The date is February 15th 2004. We’re 55 minutes into the FA Cup 5th round and Arsenal are trailing Chelsea 1-0 at Highbury. Six minutes later, we are wining 2-1 with two goals from a young man in his early twenties. Robin Van Persie? Thierry Henry? The goalscorer was a 21 year old Spaniard who had just arrived from Sevilla three weeks earlier, Jose Antonio Reyes.
This was and still remains one of my favourite Arsenal memories. At the age of 10 growing up in Ireland, in a time before internet streaming I rarely got to watch Arsenal play. Most of the time I listened to matches on the radio or if they weren’t being broadcast, I’d keep myself updated by refreshing teletext (Ceefax) every 30 seconds. The game against Chelsea was being broadcast live on BBC and when Reyes scored that first goal from 25 yards out he was an instant hero of mine.
Unfortunately Reyes never reached the level of the strikers mentioned above but he did manage to play an important role in the rest of the 03/04 season to help us go the league season unbeaten. In the start of the next season Reyes went on a great scoring run of scoring in his first six games, however in his following 39 games he only managed to add a further 6 goals.
The following season 2005/06 brought more inconsistency with the Spaniard only contributing six goals. Rumours started to circulate of Reyes being homesick and links with a move back home began. Reyes made his final competitive Arsenal appearance in the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona. In two and a half years with Arsenal, Reyes played in an unbeaten league team, an FA Cup final and a Champions League final.
In 2006 Arsenal agreed a loan-swap deal with Real Madrid involving Reyes and Julio Baptista. Reyes didn’t set La Liga alight with his performances but did have a huge say in Madrid’s success. Going into the last day of the season Madrid were level on points with Barcelona. With Barcelona leading in their game, Madrid went behind at home to Mallorca. Next an injury to David Beckham 20 minutes into his farewell appearance for the club, made it seem like it couldn’t get any worse.
His replacement a Mr Reyes had other ideas. Two minutes after coming on Reyes drew Madrid level and with seven minutes remaining he insured his team would be crowned champions leaving the scoreline 3-1.
Even his heroics on the last day of the season couldn’t earn Reyes a permanent move but he did end up in Madrid. On the 30th of July 2007 Reyes signed a deal worth around £9 million with Atletico Madrid. His first season with Atletico was a disaster as he failed to score in any of the 26 league games he played in but ended up winning the Intertoto Cup. A subsequent season long loan to Benfica followed.
Any hope that the move to Benfica would rejuvenate Reyes never really materialised. Again another inconsistent season of 34 appearances and 6 goals was another chapter of demise in the career of the once labelled ‘Next Thierry Henry’. One of the only highlights from his time in Portugal was that he helped Benfica win Taça da Liga, the Portuguese league cup.
As Reyes returned to Atletico, the Benfica manager Quique Flores went with him. This time around Reyes enjoyed a more successful period. In the next two years with Altetico, Reyes would go on to make 90 appearances in a team that included the likes of; Simao, Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero, winning The Europa League and the Uefa Super Cup along the way.
In May 2011, Flores left Madrid and things started going downhill for Reyes once again. A falling out with new manager Gregorio Manzano did Reyes no favours and with limited game time on offer it was time for the Spaniard to move on.
In January 2012 Reyes went back to where it all began, Sevilla. Twelve months down the line he’s still there. Sevilla are currently midtable in La Liga and Reyes is their 3rd best scorer in the league with 3 goals, not exactly what I expected from a player who promised so much. Flashes of his old brilliance are unfortunately overshadowed by prolonged periods of mediocracy.
Reyes is of course only 29, with a few more years at the top level ahead of him. Will he ever become the player he was expected to be? The sad thing is, I think the answer will be no. At the end of his career Reyes will have great memories of all the great teams he was a part of and how he contributed to their success but he won’t be able to say ‘I became the best I could be’. For me anyway, I’ll never forget the brace against Chelsea in the FA Cup.