This week’s Highbury Hero takes us back to January 1999, when Arsene Wenger signed a 6 foot 5 inch Nigerian who looked more like a basketball player than a footballer. If he had have been a basketball player it would be easy to imagine him being one of the Harlem Globetrotters, as Kanu was such an entertainer, with plenty of tricks at his disposal, who always played the game with a smile on his face.
Kanu was a real crowd pleaser, who was equally at home playing as the main striker or just behind as the second striker. He lit up Highbury with his extraordinary skill, so tall and gangly yet he had exceptional control of a football. He used to amble around the pitch in a very languid style but defenders underestimated him at their peril. He’d look almost uninterested, then suddenly he would spring into life and cause all sorts of problems for the opposition. He teased opponents by dragging the ball away from them, or giving a little shimmy sending the defender the wrong way. It was as though they knew what he was going to do but were powerless to stop it.
His unfortunate Christian (well for the English fans at least) name is Nwankwo, so it’s understandable he is simply known as Kanu! He built his reputation at Ajax, winning three Dutch titles and the Champions League in 1995.
In 1996 he moved to Inter Milan. But upon returning from the 1996 Olympics, where won a Gold Medal with Nigeria. A medical revealed that Kanu had a life threatening heart defect and he underwent surgery in the United States, to replace an aortic valve. Although the operation was a complete success and Kanu went on to win the UEFA Cup in 1997-98. Inter Milan had bought the Brazilian Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio, so Kanu was deemed surplus to requirements.
Arsene Wenger swooped for Kanu, paying around £4.5 million for him, on the 15th January 1999, although his work permit didn’t come through until the 3rd February. Wenger said it was a gamble signing Kanu, but one worth taking as Kanu was such a huge talent. Wenger also said the fans would enjoy watching him. Le Boss was right on both counts.
Kanu made his debut against Sheffield United in the 5th Round of the FA Cup at Highbury on the 13th February 1999, coming on as a substitute to replace Diawara. It couldn’t have been a more controversial debut. The game was finely poised at 1-1, when Ray Parlour took a throw in, which was intended for Kelly the Sheffield United goalkeeper, as the ball had been kicked out by Sheffield United for treatment to one of their players.
Kanu being new to English football misunderstood the situation and didn’t realise Sheffield United had a man down injured. He intercepted the ball went down the wing and crossed to Marc Overmars who drove the ball home! All hell broke loose. Sheffield United threatened to walk off in protest at what happened. Boos rung around the stadium at full time with Arsenal scandalously winning 2-1.
The controversial Arsenal v Sheffield United cup-tie
I have to say I felt very uncomfortable winning the tie like that. I’d rather we forfeited the game than win a game that way. Arsene Wenger wasn’t happy either and David Devin approached the FA and offered to replay the game at Highbury. Sheffield United accepted. The match was replayed with the same result a 2-1 win for The Arsenal. But at least it was fair and square this time.
It was no consolation that we took part in the finest FA Cup Semi-Final Replay of all time in the same season. When we lost that titanic struggle with Manchester United. We had them on the ropes. But Dennis Bergkamp failed to land the knockout blow, when Peter Schmeichel saved his penalty, with United down to ten men. Of course Giggs then won it for them and Kanu came on as a substitute in that game.
I’m convinced had Bergkamp scored that penalty we’d have had the momentum to go on and achieve a Double Double. There were six league games left and we won five of them with Kanu scoring five times. Including a memorable back heeled side flick in mid-air up at Middlesbrough in a 6-1 rout.
Arsenal demolish Middlesbrough
I also recall being at Highbury for a screening of the North London Derby from White Hart Lane. The North Bank was packed and Arsenal had to open other parts of the stadium to cope with the amount of Arsenal fans that turned up for the live screening. It was probably the best atmosphere for a game at Highbury that season! When Kanu came off the bench and outrageously flicked the ball back over Luke Young’s head, then turning to smash the ball past Ian Walker to make it 3-1, the crowd at Highbury almost lifted the roof off the North Bank.
Kanu embarrasses Luke Young
Heart-breakingly we lost the next game against Leeds United at Elland Road 1-0 and handed Manchester United the edge in the Title race. Kanu became very effective coming off the bench as an impact sub and did the trick again in the last game of the 1998-99 season against Aston Villa at Highbury, to give us a 1-0 victory. But Tottenham being Tottenham, they succumbed to Manchester United and handed them the Title by a single point and then United went on to win the Treble.
The following season 1999-00 saw Kanu have his greatest game in an Arsenal shirt. Two nil down to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, with 17 minutes to play on a rain sodden pitch, Kanu brought The Arsenal back from the dead with a glorious hat-trick.
The winner late in the game was a work of art. Down by the goal line almost by the corner flag, Ed de Goey came out to him and somehow our talismanic Nigerian with his size 15 boots splashing through the puddles, managed with some trickery to get round him and miraculously lift the ball over two Chelsea defenders into the far top corner of the net from an almost impossible angle.
Kanu’s amazing hat-trick against Chelsea
The same season I remember we thrashed Deportivo La Corona 5-1 at Highbury and Kanu sold the keeper a wonderful dummy feinting to shoot and putting the keeper on his backside, allowing him to nonchalantly take it past him and sweep it into the net.
Get your replica wall clock here
Kanu was also a member of the 2001-02 Double squad, coming on in the FA Cup Final in the 2-0 win over Chelsea at Cardiff and he also played against Manchester United, at Old Trafford, when we clinched the Title 1-0 with a Sylvain Wiltord goal and Kanu jumps over Wiltord’s head in celebration.
Arsenal clinch the title and the Double at Old Trafford
As one of the Invincibles Kanu will be remembered forever, although he didn’t play that many games, starting just three League games, but coming on as a substitute 7 times to win a Title winners medal in 2003-04. It was also his final season at Arsenal.
He moved to West Bromwich Albion for two years before signing for Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth in 2006, where he won the FA Cup, scoring the only goal in both the Semi-Final against West Bromwich Albion and the final against Cardiff City in 2008. Sol Campbell also played for Portsmouth that day and Tony Adams was the Assistant Manager as well. Kanu retired at the end of the 2011-12, having been at Portsmouth for six seasons. The Pompey fans adored him and called him King Kanu.
Kanu had a long international career as well, winning 87 caps and scoring 12 goals in a 17 year period from 2004 to 2011. He was twice voted African Footballer of the year in 1996 and 1999.
As I said earlier Arsene Wenger often used Kanu as an impact sub. In fact in 198 games in all competitions for Arsenal he came on as a substitute no less than 94 times and in total scored 43 goals. It was an amazing sight to behold when Wenger threw the kitchen sink at teams, in order to get a result by sometimes having Henry, Bergkamp, Wiltord and Kanu all on the pitch at the same time.
I was at the special benefit match a few weeks back, at the Emirates between Arsenal and AC Milan, where Kanu was the star of the show scoring a hat-trick. It struck me that most of the old players had lost a lot of their pace, but Kanu was exactly the same, as he played at same pace as he did in his prime, nothing had changed. I don’t think anybody who’s ever seen Kanu play will forget what a unique talent he was. Kanuuuuuuuuuuuuu.
As always thanks for reading. They’ll be another trip down memory lane next week.
Editor’s Note – He is also solely responsible for Arsenal being the biggest team in Nigeria where it is said there are 30 million, yes 30 million Gooners. Thank you Big Guy!