Should Ralph Have Been Sold?
I would like to preface this article by thanking Laureno Bisame Etame Mayer for his contribution to our success over recent times. Lauren was a solid, dependable right back, a bedrock of our unbeaten season and a refreshingly selfless player in an age of inflated egos and equally gargantuan wage packets. Ralph was the type of full back, indeed the type of player, every side needs. A reliable seven out of ten type, you always knew what you were going to get. His no nonsense approach, together with his infamous 'thousand yard stare' made him a favourite of mine. I always felt he should have been our regular penalty taker, he had a composure about him from the spot. The arch skill of waiting for the goalkeeper to move before selecting placement. Of course, he became famous for his daisy cutter past Kasey Keller in a tempestuous North London derby, but equally impressive were his conversions at White Hart Lane and his top corner effort in the 2005 Cup Final shoot out. Lauren has only missed one penalty in his entire career, including spot kicks in an African Nations Cup Final and vital qualifiers. Indeed, had he not retired from the international game (to concentrate on the Gunners no less) so early, Pierre Wome may have been spared the agony of missing a last minute kick which ultimately put the Ivory Coast into the World Cup.
I am also delighted that he chose a resurgent Pompey over West Ham. Portsmouth are a historically unglamorous club, but under the guidance of Harry Reknapp they are establishing themselves as a top eight side on a meteoric rise, and Harry has been shrewd as ever in the transfer market by accruing experienced players such as Campbell, Kanu, James and Cole to facilitate the continuing development of Taylor, O'Neil and Davis. The choice was typical of Lauren, substance over style. The question is, with many experienced and erstwhile pros such as Lauren having left our ranks over the years, will the decision to let him leave prove to be a perspicacious one?
Having lost Pires, Bergkamp, Campbell, Vieira, Edu, Cole and Cygan in the last eighteen months, with Freddie to follow in the summer, one might argue that we could do with Lauren's nous in a squad of fledglings. Who better to advise the fledglings Hoyte, Eboue and Gilbert in the rigours of right full back? My answer here, as I am sure Wenger's would be, is he prepared to take a role of this ilk? Afterall, he is still only thirty. Knowing Wenger to be the humanitarian he is, the other question is would he deserve this? After giving us such unstinting service, thrusting aside his national team for our cause, would it be fair to usher him into the background? I do not think so. With the rise of Eboue and the steadfast improvement from Hoyte, he could not be a guaranteed first choice and Wenger obviously believes he has sufficient cover in that position to let Lauren go and play first team football. When your assistant manager is Pat Rice, one is not inclined to worry over who will counsel the young right backs.
I felt back in the summer, that we may see Lauren deployed in a holding midfield role. This is where he began his Arsenal career and turned in some marked displays, in particular the 2001 F.A Cup Semi Final against Tottenham where he ran the show. His experience, calmness and above all, his fiesty tackling will have aided and abetted our lightweight midfield. However, with Diaby fully fit again and Denilson looking impressive, one has to question just how long you can stunt the development of young talent. Wenger has proved equally ruthless before, not allowing reputation or sentiment to dictate his policy. The second Vieira's performances began to dip, he was sold to make way for the impudent Fabregas. As Wrighty's legs faded, his Cup Final place was surrendered to Anelka and Wreh. Overmars' season of apathy resulted in a swift sale to Barcelona. Now it is worthwhile pointing out that Lauren's performances have not dipped tangibly in our eyes. However, having undergone serious knee surgery, which nearly cost Lauren his career, would he come back the same player? 29 is a horrible time to fall victim to such an injury, (which was once again obtained by a year or so of playing through the pain barrier for the cause) and his pace, not to mention propensity towards the tackle, may have been greatly compromised.
Wenger will have observed Lauren closely on the training ground, and if he feels Lauren cannot be the same player, he is in a much better position to make that call than you or I. It is sometimes difficult for us as football fans, to imagine that the players we eulogise about are human and capable of fallability. We do not want to believe that Vieira's heart was not in it anymore, that Ian Wright was too old for the top level, that Dennis Bergkamp's limbs were creaking, that Pires could not command a first team place any longer, so we refuse to believe it. But these are the facts, and the manager must not allow teary eyed sentiment to cloud his better judgement. I also refer you to his decisions to take Lehmann and Henry out of the firing line, Wenger may seem to be the friend of the players', but he has a ruthless side that is exercised much more subtly than Mourinho's press whining about how crap his youth team is or Ferguson's 'get out and stay out' approaches. In the long term, we have Emmanuel Eboue who has all the potential to be the best right back in the world (afterall, Gary Neville's getting on a bit) and Hoyte is turning into an able deputy. Is it really worth compromising Eboue's development?
The other factor people seem not to be considering is the contractual element. Ralph's contract expires in June and we may not be in a position to renew his terms if we do not have assurances about his long term fitness. I believe he may have been offered a one year deal, but did not want to take it. For the player, it makes much more sense to take a two and a half year deal where he can get first team football, and still at a high level, than take a year at Arsenal where he may find himself out of favour anyway. It would have been wrong for Wenger to stand in his way, and it would have been equally unsagacious for Lauren to take that route. All in all, as sad as it is to see him depart, this is a move that suits all parties. As fans, it is acceptable for us to be sentimental, but the management must not succumb to such folly. One of Wenger's great maxims is that he alway looks forward, not back. He is driven by the future. I feel most fans are a little melancholy to see the 'invincibles' dismantled so quickly. But ultimately, it is not prudent to deny the wave of the future, nor is it just to deny the wishes of a player. Cheers Ralph, all the best. LD.