The first two instalments of this series covered four key players in the double-winning side of 1997/98 – this week we move onto two players that were part of what was arguably Arsene Wenger’s strongest squad, the 2003/04 ‘Invincibles’.
The first, Kolo Toure, was a huge player for Arsenal during that fantastic season, while the second, José Antonio Reyes, was only a bit-part player. The duo made important contributions during the club’s run to the Champions League final in 2006, before the painful 2-1 loss to Barcelona.
Both players would go on to make big moves away from the Gunners, and see their influence in the teams they played for afterwards reduced in comparison to their days at Arsenal.
Ray Parlour’s account of Toure’s trial for Arsenal in 2002 is hilarious – he managed to take out not only Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp with crunching tackles but also Arsene Wenger himself, causing the Frenchman to limp off to the treatment room, with Toure believing he had blown his big chance. Wenger however decided to go ahead with signing him for a paltry £150k from ASEC Mimosas, citing his admiration for Toure’s desire.
This desire would shine through in his performances for Arsenal, endearing him to the fans from the very beginning, although his performances would decline in quality towards the end of his seven years at the club. His partnership with Sol Campbell was one of the best seen representing the Gunners, and was the most used pairing during the ‘Invincibles’ unbeaten run after Kolo’s conversion from midfielder to central defender.
After a bad falling out with William Gallas, his main central defensive partner, the Ivorian decided his time at Arsenal was over and handed in a transfer request. Manchester City came knocking and after a bid of £14m was accepted, Toure packed his bags and headed north.
Mark Hughes made Toure his club captain upon his arrival at the Etihad, but the club failed in their aim to break into the top four, missing out by finishing three points behind Spurs. Roberto Mancini took the reins shortly afterwards and took the captaincy away from Toure, giving it to Carlos Tevez instead.
In March 2011, Toure failed a drug test and was served a six month ban from football by the World Doping Agency. He made his return the following campaign, but only made 14 appearances in City’s title winning 2011/12 season.
After falling down the pecking order, the defender was released after the conclusion of the 2012/13 season and signed with Liverpool, where he would spend three trophy-less years. He signed with Celtic for one season last year, making 20 appearances in all competitions as the Glaswegians secured a domestic treble. Toure departed the club upon the expiry of his contract this summer and is currently without a club.
It could be argued that the 2003/04 season proved to be the peak of Toure’s career, and although he had some decent seasons with Arsenal afterwards, his performance levels were never replicated post-Arsenal.
José Antonio Reyes
Reyes is somewhat a forgotten man for a lot of Arsenal fans, and isn’t considered to be a club legend by any stretch of the imagination. He did however have the ability to become one if he had persisted with the bad English weather, one of the several reasons he cited for wanting to leave the Gunners on his way out of the door in 2006. Brian Clough was among Reyes’ many admirers who had expected him to reach the very top.
The young Spaniard was on the fringes of the first team during the second half of the unbArseeaten campaign after signing in the 2004 January transfer window for £10.5m from Sevilla. Despite this, Reyes proved to be a valuable asset in the two seasons that followed, including during that run to the Champions League final in 2006. A low point was the match at Old Trafford where the 49 game unbeaten run came to an end and Gary Neville virtually kicked him off the pitch, verging on assault with some overly aggressive tackles (that somehow went unpunished – but let’s not get into that).
His belief that he could fully adapt to English football and culture waned. He was fooled by a prank call by a Spanish radio host posing as Real Madrid vice-president Emilio Butragueno, and expressed a keen interest in joining Los Blancos. He would eventually secure his dream move to the Bernabeu on loan in the summer of 2006 with Julio Baptista going in the opposite direction, also on a year-long loan.
Reyes would struggle to hold down a starting position in a team that was still littered with ‘Galacticos’ and impress enough to get the permanent move he was looking for. He may have felt he was likely to stay after coming off the bench for an injured David Beckham in the last game of the 2006/07 season to score twice against Mallorca, winning the title for Madrid in the process. There was no offer forthcoming.
Just six weeks after winning the title for Real, Reyes crossed the city divide and joined Atletico on a permanent deal. He only managed eight league goals in four seasons on their books, sandwiching a fairly forgettable loan spell at Benfica. He picked up Europa League and Super Cup winners medals at the club, but only showed glimpses of his talent. There was even a point when some sections of the Atletico faithful disgustingly called for his death.
A return to Sevilla in January 2012 – where it had all begun for Reyes – was next on the cards. He failed to score in his first 17 games and his overall impact during his second spell with the club was underwhelming with nine league goals in 109 appearances, despite three successive Europa League crowns. He was released by his hometown club in the summer of 2016, joining Espanyol on a free transfer.
Reyes, who will only turn 34 next month, was also released by the Catalans at the end of last season after not playing enough minutes during his year with the club to trigger a further year extension.
Despite flashes of brilliance at Arsenal, the Spaniard never really reached his full potential in London, let alone the clubs that he played for in the years that followed his departure. Another case of a great talent not living up to expectations.