The late 1990’s/early 2000’s heralded a fantastically successful period for Arsenal football club. Charismatic manager Arsene Wenger had galvanised the club from top to bottom – combining home favourites such as Seaman, Adams and Parlour with the world class talents of Bergkamp, Vieira and Henry. Indeed, even the most occasional of betters would have been straight to yesbets with a cheeky Premier League punt.
However, for all of their successful transfer dealings, one man who went against the mould was Latvian powerhouse Igors Stepanovs.
It was the summer of 2000. Arsenal embarked on a pre-season tour fresh off a second placed finish in the Premier League and Arsene Wenger was looking to rebuild his legendary defence that had faltered the season before.
Talismanic full-back Nigel Winterburn was deemed surplus to requirements and it seemed no defenders were safe. Martin Keown was renowned for his insecurities and was always worried of other players coming in to steal his position in the side and was wary of Stepanovs’ presence on the club’s pre-season tour.
According to reports, whilst physically up to the mark, Stepanovs simply couldn’t play football! So whilst watching on from the side lines, Ray Parlour and Dennis Bergkamp were fully aware of Keown’s mental state and seized the opportunity to wind up their team mate.
Strategically positioned within Arsene Wenger’s ear shot, Bergkamp and Parlour were standing up to applaud every interception/tackle/pass the Latvian made (or attempted to make) and shoting things such as ‘‘what a player’’ much to the hilarity of their team mates……and the discontent of Keown!
Fast forward two weeks and upon arrival at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground and to Parlour and Bergkamp’s amazement – Stepanovs was sat in the corner of the first team dressing room, preparing for training.
‘’What are you doing here” said Parlour
“They signed me, four year contract” replied an oblivious Stepanovs.
“What have we done??” exclaimed Bergkamp.
Stepanovs’ inadequacies were forgotten however as Wenger used his new £1.35 million man (much to the amusement of his team mates) at the start of the 2000/01 season with the Latvian actually scoring on his debut in in the League Cup.
Things came to a head on the 25th February as Arsenal – who were embroiled in an injury crisis – travelled to Old Trafford to face Champions elect, Manchester United.
The Gunners back 4 read: Oleg Luzhny, Gilles Grimandi, Igors Stepanovs, and Ashley Cole.
United were 1-0 up inside 2 minutes through Dwight Yorke but Arsenal managed to equalise through Thierry Henry – in what transpired to be the calm before the storm.
Yorke completed his hat-trick inside 21 minutes with further goals from Roy Keane and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spearheading United to a 5-1 half time lead.
“In 8 years of playing for him, that was the only time I saw him go crazy at half time” Parlour reflected.
When walking down the tunnel on that fateful afternoon Parlour chatted to hat-trick hero Yorke who asked:
“Where on earth did you get that centre-half from?”
“Look – it’s a long story…” replied Parlour.
The game finished 6-1 and Stepanovs barely made an Arsenal appearance ever again!