By Tim Charlesworth
I was sorry to hear that Cesc Fabregas was booed by Chelsea fans last weekend. He may well have deserved it, but the incident reminded me of something sad. Cesc has not, and never will, realise his full potential. I suspect that, like many players who started young, his career may tail off early. He is 29 in May.
Some of us have been harsh on Cesc in recent times, because he signed for rival teams. I don’t share this point of view. I can forgive his decision to go to Barcelona. He is a Catalan. Catalan’s see themselves as an oppressed minority in Spain. The closest thing we have to it is an Irish or Welsh identity, but even those analogies are weak. FC Barcelona is an icon of Catalan identity, a source of nationalistic pride and hope. To be a Catalan is not a trivial thing, like coming from Yorkshire or Cornwall.
I find the decision to sign for Chelsea equally forgivable. It is difficult to know the truth behind transfer rumours these days, but I’m pretty sure that Fabregas asked Wenger to sign him when he left Barcelona. I think he got as close to begging as a modern multi-millionaire footballer ever gets. Everyone knew that Arsenal could afford him and had some sort of contractual right. The humiliation was pretty public.
Wenger has said that he didn’t have room for Cesc because of Ozil. As ever, time is proving that Wenger’s judgment of such matter is predictably (almost tediously) brilliant. So Cesc was rejected simultaneously by his two home clubs. He made a fist of it, and even reminded everyone of this true talent for a few months at Chelsea. But it looks to me like his heart wasn’t really in it. Every display of Ozil’s genius must twist a knife in his heart. If Ozil wins the league for Arsenal this year, it might just break him.
In my mind, Cesc’s tragedy will always be linked with a single game, which remains to this day, the worst thing I have ever seen in football. As an antidote to the joy of the Man City result, I thought I might remind everybody of it.
Let me transport you back to 23rd February 2008.
Arsenal were trying to convince us all that the golden age wasn’t over, by leading the Premiership. It looked like we might win the first title at the new Emirates stadium. The team was showing promise following the departure of the talismanic Patrick Viera and Thierry Henry. Over the summer, the last vestiges of the invincible team, Thierry Henry, Fredrik Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes, had left. There was a sense that the next chapter had begun, and the future looked bright.
Our new captain was a combative and very talented centre half called William Gallas (Arsenal fans adore centre halves perhaps more than any others). He had come to Arsenal from Chelsea’s championship team, as part of the deal that took much-reviled Ashley Cole to Chelsea. A host of new players were threatening to continue the glories of the past decade. Cesc Fabregas was the closest we had ever come to replacing Liam Brady in midfield, and up front, a bright young striker of Croatian-Brazilian extraction, called Eduardo was getting the pulses racing.
Eduardo had joined in the summer, and was establishing himself as a deadly striker. He was a classic Wenger ‘left-field’ signing. Having hardly played in the first part of the season, as he acclimatised to English football, he was fresh and lively as the title run-in approached. This was a physically lightweight team compared to the great teams of a few years earlier (containing Viera, Pires and Campbell). They had developed a delightful style that relied on quick passing and sharp movement. They almost danced their way around the opposition.
On the morning of 23rd February, 2008, Arsenal led the Premiership by five points, and took that lead to an away match with the struggling Birmingham City (who ended up being relegated).
There was a common view in the game at the time, that the only way to stop Arsenal was with violence. Man U had pioneered the idea in the 50th game (often referenced on UA), assisted by some shocking refereeing. Allarydyce’s Bolton had popularised the idea in a rugby game which cost Arsenal the 2004/5 Premiership title.
The struggling Birmingham City players must have been fearful before the game, that we would simply play around them. Footballers are curiously sensitive to humiliation. Perhaps they had talked about how to combat this before the game. If a violent approach wasn’t specifically in their teamtalk, it was probably in the backs of their minds.
After three minutes, Arsenal’s elusive style was already in evidence. They were playing the ball with control and poise. The Birmingham team were chasing shadows and showing signs of frustration already. As Eduardo played the ball gracefully to a teammate, Birmingham defender Martin Taylor piled in with a late and dangerous tackle. Eduardo’s eyes were on the ball, and he didn’t seem to see Taylor coming.
Football is a sport of many things: beauty; competition; sporting endeavour; controversy; dispute and joy. Occasionally, it bares its ugly teeth. Occasionally, we are confronted with the reality that these supermen, these balletic, overpaid, primadonnas, are really just flesh and blood, and this was one such occasion. Eduardo’s ankle and lower leg were shattered by Taylor’s challenge. It looked as if his foot had been amputated and was only being held on by the sock. Its one of the most shocking injuries you will ever see on any sports pitch.
Taylor was sent off and had the privilege of leaving the scene of the crime immediately. It took seven minutes for St John’s Ambulance to remove the stricken Eduardo from the pitch. Eduardo was strapped into a stretcher and an oxygen machine, leaving the field barely conscious. It was seven long minutes, when the players and spectators had little choice, but to reflect on what they had just witnessed. Eduardo claims to have no memory of those minutes.
Arsenal’s Brazilian midfielder Gilberto was the only player present (he was a substitute) who could speak Eduardo’s native Portuguese, and Eduardo hadn’t been in England long enough to learn fluent English. Gilberto stood by Eduardo, and acted as translator for him and the first aiders. The look of horror on Cesc Fabregas’ face told a thousand stories. He looked like what he was: a young man who loved his sport, but was suddenly confronted with a horrible reality that had never occurred to him – his legs, the tools of his trade, were not the indestructible objects he had imagined.
The game eventually continued in a kind of daze, as if no-one could believe what they had seen. 10-man Birmingham scored after 28 minutes. After about half an hour, the players’ football instincts re-established themselves and a game of football broke out. Walcott scored on 50 and 55 minutes (his first league goals for Arsenal) and we drifted towards a comfortable 2-1 victory. It had been a horrible day, but at least the title challenge would live to fight another day.
Then, in injury time, Arsenal left back, Gael Clichy, under no pressure, mis-hit a pass and gave away the ball just outside his own penalty area. Birmingham’s Stuart Parnaby controlled the ball and made a run into the penalty area. Clichy, perhaps over-eager to atone for his error, made a clumsy challenge on Parnaby. The challenge was unnecessary and a bit wild, but it wasn’t a foul. The referee, who’s brain was probably as addled as everybody else’s, awarded a penalty which Birmingham duly scored to deny Arsenal three points.
The Arsenal community was left with an empty feeling. Sport can be crushing when everything conspires against you. We didn’t know whether to be upset about the lost points, or to consider it irrelevant in the face of Eduardo’s injury. We didn’t know whether to be angry with Clichy’s carelessness, or to sympathise with a traumatised young man.
Arsenal captain, William Gallas seemed to descend into a mental breakdown. When the penalty was awarded, he removed himself from the scene and stood in the opposite half of the pitch, in apparent silent protest, whilst the penalty was taken. At the end of the match he vented his frustration by viciously kicking out at an advertising hoarding. He then sat down on the pitch, again in apparent defiant protest. None of his teammates joined him, and they all trudged off the pitch, probably just relieved that it was all over. Only Wenger approached Gallas to console his desolation. I have never seen a player protest in this manner before or since. Gallas cut a lonely figure, sitting on the pitch for about five minutes as the stadium emptied. Over the next few weeks he was widely ridiculed for his behaviour.
I rather felt for Gallas. We often misuse words like tragedy, disaster and triumph in football. We dismiss the sadness of footballers on the grounds that ‘how sad can you be when being paid £5m per year to play football?’ But what had happened to Eduardo was genuinely shocking, on a human level. I think that many of the players on that team were traumatized and suffered from genuine mental health problems as a result.
I think Gallas had summoned every ounce of will in his body to put the Eduardo incident to the back of his mind, and to concentrate on winning the game. As captain, a role he was new to, he tried to lead by example. And he succeeded. His team was coasting to a hard-worked victory. When his teammate and countryman, Clichy, made an inexplicable mistake at the end of the match, compounded by a refereeing error, Gallas had nowhere left to go. He felt he was a man wronged, and boy did he have a right to feel that way. In the finest of French traditions, he protested, silently but insistently. When I look at those pictures of Gallas, I see a man who is genuinely in a dark place, and doesn’t know what to do. As human beings, surely we can all relate to that.
Our hearts (and William Gallas’ face) told us that the title challenge was over. Our heads told us that we were still top of the league with all to play for. Our hearts told us that a bright future had been shattered. Our heads told us not to be so ridiculous – how could one game, and one injury define an era? Our hearts were right.
In the next article Tim looks back to what happened to the players who played in that fateful game.
- 23 December 2001: 10 man Arsenal finally beat the Anfield jinx – Liverpool 1 Arsenal 2 in a month of five wins, 1 draw, 1 defeat. League match 18 of the third Double season.
- 23 December 2006: Arsenal 6 Blackburn 2. Arsenal made it 3 wins and 2 draws in December with two more games to go. The goals came from Gilberto, Hleb, Adebayor, Van Persie (2) and Flamini.
Woolwich Arsenal the club that changed football, is now available on Kindle at £9.99. For more details and to buy a copy please click here or go to Amazon Kindle and search for Woolwich Arsenal.