The shocking news of Jose Antonio Reyes’ death today puts life into perspective. He was just 35, which is no age at all.
At the time of his signing, I remember being surprised Reyes was joining us. He was at the time one of Spanish football’s most exciting prospects. Players in that stratum didn’t leave the Iberian peninsula, they joined Real Madrid or Barcelona.
And certainly, not one who, if you cut him, was Sevilliano through and through. According to The Guardian back in January 2004, then 20-year-old Reyes left a club whose “novelty bedspread adorns his room”. Think Carl Jenkinson with unbelievable talent.
Zinedine Zidane underlined Reyes talent after Sevilla beat Real 4 – 1 in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. The youngster played as if he were on an “invisible motorbike”; high praise indeed.
Arsenal, even with Wenger in his prime at developing young players, provided a strange destination for someone who, according to a team-mate at the time, was “very Andaluz, very simple”. That proved to be the case as he struggled to adapt to London and to England.
Prophetically, Reyes earned the tag of Spain’s most-fouled player point in that season. The Neville Brothers, Manchester’s soulless version not the New Orleans soul men, kicked him from pillar to post at Old Trafford under the watchful eye of Mike Riley as the 49-match unbeaten run hit the buffers. The PGMOL chair laid bare his incompetence on the pitch; the state of refereeing in the modern game comes as no surprise to anyone who witnessed that match.
A Man of Great Promise
Reyes learned the lesson of that afternoon. Seven months later in Cardiff, a similar spikiness to Dennis Bergkamp’s surfaced. Anything in a Manchester United shirt which moved found the Spaniard’s boot or body in their way. It earned him a red card as the match drifted toward the penalty shootout, only the second man to be sent off in an FA Cup final.
He got off to an inauspicious start at Highbury. An early game saw him score an own goal as we lost to Middlesbrough on Teesside in the second leg. A month later, Chelsea found out why Arsenal spent £17m on Reyes…
A second, and what proved to be the winning goal, followed quickly after.
He only scored 23 goals for the club but a number of them were memorable. Reyes revenge on Middlesbrough wasn’t long in coming. In the 5 – 3 win at Highbury, just when the unbeaten run looked like it was ending, he cut inside a defender, clipping the ball with his heel before firing the fourth into the net. 42 undefeated, equalling Nottingham Forest’s then-record.
Fulham suffered a similar fate, when a Bergkamp pass set him free to score.
Things weren’t rosy in the garden, however. The end of his time at Arsenal saw the club humiliated, twice denying Reyes was leaving for Real Madrid, only for a deal which saw him move to the Bernabeu while Julio Baptiste joined Arsenal. It was a transfer which didn’t work out for anyone.
Twelve months later, we sold him to Atletico Madrid where he won the first two of five Europa League finals. Do you think Unai Emery hogged the limelight? Reyes won five of seven finals between 2009-10 and 2015-16, the last three in his second spell with Sevilla when Emery was in charge.
Rest in Peace
Did he ever hit the heights his talent promised? His list of honours suggests he did but Reyes suffered the curse of many mercurial players. One week he was a world-beater, the next he looked out of place on Hackney Marshes.
Time to remember the man who took time to speak with a six-year-old boy who shocked him with a few words in Spanish as they walked down the tunnel.
My thoughts go out to his family and friends.