Soccer surprises

Aston Villa's Robert Pires has got a new lease of life this season.-Pics: AP

It's a delight when a less trumpeted, even half forgotten, player emerges from passing anonymity to excel among the multi-millionaires. This season, as always, there have been several such cases, writes Brian Glanville.

In this era of hyperbolic transfer fees and great, sometimes exaggerated expectations, it is occasionally good to be surprised. Not least when a less trumpeted, even half forgotten, player emerges from passing anonymity to excel among the multi-millionaires. This season, as always, there have been several such cases among which I'd single out Robert Pires; with the admission that he has proved me wrong.

My old friend and former manager of France Gerard Houllier has had his ups and downs this season as Aston Villa manager, among them in my view the decision to let the massive Norwegian international John Carew leave on loan after some tension between them for Stoke City; where recently one saw him extend Arsenal's young Polish keeper with a superbly struck volley which might have put Stoke ahead, vastly against the balance of play.

But when it comes to Pires, Houllier has assuredly proved his point. In summer he acquired the former French international winger though he was now aged 37. What, you wondered, could be expected of him? Where was his old pace? How could he for that matter last the pace of the frenetic Premiership? But when recently I saw Pires play, not on the wing, but still more demanding in central midfield at Villa Park against Blackburn Rovers, it was almost a revelation. From the very first, till he was substituted to loud ovation late in the game, he was supremely active and influential, quick of feet and mind, passing with incisive effect, ready to go for goal himself.

Inevitably, perhaps, one's mind went back to his distinguished Arsenal days and not least to a day that was less distinguished than crucial. Crucial, that is, to the remarkable 49-match unbeaten run which the Gunners achieved but never would have done when, early in the sequence, at home to Portsmouth, Pires with a blatant dive got them a penalty which should never have been given, thus enabling them to draw a game they would otherwise have lost.

French, though of Portuguese origin, Pires in London had one salient peculiarity. Even after five years there he insisted, much to the amusement of his Arsenal compatriot Thierry Henry, that every interview he gave had to be in French. So it was in French that we spoke when I was detailed, while writing the official Arsenal Stadium History, to interview him at the London Colney training ground. It went very well, he is man of charm and fluency, it's a language I speak, yet it remains an eccentricity.

Blackpool's DJ Campbell (in orange) has had an excellent season so far.-

A very different personality with a very different history is the outside right Jermaine Pennant, whose talented but stormy career seems to have reached port at Stoke City, who recently brought him back to England after disappointing days in Spain at Zaragoza. An eternal stormy petrel, the signs were at the very beginning of his career, that it would be one of controversy as well as ability when still a schoolboy, he left his local club, Notts County for Arsenal. But not before bitter wrangling between his father and his agent as to who handled his affairs. At Arsenal, I still remember a dazzling display in a late midweek match at Highbury against Southampton, when he scored three of the Gunners' six goals.

Two other of his matches I well remember. Arsenal, as has long been their habit with English players, didn't keep him. He went out on loan to Watford, then a division down, and it was there one January day that I saw him turn the defence of top division West Bromwich Albion inside out, enabling Watford to win an FA Cup tie hands down. The third game I still recall was at Birmingham City, where the manager, Steve Bruce had rescued his career, after he had been jailed for a crash, involving drunken driving. That afternoon he was in extraordinary, elusive form, inspiring City to victory, prompting Bruce after the game to say that on such occasions, Pennant was simply unplayable. Nor was he daunted by the great occasion. When Liverpool lost their European final to Milan, whom they'd previously beaten in Istanbul on a happier occasion, Pennant on their right wing was one of the very few Liverpool players who distinguished himself. When I recently watched him play for Stoke at Arsenal, I was bewildered by the poor service he had in the first half when he barely got into the game before taking an insidious in swinging late free-kick from the left. But in the second half when he at last began to receive the ball, he gave the left flank, Arsenal defence all kinds of trouble. Still a true talent.

Last season, at Portsmouth, when trophies were awarded from local fan clubs at half time, Jamie O'Hara, on loan from Spurs, took every single one of them as best Pompey player of the season; a very difficult one, despite his splendid efforts in midfield. So many trophies, indeed, that you hoped he'd brought a pantechnicon to remove them. Most of this season, alas, has been an anticlimax, with months missed with injury. But now he is on loan at Wolves and playing again he has been in exceptional form in central midfield, technically skilled, an adroit passer of the ball. He realises that there is little future for him at Tottenham with their abundance of midfield talent; hopes are he'll stay with Wolves.

Then there is DJ Campbell, as he is always known, a maverick, if ever there was one. An attacker with elusive skills and a brisk finisher, a somewhat rebellious figure, who seemed to have drifted out of League football till, a few years ago, Brentford brought him back at a humble level whereupon he galvanised them and inspired a dramatic FA Cup run. Bigger clubs bought him, but he remained unpredictable. Obscured at Leicester City of the “Championship”, he was picked up last summer by newly promoted Blackpool and suddenly he flourished again in a team capable of infinite surprises, itself. Recently, he was sent off against Wolves, for foolishly retaliating but both managers spoke in his defence. This, indeed, is another maverick, eminently capable of doing the unorthodox and unexpected, creating and scoring goals. But how long it will last, you can never be quite sure.