ANALYSIS | By Editor
In the PR-driven world of the elite modern footballer, big statements of loyalty are common. And, very often, totally meaningless.
As Wojciech Szczesny prepares to wave goodbye to Arsenal and join Roma on a season-long loan, it is worth returning to his Facebook post on 31 May, the day after the Gunners had secured their second consecutive FA Cup triumph.
“A big well done to the media who almost managed to convince people that I could actually leave my home and the people I love! Well, you’re gonna have to put up with me for many many years.”
Szczesny’s message to his followers on his favourite medium may very well have been heartfelt, coming as it did on the days hundreds of thousands of Arsenal worshippers came to cheer their heroes at the club’s open-top bus parade around north London, but, less than two months later, it has proved to be misguided.
Not quite on the scale of Fabian Delph’s U-turn, perhaps. Nevertheless, further proof, if any was needed, that the only ‘home’ and ‘family’ that matters to most players is the one they return to when they have finished work.
And, while we’re at it, those of us in the media whom Szczesny so disparaged might actually be a fairly reliable guide as to the intentions of players and clubs.
Szczesny saw which way the wind was blowing during Arsenal’s pre-season tour of Asia and decided a season understudying new No1 Petr Cech was not quite what his career needs at this point.
As revealed by Football Insider, Arsene Wenger had left the door open for the Poland international during a meeting earlier in the summer in which the manager made it clear a top goalkeeper would be joining and that the player who joined Arsenal as a 16-year-old was free to find a new club.
Wenger had been pursuing Cech for two years as he sought a more consistent and reliable No1 with the mentality to deliver week in, week out. He did not think Szczesny was that keeper, and nor David Ospina, the Colombian who dethroned his younger rival in the second half of last season.
Behind the scenes, sources say Szczesny was ‘kicking up a fuss’ after losing his regular starting spot for the first time since establishing himself in the Arsenal team as a 20-year-old. Liverpool, Everton and Roma all expressed an interest and the Pole was keen to hear what they had to say. He told friends that he wanted to quit this summer.
Emboldened by Wenger’s decision to select him ahead of Ospina for the FA Cup final, Szczesny had a change of heart. He gushed about his loyalty to Arsenal on Facebook and told the manager he was ready to fight the incoming Cech for the No1 spot.
Reality struck home in Singapore, where it became clear he would only get a chance in goal next season if Cech got injured, or had a sustained spell of poor form. A lengthy spell on the bench, interspersed with the odd League Cup appearance, was on the horizon.
Roma had made enquiries for Szczesny at the end of last season and remained keen. The Italian club’s current No1 Morgan De Sanctis is 38 and out of contract in 12 months and they needed a younger man as they attempt to end Juventus’ iron grip on Serie A.
Negotiations between the parties progressed smoothly and a deal was finalised on Wednesday. Football Insider understands that Roma will pay a loan fee for Szczesny and also have an option to buy him at the end of the 2015-16 season. The Italian club will pay all of the goalkeeper’s £70,000-a-week wages.
What now for Szczesny, the cocksure and athletic Pole who joined Arsenal as a 16-year-old and had been one of the emblems for ‘Project Youth’ at Emirates Stadium?
Wenger still has hopes that the 25-year-old can develop into a consistently top-class shot-stopper. But he believes he needs a change of environment to get his hunger back.
Privately, Arsenal feel Szczesny has lost his way a little, his commitment dulled by five years in the spotlight.
Only the gifted few are regulars at Europe’s biggest clubs while barely out of their teens. It is even rarer for such a young player to be a goalkeeper, a position with unique pressures and demands. There is no hiding place if you make a mistake.
Szczesny has made some horrible errors, on and off the field. Wenger had no choice but no discard him in the wake of Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat at Southampton on New Year’s Day, a match in which the Pole was at fault for both of the home side’s goals. Embarrassingly for player and club, Szczesny was then caught smoking in the showers afterwards, which earned him a fine and a public rebuke from his manager.
The keeper had to go away, lick his wounds and watch Ospina show that football moves on very quickly and there is always someone able to take your place.
Yet the Szczesny-Arsenal story is not over. He will have two years remaining on his contract next summer and it is highly feasible that he could return at some point in the future to succeed Cech as No1.
Wenger is content for the Pole to leave Emirates Stadium, temporarily at least, but he has not given up hope on the young goalkeeper.