The Arsenal family were rocked Saturday lunchtime after hearing of the deeply saddening news that former Invincible José Antonio Reyes had tragically died in a traffic collision en route to his hometown of Utera, near Sevilla.
It goes without saying that this is a shared football heartache. These incidents always hit home a little more so when the victim is someone we’ve cheered on from the terraces. Tributes have flooded in from all over the globe. Liverpool and Tottenham both paid their respects ahead of the Champions League final later onR that same day. José’s presence felt even stronger as the game was played in his home nation of Spain; specifically in Madrid, a city where he spent a large portion of his illustrious career in for both Real and Atletico.
Though a classy gesture, a minute’s applause doesn’t seem worthy enough for a man of José’s quality, both as a player and a person. This news affected me more than I anticipated it would and there is reason to that. Amongst the outpouring of grief and heart-warming stories told in his honour, I have my own on our old gifted number 9.
Reyes the man
In December 2005, I was fortunate enough to make my first trip to Highbury. Bright eyed and with such a nervous knot in my stomach you’d have thought I was playing, I watched on as Arsenal comfortably romped to a 4-0 victory over visiting Portsmouth. Arsene Wenger’s men scored all four before half time, but it was that 15-minute break before the second half where my wildest dreams came true. I was so engrossed in what was going on down on the turf I had almost forgot about the programme I had bought pre-match, until the lucky number found on the back of all of them was read out.
Out of the 38,000 Highbury could host, my number was a match. As a reward, as soon as the full-time whistle had blown, I made my way down to the famous marble halls where I was greeted by none other than Mr. Jose Antonio Reyes. The same tricky Spaniard who I had just watch run Pompey ragged, notching an assist and winning a penalty was now right in front of my very eyes. As you can imagine, to be a youngster who lives and breathes Arsenal, standing next to the bust of Herbert Chapman with one our first teamers alongside me was particularly special.
He appeared in full maroon track-suit; gelled hair still immaculately in place and was nothing but a gentleman the entire time. Many Premier League stars would probably wince at the idea of having to come and be hospitable to a kid they had never met after 90 minutes of intense exercise. Jose, however was as courteous as one could be, shaking the hands of both me and my dad and asking if we enjoyed the game, inquiring how far we had travelled from. All of this in broken English. He posed for pictures, signed everything I put in front of him (which was just about every single piece of Arsenal merchandise I owned) before wishing us well and gliding back down the halls with as much pace as he used to terrorise Premiership full-backs.
Arsenal’s number 9
Reyes spent three years in North London, making 69 appearances and notching 16 goals. During that period he delivered moments that will live forever in the memory of all those who had the pleasure of watching his rocket of a left foot. Whether it be rifling one into the top corner against Chelsea in the FA cup, or his iconic stunner on his ‘weaker’ foot in that crazy game against Middlesbrough; sound-tracked by one of Martin Tyler’s more memorable pieces of commentary “STAND UP FOR THE CHAMPIONS”. He even caused a stir before he kicked a ball in red and white, the image of him side by side with Arsene in some rather ‘trendy’ jeans still pops up on twitter in meme format 15 years later. He was a player of fantastic ability, but more importantly a human of great quality. His reserved, but kind and down to earth approach was one that was cherished by all, one that left its mark on a younger me all those years ago. He held himself with the same air of class everyone around the club did back in those days, and how we miss a player of his calibre now.
More importantly, we’ll miss the man. The man who leaves behind a wife, 3 children and a lasting impact on his family and the clubs he played for. His death puts into perspective how, in reality, little things like Europa League losses mean. Arsenal, alongside the wider football community mourns a loss far greater. Cesc Fabregas worded it best when he stated simply “I will never forget you, We will never forget you, Always in our hearts.” Reyes will remain forever invincible.