Football: Kanu a perfect fit for Arsenal

He is 22, wears size 15 boots, has recovered from heart surgery and is inspiring his side's late-season title push
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The Independent Online
ONE WONDERED for a moment whether he had signed for the right club when he said he would be happier still if he could now be playing with Teddy. But Kanu was referring to the Japanese fighting dog he had had to leave behind in Italy rather than that still-competitive old mutt up at Old Trafford. Besides, I would have thought that Arsenal's Nigerian striker and Teddy Sheringham had seen and heard enough of each other during their clubs' on-going dogfight for Cup and now League supremacy.

Any lingering doubts among Arsenal fans that their club had signed the right player will have been dispelled by Kanu's two outrageous goals against Middlesbrough and Tottenham in recent weeks. Strikes like that one against the Spurs after 85 minutes, when his team-mates were happy enough to play out for a 2-1 win at the home of their arch rivals, could make all the difference if this title race comes down to a photo-finish. Leeds' defenders tonight at Elland Road cannot say they have not been warned.

And to think, if Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, is to be believed, the best is yet to come from the man whom surgeons were convinced, less than three years ago, would never play football again.

In the words of Roy Hodgson, who was Kanu's coach at Internazionale at the time, they thought they had "a scoop" when they signed Kanu for just over pounds 1m from Ajax in the summer of 1996. Already a European Cup winner at 17 with the Dutch side and an Olympic gold medallist in 1996, Kanu seemed too good to be true - and he was. Not that Ajax, of course, were aware of his condition when they sold him.

Following a pre-season tournament in Spain, Kanu took a routine medical examination in Milan, during which it was discovered he had a congenital heart problem which was life-threatening, never mind career-threatening. The following spring he underwent a four and a half hour operation in Cleveland, Ohio for a deformed aortic valve. Instead of replacing the damaged valve prosthetically, the surgeons chose instead to repair the existing muscle. It was hoped that by doing so, he might be able to play again and they were right.

By the time he returned to Internazionale six months later Hodgson had been replaced by Luigi Simoni, but more importantly the club had signed Ronaldo and, as a result, had changed direction tactically, playing more of a counter-attacking game to utilise the Brazilian's pace. It was not Kanu's game, and he and the coach fell out so badly that the Nigerian was even banned from travelling on the team bus.

The deal which took him to Highbury, nevertheless, was a protracted one, a pounds 4m transfer eventually showing the Italians a healthy profit on their investment. Even though the operation had been deemed a success, Arsenal were taking a risk, but already Wenger seems happy to talk about "the gamble" on Kanu in the past tense.

"The bigger the talent, the smaller the gamble," Wenger said. "He is a great player and was before he arrived here, but he has now got his confidence back and improved his physical strength. My hope was that until the end of the season he could show that he has the talent and that he was physically able to play at that level again because, you must remember, it is the second year he hasn't played any football. He's not at the peak of his form yet, even though he is better. He has surprised me."

Intelligence was the quality in Kanu which first appealed to Wenger. "He's a team-minded player, that's what I liked about him when we spoke," he said. "He reminds me a little bit of Alan Smith mentally, because he does everything to bring other players into the game. We just feel we have a more complete squad with him and that he was a player we needed because he can play in the positions of Nicolas [Anelka] and Dennis [Bergkamp]."

With Anelka seemingly growing restless with life in England, the signing of Kanu could not have been more advantageous to Arsenal and yet it is difficult to gauge just how big a part he could play in their future. If the club agrees to sell Anelka in the summer, they are almost certain to spend the proceeds on another striker, possibly Leicester's Emile Heskey. In which case, Kanu could again be more of an understudy than the star he seemed destined to become at the 1993 World Under-17 Championship; that "skinny, stringy thing", as the then Nigerian coach, Fanny Arnun, described him.

He insists he is not here to replace Bergkamp or anyone - "I just want to play," he says in an almost inaudible lazy drawl, when his body language seems to be saying: "I just want to sleep". Which was precisely what he was doing when the Arsenal press officer got him out of bed to face the English media for the first time the other day. Although not quite so "stringy" these days, his 6ft 5in frame still seems better equipped for basketball than football.

In fact it is hard to believe that someone so tall, not to mention with such big feet (size 15) could possess the grace and finesse he does or be physically capable of the kind of goal he scored against Spurs last week, when he flicked the ball over his shoulder as well as the head of the startled Luke Young before turning to hammer it past Ian Walker. As well as skill such a manoeuvre requires confidence, which he also displayed in ample measure when he audaciously back-heeled that goal against Middlesbrough. The score was 0-4 at the time, though Wenger is convinced he would have done it at 0-0.

He needed that self-belief and more when he faced heart surgery. Raised with a religious upbringing in Oweri in eastern Nigeria, Kanu, it is said, sought the help of an evangelical mystic in Lagos before his operation. "I still find it hard to understand what really happened at Ajax," he said. "I remember going through medical tests there that seemed serious. There were no symptoms when I had the medical in Italy, no breathlessness or anything. I never thought about another career. I'm a Christian and I believed if God wanted it to happen, he would also cure me."

It was when he moved to California to convalesce that he acquired his Japanese fighting dogs - Kali and the younger Teddy - with whom he would run to keep fit. He also changed his name. "A lot of people were calling and asking for me so I invented a name," he said. "I told everyone I was called Jack Lewis." By the time he got back to Italy he could have been Joe Louis for all the interest the new coach took in him.

Arsenal represented "a fresh start in life", though he experienced a turbulent introduction, the FA Cup tie that never was against Sheffield United when he was accused, along with Marc Overmars, of gamesmanship. "It was very difficult for a while after the first game and I thought, `What have I let myself in for', but I put it out of my mind and it was nice when things calmed down," he said.

He has found the English game different from what he was used to. "The supporters here are much nearer the pitch than in Italy, so you hear what they're saying," he said. "They seem very happy with me."

The tranquillity which this peaceful soul craves could be about to be interrupted again. If his contribution results in the title coming to Highbury next Sunday he would be well advised to invest in a pair of earplugs.