When Arsenal submitted their list of players out of contract and set to be released by the club earlier this month, it wasn’t any surprise to see the name of Abou Diaby on it.
Despite suggestions from some quarters that he might be offered a new contract, the club yesterday confirmed his departure (along with Ryo Miyaichi and some youth prospects). It is, unequivocally, the right decision for the football club to have made. He managed just 67 minutes of first team football this season, which is 44 minutes more than the whole of the campaign before that.
For all his talent – and it’s clear he had some – that’s just not sustainable, especially in the era of the 25 man squad. His was a place which could, and should, be given to somebody who can contribute more. Sadly his name has become a byword for injury, a running joke for some which is a pity because behind the scenes he’s worked so hard to do what most half-witted cloggers get to do for an entire career – just play football.
We all know how badly the Dan Smith tackle affected him. When you’re left with your ankle shattered, a compound fracture and shredded ligaments, by a wholly unnecessary challenge, it’s bound to have an impact. Diaby had only been at the club a few months and Arsenal were heading for a Champions League final. Philippe Senderos sat with him in hospital that night, Arsenal feared the young Frenchman might never be the same again, and they were right (and when you look at the way the injuries impacted him and Eduardo, it’s easy to forget Aaron Ramsey went through something similar).
Maybe there was an underlying brittleness to him. People often speak of how he was injury prone at Auxerre before he ever arrived, but as well as the Dan Smith assault – and there’s really no other way to describe that – Diaby was often on the receiving end of other nasty challenges that certainly contributed to his fitness problems. This one, by Paul Robinson, was appalling:
And then there was this one from Michael Essien:
Of course not all his problems were caused by bad challenges, but there’s no doubt in my mind those incidents caused problems and exacerbated weaknesses. At the end of September 2012, after a storming start to the season, which included that display against Liverpool, he took a shot from distance against Chelsea, tweaked something in his thigh and wasn’t seen again until January. He made only 9 further appearances that season until his cruciate ligament snapped in March 2013.
After that his combined appearance time for the club was 80 minutes over the last two seasons. It’s not because he sat around picking up his wages, and it’s not because he couldn’t be arsed. Behind the scenes he worked incredibly hard just to play football. He did so with scars and swollen joints and bits that didn’t work properly sustained while playing for Arsenal. I’m told he considered retirement, but such was his desire to play again, he pushed, and trained, and did rehab and saw all his teammates playing football and he couldn’t.
It’s why I hold no truck with anyone who says ‘Ah he’s fine, he got his money’. Sure, he was well paid but it wasn’t as if he ripped us off. Every time any football club gives a player a long contract they run the risk that an injury in his next game could destroy his career. That’s the game. And those who pat the badge and speak about the importance of the shirt should remember he was wearing them when he got hurt.
In some ways, I think there’s a touch of romanticism about him as a player. There were times during his periods of fitness when he didn’t convince, but then he often played in unconvincing teams. We also never really got a chance to see him during his peak years. There’s a lot of learning to be done as a young player – especially when you’re trying to come back from lengthy absences – but I think Arsene Wenger always saw something in him that he didn’t in many others.
Players of that generation – like Denilson, Song, Bendtner, Senderos, Djourou – were all moved on in the end. There’s certainly an element of it being difficult to sell a guy whose injury record is so bad, but I think Wenger wanted to give him every chance to try and make it. I think the Diaby we saw that day at Anfield, the one who absolutely ran the show, was the player the manager always felt he could be, and that’s why he persisted.
It’s a shame that he never got the chance to build on that in any real way. It’s a shame for the team that the qualities he had as a player weren’t present more often. And it’s a shame that some people consider Diaby a joke, or the way we’ve treated him as some kind of sop to a teacher’s pet.
To my mind the way he’s been supported and looked after by Arsenal is a credit to the football club. He could have been paid off and let go, we didn’t do that. We gave him every chance to try and recover, to continue working and training with his teammates and colleagues of years. It didn’t work out for him, he could never overcome the fitness issues, but I think we did 100% the right thing by him and if you’re one of those people who waxes lyrical about Arsenal having that touch of class, well here it is for you.
There’s also something particularly poignant about Diaby’s departure. Not simply because he’s a player who could have been fantastic and whose career was, ultimately, ruined – but because he’s the last Arsenal player from this current set-up (bar Flamini who left inbetween) who ever played at Highbury (in our shirt). The last unbroken link to that great stadium. Maybe that’s a small, sentimental thing, but there you go.
I don’t know what he’s going to do next. I hope he can find some fitness and play some football at a decent level, he deserves that. But there should be no acrimony about it. No ‘about time’. Just some respect, empathy, and wishes of good luck for the future.