It’s hard to believe that Kieran Gibbs is approaching his 31st birthday. Once touted as the next Ashley Cole, he was one of Arsene Wenger’s exciting prospects at Arsenal and won 10 England caps before joining West Brom in 2017.
His first season at The Hawthorns ended in relegation when Albion went through four managers — Tony Pulis, Gary Megson, Alan Pardew and Darren Moore — but yo-yo clubs always bounce back and The Baggies are in the Premier League again, starting against Leicester City on Sunday.
Age and experience would make Gibbs a natural source of advice for Slaven Bilic’s inexperienced talents, such as Matheus Pereira, Romaine Sawyers and Grady Diangana, the last of whom was signed from West Ham last week.
Kieran Gibbs says young players are given much more freedom to express themselves
Thirty-year-old says individuals like Matheus Pereira and Grady Diangana are allowed to thrive
However, the left back believes it is best to allow their youngsters to express themselves, not clutter minds.
‘The game has changed so much, even since I first broke in,’ said Gibbs. ‘Today’s players go on their own journeys, build their own brands. It’s more individual now and there is no way to stop that.
‘You need to let players who haven’t been in the Premier League evolve and learn for themselves. Football isn’t as regimented or robotic. Young, creative players change games all the time.
‘You can overdo the messages sometimes and then they might feel inhibited. If you just let them develop and realise for themselves, it can be more effective. You don’t want to put too much pressure on them.’
In terms of giving players freedom, there is an obvious contrast between Bilic and the manager who started the 2017-18 season — Tony Pulis — whose career was built another way.
Bilic has more in common with Gibbs’ first manager Wenger, according to the player.
Gibbs likened the approach of current boss Slaven Bilic (L) to former boss Arsenal Wenger (R)
‘There are a few similarities. They are both calm, the training isn’t too different.
‘Although Slaven knows the English game well, there is still that foreign influence. We’ve got young players coming through, overseas players like Matheus Pereira. There is a different feel. We have our style.
‘I’m thrilled to be back at the top. I think all the boys are. West Brom belong in the Premier League, without a doubt.’
The £18million capture of Diangana, excellent on loan at The Hawthorns last season, raised eyebrows at his former club West Ham, whose skipper Mark Noble voiced his displeasure about the 22-year-old winger being sold.
Diangana’s Baggies arrival sparked anger from selling club West Ham’s fans and players
Gibbs knows what it’s like to be the next big thing, having signed for Arsenal from Wimbledon’s academy in 2004 to become part of a hyped generation with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere. ‘You can understand Mark’s frustration because anyone who watched Grady last season would have seen how influential he is. But it was fortunate for us because we were on the other side of the fence,’ said Gibbs.
‘He and Matheus were pretty much at the heart of our creative play last season. I am really happy they’ve come back.’
As for Gibbs, it feels as if the defender is determined to make the most of his bonus crack at the big time as he enters the final year of his contract.
After England’s 2010 World Cup disaster, he was one of the younger players manager Fabio Capello turned to. But injuries and Arsenal’s malaise meant he didn’t play for his country after 2015.
Gibbs (second-left) has been capped 10 times by England but injuries stifled development
Hamstring problems restricted his appearances last season but he’s raring to go this time following a good pre-season. ‘Going into a game still excites me. It hasn’t got boring yet,’ he said.
Gibbs is one of only four players left from Albion’s last Premier League fixture in 2018, alongside skipper Jake Livermore, Ahmed Hegazi and Hal Robson-Kanu.
Bilic is bringing in 36-year-old Branislav Ivanovic and likes the fact most of his squad have no memory of Albion’s last demotion.
‘Nobody has mentioned it. They don’t have any scars,’ he said. ‘Young guys like Matheus, they probably didn’t even know West Brom had gone down.’