( Part One can be found here )
I’d like to raise a glass. Vassiriki ‘Abou’ Diaby has finally seen his tenure at Arsenal come to an end. The toast isn’t for the closing curtains of his time playing for the Gunners however.
It is for the death of the untapped potential he had, which most would agree, was gargantuan.
Diaby joined Arsenal in 2006, after making just 13 apps for Auxerre under Guy Roux – a manager Arsene Wenger highly respected and who also served a ridiculously long time, at the helm of Auxerre. Fans could be forgiven for reserving doubt with his addition to the squad and his lack of experience, especially with a raft of ‘promising’ youngsters coming through the revolving door at Arsenal only to be farmed out rapidly when their talent failed to blossom into tangible performances.
Abou wasn’t of the same ilk as these unfortunate young men. He was gingerly placed in the team here and there in his first season, sprinkled substitute appearances and the odd start. He was slowly showing what he could do on the pitch. With his extremities flailing, most could be forgiven for thinking he would be inelegant – a combative Paolo Wanchope if you will – but that would be a great disservice to the Frenchman. He was so much more. Or at least he could have been.
Dan Smith, a player eager to impress Interim Boss at Sunderland, Kevin Ball, was the man responsible for setting into motion the horrific run of injuries that would see Abou try in vain to leave his own indeliible mark on Arsenal’s annals which his talent so richly deserved. A tackle which prompted a normally studious Wenger to claim it was ‘criminal’, left Diaby’s ankle so badly damaged that it required three separate bouts of surgery. The doctor who performed the surgeries stated that the ailment may end up threatening his career. How very right he was.
Dan Smith got his just desserts for an act that can only be described as ‘thuggery’. His career descended into ignominy after failing to make the grade at Sunderland and years of playing amateur football beckoned. Diaby however, fought with every fibre of his being into regaining fitness.
After fighting back from this particular setback, Diaby began to assert himself upon proceedings at The Emirates. Aside from niggly thigh and calf injuries, whenever fit he was called upon. Aside from his well balanced skillset, Abou also evidenced his tendency towards hotheadedness. He was sent off twice in his career at Arsenal, but both times saw him left on the bench for a spell as Wenger undoubtedly wanted to teach the youngster a lesson.
Arsene Wenger never tongue-lashed his young charges in the eye of the media. Even to his detriment – he would always have their best interests at heart. Behind the scenes though, was where Wenger would set the record straight and just like with a similarly angry Robin Van Persie, when Diaby was booked for being a tad overzealous, a spot of bench-sitting did him the world of good.
2008-2010 were the seasons when the boy from Auxerre started to come good. Comparisons were made with former Arsenal talisman Patrick Vieira – but anyone who had the fortune to witness both play, could notice the difference. Vieira was a skilled and wily warrior, who always put the team first and would patrol the pitch with intent, seeking out weaknesses to exploit. Diaby, whilst able to make an efficient tackle, was more at home in the attacking third, but his dribbling skills would see him just as comfortable setting up attackls from deep. His most underrated quality though, was his fantastic ability to ghost past players. Allied with his incredible close control and you had a player who had the physical presence to cope with the agricultural nature of the Premier League but could blitz the opposition with a quick turn and dash.
In those two seasons he showed he was worth the wait. His ankle injury always haunted his career though and led to him overcompensating in his movements, leaving him unable to complete a full season, but in his rare unhindered moments, he was a thoroughbred.
In all, he made one hundred and eighty appearances for the Gunners over nine seasons. An average of twenty games a season doesn’t really inject the morbid colour which surrounds Diaby’s playing career. It doesn’t illustrate the torturously prolonged spells he had in recovering from not only his busted ankle, but also the cruciate ligament in his knee suffered in 2013. With the regularity he was struck down by setbacks, he could well have become one of many physio’s apprentices
One moment in particular will always sum up my recollections of Diaby. Not his swinging boot into John Terry’s face ( although for pure karma it outranks most ), nor his majestic performance and goal Vs Liverpool in 2012 which saw him run rings around a bewildered Scouse midfield and leave critics purring. No, it was the infamous 4-4 draw with Newcastle. The first half saw Arsenal lay siege to the Toon rearguard, opening up a four goal lead in little over thirty minutes. The balance of the side was perfect and Abou Diaby was the ringleader. It was as if he had mastered the taboo subject of cloning and had managed to slip four or five Diaby’s into the team – such was his complete mastery of the opposition. The real telling factor regarding his stranglehold on the game? Joey Barton – perennial mosquito of the Premier League – managed to finally make Diaby see red and with his sending off, Arsenal, down to ten men & with a conspicuous Diaby-shaped aperture in their centre – were then responsible for one of the most shocking reversals in the modern era – eventually scraping a draw.
Diaby could attack. He could pass, he could jostle, he could shoot, he was tactically astute. He was an effective defensive barrier. The one thing he was not, was impervious to serious injury.
For every Diaby, you have an Aaron Ramsey. Both subject to terrible assaults on the pitch and also gruelling comeback schedules. One came through the darkness and managed to use the adversity to become stronger. The other succumbed to it.
Perhaps we take for granted the miracles that the doctors perform in the surgical arena and the physio’s put into action in the medical bay. We seem to all think that when cartilage splits or tears that the magical elastoplast is close at hand and abundant in its nature. Diaby is evidence that these injuries need a little luck too.
Diaby’s story may be a tragedy of sorts. The brief moments of illumination make the overcast ever murkier. His tale is also testimony to the faith Arsene Wenger invests in his squad. Year after year, Abou crashed and burned in his repeated attempts to catch that first high. Every time he fell, Wenger reiterated his desire to see him play for Arsenal again. Despite the growing number who called for sense to prevail and for the Gaffer to ship the ‘sicknote’ out of the club, Wenger never swayed. Diaby became the symbol for Wenger’s malaise when the majority thought his time was up.
The time for Diaby to go has come though. Wenger would have given him a ‘Pay as you Play’ deal if he had the slightest inkling that he could be even half the player he once threatened to be. Arsene is finally resigned to the fact that Diaby’s career may be over.
Our Number 2 turned Number 24, eventually became a go-to for jokes within the Gooner network. Whenever anyone asked what the lineup would be for the next game, Diaby would be suggested and everyone would know that it was a ruse. What wasn’t mentioned is that nearly everyone who has made a similar wisecrack ( which would be pretty much everybody ) still hoped to see Abou in full flow. For him to shrug off the hindrances and injuries. Unfortunately, it was never to be, which is the saddest fact of all.