Two gold shirts fly down the pitch at Old Trafford. The man on the ball, Sylvain Wiltord, plays in Freddie Ljungberg who has made a tireless run across the field. Ljungberg beats his man and fires a low shot across Fabian Barthez’ goal. The goalkeeper manages to push it away, only to see his compatriot ready to pounce. Barthez does his best to get back up and stop the rebound but the Arsenal striker makes no mistake, sidefooting it into the back of the net.
As he wheels away, millions of Arsenal fans across the globe celebrate what has surely secured the Premier League title and a famous double for The Arsenal.
It’s hard to believe that a decade after that famous goal, the man was still playing football at the ripe old age of 38. The fact that he only chose to retire early this week is a testament to his drive. Fitting that he should do it in the middle of the 2012 European Championships because it all started 12 years ago.
Bordeaux was where Wiltord really came to light, winning a Ligue 1 scoring title and catching the eye of many, the most important of which, Arsène Wenger. Wiltord was also a part of the French squad at Euro 2000 but understandably found himself playing a small part in a team filled with superstars. The lack of playing time during the tournament did nothing to discourage him though. By then, Wiltord had grown tired of Bordeaux and the tournament would be the stage on which to make his name.
He was brought on late in the final with the cup almost surely going back to Italy. Deep into injury time, a hopeful punt up the field turned into a golden opportunity. Wiltord controlled the ball with his chest, bringing it down onto his left foot. He fired under Francesco Toldo to send the match into extra time with France eventually lifting the trophy after a David Trezeguet golden goal.
That summer, Arsenal had sold Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit to Barcelona, much to the frustration of the fans. Eager to please them, Arsenal signed Robert Pirès, Lauren and after drawn out negotiations, Sylvain Wiltord himself.
Wiltord was always going to struggle to get into the lineup though with Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp and would have to settle for playing out wide. The fluidity of Arsène Wenger’s tactics meant that Wiltord was never truly out of position and he constantly proved to be a thorn in the side for opposition defences. He still found his way to goal at the right times, scoring fifteen in his first season in England.
The Frenchman played a very important part in Arsenal’s 2001/02 double winning season, directly influencing the outcome of the double. In the FA Cup final against Chelsea, Wiltord was the man who provided the pass that set up that Ray Parlour goal. Days later it was Wiltord again who wrapped up the league, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 victory against Manchester United.
Sadly, with the emergence of The Invincibles, an aging Wiltord found himself playing a smaller and smaller part in Arsenal’s 2003/04 campaign. His contract was allowed to run out in 2004 and he made a return to France, playing for Lyon, Rennes, Marseille, Metz and Nantes before hanging up his boots on June 11, 2012.
Considering I’m typing this on my iPod I don’t think I can manage another hilarious opening paragraph, so I’ll hand it straight over to Tom Pyman, who can be found over ar Real Life News blogging about Arsenal.
As supporters we’ve often created something of a siege mentality in that everyone and everything seems to be against us; bad refereeing decisions, leg-breaking, and career-ending challenges from mid-table journeymen, perennial injuries and apparent hatred from the media. A lot of this is probably unfounded but where’s the fun in pretending everything’s hunky-dory? The point I eventually intend to make is that it often seems as if Arsenal players don’t get nearly enough credit as they deserve, thereby creating a kaleidoscope of opportunity in terms of potential candidates for an unsung hero. After whittling down a lengthy list of suitors, I found my subject of discussion.
I might as well begin with the mandatory drawl Sam alluded to in his piece about this player’s arrival: Laureano Bisan-Etame Mayer, or Ralph to you and I, joined in the summer of 2000 for a fee believed to be around the £7million mark. The deal was somewhat overshadowed by the subsequent signing of one Robert Pirès, who I’m sure will be eulogised elsewhere by far more talented writers than myself. Signed initially as a centre-midfielder, also capable on the flank, Lauren got off to a fine start, scoring on his home debut against Liverpool, and impressing with his tenacity and neat passing, but was hampered by injuries early in his first campaign. However, with Lee Dixon entering the twilight months of his glittering career, Arséne Wenger spotted something in Lauren’s game that suggested he could adequately fill the vacant right-back berth.
The Double winning campaign of 2001/02 was when the Cameroon International really began to shine, gaining multiple metaphorical nods of acknowledgment, if not glamorous, headline-hogging praise. He nailed down a regular spot in the first team; rapidly becoming a reliable asset in a defence that was going under something of a transformation process, with the famous back four slowly being phased out of the picture and replaced by a younger crop of talented defenders. The fact he played in perhaps a less-fashionable position on the pitch was never going to harvest much commendation, and neither was his style of play: Lauren was no rampaging wing-back that would have you on the edge of your seat, as, dare I say, Emmanuel Eboué might have done, but he provided security, solidarity and steel.
He was thrust into the limelight in the North London derby, however, when in the dying embers of the game, with the score locked at 1-1, Thierry Henry was fouled in the box. With unique superstition preventing the Frenchman from taking the penalty, it was a quite surreal moment when it was Lauren, this most understated of players, who was handed the ball to take the crucial spot-kick. Fans watched between their fingers, but Ralph was the most composed man in N5. Possibly considered the worst penalty ever seen by mankind, his scuffed effort trickled straight down the middle and over the line in seeming slow motion. A rare moment of glory for Arsenal’s quiet stalwart. Ironically, when trusted with responsibility from the spot later down the line, notably against Tottenham again in a famous 5-4 victory, and in the FA Cup Final shootout against Manchester United, he converted the ball with the conviction of a seasoned striker. It was another string to Lauren’s ever-expanding bow.
The following season provided another unexpected, heroic moment from the right-back. 2-0 up and cruising in an FA Cup Quarter-Final against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, things took a turn for the worse when Pascal Cygan was dismissed, and a young John Terry gave the hosts hope, having previously put through his own net. Whilst fingernails were being rapidly bitten, and fears that Arsenal were going to blow it were rife, up stepped Lauren, who had made a rare surge forward down the right. He cut inside Bolo Zenden and, with his left-foot, fired a fierce, low drive past Carlo Cudicini to restore the two-goal cushion, and send The Gunners to the semi-finals. Cue wild celebrations that involved the whole team; indicative of the spirit that made Arsenal so successful during this period.
By the time the Invincibles campaign came around, Lauren was part of the furniture, and a fixture in the side. He warmed the hearts of the Arsenal faithful during the infamous Old Trafford brawl in September 2003, when, after Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a last-minute penalty to keep the unbeaten record intact, he joined the likes of Martin Keown and Ray Parlour in rubbing the cheating horse-faced Dutchman’s nose right in it. Lauren was among five players fined for the incident, and whilst I’m not one to condone violence, it was just wonderful to see such passion emanating from the players, something that many sections of the crowd believe that this current team have notoriously been lacking. Alongside the considerably larger frames of Kolo Touré and Sol Campbell, Ralph still proved to be a tough bastard that you’d be foolish to mess with.
I spent the majority of my, shall we say, slightly unsuccessful playing career at full-back and therefore growing up I used to try and watch Lauren closely, analysing his positioning and the ability to know when to bomb forward and when to sit and stay disciplined; an art which he mastered to a tee. It’s fashionable to rank players nowadays and create mass debate over moot points such as whether Player X is better than Player Y. Ultimately, who cares? Nobody can say for certain that Lauren is better or worse than Dixon, Sagna or any of the other players in his position that existed long before I was born. Whatever your opinion, nobody can deny that Lauren was unerringly consistent, and a fundamental cog of the finest Arsenal side of our generation; one who didn’t garner nearly enough respect. A true unsung hero.
Hello, and welcome to the fourth part of the who-knows-how-many-parts-it’ll-be-because-we’re-relying-on-guest-contributions-of-which-we’re-already-running-out-and-are-beginning-to-have-to-beg-for part series Unsung Heroes. After two Arsenal-themed pieces to start the series off, we return to another Arsenal player – you’d think none of the players get any praise with the amount of Arsenal unsung heroes there seem to be – as Michael Keshani makes it 3 out of 4. Be sure to check out his blog, Roaming Libero, where excellent pieces on football past and present can be found.
When memories of the double winning Arsenal side of 1997/98 are recalled, the mind often jumps to the obvious heroes: the famous back five (or six, even) of David Seaman, Nigel Winterburn, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Lee Dixon, with Martin Keown in the supporting cast; the brilliant midfield pairing of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars’s extraordinary pace down the wings and, of course, the PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year, God himself, Dennis Bergkamp.
Though a particular component of the back five spent a significant proportion of the season on the sidelines. An injury to a goalkeeper is unlike an injury in any other position. I wrote about the difficulty of the role of substitute keeper in this, coming to the judgement that the best types of player suited to the job were younger players, eager to prove themselves (wherein there is a prominent risk) or older, more experienced ‘keepers, who are experienced enough to be assured when thrown into games with little warning. At this point in the 97/98 season, Arsenal were in the running for the league title (or more accurately, were ‘in the chasing’), despite being significantly behind league leaders Manchester United when Seaman got injured. Enter 20-year old Alex Manninger. To step in for the goalkeeper who is arguably Arsenal’s greatest would have been a terrifying task for most ‘keepers. Manninger, however, saw it as his chance to build a reputation; it was a chance he seized.
The Austrian’s first league game would be against Southampton at the end of January 1998, while the team had not kept a clean sheet since the start of December. As is customary for a second choice ‘keeper, he had a heart-in-mouth moment as he miscontrolled a Steven Hughes backpass, almost allowing David Hirst to give the visitors an early lead, but the tight angle left the Saints’ forward unable to finish. He was far more assured when next called upon, producing an excellent save to block a Matt Oakley volley and later strongly saving an attempted chip by Matt Le Tissier. Three second half goals from Bergkamp, Adams and Nicolas Anelka saw Arsenal to a comfortable 3-0 win. A promising début for him, but by no means a particularly notable one.
His next game was a 2-0 win over Chelsea, in which he had little to do. The next, another largely uneventful win, this time a 1-0 against Crystal Palace, was illuminated by another acrobatic save from Mannninger, from a long distance shot by Simon Rodger. Next up, a trip to the Boleyn Ground; a place where Arsenal have long had a tendency to, let’s say, ‘Arsenal’ things up a bit. With no Bergkamp or Ian Wright, attacking force was lacking. Arsenal’s own lack of goals could have seen them leave East London with no points, rather than the one with which they emerged, were it not for Manninger’s efforts. He made two more outstanding saves, one from a long range Eyal Berkovic strike, the other a fantastic recovery stop from John Hartson after the Welshman had managed to round him. Four league games; four league clean sheets.
He conceded his first Arsenal goal in the FA Cup, a week later, to West Ham, as the game ended 1-1, forcing a replay at the Boleyn Ground, which would come 9 days later. But in that period were two games that would arguably amplify or destroy any chance Arsenal had to win their first league title since 1989. First up were Wimbledon, a game which had been rearranged due to floodlight failure in the first sitting in December. Again Manninger played the role of hero, as Arsenal withstood a second half onslaught to hold on for a classic ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’-style win. Next was the big one. The one that were Sky Sports in existence in their current format back then, would receive similar hype to the recent (disappointing as anything) Manchester derby did. A win would put Arsenal only six points behind United, but crucially, with three games in hand. A win, for the first time all season, would put Arsenal in control of their fate.
The game was to be Arsene Wenger’s Waterloo. Manninger himself needed pain-killing injections to be able to play, but performed incredibly well. His game was typified by, among numerous caught crosses, his two one-on-one saves from Terry Sheddingham (or ‘Teddy Sherringham’ to those unfamiliar with the Football Ramble) and Andy Cole. For his own effort, Sheringham picked up the loose ball after Cole had been tackled by Keown. With space, although admittedly on his weaker left foot, he struck his shot towards Manninger’s near post; he did well to save it, but the real merit of the stop was that he forced it out to the barren right-hand side of the box, nullifying the threat of a potential rebound. The save from Cole was far more difficult and impressive. After catching the ball from an Arsenal corner, Peter Schmeichel launched a long ball towards Cole. The United centre forward stood behind the centre circle and was hence offside, but this was missed by the linesman. He sped towards the Arsenal goal, with Adams sprinting behind him. The presence of the Arsenal captain forced him wide and, like Sheringham, onto his weaker left foot. His offering was a low, hard drive at Manninger, which was brilliantly turned over the crossbar. The score remained at 0-0, and would continue to do so until Adams’ long ball was flicked on by the head of Bergkamp, and then the head of Anelka, releasing Marc Overmars to score the goal that would win it. A monumental win and a sixth straight clean sheet for Alex Manninger.
Quite aside from the league, there was now the matter of that FA Cup quarter final replay against West Ham. Dennis Bergkamp’s early red card meant that Arsenal would be with missing their best player and primary creator for not only the rest of this game, but the next three ahead. In spite of this, Anelka managed to grab a goal just before half time, giving the leaders an important lead. This, like the wins that preceded it, would have to be one of the ‘ground out’ variety. Manninger made two quite marvellous saves from John Hartson efforts and a wonderful reaction stop from a Stan Lazaridis header. The breakthrough eventually came from the Hartson, following a mistake by Dixon, and the game would now go to extra time. Here, Manninger made more fine saves Lee Hodges, Berkovic and John Moncur. Arsenal failed to re-establish a lead. Arsenal’s second penalty shootout of the season was awaiting them (the first coming in the third round against Port Vale). In the second round of attempts, Christopher Wreh started by missing completely, but was spared any great ignominy by Manniger managing to get the slightest of touches on West Ham’s next taker Hartson’s penalty, forcing it against the post. The third set of takers both scored. Rémi Garde blasted his own high over the bar. Arsenal needed Berkovic not to score if they were to remain level. And Manninger saved them again. He flew to his right and pushed it away, keeping Arsenal level. Now it was sudden death. The fifth set of takers scored. Tony Adams then scored his own scuffed effort. All the pressure lay on Samassi Abou, who struck his penalty against the post. Manninger’s heroics had sent Arsenal to the semi finals.
This was to be Manninger’s last notable contribution of the season. He featured in the two final, meaningless league losses against Liverpool and Aston Villa, at which point the league title had already been secured. Manninger never got another real run in the Arsenal team again and left on loan for Fiorentina at the start of the next double winning campaign of 2001/02, leaving permanently for Espanol the next summer. Since then he has lived the life of a substitute goalkeeper. Where so many other unsung heroes’ contributions have been noticed and subsequently sung, Manninger remains generally forgotten by most. 97/98 – quite rightly – is remembered as Dennis Bergkamp’s year – or as the great swansong of the famous back five, but with that in mind, it is easy to forget what that season could have become without that extraordinary set of performances from Alex Manninger.
Time for the third edition of Unsung Heroes, a summer series on Chronicles of Almunia for which we/I are/am still accepting entiries. Before this entry gets going, let me just say: I know Sergio Busquets is a cheat, but don’t judge me – judge Sam Robinson, the author of this fine piece, instead. This post first appeared on his blog, Liquid Football.
If anything encapsulated public opinion of Sergio Busquets, it is the top search result for the Barcelona and Spain midfielder on Google: “Sergio Busquets dive”. Fair to say, then, that most people don’t like him.
His play-acting is indefensible, a perennial pain in the arse. The most famous example comes from the Champions League semi-final of 2010 against an Inter Milan side then managed by José Mourinho. Busquets was supposedly pushed in the face by former Barcelona man Thiago Motta. If, by chance, Busquets looked through his hands for long enough, he’d have seen Motta being given his second yellow card by the referee.
The footballing world exploded with rage. Motta hit out at the Spaniard, saying “He always does it, it is terrible behaviour.”
However, when Busquets isn’t throwing himself on the floor, pretending to be injured, he is a superb footballer. Without him, Barcelona would not function in the manner that has people across the globe salivating.
The son of former Barcelona goalkeeper Carles Busquets, Sergio is the anchor of the midfield. His presence gives Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta – Cesc Fàbregas has recently come into the fold, too, since his summer move from Arsenal – a licence to work their magic further up-field, safe in the knowledge that Busquets is on hand to stop any potential counter-attacks. Whilst this is not an infallible tactic, it works most of the time.
The most vociferous support for Busquets comes from his team-mates; Xavi says that Busquets is “fundamental” to both Barcelona and Spain, he “reads the game well and moves the ball with precision, in as few touches as possible.” Robust and simple, but effective too. He receives the ball, looks up, spots a team-mate and gives them the ball; no complications, merely continuity.
Busquets, who has had only three shots all season in La Liga, could be seen as representative of everything that is anti-Barcelona to the footballing purists. The 23 year-old does the dirty work in a team of beauty; a footballing paradox, if you will. In the midst of a squad with an exuberance of quality, he takes little credit for his role in the side. Instead, it is Xavi, Iniesta and Messi who usually pick up the plaudits.
Nonetheless, it is Busquets who provides the foundations. He, himself, has said that “People who don’t like football don’t appreciate” his style but his team-mates do: “They appreciate that I do the dirty work and I know it is necessary.”
It is not just Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola who sees Busquets as a quality player either.
The Spain coach, Vicente Del Bosque, who led the national side to World Cup glory in 2010, said before the tournament: “If I could be like any player in the world, I would like to be Sergio Busquets”. High praise, indeed, from such a decorated manager who oversaw the height of the Galactico era at Real Madrid. He promptly put the La Masia product into his midfield for every game of the competition and made him a World Cup winner at the age of 21.
So often the pantomime villain, Busquets has been accused of being out of place at Barcelona. On the field it is rare to find him out of place. He is their destroyer, a vital cog in a footballing machine. He has, on occasion, been forced to play at centre back and has shown great versatility and competence in doing so.
Busquets currently has a contract that runs until 2015 with a buyout clause of €150m. Even that may not be enough to tempt Barcelona to part with a player whose contribution is priceless.
Please note: all statistics correct at time of writing (9/3/2012)
For the second entry for Unsung Heroes we have Martijn Stolze, an Arsenal fan from Holland. Here he writes fondly of left-back Andre Santos, the lovable Brazilian scamp. Also a side-note: not all of the series is based on Arsenal players. If you wish to contribute, get in touch through the e-mail address on the contact page. Take it away, Martijn!
Life needs laughter. Every team needs a joker. Every court needs a jester. In the court of King vP, with generals Vermaelen, Mertesacker and Arteta standing next to the main man on his throne, there is one person who stands out in his pure life-joy, his love of the joga bonita and a man who tweets, walks and talks as if he was a true believer of the mentality that prevails in all of Latin America, that of the pura vida. That man of course is Andre Santos, the lethal wingback with the killer stare but the heart of gold and the smile that warms me in very unusual places.
I loath with some passion this idea that teamspirit is very prevalent in modern football. As far as I have always heard or read, Wayne Rooney and Nani are sincerely disliked in the Man Utd dressing room (but don’t quote me). Vincent Kompany is the only glue holding the MCFC dressing room together in the thinnest of ways. In the past at Arsenal this has also been the case. Sure, there were the moments of beauty when we beat Barca at home or when Cesc, Na$ri and the like kissed their badges in feigned love for the club, but inside things were always simmering. On twitter recently there was the rumour that a lot of Arsenal players didn’t even attend Gael Clichy’s wedding, which took place before his move to the oil rich Mancunians. And in the last few years, plenty of fights occurred both on and off the pitch. Infighting, that is.
The reason I bring this up, is that this season everything seems different. Big personalities have come along, like the Big Friendly Giant, the bombastic Pole in Goal, the Verminator (returning from injury), Mikel Arteta and his lego hairstyle, and taken control of the dressing room. The WAGS of these gents have taken it upon them to hosts events to bring the team closer together. But in day to day training, this team missed that person who makes everyone laugh, who lights up a simple training ground routine with a mixture of the absurd and the hilarious. That used to be Eboue. Eboue is a legend and I don’t really have to explain that. Yet Eboue was, supposedly, not really very popular with the players, nor did he play a very big role in the footballing part of being a footballer. He was an overpaid mascot. With the whole Africans and Frenchmen vs others divide, he always had friends. But he didn’t endear himself to everyone, that is for sure.
Which brings me on to Andre Santos. If you are expecting an intelligent, detailed and analytical explanation of him as a player, of his footballing history, you are reading the wrong article, although Sam probably has five of those up his sleeve. Andre Santos is funny, is honest, sincere and above all, amazingly enthusiastic. He is the sort of man who can own a small green Smart and feel confident about it. That actually fits well with TV5 and RvP, one of whom owns a Nissan Figaro. He tweets with such bright optimism, a childlike interest for everything new and a clear passion for life. He is a very nice guy but with the experience needed to help a young dressing room like ours progress and improve. He has immediately become very close to the most important players in the team and also become somewhat of a mentor to some of the other players. This season, where we had very few things to celebrate, the most passionate or stirring moments have all included him. The infamous ‘gays’ tweet, the trio of him, RvP and Arteta running arm in arm towards the away fans at Stamford Bridge (which still brings tears to my eyes), the swashbuckling runs up and down the left flank, the important and frankly very well taken goals, his ability to stay very positive in light of an injury that should never have happened.
Arsenal have always been described as a team that play beautiful football. Yet we have always lacked for flair players. In recent seasons, RvP has become a clinical, allround striker, not a trequartista with a free role. We witnessed half a season of flair from the French lesbian before she decided to cash in. Even Cesc was very good, but not that flamboyant. Santos has brought some of that back. His samba style might not always be the safest option as your left back, but he scores goals, provides assists, and gave me hours of excitement about a signing when we snatched him in the summer with this video. But he has since also convinced me (if not others) that he is a very accomplished defender and with some crunching tackles, a powerful run, his dogged determination and his ability to link up with his teammates he has shown me that he can combine samba style flair with a certain defensive stability.
He will always be making jokes and showing photographers that big white smile of his. In footballing terms he has added a little colour to a very bland role in a team, and within that same team he has endeared himself to the players, the coaches and indeed the manager. He cares about the fans a lot, as he proves by tweeting his every move in his ever improving English. He may not have been a key player this season, nor been that much of a bargain, nor has he strung together the play like Arteta. But Andre Santos adds South-American sunshine to a season that was very dreary at times, he adds passion to a dressing room finally showing some cojones , he adds humour to the serious aspects of life and he manages to make me smile whenever I see him in any capacity. And I still love that moment where he went to the away fans at Stamford Bridge, after a match where everyone had written him off after about 30 minutes. He scored a goal, and played very well, and then showed us his passion and excitement when celebrating. In essence, he is a footballer like a lot of us. He enjoys every second of his life. He shows it to the world. And for all these reasons, he is my unsung hero, although, typically, because of this article, I have been very much singing his praise. D’Oh!