‘The badge is what gave me the strength to be out there’

The young man once made famous by wearing an Arsenal shirt is now the poster boy for the Premier League club’s new kit.

In June 2020, Aston Mack was pictured at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Gunners yellow. Just over two years on, the 33-year-old is sitting alongside Arsenal midfielder Martin Odegaard in a lavish Baltimore hotel for an exclusive interview with ESPN to mark the launch of a new all-black jersey — and he can barely believe it.

“I want you to know right now the fangirl in me is screaming because I’m sitting next to Martin,” Mack said with a grin. “It’s true. The guy can do one dummy kick and make the entire world smile, OK?

“It is overwhelming. I’m dreaming; please don’t pinch me.”

Mack founded the Orlando Freedom Fighters after George Floyd’s killing in May 2020. The group aims to organise and support protests against injustice, and Mack wears his Arsenal shirt to events.

“The badge is what gave me the strength to be out there — never when I put on my kit has anyone even brought up my race because as soon as I put it on, I’m a Gooner and that’s all that matters,” Mack said.

The local Orlando Gooners established contact with Mack through social media before the club itself reached out to the University of Central Florida graduate to help promote his fight for social justice.

“Often with the issues that we are dealing with, we are ignored, especially by the government, politicians,” says Mack. “People don’t want to see the nasty side of our culture, our world.

“For Arsenal to come in and say: ‘Hey this is important, we will shine a light on this, we won’t shy away from these issues, this is valuable, this is what we stand for,’ it is really important. It really gets a lot of people galvanised and energised. It gives us hope.”

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The decision made by Premier League clubs to take a knee before matches was one of the most iconic moments of Project Restart, the coda to the 2019-20 season following an enforced break due to COVID-19.

There are some who believe the gesture impact has waned over time. A smattering of players — Crystal Palace‘s Wilfried Zaha among them — decline to take part or adopt a different approach. Chelsea‘s Marcos Alonso points to the ‘No Room For Racism’ campaign badge adorning all top-flight shirts because, as he said last September, he believes taking a knee is “losing a bit of strength.”

“We know how big the sport is, how big football is and especially for young players growing up to see footballers, to see idols represent something like that, that’s a good thing,” Odegaard said.

“That’s the way we change, to show good ways and to help, especially for me it is important … I know [young people] watch me and look up to me. For me it is important to be a good role model for them and try to influence them.”

Odegaard is widely rumoured to be the front-runner to become club captain for the upcoming campaign and if so, the Norwegian playmaker will be Arsenal’s representative in wider player conversations across the league about continuing the BLM stance.

The issue was brought even closer to home for those associated with Arsenal after winger Bukayo Saka was one of three England players racially abused on social media after missing penalties as Gareth Southgate’s side lost the Euro 2020 final to Italy in a shootout last summer.

Odegaard was briefly a Real Madrid player again — in between his loan move and a permanent £30 million deal later in the year — when Saka was targeted.

“It was just sad, to be honest,” Odegaard said. “It is crazy that these things still happen but they do and that’s the reality. We have to try to change that. It is very easy especially on social media for people to speak and say stupid things because you can hide.

“That’s life at the minute — it is easy because of social media but we have to try to change that and hopefully we can do something.

“Everyone supported him. I was back in Madrid at the time, I started preseason there so I just texted him and showed my support in that way. I think he knows how much we like him and care about him here so hopefully he felt that support.”

Saka, Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe are three youngsters who had to carry heavy expectations last season as Arsenal fell agonisingly short of Champions League qualification, but the additions of Fabio Vieira, Gabriel Jesus and Marquinhos — with Manchester City’s versatile player Oleksandr Zinchenko likely to follow — will ease that pressure.

“It definitely helps to get some new players in and to make the squad a bit bigger,” Odegaard said. “At the end of last season we were maybe a little bit short. It will help us. We had a good season last year. We didn’t finish where we wanted to but if you look at the season before, I think we improved a lot and during the season we improved. This year, we have to take another step and I think the new signings will help us to do that.”

Jesus has inevitably attracted much of the attention. A £45m arrival from City, Jesus has both the goal record and trophy-winning experience that could transform the Gunners. A key factor in his success will be whether he can develop an understanding with Odegaard, who is the team’s creative heartbeat.

“I’ve only trained with him for a few days now, but it doesn’t take long to see that he has a lot of qualities,” Odegaard said. “I think he will bring a lot of good things to the team. I’ve seen him play a lot for Man City and yes, I think we are lucky to have him. I’m really excited to play with him and link up, I think it could be fun.

“You see a lot in training to see what he’s like. Strikers, they want different things but you just have to watch him in training to see where he wants the ball. My job is to feed him and try to make him score goals. That’s what I want to do. I have to learn his movements, how he wants the ball, where he wants the ball and those kind of things. It takes a little bit of time but in training you can see what it’s like and I think it will be fine.”

Arsenal left Baltimore on Sunday evening before heading to Orlando for the second stage of their preseason tour of the United States. Optimism is growing within the group that another season of progress awaits.

“The top four is a big thing for us,” Odegaard said. “I’m not going to lie, that’s where we want to be so [we want to] improve from last season, top four, maybe a trophy. That would be good.”

Mack chimed in. “Top four is the bare minimum,” he said.

With a smile, Odegaard replied: “The pressure is on now … we have to deliver.”