In the summer of 2002, this felt like City’s first real superstar signing for maybe 20 years or so – Nicolas Anelka dressed like a rock star and was as stylish off the pitch as he was on it – this was the first of three interviews with Nico. And he was a million miles away from the guy the Press called ‘Le Sulk’…
Nicolas Anelka has been given such a bad press over the years that after just five minutes in his company you are left wondering why. Friendly, charming, polite and almost painfully shy, is this really the multi-million pound superstar that has made life difficult for the managers of top clubs throughout Europe? If it is, he’s doing a fantastic impression of somebody who is completely the opposite.
Perhaps his reluctance to seek the glare of the media in some of the biggest cities in Europe like London, Paris and Madrid has created the myth of Nico being moody and sullen when in reality all he’s ever wanted is a quiet life. It is almost impossible to live a normal everyday existence when you are as famous as he is – the lack of a private life comes with the territory, just as the fantastic trappings of wealth do – but you can’t help feeling that sometimes the anonymity the general public is something Anelka covets.
Maybe that’s why Manchester is the perfect place for the French superstar to re-discover the form that made him one of the most sought-after strikers in the world. His south Manchester home may not sound as glamorous as his apartments in Madrid and Paris, but at least it affords him the opportunity of walking to the corner shop for a pint of milk without a pack of photographers watching his every move.
His early form suggests exactly what Kevin Keegan has been saying all along, that at £13million, City have a genuine bargain. His goals in the opening matches – a volley, a header and a long-range- drive – carry the hallmarks of a player who can do pretty much everything you could want a striker to do. He was cruelly robbed of the deflected free kick against Everton but he doesn’t plan to appeal against the somewhat harsh opinion of an official panel.
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"If they want to take the goal away from me, that’s up to them. It would be nice to have been given it but if they want to give it somebody else, I’ve nothing to say about it,’"said Anelka.
It was amusing to hear the commentators on Sky Sports covering the Arsenal – City game last month say that Nico had never scored a header in England just moments before he nodded Ali Benarbia’s cross home past a static David Seaman. He ran past the Arsenal fans urging them to stay silent, a wish with which they were happy to comply.
Anelka had been given plenty of stick by the Gunners’ faithful on the night despite scoring 23 goals in 65 Premiership appearances during his time at Highbury. Football fans, though, rarely boo a bad player. And it must have been sweet to score his first header at Highbury. Anelka admits he enjoyed it.
"I have scored headers elsewhere in the past but this was the first time I’d actually managed it in England," he said. "I think the Arsenal fans were the way they were because they don’t understand why I left Highbury.
"I went back there twice last season with Liverpool and the reception from the fans was okay but I don’t care about that. I have got on with my life and Arsenal fans should forget. I forget their whistles and only think about the good times. They are an awesome side and they still have the desire and hunger to win more.
"Arsene Wenger was a big influence on my career and I am full of admiration for what he has done at Arsenal. He had confidence in me when I was a teenager and I had confidence in him. He helped me as a 17 year old and I helped him by doing my best on the pitch. He trusted me and I trusted him."
His time at Real Madrid yielded only two goals in 19 appearances before he returned to Paris St Germain in 2000. He remained there until his loan move to Liverpool last season where he added four goals in 20 appearances for the Anfield side. While it seemed almost certain he would join Gerard Houllier’s side, he was surprised and disappointed when the Reds’ boss decided against the move.
Anelka recently said of Houllier that “he imagined future problems and imagined the worst.” Privately, the young striker must be hoping to make the Liverpool boss regret the decision but their loss is City’s gain and he has surprised many by not just his prowess in the penalty area but his all-round work rate which is something he admits is a new side to his game.
“It was not part of my game when I was at Arsenal where I was an out and out striker and a scorer of goals. But, first at Real Madrid and then at Paris St Germain, I learned to play behind the strikers. Now I do both jobs for the side and I like that a lot. I am a better player now. I am older and wiser. Many things have happened to me in my career since I was at Arsenal.
“I feel I have different dimensions to my game now and I am a more complete player because of it. I am enjoying playing for City, but we all know we need to improve. I feel very settled and the supporters have been behind me from the very first game, which I appreciate a lot.
“At this club, it doesn't matter whether you are French, Dutch, English, German or whatever,” explained Anelka, as he takes off his trademark Ray-ban glasses and stretches back into a blue armchair.
“It is so easy to be the same and we are all friends. That is not the case at all clubs. Here though, it is the best. It is very easy to be accepted. This atmosphere is different to anywhere I have been. In Spain with Real, going into the dressing room is like entering into a family environment. If you are a stranger, it takes time to be accepted and it is hard to get inside that inner circle.
“It is not like that here. Straight away you are made to feel welcome and players enjoy it. There are no reputations to get past. At Real, you have to wait and wait to see if you are accepted.
“A manager like Kevin, though, helps bond the players together. He smiles all the time, even when you miss chances. He will always have a laugh and a joke and a smile is never far from his face.
“I have to say thank you to the supporters here. They are simply the best I have ever played in front of.
“Since the start of the season I have been happy with the way things have gone. And I am really happy here, the happiest I have ever been. When you have travelled around places like England, France and Spain, you get to see what things are the best.
“For a player, England is the best. When you leave training, you are left alone and you can generally do whatever you like. That is not always true in France or Spain and you can't walk around like everyone else in the street.”
It’s only a 15 minute chat and with that, the French striker is on his way home. In the car park after the interview, Matias Vuoso walked to Nico’s Ferrari and pretends to get in before shrugging his shoulders and walking back to his more conservative Peugeot and laughing passenger Paulo Wanchope is awaiting. It’s nice to know even professional footballers have a wish list, just like the rest of us.
What happened next? Anelka remained at City for two -and-a-half years, playing 103 times and scoring 45 goals. There were no fall-outs, spats with the manager or tantrums.
He remained popular with the City fans and, as his statistics prove, he enjoyed one of the best spells of his career in Manchester. But he was a restless spirit and in January 2005, he headed for sunnier climes with Turkish side Fenerbahce.
In 2006, he joined Bolton Wanderers and 18 months later, he signed for Chelsea where he remained for four years before having brief spells in China, Italy, India and even a short stay at West Brom before calling time on his career aged 35.
He is currently the youth team coach as Ligue 1 side Lille.