The Curse of the Arsenal Number Nine

For seasons, the Arsenal number 9 shirt seems to have been inhibited by a jinx that refrains the occupier from scaling the heights of their potential. From a fractious Frenchman to a crocked Croatian, the ability of these supposed goal-poachers has appeared to be somewhat restricted since the days of Gunners legend Alan Smith.

When Dennis Bergkamp arrived at the club from Internazionale in 1995, Paul Merson was allocated the number 9 jersey to accommodate the wishes of the Dutchman. Consequently, the player known affectionately by the fans as ‘Merse’, suffered a dip in form as well an off-field quandary with alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction. After Arsene Wenger’s first season in charge, the Frenchman made an unanticipated move and sold the Harlesden born midfielder to Division One outfit Middlesbrough.

Subsequently Wenger dipped into the transfer market, unearthing one of his many rough diamonds that fabricated into an integral part of his maiden double winning side.

Enter Nicolas Anelka, a £500,000 signing for Paris Saint-Germain - Arsenal’s new number nine.

The talented youngster from Versailles snatched his opportunities during the 1997/98 season when injury struck record goalscorer Ian Wright, simulatenously becoming a fans favourite - until the affliction of the ill-fated squad number struck again.

The breakneck strikers’ failure to land an improved contract after claiming the PFA Young Player of The Year award in 1999 was reflected in his performances on the pitch, and fans cited his perceived lack of enthusiasm for the game as sufficient accumen to turn on him. Eventually, the club bowed to the wishes of ‘Le Sulk’, and he was offloaded to Real Madrid for the tidy return of £22.3million.

The conclusion to this high-profile and long-winded transfer saga paved the way for Croatian star Davor Suker to join the Gunners from Madrid in a £500,000 deal. The Baltic hitman had been in prolific form during spells with Sevilla and Real, claiming La Liga, Supercup and Champions League honours alongside leading his country’s charge to third place at the 1998 World Cup Finals.

However, Suker appeared to be signed as a short term replacement for Anelka as the sun began to set on an illustrious career. Disappointingly, he mustered just 8 goals in 22 appearances and the off season saw him call time on his short stint with Arsenal, moving across the English capital to West Ham United.

Francis Jeffers, dubbed ‘the fox in the box’ by Arsene Wenger, became one of several big money signings to lay claim to the number nine jersey. Purchased from Everton in 2001 for £8million, Jeffers three year stint at Highbury was plagued by serious injuries and he formed an intimate relationship with the Arsenal treatment table and was shipped back to Merseyside on loan before being sold to Charlton Athletic following an unsuccesful reunion with his former club.

The attentions of the rapidly developing hoodoo turned to Spaniard Jose Antonio Reyes - another big money signing for the initial sum of £10million from Sevilla.

Reyes initiated his Arsenal career in incandescent fashion, chalking up a victorious brace in an FA Cup tie versus Chelsea, plus goals in the Gunners’ penultimate two games of the season - essentially keeping the red army on course to become the first team to complete an entire campaign unconquered since Preston North End in 1888-89.

Despite mediocre success on the pitch, Reyes’ unsettlement became consistently unconcealed and made no secret of his desire to return to Spain, triggering the arrival of a Beast of a striker - albeit a very tame one.

Real Madrids’ Brazilian hot shot Julio Baptista became interlaced with the Gunners in a season long loan deal which reciprocated Reyes in the opposite direction.

He’ll always be remembered for his quite astonishing performance at Anfield in the Carling Cup where he scored four goals on the night, but feeble finishing and contemptible conviction on the ball made certain that he would live in the shadows of the emerging Emmanuel Adebayor and iconic club captain Thierry Henry.

The summer of 2007 saw the number nine’s current occupant - Eduardo da Silva - drafted in for £8million. His success in the Croatian league at Dinamo Zagreb prompted Wenger to sign the man who helped to thwart the attempts of Steve McLaren to take England to the European Championships of 2008.

An instant hit with the fans, Eduardo’s prowess and ability to be in the right place at the right time reaped huge rewards for the Gunners as he helped to guide the team to the peak of the English football pyramid at Christmas in the 2007/08 season. He gained increasing influence and momentum on the pitch after the festive season, but an horrific injury against Birmingham City in February meant Eduardo would sit out the best part of a year, before making a smattering of appearances towards the end of the 2008/09 campaign.

Probably the most assured Arsenal number nine of recent years, hope remains that Eduardo can return in the 2009/10 campaign and rediscover the form of his early days at the club to play a huge part in the Gunners pursuit of silverware. Nothing would be more fitting for such a consumate, deserving and determined professional.

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