Luke Ayling admits he doubted he would make it to the Premier League when he was released by Arsenal a decade ago.
Ayling was shown the door by the Gunners after spending eight years progressing through the club’s ranks from the age of 10.
The closest he got to playing for Arsene Wenger’s first team was in December 2009 when he was an unused substitute in a dead-rubber Champions League tie against Olympiakos.
The defender joined Yeovil in League One the following summer and finally made it to the top flight when Leeds won the Championship in July.
Along the way, Ayling enjoyed three promotions and one relegation with Yeovil, Bristol City and Leeds and says he would not swap his winding route to the top for anything.
“At Arsenal I was in the squad for a Champions League game, I was sat on the bench,” said the right-back.
“Then one day I got told I wasn’t good enough for Arsenal.
“I thought ‘that’s fine’. The dream was always there to play in the Premier League, but when I was at Yeovil, did I really believe I was going to get back to it? Probably not.
“I probably thought I could play Championship. I always thought I could get to Championship level and then maybe not make the grade, but I’ve carried on improving.
“It’s been up and down, but it’s been worth it. It’s been a good journey, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. There wouldn’t be a moment I would change now.”
Ayling, 29, came through at Arsenal alongside Jack Wilshere and, with centre-back partner Kyle Bartley, was part of their 2009 Premier Academy League and FA Youth Cup double-winning side.
Although the Londoner says everyone he knew back then has left the Emirates, he is still relishing facing his old club tomorrow at Elland Road as a Premier League player.
“I spent a lot of time there as a kid, but I was only a kid then and I never really played or trained with the first team,” said Ayling, who has played 160 games for Leeds since joining in 2016.
“I don’t know anyone there and I’ve got no ties there, so for me it’s just another game. But it will be nice to finally play against them in the Premier League after getting released at 18.”
Ayling says tomorrow’s game will also be special for his wife, Poppy, his parents and two sisters because they have supported him greatly on his long journey to the Premier League.
His big sister used to babysit his younger one while his parents took him to football, while Poppy has been with him since his Yeovil days.
“Growing up as a kid, it was never about the money wanting to become a footballer,” he said “It was about playing in the Premier League. You don’t think about money at that age.
“My mum and dad travelled all across England from when I was seven or eight. My missus, we’ve been together for 10 years, I was with her at Yeovil.
“She’s followed me around and been so supportive, and my two sisters. My big sister looked after my little sister when my parents took me to football, so she gave up a lot as a kid. It wasn’t just my dream, it was their dream as well.”