Tomorrow marks 17 years since Arsene Wenger signed one of Arsenal’s most unsung heroes, Sylvain Wiltord.
Playing in a team that consisted of attacking players such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires, it’s safe to say that Wiltord was somewhat under appreciated when compared to his team mates.
But, he played a pivotal role in Arsenal’s history, responsible for a moment that will be remembered by fans forever.
After impressing for Bordeaux – where he scored 46 league goals in 99 appearances and won Ligue 1 in 1998/99 – and scoring the stoppage-time equaliser in the Euro 2000 final, Wenger stumped up a club record £13 million to bring his compatriot to North London in the summer of 2000.
Wiltord has a decent first season at Highbury, scoring 15 goals in all competitions, including five goals in the run to the FA Cup final before losing to Liverpool at the Millennium Stadium.
Highlights of the Frenchman’s debut campaign included a superb volley against QPR, a brace against Chelsea and a 33-minute hat-trick against West Ham United in the Premier League.
2001/02 saw Wiltord score 17 times – including six goals in the opening six games of the season – with his most memorable moment in an Arsenal shirt coming at Old Trafford on Wednesday 8 May 2002.
Arsenal visited Manchester United knowing that a win could wrap up the title for the Gunners but it would no easy feat at the home of the reigning champions.
Having already defeated Chelsea 2-0 in the FA Cup final the previous weekend, Arsene Wenger’s men were looking to wrap up the double, but they would have to do it without an injured Thierry Henry.
A physical yet cagey first half saw the teams head down the tunnel at 0-0 but, just 10 minutes into the second period, up stepped Wiltord to score the winner and secure the title.
After releasing Freddie Ljungberg, – who evaded a Laurent Blanc tackle as he made his way into the box – Wiltord continued his run forward as the Swede hit a low shot towards Fabien Barthez in the United goal.
The ‘keeper got down to his right to save but could only push the shot into the path of Wiltord, who remained calm and slotted into the net to give Arsenal the goal they needed.
The double was secured, all thanks to Wiltord.
The following season was less productive as he hit 13 goals in all competitions for Arsene Wenger’s side, although he did achieve his best assist total of his Arsenal career with seven.
2003/04 would prove to be his last in North London as injuries plagued the forward throughout the Invincible season. He started the campaign with a bang, scoring a brace against Middlesbrough and securing an away win at Manchester City but that’s as good as it got for Wiltord.
He scored his 49th and final Gunners goal on Tuesday 2 December 2003 during a 5-1 battering of Wolves in a League Cup tie at Highbury.
The Frenchman did, however, make the required number of appearances in the league to secure himself a much-deserved winner’s medal.
Wiltord would leave for Lyon in the summer of 2004, bringing an end to an Arsenal career that saw him score 49 times in 175 games for the club, winning two Premier League titles and two FA Cups.
Although he never quite lived up to the heights that many expect, the contribution Wiltord made cannot be denied, especially on that night at Old Trafford.
An always reliable performer who was versatile enough to play anywhere across the front, he rarely had a bad game wherever he played.
His pace, quick feet and goal scoring ability made him a constant threat to defenders, with his love of big game – scoring on a consistent basis against Manchester United and Chelsea – making him a valuable asset to Wenger’s side in the early 2000’s.
All of this made Wiltord a fan favourite, reflected by his position as the 33rd greatest player in Arsenal’s history, as voted for by supporters.
While he may not have been Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and his Arsenal career must be appreciated.