Trying to pick a favourite player when you have followed Arsenal for any length of time is difficult. The choice is pretty wide. It`s a bit like picking your favourite music tracks to take to a desert island - you suspect that whatever you pick you are going wish you had picked something else after a while.
Young lads tend to accept the view of their dad as to who is the best player but the first player I can remember claiming as my own personal favourite is George Graham. He had a swagger and style about him and a wonderful touch. He wasn`t quick though I don`t really recall him being as slow as I now read he was. But then he always seemed to be able to make time. He was capable of scoring some spectacular goals and I remember some stunning volleys. One particular bicycle kick against Sp*rs at a packed Highbury on a bank holiday weekend is burnt in my memory. With those long sideburns, good looks and a gorgeous wife George was cool and 'Stroller` was as cool a nickname as you could have....but.....
Charlie George came along. Forwards always capture the imagination. They get the goals and the glory but I think you always look for something special to adopt a favourite player. For me, skillwise, Charlie had it all. If I remember it correctly Charlie`s full team debut was a pre-season friendly against Swindon who had beaten us on a mudbank at Wembley in the previous seasons League Cup final. In that game he was able to hit crossfield passes from 60 yards straight to Armstrongs feet using minimum backlift. He was playing short passes perfectly weighted for others to run onto and towards the latter part of the second half he performed a Cruyff turn before Cruyff was known for it and scooped a shot against the post. That was as close as he came to scoring but that trick was so etched into my mind that for weeks after I tried to emulate it in park games with almost the same amount of overkill as Ade tried to perform backheels against Birmingham last weekend. Charlie was always able to produce that piece of skill that marked him out from other players whether taking a dropping ball on his chest and in the same movement turning 180 degrees to head off towards goal or dropping his shoulder to wrong foot a defender and having a shot at goal. A terrific diving header against Derby at Highbury from a bullet cross from Graham had the then Derby manager, Brian Clough, declaring that Charlie was the sort of player that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That perfectly summed up my feelings about Charlie at the time. Like other flair players of that period he didn`t get much of a look in for England. He only played one game and was taken off after an hour. But even then some failed to see the genius in simplicity. The only goal of the game (if I have it right) was scored by I think Stuart Pearson (or some similarly named ManU player) from an assist by Keegan. But Charlie made that goal. Keegan laid the ball off to him, turned and ran into the penalty area. By the time Keegan had completed his turn the ball had arrived back at his feet played one touch by Charlie perfectly weighted for Keegan to slide across for the ManU player to bundle home. Keegan got all the credit despite all my protests and insistence that everyone else was blind and couldn`t see the key pass in the whole movement. Yeah Charlie was my favourite player …but….
There were others at different times; Liam Bradys skill could be appreciated but he left the club too early and spent his best years away from us. Rocastle, Limpar, Merson, Bergkamp, Kanu and others could, and did, all produce jaw-dropping moments. And how could Henry not be everyone`s favourite Arsenal player? As our all time record goal scorer producing some incredible goals with a style and consistency that hadn`t been matched by any other Arsenal forward. Many years ago I watched George Best play at Highbury. Such was his performance that day that though I can`t remember the result I came away just shaking my head and having to acknowledge that I had witnessed something very special. When asked, after the game, how to stop Best McLintock claimed that the only sure way was to have poisoned his pre-match drink. The only other time I have experienced that same feeling since was after Henry`s 4 goal performance against Leeds. During the game Andy Gray commented on the performance that 'he had seen many things watching football for 20 years but had never seen anything like Henry`. Right on the money for once. So Henry has to be favourite then…but….
I have always admired the simple subtlety of players that apart from possessing the technical skills could see things that others couldn`t. Players that would pick the pass that 99% of others just wouldn`t see. Players that could create the angles that others simply couldn`t conceive. No one ever did those things better than Pires. His first season ended with doubts about him and much of the rest of the team with sentiments along the lines of 'get rid of all our foreigners` not uncommon. I remember arguing at the time that Pires was something very special. He rarely made a bad pass or wasted possession and always seemed to be able to conjure a threat from the most innocent of positions. The seasons that followed demonstrated that ability along with the finishing of a player who had started out as a striker. So good was he in 2001-2002 that while injured he stepped onto to the podium to lift the trophy at the end of the season and the rest of the team bowed in homage, partly in humour but with a strong underlying respect for the skills he had shown. With his pigeon toed running style Pires seemed an unlikely genius but his ability to make space for himself with a simple shift of balance, a sway of his hips or drop of the shoulder, he could unbalance his marker and move clear. Hleb accomplishes much the same with the speed of his feet. Pires had the same ball retention skills but in a less flamboyant and more subtle form. Less eye catching perhaps but once you tune into what he does, his ability to bend a pass over 40 yards into Henrys path or shift the ball a couple of yards at just the right moment then it is easy to understand just what was behind that homage of appreciation from the rest of the team. Pires was probably the most intelligent player I have ever seen - certainly in an Arsenal shirt. So that settles it then favourite player is Pires. Final answer? Yes …..but……Hleb looks really good this season doesn`t he ... and RvPs best moments should still be in front of him.
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