previously been on standby for a trip to Croatia.
“The likes of Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala, who is now at Bayern Munich, were at the camp – so the standard of players was phenomenal,” said Henry. “I could see that and I didn’t feel out of place.
“That comes with a bit of pressure but I don’t think I’ve ever had an issue with that. I can take everything into my stride.
“I went to Turkey with another Charlton player, Euan Williams, and I remember Steve Avory [Charlton academy head] telling both of us in the office and we didn’t stop smiling until two weeks later. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve had.”
Henry describes Avory as “massive” in his football journey but also namechecks U23s boss Anthony Hayes. The Irishman initially joined as U16 lead coach and assistant youth development phase coach for the U12s to U15s.
“Since then I’ve had him at every single age group for the last five or six years,” said Henry. “Even when he was the manager in the one above my age group I was playing at that level.
“He’s been huge for my progress, massive. I’ve got a lot of respect for Anthony, what he has done for me.
“His man-management is good. There have been times I’ve been in not such good form, by my standards and by his standards. There are times I need a grilling and a time I need an arm around my shoulder – he has been very, very good with me.
“He has helped me improve areas of my game that needed improvement. He has been on me for off-the-ball stuff and that has come on in leaps and bounds in the last two or three years.
“He’s very highly-respected by the staff and players as a coach and as a person too.”
Charlton have had success in recent years with keeping assets.
Centre-back Barker penned his first professional contract at the same time as Henry.
“I agreed to sign maybe eight months before I turned 17, which is when you can actually do it,” said Henry.
“It was really only Charlton for me. Me and my family looked at what was out there but at the time Lee Bowyer was in charge – another brilliant character who had me train with the first team when I was 15 and then pretty much all the time at 16 and 17.
“He was massive in my decision to stay. He made it very clear there was a path for me to get into the first team. It was a no-brainer to try and break into the first-team as soon as possible, rather than getting lost at a bigger club.”
PICTURES: KEITH GILLARD AND PAUL EDWARDS
Subscribe to Blog via Email
Everyone at the South London Press thanks you for your continued support.
Former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing:
“A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
If you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can make a donation which will allow us to continue to bring stories to you, both in print and online. Or, please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ