José Antonio Reyes: the man who gave us too few but spectacular moments of genius

José Antonio Reyes: the man who gave us too few but spectacular moments of genius

IT WAS 15 FEBRUARY 2004 and Arsenal were trailing 1-0 at Highbury to Chelsea in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Adrian Mutu had put the visitor’s ahead in the first half and the Gunners, without the talismanic Thierry Henry due to injury, were struggling to turn the game around. Deputising was the new signing from Sevilla, 20-year-old José Antonio Reyes. The Spaniard had only been at the club for little under two months, yet Arsène Wenger had no qualms throwing him straight into English football.

Ten minutes into the second half, Reyes received a pass from Edu midway in Chelsea’s half. He looked up and, seeing the space Chelsea were affording him, drove forwards. With the ball on his favoured left foot, 25 yards out, he unleashed a drive that flashed past Carlo Cudicini and nestled into the top corner. Arsenal were level and John Motson sold the moment brilliantly: Reyes had arrived at Highbury.

It was a short journey to get there. Reyes was born to Romani parents in Seville and advanced through the ranks of one of the city’s biggest club, Sevilla. He made his first team debut at just 16 against Real Zaragoza. By the time he was 18 and Sevilla were back La Liga, he was a first team regular, playing up front or on the flanks. Left-footed, diminutive, slippery and supremely skilful, Reyes netted eight times. The following season he scored 11 goals and was won his first caps for the Spanish national team. The big clubs were already circling before he had even left his teens.

One of those clubs was Arsenal. Arsène Wenger had Reyes scouted 40 times before making his move. In the January window of the 2003-04 season, Reyes arrived at Highbury for a deal potentially worth £17 million – a fee that would have made him Arsenal’s record signing.   

If the move didn’t quite capture the imagination in England, it certainly caused a stir in Spain. David Dein, then Arsenal’s vice-chairman and deal broker, recalled the experience as “extraordinary, almost frightening”. Speaking in the Evening Standard, he said: “Word went round the city about the transfer and before we had signed anything the press were trying to get into the room. Within an hour there were hundreds of fans outside thumping on big steel doors and chanting ‘Reyes’ and ‘Don’t leave’ and ‘We love you’. He’s worshipped in Seville. As the car was driving out, people were jumping in front of it to stop us moving.”

For all the talent Reyes displayed, however, he never quite received the same adoration from the Arsenal fans. He scored important goals during his first season including a brace against Chelsea to knock them out of the FA Cup, another goal against the Blues in the Champions League quarter-finals, and a crucial equaliser away to Portsmouth to keep the historic unbeaten streak alive.

The following season, he scored a memorable goal to put Arsenal ahead in a topsy-turvy 5-3 win over Middlesbrough. Overshadowed by legends such as Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, Reyes’ contributions to the Arsenal Invincibles remains understated.

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Arsenal’s trip to Old Trafford in 2005 was the turning point for Reyes’ Arsenal career. Arsenal only needed to avoid defeat to take their unbeaten run to 50 games, a feat Sir Alex Ferguson’s United were determined to prevent. The two sides once more produced an intense and physical game, and Reyes, identified before the game as susceptible to physical treatment, endured a horrible time of it. He was kicked all over the pitch as United pushed, and at times overstepped, the line. The Neville brothers and Paul Scholes went to work and succeeded in bullying Reyes out of the game.

“I knew about all that I had to get physical. I had to make Reyes lose his confidence,” Gary Neville said in his autobiography. “If there were question marks about him, they were over his temperament. It was my job to expose that weakness.”

For all his skill and flair, Reyes never quite adapted to this side of English football. His nutmeg on Gary Neville provoked the full back to go straight through him at every chance, knowing full well Reyes “wasn’t tough enough to take the rough and tumble”. Many Arsenal fans believe that the game destroyed any chances of Reyes achieving his massive potential in an Arsenal shirt.

Indeed, he struggled for form and consistency afterwards. Rumours circulated that the player was unsettled in London. Reyes didn’t help matters when he fell afoul of a prank call by Spanish radio station Cadena COPE, to whom he admitted he was unhappy and wanted to return to Spain. Meanwhile, his relationship with Thierry Henry became strained after Spain manager Luis Aragonés claimed Reyes could be much better than the Frenchman.

It all came to a disastrous end in the 2005 FA Cup final. An opportunity to get revenge on Manchester United was spurned as Reyes became only the second player in history to be sent off during the final. He was forced to watch from the sidelines as the remaining 10-men overcame United on penalties.

The 2005-06 season passed him by as he struggled for games and goals. That summer, he requested to be left out of Arsenal’s Champions League qualifier, to avoid being cup-tied ahead of a move to Spanish giants Real Madrid. Wenger was upset with Madrid’s tactics to unsettle Reyes, but eventually approved a swap deal: Reyes joined Madrid on loan with Júlio Baptista heading to England.

Reyes may have returned to Spain seeking home comforts, but his time in Madrid was far from comfortable. Up against stern competition from the likes of Robinho, Antonio Cassano and Raúl, Reyes managed only 17 starts and scored seven times. His impact on the team was largely forgettable until the final day of the season.

Real Madrid went into the final game against Mallorca knowing that only a win would be good enough to secure the title. Any slip up would have allowed Barcelona, away to relegated Gimnàstic, to swoop in and claim top spot.

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Fabio Capello’s team applied all the early pressure and passed the ball with urgency and penetration. A cross from Roberto Carlos somehow missed everyone and Mallora broke up the other end. Juan Arango’s through pass carved through the centre of Madrid’s defence and Sebastian Varela finished past Iker Casillas. The Bernabéu was stunned, but soon exploded into noise, urging their team. There was still 73 minutes to play.

Madrid toiled but couldn’t find a way through Mallorca. Capello decided a big change was needed, and in the 65th minute he withdrew David Beckham, playing his final game for Madrid, and sent on Reyes. His impact was immediate. Gonzalo Higuaín got the ball to the byline and pulled it back for Reyes, who was in the right place at the right time, to steer in at the near post with his right foot. Mahamadou Diarra headed Madrid into the lead with 10 minutes to go before Reyes put the cherry on top, running onto Higuaín’s lay-off to curl in a glorious shot from the edge of the box.

It should have been a revitalising moment in Reyes’ career. It’s an impact worthy of cult hero status at most clubs, yet Reyes’ Real Madrid career never lasted longer than a single season. The following summer he was on the move again, this time to Real’s fierce rivals, Atlético.

His first year with Los Colchoneros was horrendous. Atleti’s manager, Javier Aguirre, preferred Maxi Rodríguez and Simão on the flanks, while a teenage Sergio Agüero and the prolific Diego Forlán ensured Reyes had few opportunities up front. Already on the receiving end of the Atleti fans’ ire for his connections with Real Madrid, his failure to score a single goal that season did nothing to endear him.

Reflecting on his first season at Atlético in the Evening Standard, Reyes said: “It’s just basic that your coach believes in you and shows that faith because players like me go out, take risks and receive nothing but a good kicking on some days. Some fans just had it in for me when I first came to Atlético because they could only see my past at Real Madrid but no one should ignore the fact that the fundamental of football is to go out and play, to entertain, not to kick the hell out of a player who tries things.”

Reyes’ biggest weakness was his failure to cope with physical play. He may have escaped the Neville brothers by returning Spain, but he couldn’t escape defenders knowing how to easily throw him off his game. The glimpses of skill, intelligent movement and creativity that promised a world-class player were buried under careless turnovers and flops to the ground. For managers, he was becoming a luxury player.

In 2008-09, Reyes was loaned out to Portuguese side Benfica. From an Arsenal Invincible, to securing Real Madrid league glory over Barcelona on the final day of the season, to the Portuguese league; Reyes’ career was on the precipice. Still only 25, he had much more to offer and Benfica’s manager, Quique Sánchez Flores, believed he could reverse Reyes’ fortunes.

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Under Flores, Reyes enjoyed a positive season at Benfica. The two would reunite the following season at Atlético Madrid. With a manager trusting him, Reyes rediscovered his form and consistency. He finally scored his first Atleti goal, against Real Valladolid, netted against his old team Real Madrid and put in a man of the match display in a 2-1 victory over Barcelona. He was an ever-present in Atlético’s Europa League campaign, culminating in victory in the final against Fulham. Then, in the UEFA Super Cup against Champions League holders Inter Milan, he scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win.

But when Flores left the Vicente Calderón in 2011, he took Reyes’ fortunes with him. The Spaniard failed to get along with new manager Gregorio Manzano and would depart the club in the January window of the 2011-12 season. Instead of chasing the money in Major League Soccer or the Middle East, Reyes returned to the one place he was adored: Sevilla.

It had been eight years since Reyes left Sevilla for Arsenal. In that time, they enjoyed a golden period of success under Juande Ramos, winning the UEFA Cup and Copa del Rey twice each. New heroes, the likes of Dani Alves, Luís Fabiano and Frédéric Kanouté, had come and gone. Nevertheless, Reyes received a hero’s welcome, and fans greeted every appearance by chanting his name and bowing. There was still time for the prodigal son to taste success in the red and white of Sevilla.

His second spell at Sevilla perfectly summed up Reyes as a player. He remained inconsistent and frustrating, easily shook off the ball and prone to over-elaboration. This time, though, he played in front of forgiving fans, and the manager, Unai Emery, trusted in his experience. Reyes reserved his best, most magical moments, for the big occasions.

In the 2012-13 season, he scored after just 11 seconds against Real Betis in the Seville derby – the first of two goals in a 5-1 victory. The following season he scored against Betis again, this time in the second leg of the Europa League round of 16. That goal gave Sevilla the platform to reverse a two-goal deficit and progress on penalties. He played in the final once more, helping Sevilla overcome Benfica. In 2015, he captained Sevilla in yet another Europa League final against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and set up Carlos Bacca’s opening goal with a wonderful pass.

Sadly, he would miss Sevilla’s incredible third consecutive Europa League win due to appendicitis. With Emery leaving for Paris Saint-Germain and the new manager, Jorge Sampaoli, demanding a younger and fitter group of players, Reyes left Sevilla once again. He would reunite once more with Quique Sanchez Flores, this time at Espanyol. Now 33, it seems likely Reyes will end his career in Spain.

Many believed that José Antonio Reyes had the talent to be one of the greats. He was a player that seemed to lack the heart and temperament to truly push on to that level; a player that needed the conditions to be just right before he could be at his best. Still, for all the squandered potential, his career is littered with glory.

It was heartening that Reyes didn’t allow himself to waste away in the obscurity of Turkey, Russia, Asia or North America, like so many failed talents of the past, and returned to where it all began to help his hometown club make history. Whatever happens in his twilight years, he leaves behind some exceptional moments of magic for fans to remember him by.

By Jamie Einchcomb

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