BARCELONA - ARSENAL
Lauren: “After the Barça final I didn't keep my losers medal”
He made 285 appearances with Arsenal and was a part of double-winning side: ‘The Invincibles’ which went 49 weeks without defeat in the Premier League.Leganés vs Barcelona
Signing for an English club back in 2000 wasn't the same process as it is today. How did your move to Arsenal come about?
It was fairly informal. I met up with David Dein and Arsène Wenger on the outskirts of London. They offered me a cup of tea and we talked about football. I took that as their way of trying to figure me out psycologically as they already knew what I was like on the pitch. [Candidate for the 2000 Real Madrid presidency, Juan] Onieva made me an offer to join Madrid but it was the encouragement I got from Wenger which convinced me that Arsenal was the place for me.
Was the thought of moving to a new country a bit daunting?
I'd already left Sevilla. I went to Valencia then Mallorca. As for the language, I managed to pick it up in six months so everything went really well.
You were the spiritual father for Reyes and Cesc...
Reyes is a street player without having a street to play in. His family were very protective of him. With Fàbregas it was the other way around. Cesc was the one who knew exactly where he was going.
Some players won't remember the old stadium. What do you remember about Highbury?
Everything - it's as clear as yesterday for me. The booking office next to the window and the sound of the players' names booming over the PA. It was a unique place.
I've heard that the players used to come to the ground chatting to the public?
Now Arsenal is a money-making machine and that closeness has been lost. It's understandable. Pat Boyle (club employee whose job was to look after the recent arrivals and who sadly passed away in 2011) used to come to collect me and he was one of us. Nowadays there are so many departaments that it's dificult to know everyone personally.
How important was Wenger in the team's rise?
Wenger always looked further ahead - he was very forward-thinking. When he told us that Highbury would be demolished one day, we thought he was talking another language, but he knew that was the future for the club.
What did you make of the banner which read: “Thanks for the memories but it's time to say goodbye”?
I didn't see it, so I can't really comment.
What does Arsenal mean?
Whenever I have been visiting Uganda or Ruanda, I explain that Arsenal is the union of different cultures. I respect all races.
You also lived through another cultural change - the one from ‘boring’ Arsenal to Wenger's modern Arsenal...
That was a real eyeopener. It was time to move from the likes of [Lee] Dixon, and [Tony] Adams... the team that played to win 1-0 evolved into a side which played brilliant, dynamic football. But it was a different story inside the dressing room. Wenger was very strict about what we ate, he would even control the vitamin supplements we had to take. We had to eat leafy, green vegetables at least once a day... The old guard didn't like that because they did whatever they liked. In the long run it was a battle which Wenger won. It was the modern way.
What kind of person was Thierry Henry like?
He wanted to the best in everything, every day. The quality and speed he had were things he was born with but the best thing about him was his ambition.
How did he take the defeat to Barça the 2006 Champions League final in Paris?
He was very sad after that. Despite the fact that he is French, he lived in London just like the rest of us. I think that's still a sore point for him.
And what are your memories of that night at Saint-Denis?
Not great. I was on cructhes and I was with my wife and kids. They gave me the medal for being runners-up but I left it in the dressing room. I didn't want it.
Let's move on to more Arsenal legends...
Bergkamp hardly spoke - not a word, a bit like Kanu. You look at them and you think: these people don't want to play football. When we were travelling, at the hotel, we'd say: ok, let's have a snooze - everyone apart from Kanu who's already asleep (laughs). Vieira was a model captain. When the going got tough and others shirked into the background, he was always there in the first line of battle.
‘The Invincibles’. That team went 49 league games without defeat. Barça are on 37...Yes but we reached that figure only in the league! Even for Barça to get to that figure it's going to be difficult. Only Wenger believed that we could do it.
You also played alongside Samuel Eto'o with Cameroon. Would uou liken him to Luis Suárez?
Yes. There are a lot of similarities between the two. The press relentlessly, they never stop, they've got hunger, they make sacrifices... and both of them are sincere people. What Eto'o said to Ronaldinho he said to Roger Milla with Cameroon. He'll tell you straight to your face and he practices what he preaches.
Do you see Arsenal with any chances in the return leg?
If Barça are at 100 per cent, no team can stand up to them. Barça will end up as champions of whichever competition they want to win.
Let's end with your own XI of Arsenal legends.
Lehman; Lauren, Campbell, Touré, Cole; Ljunberg, Vieira, Gilberto, Pires; Henry and Bergkamp. That's my team - they're be more but there's no room!
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