Arsenal's young Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas has adapted to English football brilliantly.
Thursday, 19 May 2005.
It takes guts for a young player to leave Camp Nou and risk his future with another club in another country. But for Arsenal’s Catalan sensation, the gamble paid off.
It was a chilly night in North London when the Fabregas family first felt the warm glow that accompanies a gamble coming off.
Arsenal were playing Wolves in the Fourth Round of the Carling Cup, and their little maestro clipped in a goal that etched his name into the annals.
In this game Cesc Fabregas became the youngest footballer ever to play a first-team game for Arsenal and the club’s youngest ever scorer. Up in the East Stand his mother leapt up and down like there was no tomorrow.
For one of Spain’s most luxurious talents, the decision to quit Barcelona for a life abroad at the age of 16 was both risky and controversial. So it was reassuring, affirming, to see Fabregas make an impact at his new club so soon.
The family were sure it would have been years before he was granted an equivalent opportunity at Camp Nou. As he said, "Arsenal came for me, but at Barcelona I was just one of many."
That was then, this is now: so important has he become within a year that Arsène Wenger is loath to let him play Carling Cup matches any more. He has 40 games under his belt this campaign.
That’s more than Freddie Ljungberg, more than Dennis Bergkamp, more than Gilberto and Edu put together. "The manager told me I should have only played 15-20 games, so all I can say is ‘Thank you very much and I hope it’ll be the same next season,’" chirps Fabregas.
While mindful of the dangers of overplaying, the boy has certainly proved himself worthy of a full season’s work. If the goal against Wolves was an early indicator of his promise, Fabregas introduced himself properly to the Arsenal faithful here in Millennium Stadium against Manchester United.
Back in August in the Community Shield, he excelled with his intelligence, firmness in the tackle and superb range of passing.
Fresh from a growth spurt over the summer in which he gained four inches and a chunk of muscle power, Fabregas looked the real deal.
He was the talk of the M4 on the journey back to London, even inspiring a chant that suggested Arsenal had struck gold: "He’s only 17, he’s better than Roy Keane!" sang his new disciples.
The boy himself loves nothing better than a humdinger against the likes of United’s enforcer, musing, "I’m never scared. If you are, you can’t play this game."
Having passed his first serious test with flying colours, Fabregas had gained enough of Wenger’s confidence to deputise for injured captain Patrick Vieira on the opening day of the season at Everton, where he was unfazed by the combative opposition.
"I worried, but he showed he can cope," reflected Wenger. "Players like that are special. Being ready early is a big ingredient of talent."
Fabregas has become a symbol of Arsenal’s season. Had injuries not afflicted the club’s big hitters like Edu and Gilberto, opportunity may not have knocked quite so loudly.
But 2004/05 will be remembered as the year crop of starlets - Fabregas, Philippe Senderos and Robin van Persie - came of age.
Fabregas’ head remains unfeasibly level. He happily hopped on the Tube to support his fellow teenagers in The FA Youth Cup this year.
Now he is on a professional contract, treated no differently to the team’s international stars. But he still lives in digs in Barnet, still loves horror movies, and still can't drive.
Vieira is full of praise for his new midfield sidekick: "What I really like is that he is not afraid to play. He always wants the ball, and he anticipates so well. His confidence and belief are as terrific as his ability."
Fabregas, meanwhile, is taking it all in his stride: "I am still growing up. The doctor told me sometimes I’ll feel at the top and sometimes my energy will drop a little. But if my body can do it, I will do my best."
This article appears in the official FA Cup Final programme. To purchase your copy of the programme, click here.