Thomas Partey made quite the first impression. ‘One of the best debuts I’ve ever seen,’ was Owen Hargreaves’s assessment of Partey’s first start for Arsenal against Rapid Vienna.
‘Fantastic and much more to come,’ was his manager Mikel Arteta’s view. ‘This is where he looks like Patrick Vieira, travelling with the ball and making things happen,’ lauded Arsenal legend Martin Keown.
Arsenal’s new £45million midfielder from Atletico Madrid already compared to one of the club’s greatest ever. We’ll come back to that.
Thomas Partey had an impressive debut for Arsenal during the 2-1 win over Rapid Vienna
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta (above) believes there is more to come from the Ghanaian midfielder
It’s not always been that way. When he arrived at Tema Youth, a club in his home country of Ghana, as a 16-year-old, the impact was not quite as stark.
Yet still there was something there, glinting in the rough.
‘He looked a little bit sluggish in his play,’ Tony Lokko, Partey’s coach at Tema, tells The Mail on Sunday. ‘But you could see he was hungry to achieve. This boy has something and we need to help him achieve it. I could see something better in the boy for the future.’
That something was an unshakeable focus, a quiet but gritty resolve to succeed. ‘He wanted to learn,’ says Lokko. ‘He would come to me after every game and ask me what mistakes he had made and he would pursue correcting them. He was very quiet, focused on his game.
Partey, pictured here with his mother in Ghana, returns to train with his former team, Tema, when he is back home in the country
‘He has carried this all the way through. It is his focus and determination that has got him to this level. I am not surprised. It is not a fluke, it is what I saw in him at youth level. He has continued to grow. I am very proud of him.’
That pride burned as those at Tema saw him make his full Arsenal debut against Rapid Vienna. He bossed the midfield, crunched tackles, dominated in the air, calm and measured with the ball at his feet.
Partey was a quiet boy, the oldest of eight children. His father coached a club in their home town, Odumase Krobo, and sold his own possessions to buy him boots and sort his visa when he moved from Tema to Atletico Madrid in 2011.
The now £45million midfielder (left) started his career at Tema youth in his native Ghana
When an African player moves to the Premier League, often too much emphasis is placed on their journey from poverty to a land of fame and fortune. Partey’s begins that way but it was Tema who handed him his escape.
‘Most of these players come from poverty-stricken areas,’ says Tema president Wilfred Osei Palmer. ‘The path he came from was poverty-stricken too. That was why our club was set up, to bring them off the street and give them a life that is meaningful.’
Even so, Palmer laughs as he admits that while Premier League players have three shirts for one game, those at Tema will have one for the whole season. ‘I always tell them to strive for something bigger, to be able to change your life and the life of your family.’
Partey, the late developer, spent much of his first season on the bench. There was talent ahead of him.
But he never lost heart and by the end of the 2010-11 season, when Tema went unbeaten as they secured promotion to Ghana’s top division, he had proven himself. One moment sticks in Lokko’s mind.
Partey then sealed a move to Spanish side Atletico Madrid in 2011 where he continued his rise
‘It was a match to qualify for the Premiership. We were a goal down. I called him from the bench. I said, “I believe in you. Go and change the face of the game.” He got the equaliser and made sure we won the game. He ran to me and I have never forgotten that.’
And Partey has not forgotten them. When he is back in Ghana, he returns to Tema to train with the current players. ‘After their game, he gives a talk. He is a source of inspiration to them,’ says Palmer. Partey moved to Atletico in 2011.
Hardly anyone knew. None of his family, only his dad. Even Partey wasn’t quite sure. He had been offered a trial in Spain, was driven to the airport, handed a passport and got on a plane. By the time the rest of his family found out, he was an Atletico player.
Partey’s hero is Michael Essien (above), the Ghanaian who won several titles at Chelsea
It was not until four years later that Partey would make his first-team debut. Again, Partey had to use that focus, that determination.
Partey’s hero is Michael Essien, the Ghanaian who won two Premier League titles and the Champions League with Chelsea. Palmer, as it happens, coached Essein at St Augustine’s College. The first of two high-profile comparisons.
‘They share a similar role,’ says Palmer. ‘Essien was box-to-box and also applies the brain-work. Thomas has got good timing, energy but not as boisterous. In terms of power and drive they have similar qualities. He can turn a defensive position into an offensive opportunity.
Some pundits and experts have compared Partey to former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira (left)
He plays long searching passes. Thomas will grow and have better qualities than Essien, trust me. Yes, Thomas will give you something better.’
For Lokko, as with Keown, it’s an Arsenal legend who Partey sparks memories of. Arteta’s vision at Arsenal appeals to a throwback of a bygone golden age. Players with skill and grace but with the strength and command that was forgotten at the end of Arsene Wenger’s era.
Partey’s dominance in midfield will be the cornerstone on which Arteta can build his team.
Partey (left) has been described as a humble midfielder who is willing to learn
‘I believe he is going to have a big impact,’ says Lokko. ‘I see him play like Vieira. But he is more skilful. Vieira was a ball-winner but, with Thomas, he is more offensive.
‘Thomas is kind-hearted. He is not the type to get angry. Very focussed. A good listener. He always wants to learn more. And he will not relent on something until he has able to do it. Now he has. He is now the Thomas that I expected.’
And if first impressions are to go by this time around, he could be the player that Arsenal supporters have craved for a long time.