If ever there was high praise in football, it would be from the mouth of French icon Zinedine Zidane. Regarded by many as the greatest of all time, (perhaps even rightly so), Madrid’s playmaker was left speechless in 2003 after his Galacticos side were torn apart by a little known diminutive Spaniard playing for Sevilla.
The man in question? Jose Antonio Reyes.
After a blistering display from the soon-to-be Arsenal no.9 had left Madrid’s season in disarray, Zidane asked the media if Reyes has been “getting around the pitch on an invisible motorcycle” – Such was his place and trickery. From a man of Zizou’s pedigree, that’s high praise indeed, and they were words not to be ignored by fellow Frenchman Arsene Wenger.
Usually the least likely to open his wallet in champagne Charlie style, Wenger saw enough in this talented young Spaniard to fork out a then club record £17m for Reyes in January 2004.
His debut came as a substitute against Manchester City, but on a rain drizzled Sunday night at Highbury; it was Thierry Henry that stole the Spaniard’s thunder with a spectacular late winner, a theme set to re-occur throughout his time in North London.
A fortnight later, and in the place of the injured Henry, Reyes was to firmly announce himself as the prince to Henry’s king. Trailing to an Adrian Mutu goal, Arsenal looked set to crash out of the FA Cup at home to fellow title rivals Chelsea. Cue Reyes with a thunderbolt to level the scores, and seconds later, a neatly poked home winner. Highbury had a new hero, and as Wenger’s men scooped the league title, going the entire season unbeaten, they started the next year in equally imperious form.
Reyes was a LEGO brick, neatly attaching himself onto fellow bricks Pires, Bergkamp and co as the Gunners notched up some of the most breath-taking football the English game had ever witnessed. He started 2004/05 with 6 goals in as many games, creating chances for his team-mates by the bucket load. The August player of the month award followed, and whisper it around Highbury quietly, but perhaps even talk of Reyes over-taking their beloved Thierry as the club’s leading marksman.
So where did it all go wrong? Perhaps it’s best to ask the Neville brothers. Though perhaps ‘the Mitchell brothers’ is a more apt name to give Monsieurs Gary and Phil, given the role of henchmen they were assigned to play on Reyes in a feisty clash at Old Trafford in October 2004.
Arsenal were 49 games unbeaten, desperate to make it 50. Manchester United even more desperate to stop their fierce rivals reaching the magic half-century in their own backyard.
Identifying Reyes as Arsenal’s key threat, the sibling full-backs performed something of a hatchet job on the former Sevilla playmaker and Reyes was substituted after 70 minutes for his own safety.
It was a cruel ‘hello’ to the physical side of English football for Reyes, and as the winter drew in, his early season sparkle was gradually subsiding into a mid-season whimper. The goals dried up, with only 4 more coming between October and May, and then there were various media fracas’ that hardly helped his cause.
First Spain coach Luis Aragones was recorded telling Reyes: “Tell that Negro de mierda (black s**t) that you are much better than him. Tell him from me. You have to believe in yourself. ”
He was of course referring to Thierry Henry. Come at the king and you’d better not miss. Suddenly, Reyes was returning back from international duty to a somewhat icier reception than he would have hoped.
Then came the radio prank that effectively ended his career in an Arsenal jersey. Believing he was speaking to Real Madrid sporting director Emilio Butragueno, Reyes admitted his feelings of homesickness and a failure to adapt to England and begged ‘Butragueno’ to take him to the Bernabeu. Reyes may as well hammered the nails into his Highbury coffin. Though he was in such paltry form, he’d have probably missed!
After a red card in the closing stages of the 2005FA Cup Final, and another inconsistent season in 2005-06 (despite impressing in Europe, playing on the left side of a 4-1-4-1 as Arsenal reached the Champions League Final), a loan move to Madrid eventually followed in a swap deal for Julio Baptista, where he was unfancied by boss Fabio Capello in his maiden return season at the club. And though he bagged the goals that brought the La Liga title to the Bernabeu in a thrilling final day victory against Mallorca, it seemed unlikely that we’d see Reyes in the white of Madrid again.
Instead, Jose Antonio was flogged to the opposite side of Madrid in the summer of 2007; neighbours Athletico. And with no homesickness, or Neville brothers around to put the creepers up him, this was surely the time for Reyes to shine?
Reyes failed to score a single goal all season and was farmed out on loan to Benfica for 2008-09. And though he was recalled to the Athletico set-up in the summer of 2009, his chance at international level had now long gone and his reputation had already taken a beating.
By the time 2012 had come, Reyes had stagnated once more and jumped at the chance to re-join boyhood club Sevilla in the January transfer window. A lively start was once more succeeded by a period of mediocrity.
When Reyes burst onto the scene at Arsenal, he was hailed as one of three outstanding young players in the league alongside the then-injured Wayne Rooney and a lanky show-pony by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo was all style and substance, one too many stepovers for the likes of many. Reyes was the real deal, the one with the end product, and the key man in an Arsenal side that finished 15 points ahead of Ronaldo’s Manchester United side.
The way both players’ careers have differed towards polar directions is, for Jose Antonio Reyes at least, nothing short of a tragedy.