It has been three months since Mark Randall claims he was last paid. The midfielder once described by Arsène Wenger as among the "next generation" for Arsenal signed a two-year deal for the Italian club Ascoli in September. But with the third-tier club, who were in Serie A as recently as 2007, declared bankrupt and having had their assets seized, the Englishman says he will terminate his contract this month in the hope of finding a new club, and a wage.
"I stuck it out for as long as I could but there comes a point where you have to put your foot down," says the 24-year-old. "I've got bills to pay. You never think of that when you're a kid growing up playing for Arsenal."
It has been a rude awakening for Randall. Having played in the Champions League, Premier League, League Cup and even Dennis Bergkamp's testimonial, he went on loan spells to Burnley, MK Dons, and Rotherham before being released by his parent club in 2011. Signing for Chesterfield that June, he was again released last summer. When the opportunity arose to move abroad, he jumped at it.
"Everything in Italy is more technical, which suits my game. Obviously Arsenal was technical, but it's totally different football in League One and League Two. The ball is flying over your head and everyone is charging round like headless chickens. There are a lot of managers that want to run you into the ground. The lower leagues is based around gym work, fitness, and conditioning. In Italy, the coaches always want players to have a ball."
In Italy, Randall found his feet immediately. On his full home debut Randall was named man of the match, setting up two goals, but it wasn't just the style of football that enamoured Randall to playing in the country. "It's more like a family. I had my birthday there; they brought me food and champagne, sung me 'happy birthday', started hugging and kissing me and I had only been there a couple of weeks. They're so different, fighting for the hairdryer, shaving their legs in the dressing-room! Not exactly Chesterfield is it? In England, there are more cliques. You go to work, get showered and go home."
Randall denies that his formative spells in England's lower leagues were detrimental to his development, but agrees that players in the top English academies are probably better suited to loan spells on the continent.
"Kevin Blackwell, the old Sheffield United manager while they were in the Championship, once told me after we [Arsenal] beat his team in the Carling Cup [in 2008], that he phoned Wenger the next day and asked if he could take a few of those players on loan and was turned down flat. He didn't give Kevin any players. That sums it up really."
How English clubs develop their young players, especially domestic players, is a hot topic. The FA chairman Greg Dyke recently stated just after setting up his FA commission that one of the biggest problems in English football is a lack of top talent playing in overseas leagues.
Feeder clubs have long been an issue in England, with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea having to forge links with clubs in Belgium and the Netherlands, instead of building their own second team, like Barcelona B or Real Madrid Castilla in Spain.
When asked why more English players don't play abroad, Randall shrugs and puffs his cheeks out. "I'm not sure. Obviously the biggest obstacle is the language barrier. At Ascoli the coaches didn't speak one word of English. I had a little whiteboard with magnets that they would show me in the office. For the first few weeks it was impossible. For any player going abroad, learning the language is essential."
As a youth at Arsenal, Wenger had a profound impact on Randall and leaning forward, he visibly gushes at the opportunity to indulge in a little nostalgia. "Wenger used to come over to the youth-team pitches and watch us all the time. Pat Rice [the former assistant] would come over and often talk to Liam Brady", Arsenal's head of youth development, who coincidently had a spell at Ascoli in the 1980s. "They would want to see for themselves what was going on, what your attitude was. I can honestly say I've never seen another first-team manager show the same interest in youth players, at all the clubs I've been at since."
Rising through the academy alongside Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs, Randall remains "100% a Gooner", and having grown up battling a family of Tottenham supporters, there was little doubt who he was cheering in Saturday's FA Cup third round.
Last season, Randall scored in the FA Cup, when Chesterfield thrashed Hartlepool 6-1 in the first-round. He watched the weekend's third-round action from his home in Milton Keynes as he considers his next step, with interest reportedly coming from Spain, Bulgaria and Latvia.
As recently as 2010, Wenger described Randall as having "so much quality that I refuse to think he will not make it". Having not made it at Arsenal, does he feel he has wasted his talent? "No, playing abroad has given me a fresh start. I learned so much tactically in Italy, especially defensively, and I'm a better player now. Leaving England was part of maturing. If I was a young player at a top team again, that's what I'd do."