Former Gunners defender Justin Hoyte talks to Goal about joining Miami Beach Club de Futbol and having David Beckham's new franchise on his doorstep.
It’s been close to 17 years since Justin Hoyte came off the bench during Arsenal’s 6-1 win against Southampton at Highbury to make his senior debut for the club he grew up supporting.
To this day, Hoyte still looks back on that night as the most special of his long career. It was a night when all his hard work came to fruition, but also the night his parents’ sacrifices were rewarded.
His father, watching from the stands, lost his watch during the excitement of seeing his son jog out onto the pitch to join the likes of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira as they closed out a game which would be the first of Arsenal’s historic 49-match unbeaten run.
“That was so special for me,” Hoyte told Goal .
“My mum lived on the same road as Highbury when I grew up, my dad used to travel everywhere with me getting me to games as a kid. So getting on that field, to make it to the first team, it was something special.
“I did have to buy dad a new watch though.”
Hoyte was just 19 when he replaced Jermaine Pennant for the final few minutes of that game against Southampton. Now aged 35, he is approaching the twilight days of a career which has seen him play for the likes of Middlesbrough, Millwall and FC Cincinnati along the way.
But he’s not ready to hang up his boots yet, with the former Gunners defender having just made the move to Miami Beach Club de Futbol in South Florida.
It’s a club that is just getting started and - for Hoyte - it’s an opportunity to share experiences and continue to develop ahead of the next stage of his career.
“It’s another opportunity for me, a challenging one,” he said. “It’s a new team that is starting up in the lower leagues, so it’s something to grow and develop.
“I’m doing work not just on the field, but off the field as well, which is something I want to do when I retire. I can play here and also work on the business side, help build a club and develop the brand, that’s what drew me to this team.”
Hoyte added: “When you’ve been playing for so long, you don’t really get to see the business side of the game. But when you get to actually be involved in the building of a club from scratch, it’s crazy.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do yet when I retire. Sometimes I want to be a coach, sometimes I want to be a manager, a scout, a technical director. I just don’t yet, so at the moment I’m trying to do everything to see what I like the most.
“I’m going to play for as long as I can, but whenever I finish training I’ll be helping out doing different bits to help the club grow and to get the name out there.
“It’s different, it brings you out of your comfort zone of just being a player. It keeps you going, keeps your mind active all the time.”
Miami Beach Club de Futbol has just become a new member of the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) which is the equivalent to non-league in England. But, with Italian investment behind it, the club has ambitions of joining the United Soccer League, a professional structure which sits just below Major League Soccer in the U.S.
It is an interesting time in Miami when it comes to football, with David Beckham’s new Inter Miami franchise ready to begin its first ever season in MLS, once the coronavirus-enforced suspension is out of the way.
Having such illustrious neighbours on their doorstep could be seen as a negative for those trying to get a relatively new and small club off the ground, but Hoyte is looking at things from a different perspective.
“I’ve not seen David yet, but hopefully I will meet up with him one day because he knows how they built the club so it will be interesting to see how they’ve done it,” said Hoyte.
“I think having Inter Miami in MLS is a great thing, not just for him - but for all the other teams in Miami and the kids who want to go on and become a player themselves.
“A few years ago, no-one would really think about football in Miami but now you see footballs everywhere.
“It will help us because those kids will want to get into Beckham’s team, but not everyone can get into that team, so where else can they go? We have to make sure they know there are other teams out there.”
The new UPSL season was due to get underway this month, but the start date has now pushed back until April at the earliest - with all fixtures suspended amid the coronavirus crisis.
When it does get underway, it will be Hoyte’s third campaign in the States, having left England in 2017 to join FC Cincinnati.
And it will be a far cry from his days at Arsenal, where he made 55 appearances in all competitions having progressed through the youth ranks before being given his opportunity by Arsene Wenger in the first team.
Having made his debut at the end of the 2002-03 season, Hoyte - who was a striker when he was first spotted by Arsenal as a nine-year-old while playing for Sunday League team Redbridge United - was a constant presence around the senior squad during the 2003-04 'Invincibles' campaign.
He only made one league appearance in that title-winning campaign, but still felt like he played his part in the historic success.
“Even training with that group every week was a great experience,” he said. “Being an Arsenal supporter you dream of those things and then when it actually happens, you think ‘wow, I’m really here now’.
“It was all about learning for me, just seeing how they did things on a day-to-day basis, how they trained and applied themselves.
“Even though I only played one game in that season, I was still part of the training group every week. It was amazing.”
Hoyte added: “[Dennis] Bergkamp was unbelievable, just a great player who saw everything before anyone else.
“[Patrick] Vieira was the leader who led by example. He looked after everybody, whether it be the first-team players, the youth-team players or all the staff members. He looked after them and made sure they were well.
“For me, that was the sort of leader it took to make that sort of run. You needed someone like that for everyone else to look up to.”
Hoyte’s most successful season at Arsenal came in 2006-07, the first following the move from Highbury to Emirates Stadium.
The defender made 36 appearances in all competitions and scored his only goal for the club.
It came on January 2, 2007, during a 4-0 win against Charlton when he raced onto a Thierry Henry pass before rolling a calm finish past Scott Carson from a tight angle.
For Hoyte, it was a special moment and it’s one that ensured his name will forever be etched into the Arsenal history books as he became the first English player to score for the Gunners at their new home.
“It’s an unbelievable thing to have,” he said. “As an Arsenal fan, you have hopes of making the first team, hopes of scoring for the club. But having that record also is something that can never be taken away from me.
“It’s something that has gone into history, it will be there forever so, for me, it’s something I can say to my kids and my family, 'look what I achieved'.”