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IRISH youngster Graham Stack is a rarity - he's the one goalkeeper Arsene Wenger doesn't want to see around Highbury right now.

Stack, midway through a one-season loan with Belgian First Division side Beveren, could be the answer to Wenger's prayers as the Frenchman searches for an understudy to England veteran David Seaman.

Wenger's second-choice keeper Rami Shaaban is out for the rest of the season with a broken leg, Stuart Taylor is on the bench despite a broken finger and teenager Craig Holloway lacks first-team experience.

Meanwhile 20-year-old Londoner Stack, from a proud Glenamaddy family, is playing first-team football every week in Belgium and causing quite a stir.

And that's just the way Wenger wants it.

"I did meet Arsene when I was back at Arsenal over the Christmas and he talked about bringing me back if he can't get another keeper, but only as a last resort," revealed Under-21 star Stack.

"It was his idea that I come out to Belgium for the season to get first-team football under my belt and he wants me to see the season through.

"Arsenal could try to do a deal with the Belgian and English FAs that would allow me to return to Highbury but the boss only wants to do that if no other option is available.

"He has made it clear that he wants me to see out the season in the Belgian First Division and then make a real challenge for a first-team squad place at Arsenal next term.

"That is fine by me, I know that I am growing up and gaining valuable experience here and while it would be nice to get on the bench in the Premiership, I know I have time on my side."

Stack, one of two Arsenal players on long-term loan deals with the Belgian strugglers, has had to grow up the hard way with his new club after 13 appearances on the Gunners' bench last season.

And he admits the experience, on and off the field, is standing him in good stead.

"I could have gone out to a number of English clubs in pre-season but that was the easy option," added Stack.

"I had a long chat with Arsene and he made it clear that a year here would benefit me more than any spell with a club in England.

"I have a chance now to play 30 First Division games in Belgium with all the pressure and all the attention that first-team football brings.

"The fact I have had to cope with living away from my family and girlfriend in a foreign country will help me as well.

"This year at Beveren will set me up for the rest of my career.

"I will go back to Arsenal in the summer a better and more experienced player and that can only help me achieve my dream of getting into the first-team squad next season."

Stack's Belgian experience has been interesting to say the least. Watched by Arsenal scouts on a weekly basis, he has also attracted attention from the continental media as a result of some unexpected defensive work in the December derby against Antwerp.

The Irish keeper stopped a pitch invader in his tracks in an incident, screened across the Eurosport network, that has guaranteed him a place in Beveren folklore.

"Everyone seems to have seen it at this stage," admitted Stack.

"My mum and dad are living down in Spain at the moment and I think they nearly fell off the couch when they saw it on Eurosport.

"It did get a lot of attention, but thankfully people are also talking about my football here as well. We've kept three clean sheets in the last five games now so that can't be bad.

"I know Arsenal have been at all the games and other clubs have been watching as well. It can only help in the future."


GRAHAM STACK: Causing a stir; HAPPY: Arsene Wenger
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUBL
Date:Jan 12, 2003
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