In February 2006, Arsenal were suffering on the pitch turmoil, particularly in defence. Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue were galivanting in yet another meaningless international tournament (is there any other kind?), Lauren had just been struck by a serious knee injury, Ashley Cole was 'injured', Gael Clichy and Pascal Cygan and Kerrea Gilbert were genuinely injured, Justin Hoyte was out on loan and Sol Campbell was stricken with personal problems. Midfield juniors Mathieu Flamini and Sebastien Larsson were occupying both full back positions. With our backline stretched to breaking point (no, I said 'our backline', not 'Sol Campbell's waistline'), Arsene Wenger was left with little choice but to throw in a little known Ivorian/ Swiss youngster called Johan Djourou. He had made a couple of unremarkable appearances in the Carling Cup, but with the Champions' League knockout phases about to resume and Arsenal languishing in seventh in the league, it was very much a case of sink or swim for young Johan.
The gangly postured 18 year old was thrown into the firing line in early February away at Birmingham City, following hot on the heels of two debilitating defeats to Bolton in the Cup and West Ham in the league. Speculation was rife as to the disappearance of Sol Campbell and somehting appeared to be rotten in the state of Denmark. Perhaps not the most becoming cirumstances for our no.36 to make his debut, especially with the prospect of facing old battering rams Chris Sutton and Emile Heskey in relegation threatened Brum's line up. Emmanuel Adebayor made his debut, while Abou Diaby started a Premiership game for the first time, Theo Walcott sat on the substitute's bench, 20 year old Philippe Senderos was the most senior member of a fledgling backline- hardly the most settled, experienced line up. But Djourou's telepathic positioning and freakish composure saw him pass that test with flying colours. It was as if nobody told him about Arsenal's malaise away from home, or the crippling injury list, or Sol Campbell's problems, or the fact that, in spite of his abject crapness, Emile Heskey is actually quite strong! Djourou became an instant hit with the Arsenal fans when he nonchanantly shimmied his way past Heskey on the touchline down in front of the travelling support, before calmly distributing the ball with pinpoint accuracy.
Heskey became so frustrated in that fixture that he ended up receiving his marching orders for dissent. Djourou's comfort on the ball was astounding and word quickly spread that he had in fact served his apprenticeship as a holding midfielder. For a young player manning the Maginot Line of back four humdrum, the frightening assurance put one in mind of Cesc Fabregas' first games. The return of Kolo Toure from the African Cup of Nations restricted his involvement from that point on, but in his few appearances, it looked like Arsene had done it again. I remember being sufficiently impressed to look up when and how he was signed, I chanced only upon a revealing (or not as the case my be) comment from Wenger, 'we have signed Johan Djourou, but don't tell anyone.' Arsenal are renowned for their pantheon of impressive youngsters, but historically Wenger has always kept a couple of young gems away from the media glare. For all the hype surrounding Merida, Fabregas and Senderos, little was known about Djourou, Traore or Anelka before they were unleashed upon an unsuspecting public.
In a show of faith to his youngsters last summer, Wenger blew away thecobwebs of the old guard by altering some squad numbers. Much of the fuss centred on Fabregas taking number 4, Toure 5 and Senderos 6. Typically, Djourou was quietly upgraded to the number 20 shirt, a sure sign that he would figure in the first team squad. An early season injury to Philippe Senderos and the protracted transfer of William Gallas saw Djourou as a prominent feature of our early campaign. Despite Senderos' sterling displays in Champions' League and World Cup, there was a general consensus that Djourou's calm and precise style perfectly augmented the hairum scarum bucanner of Toure and that Djourou's stock had risen significantly to see him nudge ahead of Swiss Tony in the pecking order. Djourou continued to perform impressively, while Senderos, clearly debilitated by an early season injury, became the target of unfair stick. (Why was injury a sufficient excuse for Henry's early season malaise, but not for Senderos?) As Gallas returned to full fitness, Djourou's involvement became sparse, until he offered a tantalising cameo in central midfield on the last day at Pompey, proving his versatility. Rumours are abound that he may join Birmingham on loan, I for one hope he does not go. With another African Cup of Nations in January, Djourou might just be needed to feature prominently. He is kore than capable of plugging that gap and becoming a great player for us for years to come.LD.