Unsung Heroes #6: Lauren
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.