Kanu: Gentle maverick with a gift for mending hearts

Arguably the only current star of Midlands football, Kanu returns to his old haunt at Highbury today hoping to use his unpredictable skills to help West Brom escape relegation. He can't wait, he tells Phil Shaw
Click to follow

How ironic that Kanu was condemned as ungentlemanly - and worse - after his first appearance at Highbury. When he bids his farewell to the stadium today, wearing the colours of West Bromwich Albion against Arsenal, the one criticism no one will level against this gentlest of giants is that he has a cynical streak.

The Nigerian international, whose five years at Arsenal spanned the last stand of the fabled back four through to the earliest flowering of Cesc Fabregas, was still an exotic stranger when Arsène Wenger summoned him from the bench during an FA Cup tie in 1999. But the word Kanu - he no longer uses the first name Nwankwo - soon flashed around the world as the dubious nature of the Gunners' winning goal against Sheffield United was disseminated.

Long story short: Kanu intercepts an Arsenal throw-in as the ball is supposedly being returned to the United goalkeeper after treatment to an injured colleague. He crosses, Marc Overmars scores, and the righteous wrath of the Blades and the media engulfs the so-called cheating foreigners. The moral panic abates only after a replay is ordered.

Wenger later described how the newcomer had sat disconsolately in a corner of the dressing-room. "It was not a nice experience," Kanu tells me in the Portakabin that doubles as interview suite at Albion's suburban training centre. "People thought I had done something bad and that I intended to do it. But it was a mistake."

Fortunately, he soon absorbed the etiquette of the British game. While never quite establishing himself as an automatic choice, Kanu's skills and smiles, along with several astonishing goals, earned him a niche alongside Charlie Nicholas and Charlie George in the chapter of Highbury history marked "mavericks".

The pattern has been similar at West Bromwich. Albion's second successive struggle against relegation from the Premiership ensures that this afternoon will be more concerned with grinding out at least a point than wallowing in nostalgia for the marble halls, the art-deco stands or the day the crowd first crooned to one of Africa's most celebrated sportsmen: "He's big, he's black, he's had a heart attack, Ka-nu!"

This wonderfully blunt homage was not medically accurate, although Kanu did have career-saving - almost certainly life-saving - coronary surgery after leaving Ajax for Internazionale during the most tortuous part of the journey to London N5. The experience reshaped his life, and, through the charity he founded in its aftermath, those of hundreds of children with heart defects.

Health fears were absent from the horizon as Kanu honed his adhesive touch playing street football in the town of Owerri. "Very different from here," he recalls with a wistful version of his trademark grin. "We used small rubber balls that were hard to control. That's how I learnt.

"I knew about the big European clubs because some of the best Nigerian footballers were starting to go abroad to play. But the team I always loved to watch were Brazil, especially Socrates."

Kanu performed like a ball artist from the Copacabana. As a gangling teenager with Ajax, he was soon tilting at the Copa Europa. "It was a weird feeling to be in a big European city like Amsterdam. I was sad to leave my parents and friends, and it's not easy going into a different culture, with a language you're not used to.

"But to mix with great players was a dream come true. We reached the Champions' League final twice and won it against AC Milan in '95. We went back the next year to prove that it wasn't a fluke, but we lost on penalties to Juventus.

"We had lots of young guys like [Edgar] Davids, [Clarence] Seedorf and me, which is similar to Arsenal today with Fabregas and all the kids. We felt we were the best in Europe. I don't think anyone can stop Arsenal either - not in the Champions' League - although we'll be trying hard."

In the summer of '96, after leading Nigeria to Olympic gold with some breathtaking goals and assists in their semi-final against Brazil and in the final triumph over Argentina, Kanu looked poised to become one of the biggest stars of the Italian firmament when he joined Inter.

Instead, his world was suddenly plunged into darkness and uncertainty. "It was strange. I'd played some friendlies for my new club and I did my medical just as Serie A was about to start. The doctors said they had found a faulty aortic valve. It was a huge shock.

"I felt OK. I thought there was nothing wrong with me. So when I was warned I might never play again, I was devastated. But I am a Christian and I began praying. That made a great difference. When you believe in God, you have the strength to move on."

A four-and-a-half-hour operation in the United States repaired the valve. He awoke from the anaesthetic to find he had been voted African Footballer of the Year, an honour he would win again with Arsenal. Yet he wondered when, or even whether, he would play again.

He lost 14 months, during which time the club themselves moved on, landing Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio in deals which rendered Kanu a peripheral figure. After just 11 appearances, Inter were happy to recoup from Arsenal the £4m-plus they had paid to Ajax.

After the false start of the Overmars goal, he settled in to lend an enigmatic strand to Wenger's attacking options: often magical, occasionally maddening. His favourite goal for Arsenal, at home to Deportivo La Coruña, falls into the first category. Kanu eluded the centre-backs around the halfway line, twice dummying a shot before waiting for the keeper to go down and flicking the ball past him.

Some of his finest moments came away from Highbury, however. The saucer-like eyes sparkle as we reminisce over the hat-trick at Chelsea that transformed a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 victory in the last 10 minutes. His final flourish that day was to dispossess Albert Ferrer and ghost past Ed de Goey before shooting from a seemingly impossible angle on the dead-ball line. The ball sailed sweetly over the head of Frank Leboeuf, who had dumped him in the mud more than once.

Then there was the time at Tottenham - where better? - when Kanu, his back to goal, flicked the ball over Luke Young, spun and darted round him before burying it in the net. At Manchester United, he baffled Jaap Stam with an audacious dummy (or was it a dribble?) to set up a Nicolas Anelka goal, while at Middlesbrough his side-heeled strike from Lee Dixon's whipped cross earned an ovation from the home crowd.

Criticism of Kanu at Arsenal centred on a perceived reliance on flamboyant touches at the expense of the more arduous tasks of moving defenders around and stopping teams building from the back. Maybe there were too many tricks? "Too many?" says Kanu, breaking into a laugh that suggests he is surprised, rather than offended, by the question. "But they [defenders] don't know when I'm going to do them!"

There was certainly no lack of offers when the time came to leave Arsenal in 2004. If his decision to join promoted Albion and become arguably the Midlands' only bona fide star was unexpected, the ensuing struggle was not. "No disrespect to the players, but it has been difficult to adapt to playing for a team near the bottom," he admits. "This season I've enjoyed it more, though I'm not happy with our position."

Last term, he scored only three times and perpetrated the miss of the season late in Bryan Robson's debut as manager by lifting the ball over the Middlesbrough bar from almost beneath it. "In football, everyone can make a mistake," he reflects positively. "People look at it and wonder how I did it. The ball came too fast for me. That's all I can say."

Kanu's six goals this season include the equaliser in a 2-1 defeat of Arsenal at The Hawthorns, which remains the only time in three Premiership campaigns that Albion have come from behind to win. "I wanted to do well against them, but after my years there, it was a strange feeling to score against my former club."

Two typically extravagant goals against Tottenham were relished unreservedly and provoked a flurry of fan mail from north London. "It was December, so it was kind of a Christmas gift for the kids."

Now, if Robson's side are to beat the drop again, it is going to take something on the scale of last May's "Great Escape". "We know what it takes to survive and we're ready to give everything," Kanu says. "I still believe we have the qualities to stay up. We shouldn't be down there. But that's football."

Even for one who stands 6ft 5in, winning at Arsenal is a tall order. Kanu cheered them to victory over Juventus from his living room and is convinced they are on their way to the Champions' League final. "They have beaten Real Madrid and Juve, so they will be confident of getting past Villarreal. At their best, nothing can stop them."

He looks forward to renewing acquaintance with Dennis Bergkamp - joking that he has followed "the master" to three clubs - and to pitting himself against Fabregas. "Cesc looked special even when he was 16. He had this maturity, as if he were 21. He's a great passer and he's always moving. Strikers love midfielders with that combination."

The Spanish prodigy's impact has not surprised him. "We played together a few times and when you're a team-mate you know the capabilities of your colleagues better than anyone. Nobody really talks about Kolo Touré, but he's a fantastic player. The manager knows exactly what his qualities are."

Kanu aims to leave Highbury happier than he did after his first game. "I don't see it as a sad moment for me, more like a great stage to perform on. It's a special place and it's hard to believe it will be finished soon. I'll have a look around before I leave and I'm sure the memories will come flooding back. But Arsenal have a wonderful new stadium and it will soon be time to move on."

For Kanu, too, possibly. Relegation invariably leads to upheavals in personnel, and even if Albion were to wriggle clear, Robson could decide on a clear-out. The softly spoken Nigerian gives such conjecture the body-swerve, but says he views England as his base, especially now that he has a wife and son.

"I prefer the football here to Italy and the Netherlands. The spirit, the passion, is very different from other cultures. A club like Arsenal brings out the best in you." Kanu must trust his words hold true for Albion.

'I'll never forget everyone at Arsenal was there for me'

From around the world to the West Midlands they come, crumpled, tear-stained letters desperately seeking financial help for children with heart defects. Some are addressed simply to "Kanu, England".

West Bromwich Albion's Nigerian striker founded the Kanu Heart Foundation after the surgery which saved his life and career 10 years ago.

"After that situation, I realised there was more to life than football," explains the 29-year-old former Arsenal player.

"I knew I had to do something. If an adult could go through such pain, how much worse must it be for kids? The doctors told me that if people had the operation when they're young, they could go on and do whatever they love to do and fulfil their potential."

Kanu estimates he has helped to cure 500 children, mostly from Africa. One was a girl who collapsed in a faint when they met. "She was so small. We took her to the hospital and later brought her to England for our first operation."

British football supporters rallied to Kanu's cause. "We took three of the kids around the pitch at Highbury before a game, and they got a great reception. I will never forget the way everyone at Arsenal - players and fans - were there for me.

"It would be nice if someone came through and became a footballer, but some are only six years old so we must wait and see. What's important is that they have hope. They can have the operation and start laughing again."

Kanu Heart Foundation, South Bank House, Black Prince Road, London SE1 7SJ. www.kanuheartfoundation.com