Wiltord willing to bear burden of rising expectation

Alex Hayes studies talents of a French hero sizing up new challenge
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The Independent Online

Five seconds. That is the time it took to change Sylvain Wiltord's life forever. In fact, those same five seconds were also responsible for ruining Arsÿne Wenger's peaceful summer and David Dein's relatively inexpensive one.

Five seconds. That is the time it took to change Sylvain Wiltord's life forever. In fact, those same five seconds were also responsible for ruining Arsÿne Wenger's peaceful summer and David Dein's relatively inexpensive one.

You could almost hear Arsenal's curses when Wiltord scored the last-minute equaliser which kept France in the final of Euro 2000, and certainly the player's life might have been considerably quieter had he pulled the shot wide.

But that left-foot strike not only thrust the 26-year-old into the international limelight, it also pushed his value skywards. Suddenly, Wiltord went from being just another member of France's squad to one of the hottest strikers in the Low Countries. "It all happened so fast," he said. "Of course, I realised afterwards what impact the goal had, but at the time I was just reacting instinctively."

Wiltord added: "I love being in contact with people and enjoy life to the full. When you score a goal you share a very special 15 seconds with the fans." None, surely, will ever better those that followed his equaliser in Rotterdam.

Three months before the European Championship finals kicked off, Wiltord had told his then chairman, Jean-Louis Triaud, that he wanted to leave Bordeaux. While Triaud did not exactly jump with joy at the news he did, however, accept the inevitable.

Wenger, the Arsenal manager, and Dein, his vice-chairman, acted quickly. Their first bid, which was tabled in March for about £6m, was turned down but the feeling was that the 1998-99 French champions would eventually relent.

Any such hopes, though, were dashed as soon as Wiltord latched on to David Trézéguet's flick-on to bury the ball in the back of the Italian net. Triaud, who had originally held out for £9m, demanded £14m after the final. The stand-off was on. "It has been a very stressful time for me," said Wiltord, who has been training with the Bordeaux youth team. "I set my heart on joining Arsenal as far back as March, so you can imagine how difficult the wait has been. The longer it goes on, the more you worry. I'm just relieved that it's all over and I've put pen to paper."

Securing the signature of Sylvain Nino Wiwi Wiltord has proved a costly exercise. Both Wenger and Dein were forced to make countless trips to Bordeaux, and the eventual fee was close to £13m. "It not been plain sailing," Wenger admitted, "but Sylvain is an established goalscorer for both club and country and will prove to be a valuable asset here."

Intriguingly, Wiltord was making his first appearance of the current season for France rather than Arsenal. Banished from the Bordeaux first team and having signed for his new club only hours before the 5-3 win over Charlton eight days ago, he was looking forward to a run-out in last night's friendly against England. Because he has been training alone, Wiltord is short of match sharpness but he is, according to Wenger, in good shape, "because he kept himself fit during the summer".

"I worked hard and made sure I was as ready as possible," Wiltord said. "I want to be successful here and win trophies. You never know exactly how things will work out, but my first contact with the club has been incredibly positive. The atmosphere at Highbury, for example, is everything I have ever dreamt of. I love the way the crowd gets behind the team. It hits you in the stomach and makes you want to work hard and sweat blood for the cause."

Wiltord's comments will be music to Wenger's ears. The Frenchman has lost Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars to Barcelona, Kanu to the Nigerian Olympic cause and Davor Suker to age. Add to that the certain unavailability of Dennis Bergkamp for the three away Champions' League matches (due to the Dutchman's fear of flying) and the importance of signing an experienced and willing striker becomes even more apparent.

"Sylvain is a player with great ability and attitude," Wenger said. "I think he will fit in well here. I have expressed our need to buy another quality striker for some time now and Sylvain is the ideal candidate." Only time, and goals, will tell if Wenger was right to pay a record fee for the former FC Joinville-le-Pont, Rennes and Bordeaux man. Wiltord can undoubtedly score, as his 68 goals in 196 French first division appearances prove, but there must be a question mark over his ability to compete in the rough and tumble of the Premier League.

"I know I am not the tallest," said Wiltord, who is 5ft 8 1/2in. "But I have belief in myself. I know I can do a job in any league in the world and I'm determined to prove that in England." Wiltord may not enjoy the physical presence of a Thierry Henry or a Niall Quinn, but he can take comfort from the fact he bares an uncanny resemblance to Arsenal's deadliest finisher of all time. That striker scored 192 goals in seven glorious seasons at Highbury. And Ian Wright is only 5ft 9in.

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