OFTEN I would pass the towering steel fencing at Hale End Sports Ground, notice the Arsenal crest emblazoned on the building beyond, and wonder what goes on behind those gates.

I would feel like Charlie in Roald Dahl’s children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so close but yet so far from a treasure chest of secrets that are the envy of the world.

Then I got my golden ticket.

At the sports ground in Wadham Road Arsenal Football Club are hard at work, training children as young as eight in the hope that they may blossom into the next Cesc Fabregas or Wayne Rooney.

Arsenal’s is one of the most highly-respected and successful academies in the country, and one that has been built so impressively and expansively with the encouragement of Waltham Forest council.

Manager Arsene Wenger instructs his troops to play in a certain way; a fluid pass-and-move brand of football that puts heavy emphasis on sound technique and exceptional movement in what has come to be known as the ‘Arsenal way’.

And it is a philosophy drilled into these miniature footballers the second they step through the doors at the academy.

Fortunately, I had been granted unique behind-the-scenes access, and I went along to meet the man responsible for nurturing the young boys through the ranks and up to scholarship level.

Roy Massey was brought on board by Arsenal 12 years ago and has overseen the development of a number of players who have graduated to professional football.

Many of those faces adorn the walls at Hale End, including one of the Gunners’ – and England’s – brightest prospects Jack Wilshere and Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba.

Wilshere, now 18, was snapped up by Massey’s network of scouts when he was just nine. The midfielder’s case is a familiar one, with many of Arsenal’s most promising young players being picked up before their ninth birthdays.

So what is it that the scouts and coaches look for in a player so young? “It amazes me how good our scouts are,” enthused Massey. “If you’re looking at a lad who is six and seven you’re looking to see if he can run. Then you’re looking to see if he’s got some spirit, if he’s got some personality to play in the game.

“Then you might look to see if he’s got some sort of intelligence when he’s got the ball.

“You’d think at six or seven ‘how can they have that?’ but I’ll tell you, I’ve got some players who are now in the system with us that would make your jaw drop. It’s a natural ability and I’m not sure if that’s something you can teach.”

Massey revealed his scouts do scour the local football scene for rough gems. “The boys may be playing at a team like Senrab, who over the years have had a terrific record of having boys come through, like (England players) John Terry and Jermain Defoe. But our scouts are also watching the district sides at Waltham Forest and Redbridge.”

After a fascinating chat, I was invited to watch the U16s and U13s train on the pristine artificial pitches outside.

One young lad immediately caught the eye, holding off a challenge from a boy twice his size before effortlessly pirouetting with the ball at his feet to beat his marker. “He’s going to be a special player,” Massey said, noticing the awestruck expression painted on my face. “He’s nearly two years younger than the other boys.”

There were plenty of obvious similarities between the first team and this pint-sized version. Almost every drill was centred around keeping the ball and moving it quickly to stretch the opposition.

“The Arsenal philosophy definitely rubs off on our boys,” observed Massey. “The boys have tickets to go and watch the first team games and I’m sure those youngsters are then excited about playing the same way the first team play.”

After admiring the younger players’ intricate passing, I moved next door to a gigantic dome-shaped structure, the David Rocastle Indoor Centre – named after the late Gunners great – which was home to another immaculate pitch, where some of the U16s were practising their finishing skills.

Long balls were fizzed in to a striker, who was required to lay the ball off for an on-rushing team-mate to try and find the net. Many shots were placed with unerring accuracy, while others were magnificently saved by the three goalkeepers who were alternating between the posts.

Some of these boys will graduate to Shenley, where Arsenal’s scholars are based. Others will be let go.

Massey admits that part of the job is ‘heartbreaking’, although being released by Arsenal certainly does not mean it is the end of the road, with many other Football League clubs eager to give those who did not make the grade a second chance.

As Massey says: “We’re trying to develop world class players, aren’t we?” And by the looks of things, he is doing a very good job.