Football Features

Yaya Toure’s Arsenal trial: How the ex-Man City midfielder nearly became an ‘Invincible’ in 2003

By Harry Edwards

Published: 16:00, 17 March 2020 | Updated: 17:52, 17 March 2021

The legendary former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is known for nearly signing players.

One of the most well known talents he let pass by is Yaya Toure, who famously underwent a trial with the Gunners before being turned down.

Later, of course, he would return to England and become one of the greatest midfielders in Premier League history with Manchester City. But in 2003, ahead of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ campaign, Toure played in an Arsenal shirt against Barnet, a pre-season friendly that ended in a drab 0-0 draw.

Toure, 20 at the time, started in midfield and was later moved up front as he sought to impress Wenger as he did with the Gunners’ feeder club in Belgium, K.S.K Beveren.

One excerpt from a match report on Arsenal’s website sums up the youngster’s below-par performance: “Then came the clearest chance of the game. Substitute Quincy Owusu-Abeyie used his pace to scoot clear on the right.

“He reached the byline and clipped an intelligent cross to the far post where Yaya Toure, who was pushed up front in the second half, had taken position. It seemed a simple job to nod the ball home but Yaya sent his header wide.”

In the end, Wenger opted against signing Toure Jr, who instead wound up in the footballing backwaters of Metalurg Donetsk in Ukraine. The decision has come to be seen as something of a sliding doors moment. Had Arsenal signed Yaya Toure, they would have acquired the perfect Patrick Vieira replacement who could have powered them closer to a league title.

We all know what happened to Toure in ensuing years, but what about the rest of the Arsenal team that day?

Goalkeeper: Graham Stack

Age: 39
Arsenal appearances: 5
Current club: Watford (head of academy goalkeeping)

All five of Graham Stack’s competitive appearances for the Gunners came during the Invincibles campaign but all were in the League Cup rather than the Premier League.

Ironically, the best period of Stack’s career was spent at Barnet. There, he was the No.1 ‘keeper for three years and helped the club win the Conference Premier in 2015. After a brief spell in India, Stack returned to England before retiring in 2018. Stack now works with the goalkeepers at Watford’s academy.

Right-back: Lauren

Age: 44
Arsenal appearances: 241
Current club: Retired

A mainstay of the starting XI in the 2003/04 season, Lauren spent six years at Arsenal in total and was one of the first names on the team sheet until being usurped by Emmanuel Eboue in his final year at the club.

Upon leaving Arsenal at the end of his contract in 2006, Lauren penned another deal in the Premier League with Portsmouth. Eventually he ended his playing days in Spain with Cordoba, retiring in 2010.

Centre-back: Sol Campbell

Age: 46
Arsenal appearances: 210
Current club: Retired

Sol Campbell did the unthinkable when he left boyhood club Spurs for their fierce rivals Arsenal in 2001. Ultimately, his time with the Gunners was a huge success, resulting in two Premier League titles and two FA Cups.

A productive three-year stint with Portsmouth followed, with Campbell captaining the side to an FA Cup trophy in 2008 before he strangely ended up at Notts County (briefly) and then back at Arsenal. Since ending his playing career, Campbell has turned to management, taking charge of Macclesfield and Southend United, leaving the latter in June 2020.

Centre-back: Pascal Cygan

Age: 46
Arsenal appearances: 98
Current club: Retired

Much maligned during his time with Arsenal, Pascal Cygan was almost exclusively a backup during his time in English football and was allowed to join Villarreal in 2006.

The Frenchman ended his career in the Spanish lower leagues with Cartagena but has remained in football, firstly as a director of football at boyhood Wasquehal and most recently as assistant manager at KSV Roeselare in Belgium.

Left-back: Gael Clichy

Age: 35
Arsenal appearances: 264
Current club: Servette

Incidentally, Gael Clichy was also a trialist in the same game. Unlike Toure, though, the full-back did earn a permanent contract with Arsenal and was immediately installed as Ashley Cole’s understudy, becoming the youngest member of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ squad.

After Cole moved to Chelsea, Clichy was promoted to first-choice option but following a few barren years for the club, he moved on to Manchester City and won two further Premier League titles and a couple of League Cups.

Right midfielder: Ray Parlour

Age: 48
Arsenal appearances: 466
Current club: Retired

The ‘Romford Pele’, as he is affectionately referred to on Emirates terraces, Ray Parlour was Arsenal through and through after having been developed in their academy. All in all, he ended up winning nine major honours with the club.

Parlour moved up north to Middlesbrough in search of more regular first-team football and spent three years at the Riverside with a loan spell at Hull City chucked in for good measure prior to retirement.

Central midfielder: Yaya Toure

Age: 37
Arsenal appearances: 0
Current club: Olimpik Donetsk (assistant manager)

Toure bounced back from his Arsenal rejection emphatically, going on to become one of the best midfield players in world football during spells with Barcelona and Manchester City.

Since leaving Man City in 2018, Toure has had spells with Olympiacos and QD Huanghai, departing the latter in January 2020. He recently moved to the dugout, returning to Ukraine where he spent two years of his career just after his Arsenal trial, and he is now assistant manager at Olimpik Donetsk.

Central midfielder: Edu

Age: 42
Arsenal appearances: 127
Current club: Arsenal (technical director)

Arsenal’s bid to sign Edu from Corinthians was a protracted one due to work permit issues. But eventually, Wenger got his man as the deep-lying playmaker linked up with the club midway through the 2001/02 campaign.

It took a while for Edu to get going in England, but he proved to be an invaluable squad member during the ‘Invincibles’ season. He left for Valencia in 2005 but injury problems plagued his time in Spain and he ended his career with first club Corinthians. After working with Corinthians and Brazil in behind-the-scenes roles, Edu has returned to Arsenal as technical director.

Left midfielder: Kolo Toure

Age: 39
Arsenal appearances: 329
Current club: Leicester City (assistant manager)

Cast your mind back to the start of Kolo Toure’s career in English football at the turn of the century and you’ll remember that he actually started out playing… well, wherever Wenger needed him to.

Eventually, Toure pinned down a starting berth in the side in central defence, forming a rock-solid partnership with Sol Campbell at the back.

He went on to play alongside his brother at City before moving on to Liverpool and Celtic, with whom he was part of another ‘Invincible’ title-winning side once again. After retiring in 2017, Toure returned to the Premier League with as Brendan Rodgers’ assistant at Leicester.

Striker: Jerome Thomas

Age: 37
Arsenal appearances: 3
Current club: Retired

A product of Arsenal’s youth academy, Jerome Thomas was highly-regarded but given the depth and talent of the club’s attacking options, he never looked likely to break into the side.

He spent numerous loan spells away before enjoying permanent stays at both Charlton Athletic and West Brom in the Premier League. Thomas most recently played for Port Vale before retiring in 2017, aged 34.

Striker: Jeremie Aliadiere

Age: 37
Arsenal appearances: 28
Current club: Retired

Though highly regarded by Wenger and given every chance to succeed by his manager, Jeremie Aliadiere never quite made it at Arsenal despite getting his hands on a Premier League winner’s medal in 2003/04.

The Frenchman did feature more regularly in the top-flight for Middlesbrough but enjoyed the best spell of his career in his homeland over two spells with FC Lorient, either side of a stint in Qatar.

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