Love Hurts

He has taken a buffeting of late, but Arsenal's Jose Antonio Reyes insists it has not diminished his passion for the Premiership
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The Independent Online

Jose Antonio wanders in clutching a trophy which he nestles in the chair beside him. It's the award for Premiership Player of the Month for August which, given it is now November, has taken him some time to collect. It would be no great surprise if Reyes had also come in resting on crutches, such is the battering his shins and calves have taken in recent weeks.

Jose Antonio wanders in clutching a trophy which he nestles in the chair beside him. It's the award for Premiership Player of the Month for August which, given it is now November, has taken him some time to collect. It would be no great surprise if Reyes had also come in resting on crutches, such is the battering his shins and calves have taken in recent weeks.

"It does seem that there have been more challenges on me than my team-mates!" Reyes concedes with a grin. "But today it could be me, tomorrow someone else." On Wednesday evening it was his strike partner Thierry Henry, whose sore Achilles tendon received special attention from the defenders of PSV Eindhoven. Reyes also endured his customary buffeting - lasting just over an hour before he gave way with a sore knee.

"I don't think I'm being targeted," he maintains, with a nonchalant shrug. "It doesn't really matter. What matters is that we just try to play our football and I don't think that footballers get intimidated at all. It's just the way we are. As a footballer there is always the physical side to the game, although it's true that the English game is quite a lot more physical than in Spain. But I can't complain. It's part of the game."

Indeed, complaining is not in his nature. Ask anyone at Arsenal. Reyes is known for his ready smile, his habit of winking and his toughness. His desire to succeed overrides everything. It's why Arsène Wenger signed him. Reyes doesn't wince when asked to recall the events at Old Trafford last month - when he tasted defeat in the Premiership for the first time as an Arsenal player, and when he was undoubtedly singled out by Manchester United's Gary Neville. Instead the 21-year-old gently punches his fist into his open hand as he talks of the "passionate atmosphere" - although he says it was no more passionate than the derbies between his former team Seville and city rivals Real Betis - and those tackles.

Surprisingly, he says he welcomes them, saying he "loved" the confrontation. "What I do notice is that when they are physical here they are going for the ball even when they go through you! In Spain sometimes they just literally go for you." That may be a charitable assessment. Hostilities resumed when England played Spain in Madrid - although it was clear that Reyes was prepared to give as good as he gets. Indeed, although he has yet to be booked for Arsenal, at Seville he collected as many cards as goals.

It's not just the "honesty" of the players in England that has impressed him. The fans, also "have a lot more respect over here", Reyes says. "In Spain people throw everything at you on the pitch! Here that doesn't happen."

Does that mean that he prefers the Premiership? "It's clear that both it and La Liga are of a very high standard and both involve playing very nice football," Reyes says diplomatically, although even the diplomat can allow himself a cheeky rejoinder: "But because I'm in England I have to say English football, don't I?"

Reyes acknowledges that the Spanish league is "technically" at a higher standard, although he adds "that may well be true, but they [Spanish teams] also give their opponents more time on the ball and so maybe because of that their technique develops".

He, of course, has both technique and speed - plus a physical appetite for the game that is both natural and honed. The trophy next to him is a reminder of the way, at the start of the season, he destroyed the defences of Everton, Norwich City, Fulham, scoring in each of his five matches and leading Manchester United a merry dance in the Community Shield. He has undoubtedly slowed since then. Maybe it's the colder weather, maybe it's tiredness, probably it's the physical toll, with Wenger admitting last weekend that he hopes Reyes regains his early-season form soon. Arsenal - enduring a collective dip - need him to.

Although acknowledging Wenger's concerns, Reyes denies that his manager put him on a course of weights over the summer so that he could bulk up to the demands of English football. "When I first arrived here I went to the gym more," Reyes explains, "and that has helped because it's clear the physical side of the game is stronger. But I didn't excessively work out or do anything special."

His extra time in the gym partly came from the shock of life in London. It was a little refuge amid the bewilderment. Indeed, lifting weights was a way of externalising the burden on his mind. "It's true that when I arrived it was very, very difficult," he says recalling the snowy evening last January when he stepped off the plane from Spain. In fact, Reyes has described the first few months as "awful". So awful that it made him ill. Fortunately Wenger - as astute as ever - recognised the problem. As ever, he had done his homework. Forty-eight times the player was watched by Arsenal's scouts, with Wenger also suggesting that he had somehow managed to smuggle his way on to Seville's training ground to observe how he trained as well.

The transfer caused consternation back in Spain even if Seville could eventually, through a complicated payment schedule, receive a fee touching £18m. That didn't stop fans gathering to abuse Jose Maria del Nido, the club's president, when news came through of the sale of the country's most eviscerating talent, and lining the streets from the Sanchez Pizjuan stadium as Reyes made his way to the airport. They thumped on the car bonnet and pleaded with him not to go.

It was made all the more over-wrought because Reyes was one of them and was himself in tears. He is a Sevillista, a member of the "Biris" supporters' club, who slept under a duvet with the club's crest on it even after he made his first-team debut at the age of 16. Reyes hails from the industrial province of Utrera, 20 miles east of Seville, and although he may have a royal surname (it translates as "kings") he and his family lived in Arenal, one of the area's poorest barrios. Football, via Jose Antonio's quick mind and even quicker feet, was their passage out.

No one ever expected Reyes to stay with Seville. But it was to Real Madrid or, more probably, Barcelona, that he was destined to go. Or so they thought. Barça were the team his heroes - the Brazilians Romario and, even more fervently, Rivaldo - had played for. "He was my idol," Reyes says of the latter. Both the Spanish giants made offers. Both were rejected by Seville. Maybe Del Nido was also keen for such a prodigious rapier talent to leave the country so as not to come back to Seville too often to haunt him.

Nevertheless, and despite Wenger's persistence, Reyes acknowledges that Arsenal were not the obvious choice. "I'm not sure to be honest," he admits when asked why he chose Highbury. He watched English football as a boy, but can't remember being enthused by any players or teams although, again, he recalls being impressed by the fans, the atmosphere, the air of excitement. "But I knew that joining Arsenal was a massive opportunity for me and one that I could not allow to pass. I just went for it," he says.

"I only knew a little bit about Arsenal but what I did know was all very good. I just felt like changing a little from Spain and to go to a different atmosphere. The experience of coming abroad and so on. This is a step forward for me and I don't believe that I was too young or inexperienced. It has helped me to grow up and to play with the players I'm playing with now can only be good for me."

Nevertheless, it has been a difficult process on the field as well "The team had to accommodate me and I had to accommodate the team," Reyes says. "It was just very, very hard. Now the team feels like a family to me, it's good and I feel like I am playing fairly well."

What also made a difference was that his own family came with him. Reyes arrived on his own, with only one word of English - hello - and it was clear to Wenger that he was extremely lonely. Arsenal immediately engaged a translator, Xandy, a young Anglo-Mallorcan, who is still at Reyes' side, and who translated during this interview. The club also quickly brought Reyes's family over. His father Francisco, mother Mariana and his girlfriend Reme now live with him while his brother Jesus recently returned to Spain.

Reyes is clearly deeply impressed by Wenger. "If you look at him every day he is the first to training and the last to leave at 5pm or 6pm," he says. "He's all day taking in information, watching videos. He's also a very good coach but is good with people as well. He talks, listens and gets on very well with the players. It's a very good package to have." As is that offered by Arsenal. "It's hard to focus on one thing," he says when asked what has impressed him the most about the club. "Everything is very, very good at the moment - the players, the atmosphere - and I hope that it will just stay like that for years."

A bonus has been the number of Spanish speakers. "I didn't expect that at all," Reyes, who speaks in heavily-accented Spanish, often likened to a kind of Iberian Geordie, says. "But when I arrived there was Lauren, Cesc [Fabregas] and little by little that helped me as well." In all, seven members of the Arsenal squad - including the goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, the Swiss defender Philippe Senderos and Robert Pires, whose mother is Spanish - can communicate with Reyes in his mother tongue. Wenger himself can speak a little Spanish, as can Thierry Henry, while the presence of the Brazilians Edu and Gilberto Silva also helps foster Latin spirit.

It all allowed Reyes to rediscover his renowned sense of fun. His disposition, he says, is almost genetic and a product of his heritage. After all Seville, the capital of Andalucia, is the home of the most enduring of Spanish clichés - of flamenco, bullfighting and passion. But, above all, of a love of life, of an exuberant, daring, mucho arte. On weekends, football permitting, Reyes can be seen wandering among the stalls, bric-à-brac and buzz of Camden Market in north London. "I look at a few things, I buy a few things, but more than anything [I go there] just to have a bit of fun," he says. "It's got a little bit of everything and I guess, yes, it does feel a little bit Spanish, but only because of all the people."

At times his free spirit has caused frustration. Wenger kicked over a Lucozade bottle in anger at one mis-placed Reyes pass during the north London derby earlier this month and he has pursued a few too many blind alleys of late. But Wenger also knows that he does not want to curb that natural flair, that gift for the unexpected, that energy, and readily admits that Reyes' progression has surpassed his expectations.

"The manager gives me freedom on the pitch and that is the greatest of feelings. It's the same for all the players," Reyes says. Indeed, Wenger sees him - as Reyes sees himself - as a second striker, a possible replacement for Dennis Bergkamp even if, for now, he is operating mainly on the left wing. Before Arsenal's Champions' League tie away to Rosenborg, Wenger also likened the Spaniard to Wayne Rooney and the comparisons are fair, not least when examining the backgrounds of both players.

Success in European football has become a Holy Grail for Arsenal. Wenger hoped that Reyes would shine in Norway. Instead he faded. Away to Panathinaikos he was simply kicked out of the game and once more a Champions' League campaign stuttered. After Wednesday's draw in Eindhoven, however, victory at home to Rosenborg will let them squeak through into the knock-out stages. "We're not that bad!" Reyes contends. "Last year we were quite unlucky not to go through against Chelsea [in the quarter-finals]. It was a moment that happened. Personally, I don't think it's possible that a team is very good in one league and bad in Europe. That's just not the way it goes."

But isn't it an indictment of English football that only Manchester United have triumphed in the Champions' League, and then only once? "And last year Porto won it," Reyes replies. "It's just the way it goes. I don't know why. I really don't. All I can do is hope that this season it will be us and we can do it."

Reyes also rejects any notion that the physical toll of the Premiership is to blame. "Tiredness has nothing to do with it," he says. "Maybe it's the inverse. With such physical sides as the English, then, maybe when they come to play European teams they should be able to show their presence more."

For now his thoughts are on the Premiership. Tomorrow Arsenal travel to Liverpool and despite the very English tenor of the contest there will, of course, be a Spanish flavour too. In opposition will be Rafael Benitez and Reyes' Spanish international team-mate Xabi Alonso - whose impact has also been great - as well as countrymen and Josemi. Another Spaniard at Liverpool, Luis Garcia, misses out through injury. Alongside Reyes will be Fabregas. "He will be an important player for the future," says Reyes of the young midfielder who scored Spain's winning goal in the Under-21 fixture against England. "But it is clear at the moment the way he is playing is at a spectacular level for someone who is only 17-years-old."

Together - along with the Liverpool contingent - they are quickly demolishing the perception that has built up in England that Spanish players struggle to have an impact here. A dozen or so have preceded them and failed. What is clear is that this wave, led by Reyes, is far more talented, far more determined and far more settled. "Completely," he says emphatically. "And," he adds, rubbing his leg, "I'm very, very well."

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