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Thursday, 14 March 2013

Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

'I may well have peaked.'
Two men. Two very different career paths. Here's Spongers regular Dan Forman on a talent who may not have been as wasted as most would lead you to believe.

Nicolas Anelka? Under the beanie hat, is that you on the bench at Celtic Park? I thought you were in China? I thought your career was effectively over, notwithstanding the still-very-large pay cheque. But now you're back? At Juventus? In the Champions League big time live on ITV. How had I missed this news? In my personal fantasy football career I am Nicolas Anelka. And I had thought my personal fantasy football career was over too - because it never contained any kind of pay cheque.

Anelka was 34 on Thursday. I know this because he is exactly one week younger than me and it was my birthday last week (the numerate among you will have worked out my age by now, although regular readers won't even have clocked that there was a clue). I know he is exactly one week younger than me because Anelka is the first player Arsenal signed to be born after me. And for some reason I've never quite been able to grasp, this really mattered. So, continuing a tradition of using this blog to fail to explain things I've never quite been able grasp, I shall attempt to do so here.
Anelka's signing was I suppose the moment I realised I was never going to make it as a professional footballer*. Not that I had seriously thought I would at any point in the previous 10 years. But it was a bit like getting a letter in the post confirming that I hadn't got a great job several weeks after an interview that had gone really badly. You kind of know it's coming but it's still a bit galling to see it there in black and white, confirmation of the end of a dream. And, in this case, it was also coupled with a first realisation that I was already too old to achieve some things - and that before I'd even left school. So I invested a lot in Anelka. If he was going to be younger and more successful than me I at least wanted to know he was more talented than me and would be successful, that it was his inherent strengths that had elevated him above me, rather than my inherent weakness.
Luckily for me, there is no doubt on the first point. It would have been doubly painful to have been so personally usurped by a talentless oaf (I'm thinking of no one in particular but Emile Heskey was born in 1978 and John Terry in 1980). But Anelka is and was an inherently more gifted athlete than me or indeed pretty much any other man born on this earth in 1979. Blessed with pace, power, balance, two good feet and the instinctive 'football brain' that can't be coached, let alone 'analysed' by Alan Hansen, he was a frighteningly good prospect, one of those young players you know are going to be good enough from almost the first time you see them, which in my case was a goalscoring contribution in a 3-2 win against Man Utd.

He was also fortunate to arrive at Arsenal with perfect timing, forming the final piece in the jigsaw of Arsene Wenger's first great side. Having revived the legendary George Graham back four; reconstructed an entire midfield of Vieira, Petit and improbably Ray Parlour; and reformed an attack around the genius of Dennis Bergkamp and killer runs of Marc Overmars; all that was missing was a striker to replace the goalscoring and diminishing pace of Ian Wright. As ever with Wenger, Anelka was good enough and therefore old enough to fill the role. It seemed to come ridiculously easily to him, running onto Bergkamp or Petit through balls or alongside lightening Overmars breaks, typically taking one touch to control the ball and another to bury it in the bottom corner, often only celebrating with a shrug. By the end of his first season he had taken apart Newcastle in the first few minutes of a cup final to win a double with no apparent effort whatsoever. He was only 19. I was happy Arsenal were ace again and reassured that that really wasn't a role I could have filled anyway (my position was more of your classical No10 and nobody was doing that job better than Bergkamp in 1998). And there was a special private pleasure in his goals, a sense that they were for me, as well as the team.
He should have had a World Cup on home soil to look forward to a few weeks later too. Much like the Arsenal team he joined, the only thing missing from France '98 was an Anelka-like striker. But he didn't make the squad and for France it didn't really matter, they won the World Cup anyway. For Anelka perhaps it did, so clearly superior was he to those that got picked ahead of him. And his omission marked the start of a very troubled relationship with his national team that was to last throughout his career, culminating in being sent home from South Africa in 2010. It didn't hurt Arsenal, however; in 1998-99 he was even better, winning PFA Young Player of the Year and beginning to create goals for himself, as well as finish others' work; bullying defences with skill and strength, as well as pace. At his best he was as unplayable as his replacement Thierry Henry was to become. So good, in fact, that Real Madrid decided they'd quite like him for themselves and that summer he became the first of Wenger's mega-profit transfer deals, with Arsenal banking something like a £22m increase in his value in not much more than two years. In those days, selling world-class players for outrageous sums was seen as a good deal for the club. The profits were reinvested in world-class replacements and a training ground built on the proceeds too. But I was sad to lose him, regardless of how much of a pain he was said to have become behind the scenes, allegedly advised astray by two brothers who also acted as his agents. He was, after all, who I was meant to be in that Arsenal team and in my shadow career plan I fancied staying at the club for a while longer and winning more trophies with it. I hadn't planned on making a big-money move to Madrid until I was at least 25.
I tried to keep in touch but we were both busy and moved around a lot. Me to university and then to London to get a job. Nicolas didn't stay long in Madrid either, beginning a nomadic journey that took in Paris St Germain again, Liverpool, Man City, Fenerbache and Bolton. It was hard to keep up with what often seemed like sideways moves for a player who should have been in his prime. But ask fans of any of those of those clubs and they'll all tell you he was really good. And even when playing for teams I didn't particularly like I still wished him personally well and regretted the sense of drift in his career. Perhaps his reputation as a troublemaker counted against him. But (the often bonkers French team aside) there aren't really that many stories of the trouble he caused either. Indeed, he is said to have ditched his brothers as agents after a while, found faith and settled down.

Despite quite obviously being best deployed as a central striker, he never seemed to mind playing out wide, was often effective off the bench and was remarkably consistent. More a model pro, to use a hoary old media cliche, than the 'le sulk' caricature that most journalists refused to drop despite the evidence. Eventually, in January 2008, he ended up at Chelsea and back at the top of the European game. That was harder to take for two reasons: Firstly because there was a lot of talk that Arsenal might take him back (and had we done so a lot of fans feel we might have won the league that year) and secondly because it was Chelsea, the team who had knocked Wenger's Arsenal off their London perch. Yet even then I couldn't hate him and, despite the sickening sight of Terry lifting them, it was still good to see Anelka winning trophies again.
And now he (and I for the regular readers) are 34. He may be back in Europe with Juve but time stands still for no man, least of all strikers who rely on explosive speed. So the time for answering the second question asked above - was he actually successful? - is drawing near too. And it's trickier to say than with the clear cut evidence of his talent. It's tempting, particularly for Arsenal fans, to think he never should have left, that he never got back to the heights of 1998-99 and that he had his best years before he was even 20. Tempting, but not necessarily true.

Since leaving Arsenal he has won everything there is to in the game: cups, leagues, the Champions League and the European Championship, everything that is, apart from that World Cup. He has played in England, Italy, France and Spain, in front of Bergkamp, Redondo, Okocha, Figo and Zidane, alongside Drogba, Ronaldo and Henry, for Wenger, Ancelloti, Allardyce and Keegan (okay, okay, but you get my point). Maybe it could have been more, perhaps it should have been. But given all the talents that fall by the wayside, that's not a bad career at all. It's the kind I'd have taken given the choice at 17 and I'd bite your hand off for it now. I don't even have a shadow career to look forward to these days, but I'll take the one I had. Anyway, happy birthday Nico. You didn't let me down.
*For context a brief note on how close I ever really came to playing professional football: Not close at all. The pinnacle of my career was captaining my school First (and only) XI for one game only. So bad were we that no teacher was even prepared to coach us anymore, so the captaincy was something we took turns at, an honour in exchange for having to actually organise a team. My turn was something less than a triumph; a 13-1 defeat to the boys school up the road. The opposition captain was widely known as the best young player in the area and on the books of Oxford United. He didn't get a professional contract either.

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