From sulky to greedy via brilliant and petulant, Nicolas Anelka has been called many things during a decade on football's front line. Sam Allardyce welcomed Bolton Wanderers' £8m record signing yesterday by claiming he was "born to score goals", although it was another of the many managers who believed they could be the one to exploit the Frenchman's undoubted ability who best summed up the enigma that is Anelka.
When he was in charge of Manchester City, Kevin Keegan remarked that the £13m he paid Paris St- Germain in 2002 for his services meant City had acquired "a Rolls-Royce of a striker". Anelka's career path, strewn with controversy and rancour as well as a handsome haul of goals and some £71m in transfer fees, ensured that more than one cynic wondered whether the former England manager was suggesting his new signing was expensive and required a high level of maintenance.
Allardyce has a proven record of rescuing waning careers and of rehabilitating players who have not fulfilled their potential, as demonstrated by the performances of Jay-Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo in the first category and Kevin Davies in the second. By buying Anelka from the Turkish side Fenerbahce he would appear, at a stroke, to have changed the complexion of Bolton's much-criticised playing style. A team that essentially unleashed long balls for Davies to hold up and lay off to supporting midfielders are now armed with a sprint-and-shoot finisher.
Yet it has never simply been a question of talent where Anelka is concerned. If it were, he might well have stayed at Arsenal, broken Ian Wright's scoring record and been next in line for a testimonial after the creator of many of his goals at Highbury, Dennis Bergkamp.
The 27-year-old from Versailles is a restless spirit, seldom satisfied with his lot, frequently sensing that the grass may be greener elsewhere and often being poorly advised by his older brothers, who have acted as his agents.
No such complications were on the horizon when Arsène Wenger lured him, at 17, from Paris St-Germain to Arsenal in the spring of 1997. His prodigious pace soon became a weapon in the Gunners' artillery. If played in behind the defence, Anelka was virtually uncatchable and he had the confidence to surprise goalkeepers and defenders by taking his shots early.
Two well-taken goals for France against England at Wembley early in 1999 proved a turning point for him. Although he had recently signed a four-year contract at Arsenal - as he has at the Reebok Stadium - he began agitating for a transfer. He said that he felt unappreciated but later maintained he accepted a £22m move to Real Madrid because it was "always my dream" to play for them since he was "a little boy in the streets of Paris".
Anelka's version of the souring of his dream hinged on a change of coach, from John Toshack to Vicente del Bosque. After scoring only four times for Real in 29 games, which included the European Cup final victory over Valencia in Paris in 2000, he returned to Paris St-Germain. The comeback lasted a season, Anelka later admitting his relationship with the coach, Luis Fernandez, was "not as amiable as it should have been."
A year's loan at Liverpool, where he replaced Robbie Fowler, did not lead to an offer from his compatriot Gérard Houllier. Keegan paid £13m to take him to City, a move that could be deemed a success since it produced 46 goals in 103 appearances. While he was in Manchester his brother Claude briefly owned, and unsuccessfully managed, Raith Rovers in Scotland.
However, in January last year Anelka decamped to Fenerbahce, where he was a qualified success, keeping up his scoring feats but being unable to help them regain the title. When he went to Istanbul he had not been picked for France in three years, having added Jacques Santini to the list of managers with whom he fell out.
Raymond Domenech recalled him last autumn but, perhaps tellingly, overlooked him for this summer's World Cup even after Djibril Cissé was injured on the eve of the finals.
When he left Arsenal, saying the English could "go to hell", Wenger called him "not bad, just young". Yesterday, on his latest return, Anelka observed pointedly: "People who say I'm a bad boy don't know me". Allardyce is already referring to him chummily as "Nic", although Anelka actually became Abdul-Salam Bilal on converting to Islam four years ago.
At Bolton they will not mind which name he uses, or what religion he pursues, provided he justifies his billing. Anelka, enthused Allardyce, had "an awesome track record in the Premiership", making it the "smallest gamble" he had taken. But a gamble, none the less, given the enigma's other track record.
The £71m striker: Nicolas Anelka's chequered career
Paris St-Germain (1994-97) Trainee Games 10 Goals 1
Arsenal (1997-99) £500,000 Games 90 Goals 28
Real Madrid (1999-00) £22m Games 24 Goals 4
Paris St-Germain (2000-02) £20.29m Games 50 Goals 15
Liverpool (2001-02) Loan Games 22 Goals 5
Manchester City (2002-05) £13m Games 103 Goals 46
Fenerbahçe (2005-2006) £7m Games 45 Goals 14
Bolton (2006- ) £8m
Total: £70.79m Games 344 Goals 113
In total, Anelka is the second most expensive player in football history. Only Juan Sebastian Veron tops him:
Boca Juniors to Sampdoria (1996) £3m
Sampdoria to Parma (1998) £13m
Parma to Lazio (1999) £18.1m
Lazio to Man Utd (2001) £28.1m
Man Utd to Chelsea (2003) £15m
Chelsea to Internazionale (2004) Undisc.
Total: £77.2mReuse content