By Ed Dove
A mutual exhale and a rolling of eyes at Fratton Park as confirmation of Aaron Mokoena’s transfer came through. Things generally aren’t going well if the departure of one of your most established players is greeted with relief , but then again, things haven’t been going ‘well’ at Portsmouth for sometime, and they are going to get far worse before they get better.
As Mokoena departed for Bidvest Wits, a former university team based in Johannesburg, South Africa, eyes on the south coast turned to Portsmouth’s other African star – and the mire surrounding his inevitable departure from English football.
Nwankwo Kanu is a special player, and a special guy. How many others can boast of a Premier League medal, an FA cup medal, a Champions League medal, a UEFA Cup medal, and an Olympic gold medal? Who can claim to own this collection alongside two African player of the year awards? Surely, no one else can have achieved all this, but also recount, with anguish, anecdotes of Premier League relegation – not once, but twice – with The Albion in 2006, and with Portsmouth in 2010.
All this and we haven’t even begun to consider faith, UNICEF, heart defects, or THAT goal, against Chelsea in 1999, which cemented his reputation as an athletic maverick, a genius capable of the unpredictable. Five years at Arsenal took Kanu into the hearts of Gunners everywhere, and Premier League fans across the country would watch on in admiration at this ungainly centre forward, ever smiling, who terrorised defences.
Things weren’t quite so carefree at West Bromwich; a mindboggling miss against Middlesbrough in November 2004 was one of many frustrating days in the West Midlands, Premiership survival on the season’s last day in 2005 being a rare highlight. Portsmouth’s ‘halcyon years’ under Harry Redknapp proved to be the perfect Indian summer to Kanu’s career, the Nigerian weighed in with crucial goals – although these landmarks began to signal the changing fortunes of Pompey.
12 goals for Portsmouth in the 06-07 season were greeted with a cheery respect, the match winner in the FA Cup final against Cardiff City with delubious elation, and the sole goal against Bolton in April 2009 with a gushing relief. Add ‘Relegation Saviour’ to the glorious résumé.
The intervening years have been dark ones for Portsmouth, the triad of terrors, debt, administration, and relegation, has taken its toll, and this new season begins in the third tier of English football, ten points deducted, and less than a dozen recognised players on the books. It’s been the numbers that have killed Pompey, and things don’t look to be getting any better.
Time will tell exactly how Kanu’s journey with Portsmouth will end. As of this month the player is threatening to sue the club for unpaid earnings stretching back across his whole time with them. Administrator Trevor Birch has downplayed the claims, but regardless of the eventual financial outcome, the episode will surely tarnish Kanu’s legacy at Fratton Park.
As former Bafana Bafana captain Mokoena begins to settle into life in South Africa’s PSL, it’s difficult to predict precisely where Kanu goes from here. At 35, and not having enjoyed the recent status of Didier Drogba, Freddie Kanoute, or Nicolas Anelka, nor the goals of Yakubu Aiyegbeni, the final payday promised by China may not be a pursuable avenue.
With Kanu failing to appear for pre-season training, and seeking recompense which would effectively cripple Portsmouth beyond repair – it’s safe to say his days at Pompey are over. Boss Michael Appleton cited Nigeria as a potential destination for Kanu, and indeed, it’s hard to look too far beyond a return to Naija.
Nigeria will find Kanu much as he departed, with a toothy grin and an endearing clumsiness. The experiences will surely have made the man however, and Kanu will one day find himself back in Owerri with a cornucopia of stories to tell.