How Cesc Fabregas Is Breaking Arsenal Hearts All Over Again
The following article first appeared in 'The Gooner' following the departure of Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal to Barcelona in the summer of 2011.
As if that wasn't difficult enough, the fondness in the words to follow perhaps outlines why seeing him in blue on Sunday will be - quite simply - really f***ing horrible.
'All farewells should be sudden' said the front of The Verve's majestic single 'History' in 1995.
Arsenal fans would agree this summer.
With the dragged out saga of Cesc Fabregas and Barcelona finally reaching it's inevitable conclusion, are we so frustrated that losing our best player is greeted with a half sigh of relief at not having to suffer the same tug-of-bore next summer?
Following the signing of a 16 year old from Barcelona in 2003, I first became aware of the diamond being polished in the reserves after a particularly impressive bit of piss taking against Spurs. Gooner, Charlton Captain and former Spurs player Johnnie Jackson tells the story:
"He introduced himself by rounding five of our players, nutmegging a couple, beating the goalkeeper and squaring it to the forward to tap in to an empty goal. We instantly labelled the show boat 'the Fabregas five' and those of us who suffered from him that day knew he was something special immediately."
With reserve football all too easy for the mercurial talent he quickly climbed the ladder to the league cup 'first team'. Still just sixteen, he became the youngest ever Arsenal player against Rotherham in the October of 2003, before scoring a tap in for himself to become the youngest ever goalscorer in a later round against Wolves.
My memory of Cesc then takes me to August 2004 and the Charity Shield in Cardiff against Manchester United. All in blue, the mullet stained teenager gave Roy Keane the runaround in the pissing down rain as Arsenal ran out 3-1 winners. It was exciting to see a young player dominate someone of the stature of Keane, as much as it would have been excruciating for the Irishman. It also bore the brief song "He's only seventeen, he's better than Roy Keane".
At this point Arsenal were Champions invincible and Fabregas was introduced to the first team upon a wave of world class players and winners. An injury to one of them, Patrick Vieira, made way for Cesc to make his full debut away at Everton as the curtain opened on the 2004-2005 campaign, with the greatest Arsenal side ever trying to stretch their unbeaten season yet further.
With Vieira joined by Sol Campbell in being ruled out through injury and Robert Pires having to settle for a place on the bench, this is the Arsenal side which won 4-1 that day, with Cesc fitting in seamlessly, evidently equipped with a football brain and talent belying his age; Lehman, Lauren, Cygan, Toure, Cole. Reyes, Gilberto, Fabregas, Ljunberg, Bergkamp, Henry.
Cesc would receive his first and only Arsenal medal at the end of that season, starting in an FA Cup Final which was somehow won after penalties against United, Vieira providing the decisive moment. The Frenchman would then be sold to Juventus to make way for Fabregas to bloom. Arsene had fought off interest for Vieira as part of his summer holiday for three years by now. With the potential of Cesc too bright to subdue he finally relented and the last Arsenal captain to lift silverware departed.
The 2005-2006 season saw Cesc graduate from promising youngster to a player on the cusp of world class status.
This first came to my attention in Estadio Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid in February 2006. No longer just potential, Cesc Fabregas had reached a level in which he would excel against exalted midfield company such as Zidane and Guti. Cesc was superb and outshone both illustrious names to such an extent that the Barcelona boy received a standing ovation from the home crowd as he was substituted, regardless of his Catalonian roots, as Arsenal took an iconic one goal lead away from Madrid thanks to that goal from Thierry.
After overcoming Madrid in the second leg Arsenal were drawn against a Juventus side eight points clear at the top of Serie A. It gave Vieira an early return home, where he would be greeted by a Cesc Fabregas determined to prove Arsene right to make room for his development at the Frenchman's expense. Cesc scored one and made the other as Arsenal ran out two nil winners in the first leg, before going to Turin and securing qualification. "Kiss me where the sun don't shine, the past was yours but the future's mine".
The European campaign was to end in heartbreak against his boyhood club. Whilst medals have been scarce ever since, Cesc Fabregas was just thirteen minutes away in his second season from adding the greatest club prize of all to the FA Cup he had won in his first. Thirteen f***ing minutes. Although it ended painfully in the Paris rain, the season itself had seen Cesc Fabregas display the footballing talent and brain of a man whilst still a boy and Arsene Wenger had found another.
As Arsenal said goodbye to Highbury and then Henry the focus of the team shifted away from the record goal scorer and towards Fabregas, who was now running games with unnerving consistency. Everything went through Cesc. If Arsenal were playing well, it was probably because Cesc was. The fans realised this. In a game at Fulham in November 2006 (before Henry had left) Arsene Wenger rested the Spaniard and replaced him with the slightly younger Alex Song. Song was awful in the first half, as were an Arsenal side missing their midfield heartbeat. As the team and manager slumped past the travelling away fans on their way for half time reprieve they were left in no doubt as to who the fans were demanding to improve the situation. The kid from Barcelona. The kid who in his third season at Arsenal would find himself playing in his third final, as a young Arsenal side lost out Chelsea in the Carling Cup Final.
With Henry gone, Cesc inspired Arsenal to their last credible title bid in 2007-2008. Goals were added to the number four's already impressive armoury. He could now do it all. It was a season which included long range strikes against Spurs at White Hart Lane in September and Milan in the San Siro in March, the latter standing out for me as my favourite Fabregas memory.
Arsenal were fantastic that night, with Cesc benefiting from playing alongside a tireless Flamini determined to cover every blade of grass twice. It was a goal every bit as crucial as it was impressive. A goal which broke the deadlock after eighty-five minutes of the second leg against the reigning but ageing European Champions. The celebration was even better.
As he was unveiled as a Barcelona player Cesc described Arsene Wenger as his second father. If you want proof of the substance behind this comment you only have to look at the father and son clench in celebration of that goal, with tears all but evident.
A month previous to the San Siro the wheels fell off Arsenal's title bid at St Andrews in the match made infamous by the horrific injury to Eduardo and the Gallas sit-down-strop. The events of that afternoon would ultimately lead to Cesc Fabregas becoming the captain of Arsenal Football club fourteen games into the following season. At 21 he was already the example.
A knee injury saw him miss four months of his first season as captain, but this did not stop him appearing on the pitch at the end of an FA Cup home win against Hull. Frayed tensions between the two sides were not helped by Arsenal coming back from a goal down to win late on in dubious circumstances. Emirates was a cauldron and Cesc was wrapped up in it. As he came on to celebrate with his team there was an altercation with orange clad Phil Brown's assistant Brian Horton. Both would cry and bleed their sob story to any media outlet that would have them, venting utter disgust at the foreign devil in a hoodie who had allegedly spat at Horton's feet. It would be too easy to establish that unless Horton was flying his feet would be on the floor, but claiming a dirty Spanish foreigner had only spat on the floor would be ignored by most, except the Daily Mail.
This incident was one of many in which Fabregas showed a side that endeared him further to the Arsenal fans by way of acting like one himself. The press would label this his 'darker side', but there is nothing dark about throwing a slice of pizza at Alex Ferguson, as Cesc was alleged to have done as Arsenal lost their unbeaten run to a diving Rooney at Old Trafford in 2004. Joyous, not dark. As is the way he mocked Mark Hughes for the way the Welshman had set out his Blackburn side to restrict Arsenal in a Cup tie in 2007 by kicking them. "Did you play for Barcelona? That wasn't Barcelona football was it?"
In his time at Arsenal Fabregas also landed a punch on Teddy Sheringham whilst the figure of hate was retiring at West Ham and gave Harry Redknapp a mouthful of abuse while the now Spurs manager took time out of his Sky Sports News schedule to manage and financially cripple Portsmouth.
Phil Brown, Alex Ferguson, Mark Hughes, Teddy Sheringham and Harry f***ing Redknapp. That's not a dark side, that's just a dislike for anything c**tish and it's one Fabregas shared with all Gooners.
Fabregas continued to lead by example throughout the 2009-2010 season. No more so than when starring and scoring in the three nil win over Spurs in October. Having just taken the lead through Van Persie before half time, Fabregas decided that it might be nice to go in at the break with a two goal cushion and he promptly grabbed possession back following the restart and surged past the lumbering Spurs midfield and defence before firing home what was already his sixth goal of the season.
Cesc was now facing repeated lay off's due to troublesome hamstrings as a result of playing too much football too quickly. The downside of being too good to leave out or introduce gradually. Another strain saw him start the home game against Aston Villa on the bench over the Christmas period. With the game goalless and drab but vital, Wenger risked Fabregas in the fifty-sixth minute and was duly repaid. The maestro put a free kick in the top corner to open the scoring before pushing his hamstring to the limit to double the tally after eighty-four minutes. The celebration for the second goal was bitter sweet as he signalled that he could not carry on and the substitute was substituted having won the game for his team.
By now Barcelona's flirtation with Cesc was embarrassingly obvious. With every interview the likes of Pique, Xavi and Puyol talked of their dream to play alongside the Arsenal midfielder with 'Barcelona DNA' . The volume of such advances irritatingly increased as we were drawn against the Spanish champions in the Quarter Final of the Champions League. It also gave Cesc the chance to realise just how good his home town side were in a first half of football perfection. Everyone in the ground that night knew Barcelona were the best team in the world. It was all to obvious, especially to Cesc. Despite being blown away in the first half the scores remained level at the break, with the Catalan's racing into a two goal lead in the second half. Cricket scores were feared, but Arsenal rallied and Cesc was at the heart of a quite remarkable and unforeseen comeback. It was Cesc himself who was fouled for the penalty which drew the equaliser. A penalty late on which Fabregas smashed home to euphoria at Ashburton. The spot kick amplified the injury obtained in earning it. Briefly adrenaline and desire helped him ignore the pain, but he was taken off straight after, having equalised with a crack in his right fibula.
The injury ruled him out of a return home for the second leg as a depleted Arsenal side were torn to shreds by Lionel Messi scoring four in response to our cheek in taking the lead. I watched on mesmerised high in Camp Nou and later saw pictures of a deflated Fabregas looking on subdued, pissed off and surrounded by Barcelona officials no doubt whispering in his ear behind closed doors. 'You could be a part of all this'. He was longing for home and desperate for club honours. Who wouldn't want to go home when home is Barcelona?
Cesc's silence over the last two summers spoke volumes. His heart was set on a return home as he waited to see if Barcelona were just as keen to take him back. Last summer's bid was rejected and Arsenal's stance was clear. "We immediately and resolutely told them once again we have no intention of selling our captain." Such resolution might have been tested further had the Spanish giants bid come anywhere near Arsenal's valuation. Fuelled by a stubbornness not to pay in excess of £30m for a player who in their eyes was stolen as a teenager, it was easy to refuse. Without a desire to play anywhere else, Cesc remained an Arsenal player for one more disappointment of a season.
Last season saw glimpses which suggested Arsene Wenger was about to forge another great Arsenal side, but they are too quickly forgotten. Impressive victories over Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona drown in the disarray of lows. Losses and crumbling draws against West Brom, Spurs, Newcastle, Wigan, Bolton and Stoke almost erase such fine wins in a season that will be remembered for conceding a four goal lead at St James' and losing the Carling Cup final against Birmingham. A game which presented itself as an opportunity for a much needed shot of silverware which would kick the team on to challenge for a title which was still within reach due to the league not containing a great side, as United and Chelsea took it in turns to throw away points almost as generously as The Arsenal were. Instead the season capitulated.
Cesc's hamstrings saw him miss the Wembley occasion to ensure he would not have to again watch the team he captained take on the team he longed for from the stands, as Arsenal travelled to the Camp Nou with a 2-1 lead. He was clearly unfit. Against Aston Villa the year previous a cameo appearance was enough for an injured Cesc Fabregas to ensure victory. The game in the Camp Nou passed him by. His only moment of significance before being substituted came midway through the second half as he back heeled and lost pocession on the edge of his own box, assisting Barcelona in taking the lead.
The decline of Arsenal has coincided with the rise of Pep Guardiola's FC Barcelona. If this explains Cesc lust for home what then is the answer for his want to leave in the first place?
You're sixteen and playing for your boyhood idols. The club might not being paying as much attention to you as that little Argentinian fella they keep feeding growing pills, but in staying with Barcelona and progressing through the ranks there's every chance you can make your dream come true. Why leave for Arsenal and London?
Perhaps he was promised a fast track route to the first team not available at the Camp Nou. Arsene Wenger rated him higher than anyone at Barcelona had up to that point. The dream to play for his home team seemed a way off, even as part of the academy. The attraction to Arsenal was Arsene and his trust in youth, as well as the world class players already in place. Arsenal gave Cesc the platform for his talent to blossom to a level high enough to attract Barcelona and ensure that he goes back there as a star able to fulfil the childhood dream. With this in mind, it's hard not to feel a little used by the genius and maybe Cesc owed us more than the no comment silence as our relationship come to a close with the club accepting a bid lower than they valued. That Cesc helped finalise the transfer by waiving a bonus shows you how desperate was he to leave.
If Cesc owed us, we also owed him. He and his talent were worth more than the team he played with over the past couple of seasons. As Cesc reached world class level he became a World Cup and European Championship winner. A taste for glory at international level strengthened a craving for the same at club level. We came close at times, but there was never a cigar. We tried to fix failings with Silvestre and kids. The margin to glory was never that huge, but it required some investment. We failed him. So much so that the starting eleven for the 8-2 pummelling witnessed the weekend prior to writing this article read;
Szczesny, Jenkinson, Djourou, Koscielny, Traore, Cocquelain, Ramsey, Rosicky, Arshavin, Van Persie, Walcott.
Compare and contrast that side to the team in which Cesc made his debut at Everton, ignoring the presence of Cygan. Compare it with the Barcelona eleven Cesc formed a part of for his goalscoring la liga debut against Villareal. It's a no brainer.
Upon completing his move Cesc spoke of the regret he will always carry for not winning more with Arsenal. As he developed into the player he is today he secured a place in the squad for successful European Championship and World Cup campaigns, grabbing an assist to a decisive goal in the latter. Arsenal might not have won anything for six years, but Arsenal's Fabregas did, and he'll go on to win even more now.
Some scoff and say he better get used to life on the Camp Nou bench. Nonsense and rude. Rude to just how good Cesc is. He will play. He already is. He will easily play over thirty games this season which will probably culmanate in the Champions League Final come May. If he hasn't cemented a place in the strongest eleven by then he might start on the bench. But he has more chance of playing in the Champions League final as a substitute with Barcelona than he stood of starting one with Arsenal.
Wenger will have been hurt by the departure of Fabregas more than any other player he has sold before. His footballing son. He's sold big players such as Vieira and Henry before, but these were players Arsene was willing to let go. Stars who left Arsenal having giving us the best years of their career. They'd peaked.
Fabregas leaves us at 24 years of age and his best years ahead of him. Considering the supreme quality of the Arsenal years behind him, that's scary. Scary and sad that we wont benefit from a player who will go on to be the best midfielder in the world by the time he's 28. We signed Francesc Fabregas because we rated him higher than Barcelona did. We still do.
I met Cesc Fabregas in December 2007, outside the team hotel in Porto as they boarded the bus to Estadio do Dragao for the final game of the Champions League Group stage. In a snatched moment before the camera clicked I told him what a pleasure it was to watch him become the player he had. Four years later that privielege remains and always will do.
Gracias Cesc y adiós.