Aug 052008

A look at Arsene Wenger’s less than successful youth signings during his Arsenal tenure

Christopher Wreh never had as good a season as 1997-98. With a Premiership challenge in full flow, but with Wright and Bergkamp both unavailable, he scored a couple of crucial winners that sparked the long winning streak culminating in the Premiership title returning to Highbury. For good measure, he scored the only goal of the FA Cup semi final against Wolves, before picking up a winners medal against Newcastle a few weeks later.

At 23, he probably expected his career to go from strength to strength, but the opposite happened. After two seasons in and around the first team, the former Monaco striker made three loan switches. The first was a reasonably successful one, to AEK Athens, in 1999, before less enjoyable spells with Birmingham, where Trevor Francis sent him back within weeks, and the Dutch side Den Bosch in 2000.

With his Arsenal career in decline, he left in the summer of 2000 to find regular football. After six months without a club, he moved to oil rich Saudi Arabia to play for Al-Hilal, the home of Saudi legend and top scorer Sami Al-Jaber. Wreh apart, the Saudis were a team made up of home players and he struggled to adapt, leaving at the end of the season after a handful of inauspicious appearances.

In the summer of 2001, Wreh joined Bournemouth on trial, but the south coast side never offered him a contract, and he ended up moving to Scotland to join First Division St Mirren. Thoughts of a career revival were short-lived, as he made only three substitute appearances for the remainder of the season and failed to get on the scoresheet. This was largely due to persistent injuries, despite his continual optimism that he was ‘close to a return’.

St Mirren tried to offload him to ease their financial difficulties, but move after move broke down. Eventually he left at the end of the season, his reputation in tatters, and took a few months leave from the game, before returning in the Ryman Premier League with Bishop’s Stortford. The move was a disaster, and Wreh’s attitude was called into question by manager Martin Hayes after no-showing a game against Enfield:

“Honestly, even if he had turned up for the Enfield game I wouldn’t have put him on the bench, never mind started him. He didn’t turn up for training last Friday and that wasn’t the first time. I can never get hold of him. It’s not on. I have to think of the other lads who do put in the time and effort.”

Incredibly, Wreh’s next step was even further down, to Buckingham Town, but after a few appearances there, decided enough was enough and retired from the game in 2005 to concentrate on a musical project, Soul Rebels.

His football story hadn’t quite ended there, however, because in the summer of 2007 he joined Indonesian side Perseman Manokwari. Six months later, he walked out on his contract and hasn’t joined a club since.

In addition to his seemingly poor attitude, Wreh has been dogged by continual comments about his weight and fitness, something he freely admits to on his blog, now focused mainly on his musical exploits. In the early entries, he confesses that he enjoyed his food far too much to maintain his fitness, and this may one of the reasons his career nosedived so spectacularly.

Ten years ago he was an FA Cup winner. What a demise.

Jul 242008

A look at Arsene Wenger’s less than successful youth signings during his Arsenal tenure

Mention the name Igor Stepanovs to an Arsenal fan and he will shudder as his mind drifts back over seven years, to a Sunday afternoon in wintry February.

The date was February 25, 2001, the venue Old Trafford, and Stepanovs partnered Gilles Grimandi in a makeshift defence against the eventual champions. The resulting 6-1 defeat has gone down in infamy, along with Wenger’s tirade at half-time with his side 5-1 down and victims of a Dwight Yorke hattrick.

Latvian centre back Stepanovs arrived from Skonto Riga in September 2000, but never impressed in an Arsenal shirt, looking way out of his depth from his first appearance to his last. Eventually, he was loaned out to then feeder club Beveren for the 2003-04 season, who struggled to twelfth in the Belgian league.

On his return, it was abundantly clear that he was never going to make it at Arsenal, and Stepanovs was transferred to Grasshopper Zurich on a free, as he looked to rebuild his ailing career. That same summer turned out to be a highlight, as he represented Latvia in their Euro 2004 campaign having qualified against the odds.

But once he got back to club football, his troubles resurfaced. He was in and out of the Zurich team, and struggled for form when picked. After nearly two years in Switzerland, he returned home to Latvia to play for strugglers FK Jurmala, desperate for regular football.

But even that was fruitless, and after six months in his native country he had appeared just nine times. Attempting once again to resurrect his career, he joined FC Esbjerg, a midtable side in the Danish Superliga. Finally, he managed regular first team football for the second half of the 2006-07 season as Esbjerg finished seventh out of twelve teams.

It was a brief high, as he found himself in familiar territory at the start of the 2007-08 season, out of favour with his club, and after only three appearances in the first half of the season made another switch in January, this time to Shinnik Yaroslavl, who had just been promoted to the Russian top flight. It was hardly a glamorous move.

And it wasn’t a successful one either – Shinnik are currently in the relegation zone, but despite that Stepanovs couldn’t get a game, and was released at the end of June, after just six months of his contract. At 32, he is currently without a club.

It seems his is a story without a happy ending, and that he will always be remembered for that awful day in Manchester.

Jul 232008

A look at Arsene Wenger’s less than successful youth signings during his Arsenal tenure

Quincy Owusu-Abeyie is a classic example of star potential going to waste on a player unable or unwilling to capitalise on their immense talent. In his time at Arsenal, he impressed with dazzling skills and wonderful footwork, but all too often lacked any sort of end product. In a way, he was Alex Hleb’s predecessor. So what has become of him?

Dutch-Ghanaian winger/striker Quincy was born in Amsterdam in the spring of 1986, and having spent much of his youth at Ajax, signed for Arsenal in 2002, aged just sixteen. He made his debut in the League Cup in 2003-04, the same campaign in which a certain Cesc Fabregas made his bow. The following season, his performances lit up Arsenal’s run to the semi finals, although it was becoming increasingly apparent that despite his sublime skills, he wasn’t a passer of any note, often refusing to even take that option.

His final appearance for Arsenal was his only Champions League start, ironically against home town club Ajax in a group ending dead rubber in December 2005. A month later, Adebayor and Walcott were signed, and Quincy found himself way down the pecking order. A transfer to Spartak Moscow swiftly followed, a move he insists he does not regret.

But he struggled to adapt in Russia, rarely playing ninety minutes partly due to injury, and partly due to the Eboue syndrome, where he was automatically the first player hauled off when the manager wanted to make changes. Rumours of an ongoing feud with teammate Vladimir Bystrov didn’t help, and eventually he moved to the sunnier climate of Spain, joining Celta Vigo on loan last summer.

In the meantime, he had switched allegiance on the international front. Despite shining for Holland at youth level, he opted to play for Ghana, and despite a few hitches along the way that saw him picked for squads that he wasn’t allowed to play in, he was eventually given permission to represent Ghana before the African Nations Cup earlier this year. He appeared in the knockout stages but has struggled for a regular place in a talented midfield.

Meanwhile, Quincy had become dissatisfied with his experience in the second tier of Spanish football, and is keen to have another crack at the Premiership, as reported earlier this month by Gooner Talk. With Spartak seemingly ready to listen to offers, it’ll be interesting to see what lies ahead for the kid.

It would be a shame if his talent continued to be unfulfilled – he always had bags of ability, but has yet to become a rounded footballer rather than a showboating trickster.