From rejecting Barcelona to fearing the Invincibles: Aliadiere's Arsenal journey

Jeremie Aliadiere
The French striker talks exclusively to Goal about the highs and lows of his eight-year stay with the Gunners

It was January 1999 and Jeremie Aliadiere should have been celebrating one of the greatest moments of his life.

Instead, the 16-year-old was spending the majority of his time locked away and out of sight.

The striker had just signed for Arsenal. It was something he had dreamt about ever since Nicolas Anelka - who grew up close to Aliadiere in a suburb of Paris - had made the move to north London.

But he could not savour the moment because, in following his hero and singing for the Gunners, Aliadiere had just angered an entire nation.

“I was at Clairefontaine, the French academy that was basically funded by all the French clubs,” he explains to Goal  in an exclusive interview. “All the kids were supposed to sign for French clubs when they came out of it and obviously the first one not to do that was me. I signed straight for Arsenal.

“So as you can imagine the French people went absolutely mental. I was in the press every day. I could not even go to school because all the newspapers, cameras and TV crews were all outside school waiting for me.

“It was really tough because I was in the France Under-16s national team as well, so every time I played everyone was saying ‘that’s the kid who signed for Arsenal, the kid whose parents sold him to Wenger for money’.

“It was a really difficult time. I wasn’t even allowed to go out because my French coach at Clairefontaine and my parents wanted to protect me.

“So it all felt really weird because I was just a kid who dreamed about signing for Arsenal and then suddenly it happened, but people judged me in a negative way because of it.”

At the time of signing for the Gunners, Aliadiere was one of the Europe’s most in-demand teenagers. He could have had his pick of any French side, while the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Inter were all desperate to sign him.

“I had every club in Europe after me,” he admits. “But the club I supported abroad was Arsenal because of Anelka and Arsene Wenger.

Jeremy Aliadiere Arsene Wenger Arsenal

“And when Arsene directly called my parents himself that was it. I remember it perfectly, it was a Friday evening and the phone rang. My dad picked it up and I saw a reaction on his face that I’d never seen before. I thought ‘my God, who is he chatting to?’

“He had a chat for a good hour and then we he put the phone down, he was like ‘I can’t believe Arsene Wenger called my home’. After that, my mind was made up and it was just a matter of negotiating.”

Having signed in January, Aliadiere had to wait until August before actually moving to London. He spent the next two years playing in the academy at Arsenal, adjusting to life in England and scoring prolifically both at youth level and for the reserves, before making his senior debut in November, 2001 when he came off the bench to replace Jermaine Pennant in a League Cup game against Grimsby.

Aliadiere made his Premier League debut that season during a 4-1 win over Fulham, but had to wait until the 2002-03 campaign to score his first senior goal, finishing off Thierry Henry’s pass as West Brom were thumped 5-2 at Highbury.

It was a big moment for Aliadiere, although frustrations were already beginning to creep in.

With the likes of Henry, Dennis Berkamp, Kanu and Sylvain Wiltord in front of him, appearances were proving tough to come by.

Things would improve the following season, with Aliadiere scoring four goals in 15 appearances in all competitions as Arsenal were crowned Premier League champions without losing a single game.

But even though he was now an ‘Invincible’, Aliadiere was not content.

“I had mixed feelings,” he says. “I had the feeling of happiness of being part of an incredible squad and playing with fantastic players, but at the same time I had the feeling of frustration because I was 20 or 21 and I wanted to play football.

“I wanted more opportunities, I wanted more than I was being given. So I was frustrated, but grateful to be part of that squad.

Aliadiere Henry

“For me though I had Henry, Bergkamp, Wiltord, Kanu in front of me. So I was thinking ‘where do I fit?’”

And those were the type of doubts that were never far from Aliadiere’s mind throughout his time at Arsenal.

The Frenchman constantly questioned whether he was good enough to be part of the club - it’s something he looks back on now with a sense of regret.

“That’s is the biggest regret I’ve got,” he reveals. “It’s that I was too shy, I wasn’t confident enough in my ability.

“I feel like I could have had a much better career, at Arsenal in particular, if I had believed in myself more. I think when I was there, I always felt like it was too high a level for me.

“It’s just my character. I’ve always been very reserved, I keep it all in and I try to please people all the time. I would pass the ball so I didn’t get told off, rather than try and beat two or three players and risk having Thierry or Dennis shouting at me.

“I always felt that pressure of having to play for them, rather than for myself and I do think that massively held me back. I feel like I definitely had the talent and capacity to do it, but mentally I was just not ready or prepared.”

Aliadiere adds: “Those guys were so intense and so demanding. They would fight in training and mentally, I think I was frightened by it.

“I saw how determined they were, how they had the capacity to be friends, but then two minutes later they would be out on that training pitch and would be animals.

“I was still learning really and would think ‘my God, they are going to smash me up’. I think it made me a little bit more apprehensive about it all.

“There were so many incidents, tackles, fights. It would happen once a week. But that’s what made that squad as strong as it was.

“And if Thierry and Lauren, for example, had a bust-up in training, they were clever enough to leave it at that and move on from it. I’m not sure players are capable of doing that now and it creates problems in the dressing room. But back in those days, with all the bust-ups, once training was finished everyone was best friends again. We’d all moved on.”

Julio Baptista | Arsenal

After an injury hit 2004-05 season, Aliadiere had loan spells with Celtic, West Ham and Wolves the following year before returning to Arsenal and making 23 appearances in the 2006-07 campaign, scoring four goals - including one in the 6-3 drubbing of Liverpool at Anfield in the League Cup.

Julio Baptista may have stole the headlines that night with his four-goal haul, but even he would admit that Aliadiere was the star of the show - setting up three of them.

“I always saw football as a team game,” said Aliadiere. “I grew up knowing you couldn’t be a selfish player.

"If I was in front of the keeper, but could square it to someone because he had an open goal, I would do that. So I’m proud that I gave those goals to Julio when maybe I could have tried to do it myself.

“And a lot of fans always say to me how good I was that night and it makes me feel happy because they know that it’s not just about scoring the goals. That evening was a very special memory for me.”

Aliadiere would leave at the end of that season, joining Middlesbrough for a fee of around £2 million - ending an eight-year stay with the Gunners. It was a stay that promised so much, but ended with a sense of a missed opportunity. Not just for Aliadiere, but for Arsenal as well.

The Frenchman eventually left England in 2010 to join Lorient and would go on to have stints with Umm Salal and Muaither before returning to Lorient for a final season ahead of his retirement in 2017.

Looking back at his time with Arsenal now, Aliadiere - who still lives in London and does media work for the club - has fond memories despite his regrets at not making more of his opportunity.

“When I lifted that Premier League trophy in 2004, it was brilliant - but I expected at that time I would go on and play more of a part in winning more.

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“So although it was great, because I wasn’t really part of the starting 11, I felt it was the other guys in that team who won that trophy more than me.

“But looking back at it now I’ve retired, it’s definitely the best memory because you realise what a special team and special achievement it was.

“It will never be beaten in my mind, it will still be talked about in 100 years and knowing you were part of it is very special.”