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Jose Antonio Reyes

It’s the first non-football Sunday evening of the close season. It’s always a bit of a downer and it rounds off an emotional weekend for us all. This isn’t about me, me, me. It’s about us, us, us. So with a keyboard and a very large glass of Laphroaig Select in front of me let me vent our anguish and hope that it helps.

The breaking news yesterday morning of the death of Jose Antonio Reyes in a tragic automotive accident obviously impacted many in ways we had not expected. At various stages of the day I know it hit many of us. I should have known better than to open the video of him and his little daughters when he returned from China in the local pub just before teatime.

Those extending their sympathies to his friends and family read like an invincibles who’s who, and demonstrated the affection that his peers felt for him. For example, Thierry Henry.

“I’m devastated to hear the sad news about José Antonio Reyes. Wonderful player, superb team mate and exceptional human being.”

Probably the fullest appreciation came from one who Jose Antonio took under his wing arriving as a sixteen year old from Barcelona.

“A humble guy who always had a smile on his face, great footballer and great person. I could not wake up today in a worse way. I will never forget when you and your family welcomed me at your home in my first Christmas in England when I was alone and was 16 years old. I will never forget our tennis football matches in the gym before and after workouts. Our connection in the field was also special, since it was always easy to find yourself between the lines so you could make the difference. 

I always say that you have been one of the greatest talents in football and I know that I am not wrong. 2 days ago I was talking about you in an interview, it might be a sign, who knows, to remember you, my great friend. I will never forget you, we will never forget you. Always in our hearts. Rest in peace Jose Antonio Reyes. Love you very much. Cesc”

There were also acknowledgements posted by Lauren, Sol Campbell, Ray Parlour, Robert Pires, Kanu, Rami Shaaban, Freddie Ljungberg, Gary and Colin Lewin, Stuart Macfarlane, and, of course, one Arsene Wenger on Bein Sports. I’m sorry if I missed any others.

As with most of you Jose Antonio introduced himself to us at Highbury with a brace against Chelsea in the FA Cup, and oh, that first, a screamer into the top left corner. In the North Bank, well everywhere in the ground, we went nuts. “We’ve got ourselves a player!”. He would go on to net 5 goals in 21 appearances as the invincibles wrote their name in history.

The true recognition of his value to that team came at Old Trafford in the infamous match 50 in our unbeaten run. I’m not sure that rotational fouling was a recognised term then, but it is certainly what United perpetrated upon the player seen as the biggest danger to them. Rooney, Scholes, and the cowardly Neville brothers committed ‘challenges’ on him that day that Mike Riley either turned a blind eye to, or eventually produced a token yellow card. They effectively kicked him out of English football.

It wasn’t immediate. Jose Antonio scored 12 goals in 45 appearances in that second season and satisfyingly ended up an FA Cup winner at Cardiff against, fittingly, Manchester United. The following season he was an integral part of our run to the Champions League Final and made another 44 appearances for the club. He was at the forefront of Arsene Wenger’s thinking at a time when we had Ljungberg and Pires. There is no higher compliment.

Home sickness is a thing, and Jose Antonio felt it increasingly during his time in London. Reluctant to sell a prized asset, we agreed a loan deal for him. This was no ordinary loan. The talented winger/forward found himself at Real Madrid for a year as we hoped he would agree to come back. It wouldn’t happen. A year on he was an Atletico player where he won the Europa League twice.

In his later career he returned to Sevilla where, under Unai Emery, he won three more Europa League winners medals. As a full Spanish international he scored 4 goals in 21 appearances, but his life and career was never about statistics. It was about a talent who brought pleasure to all fortunate enough to see him play. It was about the player who had to be ‘reduced’ to try and stop The Arsenal from dominating matches.

Here’s hoping that his young family are able to relatively quickly grasp the esteem in which he was held by fellow footballers and supporters of his various clubs alike. I haven’t a clue how to finish this other than to say that we would sign the 2004 Reyes tomorrow. We need someone with his gifts.

RIP Jose Antonio.

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