Where are they now? The Search for forgotten Gooners: Week Five – Igor Stepanovs

I’d like to start by thanking all of you guys for your views
and kind comments on my previous pieces. I went for a bit of variety with my
weekly blog seeing as that all of our talented writers opted for more
contemporary issues.

However, I’m still surprised by how many of you actually
give two hoots about Kevin Campbell, Junichi Inamoto, Christopher Wreh and Rami
Shaaban. If you have no idea who any of those people are, then do your
homework, read over the first four issues of this blog and then come back to
this one.

Week five sees me investigate a man who has enough accolades
to warrant not being forgotten, yet he is probably the sort of guy who will
never leave Arsenal fans puzzled once his name his mentioned.

That isn’t necessarily for all the right reasons either.

You look at his credentials though. He won the Premier
League title. He has won two FA Cups and he has even accumulated 100
international caps for his country who have also named him as their Player of
the Year in the past.

Quite an impressive career eh? Well, in parts.

The man in question is tall, ginger and from Latvia. That’s
right, it’s Igor Stepanovs.

The very thought of this centre-back makes Gooners’ spines
shiver, and the slightest of mutters about the name makes you want to cry
inside. If ever there was a player who you thought: ‘How the hell did he become
a professional footballer?’ about, well, it was him.

At a time when Arsenal boasted defenders such as Tony Adams,
Martin Keown and Sol Campbell, Arsene Wenger almost seemed embarrassed when
forced to call upon Igor at times of need.

The 6 ft 4 Latvian started his footballing career as a
16-year-old at Skonto Riga in his homeland, where he made well over 100 appearances
for the side in an eight-year period. He played at a time when the club were
starting to compete in Europe, and featured against the likes of Inter Milan,
Barcelona and Chelsea where both he and the team put in some impressive
displays.

His form, along with an injury to skipper Adams, was enough
to convince Wenger to bring him to Highbury, and Stepanovs signed on the dotted
line in North London for a fee of £1.35m in 2000.

He was snapped up with the view of becoming Tony Adams’
understudy. Those boots were pretty big to fill. But never mind trying to
become the next Mr. Arsenal, Stepanovs would have had problems trying to reach
the level of the next Mr. Bean.

Stepanovs was awful.

He made a decent start to his Gunners career, but he was
undone on that day to dismember in February 2001 at Old Trafford. Stepanovs,
alongside Gilles Gimandi, were torn apart by Manchester United and Dwight Yorke
in particular, causing Arsene Wenger to lose his rag at the break, and the
Gunners to endure an embarrassing 6-1 defeat.

He featured minimally for the remainder of the campaign, and
Wenger went all out to land Campbell in the summer from rivals Tottenham
Hotspur. The end of the next season saw Arsenal standing tall; securing the
Premier League title at Old Trafford a few days after beating Chelsea at the
Millennium Stadium to win the FA Cup. Stepanovs may have still been an Arsenal
player at the time, but he didn’t feature in either successes and was therefore
unable to collect a winners’ medal.

Igor just couldn’t hack it, and was below par from his first
outing to his final one. He was loaned out to feeder club Beveren in Belgium in
2003, where he made more league appearances than he did during his time at
Arsenal.

Once that campaign came to an end, Stepanovs was out the
door at Arsenal, but jetted off to Portugal where he represented Latvia at Euro
2004; a personal highlight of his career.

But once he returned from international duty, Stepanovs
continued to faulter. He signed for Grasshopper
Zurich 
on a free, and spent just short of
two years at the club, where he struggled to hit top form once in the team. Not
that he had a top form though to be honest.

Stepanovs
then opted to move closer to home in order to find regular first-team football,
and rocked up at FK Jurmala. He even failed there though, and made just nine
appearances in six months at the strugglers.

His
career finally started to pick up in 2006, when he joined mid-table Danish
outfit FC Esbjerg. Igor managed to hold down a place in the side towards the
end of the term, helping Esbjerg to a seventh-place finish in a league of 12.

His
triumphant form was quickly quashed when he was forced to pick splinters out of
his arse due to all the time he was spending on the bench. After playing three
times in the first half of the year, Stepanovs decided to sack it off in
January and find another club to watch from the dugout.

Shinnik
Yaroslavl, who had just been promoted to the Russian top flight, were the next
club to be tainted with Stepanovs’ presence. It was hardly a glamorous move,
and he was released with the club occupying the relegation zone.

He
then went an entire year as a free agent before someone seemingly forgot about
how bad he actually was, and offered him a job in hope that maybe, just maybe
he could be of some use.

Igor
signed for RFS/Olimps from Latvia for a short period before returning to old club FK Jūrmala.

Stepanovs
finally gave up and called it a day in August 2011 by retiring from
professional football, having taken part in a fine era of Arsenal’s history and
finishing on a painful 99 international caps.

There
was a happy ending for Stepanovs in the end though, as he was called up by the
national side for a friendly against Finland shortly after his retirement. He
played the final match of his career in that game before bowing out as a
centurion.

He
may have left the game in honour, but he will never be forgotten for that
abortion of a performance at Old Trafford in February.

And
now you know.

Matt Cotton

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