Unsung Heroes #3
The next in the series of unsung heroes only left Arsenal two years ago, but given the subsequent quality of his long term replacement, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a lot longer than that. He won two league titles and three F.A. Cups in an illustrious six and a half year spell, was one of the mainstays of "The Invincibles" squad. In fact, during that legendary 49 match unbeaten run, this particular player appeared in a total of 42 of those games, all as a starter. Yet his name has passed all too easily into anonymity, lost amongst the seemingly age old legends of Pires, Henry, Bergkamp and Cygan. Even at the time, his name was rarely spoken, never sung in the stands and barely revered in the media. But Bisame Etame Mayer Lauren tended to manage affairs quietly, yet sternly.
For a taciturn man, Lauren was born unto chaos from his very inception. Lauren`s father was a prominent politician in Equatorial Guinea. Whilst Lauren`s mother was pregnant with him, his family had to flee as the military coup staged by Francisco Macias Nguema threatened his father`s life. The family absconded briefly to Cameroon, where Lauren was born. Shortly after his birth, the family then took asylum as refugees in Seville in Southern Spain. Only in the death throes of his Arsenal career did Lauren ever reveal the details of his childhood, or his hell raising teenage days in the young gangs in Seville. Lauren`s father recognised his son`s misplaced aggression and encouraged him to take up boxing- a pursuit Lauren enjoys to this very day. But it was football that saved him from a life of crime. The fact that he never saw fit to reveal this ad infinitum reveals a great deal about his character. Quiet, determined and resolute. On the "Arsene`s XI" DVD, Wenger opines, "Lauren is a quiet boy. But he is the type you can go to war with."
Lauren eschewed the life of crime and instead spent his nights playing football on the streets of Seville, the warm weather and long daylight hours allowed him to play long into the evenings for most of the year. He was picked up by Seville`s Academy as a teenager and was loaned out to Spanish Third Division side Ultrera. He honed his craft further with a loan spell at CD San Fernando before Seville sold him onto Levante. During the 1997-98 season at Levante, Cameroon`s selecting committee serendipitously learned of his eligibility for their national side and was a surprise selection for their 1998 World Cup squad, earning his first cap in a warm up friendly against Luxembourg in May 1998. Lauren`s second cap came in the 1998 World Cup itself, and boy did he make his mark. Lauren was awarded the fastest red card in World Cup history, receiving his marching orders 33 seconds after coming on as a substitute. Despite that inauspicious start to his international career, he had shown enough to earn a move to RCD Mallorca in the summer of 1998. It was here he caught Arsene Wenger`s eye as a no nonsense, yet composed midfield player. However, little did Lauren know that his future coach had plans for him away from the midfield minefield. But already impressed by his quality, Wenger would become convinced by Lauren`s temperament. In 2000, Lauren`s international career took on a less infamous bent when he put away the winning penalty in the 2000 African Nations Cup Final shoot out. He repeated the trick again, winning Gold at the 2000 Olympics, coolly converting another spot kick in the Semi Final shoot out. The great irony of course was that Lauren lined up in the 2000 Olympics Final against Spain, a country who could have selected him themselves. In any case, it became clear that Lauren had the appetite and personality for the big occasion and Wenger moved quickly to snap him up in the summer of 2000 for £7.2m.
Lauren spent most of his first season in midfield for the Gunners, scoring on his home debut when he opened the scoring in a controversial 2-0 win over Liverpool. Further goals against Sparta Praha and Bradford City coupled with a man of the match performance in a delightful F.A. Cup Semi Final win over Spurs at Old Trafford cemented his reputation as a decent back up central midfielder. But come the summer of 2001, the Boss would unveil his true masterplan, he asked Lauren to switch to right back. The Cameroonian was sceptical at first, but recognising the chance to play regularly with Lee Dixon ageing; he jumped at the chance and set to the training ground, working closely with Pat Rice to acclimatise to his new position. His energy and discipline, as well as his composure made him ideal for it. A calm yet tough customer, he robustly manned the touchline and gave Freddie Ljungberg license to drift in field and weave his magic in opposition penalty areas.
A warrior with a cool head and a stare that could melt the ice caps, his most glorious moment of that Double Winning season came in a tense and much fabled North London derby that April. With Arsenal closing in on the title and the scores locked at 1-1 in the final minute, Henry was fouled in the area and won a penalty. With regular taker Henry off the pitch receiving treatment, Lauren gamely stepped up to the pressure cooker. It was truly one of those slow motion moments; I remember peering on from the Clock End, all of us gripping each other, unable to stomach the unbearable tension. A Hollywood Director could have carte blanche with a moment like this, a stadium full of people collectively inhaling; the sound of silence punctuated only by 38,000 hearts thumping in chests as Lauren mops his brow and coolly rolls the ball down the middle of the goal at about 1mph. There is a mutual heart skipping as the ball brushes the studs of keeper Kasey Keller, but nevertheless has just enough puff to roll over the goal line unperturbed. It really was one of the most heart rendering and iconic moments of that season. As well as winning an F.A. Cup and Premiership Winners medal that year, Lauren won the 2002 African Nations Cup with Cameroon, once again Lauren successfully despatched in the Final shoot out with Senegal. The player continually proved himself to be a man for the big occasion. He would prove his unswerving commitment to his club shortly afterwards, announcing his retirement from international football that year at the age of 26, citing his focus on club matters as his reason. Personally, I`ve never forgotten that, even if most people have.
Lee Dixon retired that summer, a testament to how well Lauren had gone about his job. Despite suffering a minor calf injury in the 2002-03 season, 'Ralph` was a virtual ever present as Arsenal narrowly missed out on the league, but did win the F.A. Cup. Lauren was integral to that victory, particularly in the Quarter Final replay at Stamford Bridge when he motored down the right hand side, cut in on his left foot and shot past Carlo Cudicini to ensure a 3-1 win for ten man Arsenal. He also grabbed an impressive solo goal in the 4th Round victory over Farnborough Town. In the 5th Round, he was also on the end of an x rated studs up challenge from Ruud van Nisterlooy, it was a hostility that would be renewed again seven months later. Lauren was once again a virtual ever present in the following historic season, playing 34 of the 38 unbeaten games as Arsenal sauntered to the title. Perhaps the most incendiary moment of that season arrived at Old Trafford- and Lauren was involved heavily in the ensuing chaos. As the teams warmed up on the pitch, Lauren was bent down tying his laces in the centre circle, Ruud van Nistelrooy walked past and despatched a firm knee in the backside, knocking him over. An unprovoked and callous act and one Sky`s cameras conveniently chose not to pick up. (The fact that BSKYB owned 9.9% of United at the time is a complete coincidence). Once van Nistelrooy gloriously browned his kecks and smashed an injury time penalty against the bar, Lauren was quick on the scene to remind him of past misdemeanours. For doing so, Lauren was banned for four games and fined £40,000 by Sky. Sports. Sorry, by the F.A. that should have read. They were the only games he would miss all season as he won another league title medal and wrote himself into history as one of the Invincibles.
In the following year, Lauren would win another F.A. Cup winners medal and once again show his steel by scoring Arsenal`s first spot kick in the Final shoot out against United. It was always my conviction that Lauren should have been Arsenal`s penalty taker ahead of Henry, whose conversion rate was never entirely impressive. To date, Lauren has missed one penalty in his whole career. He clocked up another 45 appearances that season, but few people realised that Lauren picked up a knee injury in around February of 2005. He would soldier on through the agony for another eleven months, playing with the aid of pain killing injections. If there has been another more committed Arsenal man than Lauren at 21st Century Arsenal, I would like to know who he is and the criteria he meets to justify that. Indeed, in September 2004, Lauren was so angry about an equaliser conceded to Rosenborg that he came to blows with Patrick Vieira. Brave man indeed but one you wouldn`t bet against in the event of fisticuffs. Lauren continued on into the 2005-06 season even filling in at left back when Cole, Clichy and Cygan were all injured. But in January 2006 he underwent surgery on his right knee as he was beginning to find it difficult to walk- the man literally nearly paralysed himself for the cause. Perhaps his last fine moment came three weeks before what would be his final appearance in our colours in January 2006 when he pole axed Ronaldo with what would have been described in the 70s as "a leveller." I am not usually in the business of glorifying bad tackles, but I think we`ve all fantasised about cutting Ronaldo in half at one point. (I think the video still exists on You Tube, I encourage you to look it up).
Lauren would go onto spend a year out of the game following the knee surgery, missing the fan fair of the farewell to Highbury and the Champions League Final in 2006. I always felt desperately sorry for him, as he deserved to line up in such historic games considering his sterling service to the Gunners cause. But you never heard a peep from the man himself, no hard luck stories were forthcoming, self pity simply was not in his nature. He was named as an unused sub in a 1-0 defeat at Bramall Lane, but clearly debilitated by injury; he was sold to Portsmouth in January 2007 for a knockdown price. The paltry size of the transfer fee enabled Lauren to negotiate better terms on his contract, a sure fire sign of the chivalry and respect that Arsene held for the man. Lauren was the steadiest of steady right backs. He`d cut you down with a glance without succumbing to the idiotic temper tantrums of other so called "hard men." A player you could rely on for the big occasion, always calm, a true 7 out of 10 man, utmost consistency and commitment to the cause. It`s no coincidence that his tenure was so decorated with medals, particularly when one looks at how many games he appeared in during those glory years. From the most controversial of beginnings, Lauren turned into one of humble and focussed footballers around. A quiet man maybe, but one you`d definitely want alongside you in the trenches.LD.