Football: Wreh keeps Arsenal talking right language

FA CUP COUNTDOWN: A Liberian stand-in striker has kept Arsenal's Double hopes afloat. Clive White reports
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The Independent Online
IT COULD be said that Christopher Wreh did not so much catapult to fame at the Reebok Stadium on Tuesday evening as somersault his way there, with a double backward flip that was almost as impressive as his 25-yard winning strike. If it was not for the fact that he celebrates most of his goals in this manner, one might have mistook it as an explosive sign of relief.

Success has been a while coming for the 23-year-old Liberian and there were many among the Highbury faithful who doubted whether that day would ever arrive. Since it was mooted at one point that the great George Weah might be coming to Arsenal the arrival instead of his cousin was regarded as something of a let-down. One look at Wreh and many came to the conclusion that all he had in common with the Milan player was three out of four letters in their surnames.

But his critics had overlooked the complication of his transfer last summer from Monaco, which the French club fiercely resisted, and caused him to miss Arsenal's entire build-up to the season. Since when he had to play catch-up while mainly making just the odd appearance as substitute.

The suspension of Dennis Bergkamp and the injury to Ian Wright, have given Wreh and Nicolas Anelka, Wreh's 19-year- old team-mate from French football, the extended first-team runs they needed to mature and show what they were capable of. Tuesday night's goal by Wreh - his second in five starts - could not have come at a better time for the club as they challenge for what at Christmas appeared a highly improbable Double.

Arsene Wenger says he has every confidence in his two young forwards, knowing that if they can conjure just a single goal between them against Wolves in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park and against Newcastle on Saturday week in the Premiership (the last of Bergkamp's three match suspension) the old dependables in defence can be relied upon to hold on to any advantage.

Wreh has promised a triple backward somersault if he were to score at Wembley, but if his gymnastics are to be confined to the touchline so be it. "It's not a problem for me if Ian Wright comes back and takes my place," said Wreh, who, while in France, was always taken with Wright's antics when scoring. "I have nothing to prove. I won't get angry because he had the position before I arrived. As a young player I've got to accept that. I've got more time to play my football."

Besides, Wright has been a confidant to him, encouraging Wreh during the bleak winter months at Highbury. "I worked hard to get where I wanted and now practice has made perfect," he said. "I'll play in any position the manager wants me to - I think I've surprised some people with my versatility."

The game in which it all finally came together for Wreh was not the occasion of his first goal for the club, against Wimbledon, but at home to Manchester United, in November, a game in which he missed two clear-cut chances in the space of 10 minutes. "It was from then that I started to become more confident and told myself, 'I can make it'," he said.

From Monaco to Edgware, where he lives with his wife and young son, may be a bit of a comedown in some respects but English football has provided him with a fresh challenge while "an English trophy in my first season would look good on my record".

Not that Wreh is a novice when it comes to the big occasion. Wenger blooded him as a 17 year old alongside Jurgen Klinsmann against Spartak Moscow in the Champions' League, and later fielded him as a substitute in a European Cup semi-final against Milan.

"I enjoyed my football in France," he said. "It's a more simple game there. But here you have to be smart, you have to watch your back - it's very physical. You have to be fit to play."

It also helps if you are also multilingual, which Wreh is. He converses on the pitch with half the Arsenal side in French, the other half in English. And if Wenger ever succeeds in luring Weah to Highbury his cousin will be talking to him in Kru, one of 13 dialects in Liberia.

It was Weah who recommended Wreh to Wenger when the former Arsenal manager was at Monaco. Given that the youngster was playing for a team called the Invisibles at the time his talent might otherwise have taken some spotting. For his move to England the work permit was not a problem since Wreh is first choice for his native country, though there have been times when he has despaired of any international ambitions.

"As a country recovering from civil war it's very difficult. We have the talent but there's no money and no one to promote it. George and I have to play our own flight to return for internationals. Sometimes I say 'I'm not going to do it any more', but I love my country so I buy a ticket and go."

If was back in Liberia where he first learned to somersault. "It's something I've done ever since I was a little boy in Africa, playing on the beach. We would all try to outdo one another my friends and I." But it is Wreh who has finally leapt to fame.