By Tony Attwood
On 17 January 1988 my pal Roger and I went to see Coventry City v Arsenal. It was a 2-2 draw with a crowd of 22,864 and Patrick Vieira was sent off on 65 minutes and David Seaman broke his finger. (We didn’t realise at the time but it was the 23rd game of the second double season).
But I have to confess I only know that last bit because I looked it up. What I remember was Nic Anelka scoring Arsenal’s second to give us the lead on 67 minutes. And even then, although I remember his terrific speedy run towards goal and his scoring, what I remember most, and what Roger and I talked about, was his long trek back to the half way line for the re-start. Head down, no celebration, shuffling back up the pitch.
He had the body language of a man who simply thought it was all too much of a pain, and I recall saying at the time and on the car journey home, “there’s something wrong with this kid.”
Hardly my most profound psychological assessment but still, it was made before the talk about the oddities of Anelka’s behaviour became everyday.
Nicholas Anelka has joined us on 22 February 1997, for £500,000 from PSG, where he had been a youth player. I recall it being said that he was that low cost not just because of his age or the fact that he had only scored one league goal for PSG but because PSG had yet to put him on a full-time contract.
Subsequently Arsène Wenger has said that he actually planned to play Anelka and Thierry Henry together up front (incidentally with both players being of Martinique descent) – but of course it didn’t ever happen.
Anelka made 28 starts that season and scored nine goals, and what we all noticed was his pace (which was how he got to score the goal at Coventry). The following season he was top scorer with 17 league goals from 34 starts.
In May 1999 he then said that he had to leave Arsenal due to the enormous problems the English media caused him. Real Madrid started, stopped and then re-started negotiations and on 2 August 1999 he was sold to Real Madrid for around £23m. Arsenal bought Thierry Henry for £11m – little did we know just how much of a bargain we got. Henry and £12m in the bank!
On 9 November 1997, Anelka scored his first goal for Arsenal in a 3–2 defeat of Man U. It was a tough time for Arsenal with the club getting only two wins in eight games between 18 October and 13 December. His growing confidence began to get us back on track.
And so with him the club turned their league form around, and in the cup made progress too, with Anelka scoring on 25 February 1998 in the fifth round as Arsenal beat Palace. He scored again in the 1-1 draw with WHU in the sixth round replay (Arsenal going through on penalties) and the second goal in the final on 16 May 1998 when Arsenal beat Newcastle to secure the Second Double.
In 1998/9 he was voted PFA Young Player of the Year, but that was also the year that the press came up with the name Le Sulk – which in part at least led to his departure.
So, I wonder, was there a difference between the media’s assault on Anelka with Le Sulk, and my own comment to my friend at a match, that the guy had problems? For myself, I think yes. Mine was a private comment, now remembered only by myself. The media went for him full guns blazing. Indeed I believe it can be argued that their victory in getting Anelka to leave encouraged them to attack Arsenal players endlessly from then on. Wenger had made fools of the press on day one of his tenure, and they were out to get him big time.
In total Anelka made 90 appearances for Arsenal, scoring 28 goals. If he had stayed and played with Henry, who knows. Quite possibly the third double would have been the following year. As it was his last match in the league was 16 May 1999 as Arsenal beat Aston Villa 1-0 in the final game of the season. Arsenal finished second just one point behind Man U, thanks largely to another powerful end of season run in which Arsenal lost just one game in the final 21 league matches, drawing four and winning the rest.
But although I believe the press were very much to blame for chasing Anelka out of Arsenal, his subsequent behaviour at Real Madrid cemented the feeling that he did indeed have personal problems, and needed help of a kind that he clearly was not getting. At one stage he was suspended from the Spanish club for refusing to train.
However he did score in the Champions League semi-final (in each leg in fact) and played in the 2000 final.
Given that his difficulties continued, the sale of the player back to PSG looked a good deal for Real Madrid, especially as Real Madrid got all their investment back. But once again I think the fairest summary was that he played well, but had personal issues with the management. And the key point was he only scored two goals in 19 league starts in his one season with Real Madrid. With PSG the ratio went up to 10 goals in 39 league games across two seasons.
And then, bizarrely given all that had gone before he came back to England and signed with Liverpool on a deal from December 2001 to May 2002. He scored four in 20 league games and Gérard Houllier opted against keeping him, going for El Hadji Diouf instead.
After this it was Manchester City – who paid £13m for Anelka, and he stayed for three seasons, playing 89 league games and getting 37 goals – his best period.
Fenerbahçe was next with 14 goals in 39 games with his side winning the league. Then came the most bizarre transfer of all, at least thus far – for on 25 August 2006 he signed a four year deal with Bolton, for their record fee of £8m. The fact that he was Bolton’s top scorer in 2006/7 with ten goals, says a lot about where his career had got to.
Even more twists were to come because on 23 January 2007, Nic Anelka said that he would leave Bolton for Arsenal. But on 30 August 2011 he signed another contract with Bolton.
At this point his stock went up, as he signed for Chelsea for £15m on 11 January 2008 and it turned out to be his longest ever stint at a club with 38 goals in 125 games between 2008 and 2012. He played in the 2008 Champs League final, and missed a penalty in the shoot out. He blamed Avram Grant.
It seemed for a while that in Chelsea Anelka had found a club that suited him, but he submitted a transfer request in 2011 and left in the January 2012 transfer window. Anelka alleged that the manager Villas-Boas had refused him a space in the first team car park, refused to allow him into the first team dressing room and made him train with the youth team.
There was then a spell in China, and a loan to Juventus before Anelka came to WBA. There he is perhaps most remembered for the furore concerning a gesture he made on the pitch having scored a vital goal in WBA’s attempt to survive in the Premier League, but what is perhaps sometimes forgotten is that the hearing into the events said that “…we did not find that Nicolas Anelka is an anti-Semite or that he intended to express or promote anti-Semitism by his use of the quenelle.” Annoyed by the lack of support he received from WBA over the affair he quit the club and went to Mumbai City in the Indian Super League. A subsequent move to Algeria was stopped by the Algerian FA as he did not meet their strict requirements relating to non-nationals.
So is that it in footballing terms? Maybe. In a statement a few years back he spoke about going into films, and he has a close connection with the arts as his wife is a choreographer, but I can’t find any detail of him having done this apart from a brief appearance some years back in one film.
And that’s it. With Arsenal he won the Premier League, The FA Cup, and the Charity Shield. It could have been so much more. Anelka plus Henry – that would have been something to see.
The Anniversary File – nearly 5000 “Arsenal on this Day” events.