The Athletic Daily

When Kanu’s speed of thought frightened Chelsea defenders

I watched the highlight of Kanu Nwankwo’s audacious hat trick against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the 1999 season after Arsenal were 2-0 down and looked defeated before the introduction of the Nigerian. Immediately after the match, Arsene Wenger went down the tunnel like a man who is not happy with the outcome of the result and I wondered, has there been an individual performance more glaring of any Nigerian footballer in the past years?

I was nine in 1999, so you can do the mathematics to determine my age, didn’t really understand football but Nigeria’s exploit at the 1994 African Cup of Nations and the Olympic Games was the talk of the town, even birds were singing the mighty feats of that generation. So it is very likely kids of even four years of age must have had knowledge of the round leather game.

Since yesterday, I have tried severally but failed to describe what I saw. It might be that my writing skills have not developed to that level yet, but it is a display I have watched over and over again as a Nigerian. I must also confess that Kanu was the one player that led me to the Gunners and at that tender age, I knew explosive players like Theirry Henry and the football artistry of Dennis Bergkamp. I have been following the team to this day.

I have also gathered momentum to write about that cult moment, a single player who terrified the Blues army, prior to the match, Chelsea had put defending champions Manchester United to the sword, and Galatasaray in Istanbul, annihilating both teams 5-0 in the league and the Champions League, also to note, they came very handy and confident because no attack in England could score against them at the Bridge.

For Arsenal fans, Henry is the undisputed king of Highbury, Robin Van Persie had a grip of the Emirate while current captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is making a serious claim to that arena, meaning the North Londoners are always blessed with quite a magnificent procession of frontmen.

Start an argument with an Arsenal fan about the status of Kanu at the club, except for the most racist of supporters who will blow their dark minds and spit on the legacy Kanu had during his six seasons at Highbury. He might not rank among elite goalscorers in the club history and may have failed to hit another hat trick, but that cameo at Stamford Bridge will live forever in the minds of football lovers, even Chelsea faithful.

He is regarded as the best Nigerian to ever grace the English Premier League, scoring just 44 goals and winning two doubles (2 FA Cup and Premier League), one of which being an Invincible season, going 38 games without tasting defeat with Arsene Wenger’s men and also winning Community Shields.

Let me explain how he scared the hell out of Chelsea on that faithful day in West London. No one was surprised after 38 minutes, Tony Adams understandably being too cautious of Dan Petrescu and the Chelsea man took advantage of the space down the right, whipped in a cross deep into the box which found the head of Tore André Flo, the full-back stealing the space between Lee Dixon and Martin Keown, Flo’s header found the back of the next with David Season beaten at the far corner. One-nil Chelsea.

After the restart, Petrescu scored from Graeme Le Saux’s whipped cross after receiving a pass from Dennis Wise down the left flank, Saux cross made it way past Arsenal defenders who defended like headless chickens and Petrescu nodded the ball home and at that point, it was a matter of how many more not the result. Arsenal was in trouble, the result was no longer in doubt and Wenger another victim to Chelsea’s ruthlessness. Game over?

Also to remind you that there was another Nigerian wearing blue which was Celestine Babayaro. Arsenal had a nice move down the right, Le Dixon’s attempted cross was blocked by Babayaro, fortunately, the ball fell to Marc Overmars whose weak shot deflected and found Kanu and the Nigerian tucked home and brought the game back to life. 2 – 1, game on.

Nwankwo Kanu
Nwankwo Kanu scored the first goal of his hat trick against Chelsea (PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images)

The clock read 83 minutes, Dixon found Overmars on the right wing who was confronted by Babayaro and Frank Leboeuf, the two defenders, the former closed him down with Overmars cutting the ball back to his left foot, flashed the ball inside, the ball found Kanu whose intentionally heavy first touch took the pass into space away from the close attention of Desailly. From eight yards out, Kanu banged the ball low into the near post of the goalkeeper. Unbelievable. All squared at 83 minutes.

Chelsea responded with a press, pushed the ball forward, Albert Ferrer had the ball on the right back position, looked to send it long but Kanu’s long leg blocked the ball and immediately, Chelsea were in trouble yet again. He has tormented those defenders in the last 15 minutes and they knew he is capable of anything which proved to be the case.

The panicked reflected on the goalkeeper who rushed out of his goal towards Kanu at the right back position, he paused for a second, went for the ball at the attacker’s feet, but Kanu feigned a cross and instead swept the ball between the legs of the already scared and stranded goalkeeper. There were four Chelsea defenders protecting the empty post, Kanu had the option of passing the ball to Overmars or Suker who demanded it, but any pass would have been blocked by the Blues defenders, he decided against the pass, instead, shoot with his right foot into an absurd angle and curled the ball over the head of Desailly and Leboeuf and into the gaping net.

The fans from both teams could not believe what they saw, both benches were astonished and the neutrals went mental. Commenting on the match live, Martin Tyler could not believe what he witnessed and scream: “Oh! Can you believe it? He’s flattened Chelsea. He’s hit a hat-trick at Stamford Bridge! This is simply extraordinary. Absolutely amazing.”

As journalist Will Sharp put it, “Kanu’s speed of thought, his instinctive movement and positioning, his efficiency in firing, had gunned Chelsea down on their own doorstep and, indeed, his marksmanship had been quite amazing to behold.”

At the blast of the final whistle, Kanu had put up a performance that will not easily be forgotten in the memory of fans that were at the stand, those who watched from home, and those who are still reliving the match today. Compatriot Celestine Babayaro rushed to exchanged his shirt with Kanu and that summed up what the Chelsea players felt.

Arsene Wenger said after the match: “I expected him to cross, if he hadn’t scored it could have upset you because he really should have passed. However, great players can prove you wrong. It is one of the best goals I’ve seen. Kanu is a great character, not only a talent but a fighter who works hard for the team. He is a winner, and when you are a winner you do what is efficient.”

Kanu had established himself at North London as a cult hero and club legend in just a game and will be forever remembered as the man who scared the sh*t out of Chelsea at West London. To date, it remains the best individual performance I’ve seen in the Premier League and the best hat trick scored by a player. No wonder Arsene Wenger recently chose the Nigerian as his best January signing throughout his 22-year spell with the Gunners.

That’s it. If you fancy some extra reading, Bassey Ibiatisuho has written a great piece on the 30th anniversary of the NPFL, you can read it here.


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