Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to an occasional magnificence.
When the firmament of Premier League greats is discussed Nwankwo Kanu is too often overlooked. This is fine and understandable should the celebratory chat concentrate only on the top tier – yer Shearers and Henrys and Cantonas. Beneath them though, a full fathom five below Scholes and Bergkamp but a whole other plateau higher than some seriously over-lauded household names, stands the 6ft 5 Nigerian.
Perhaps his under-estimation derives from his perfectly ordinary spells at Portsmouth and West Brom, a prolonged decline of reputation that lasted eight years all told. Or maybe it was the startling 118 occasions he began top flight games on the bench, a figure only topped by two others.
Whatever the reason, when the best of the rest are recalled, Kanu is rarely a name that springs readily to mind.
Yet he should, he really should. Here after all is a player who has won a Champions League, two Premier Leagues and two FA Cups, not to mention a UEFA Cup and an Olympic gold medal. He was twice voted the African Player of the Year and, though it reflects more on his character than anything achieved on the pitch, he also set up the Kanu Heart Foundation that has aided an incalculable number of children born with defects. When he took his international bow in 2011 no other player had been furnished with more caps for Nigeria.
The striker from Owerri, Imo could exasperate, no question about that and additionally too he had a propensity to go AWOL for 90 minutes at a time. But on his day – and there were plenty of them – this altogether alien type of frontman to our shores lit up the top flight and showed us glimpses of the future. Here was a targetman as unlike a typical number nine as we’d ever seen. Here was a targetman blessed with the touch and skills of an elegant baller.
Too rarely perhaps did the stars align and that became truer still when Henry began to emerge, taking the acclaim that Kanu craved but could never quite string enough games together to secure. This series though is called ‘A Slice Of Genius’. It is not called ‘A Genius Every Week’.
And on October 23rd 1999 that genius duly came to the fore.
The opponents were Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, title challengers no less. In the first half Tore Andre Flo had put the home side ahead and seven minutes after the break Dan Petrescu had seemingly put the contest to bed. With 15 minutes left on the clock the Gunners were staring at their second defeat in three games.
Enter the big man. The occasional genius. A stymied attack bounced around the area and fell to his size 13 boots and he prodded home. A consolation? No, it was too early to call it that. A chance to gain a valuable point.
In the 83rd minute another stymied attack, this time down the right, as Chelsea held firm. First Lee Dixon and then Marc Overmars looked for openings until the latter cleverly pinged across a low ball, confounding all but the striker. Kanu took a velvet touch into a body of space and blasted home the equaliser.
In the game’s last knocking Chelsea right-back Albert Ferrer attempted a clearance that hit the forward’s tall frame and ricocheted into the corner. Kanu gave chase and with the ball now at his feet he must have been flabbergasted to feel the panicked breath of keeper Ed de Goey upon him. Quite what he was doing there, stranded so far from goal remains a mystery to this very day.
But there he was and other forwards would rush their thought process at this juncture. Fight or flight would kick in. Not so Kanu.
With coolness personified the keeper was turned – de Goey fell flat on his backside – and the narrow gap to goal was navigated with a curling beauty.
Three exquisite goals in 15 minutes, to over-turn a two-goal deficit in a top four battle, away from home. Never let it be said that Nwankwo Kanu – soon after voted the thirteenth greatest player in Arsenal’s history – wasn’t capable when the mood struck, of the utterly magnificent.
When the firmament of Premier League greats is discussed his inclusion is never failingly a must.