In case you have not heard, today, Arsenal announced the release of a few players, as they do every summer. Most years, the names on this list are generally ones that don't register, or don't really make anyone feel...anything, really. However, this summer, a player named Vassiriki Abou Diaby unfortunately found himself on that list.
While his release was inevitable and has no real effect on our first team, it is still feels like a punch to the gut of any Arsenal fan of the last decade. No player symbolizes the limitless promise and ultimate disappointment of the early Emirates-era Arsenal sides more than Abou Diaby. As the summer unfolds, its lack of games and (currently) white-hot transfer rumors allows us all a moment to pause and reflect on the end of a contentious era of the club.
Diaby was brought in at the denouement of Highbury, as a key transition piece into the belt-tightening future Arsenal entered into thanks to the terms of the new stadium deal. His origin story is so stereotypically Arsene and Arsenal, the key pieces of the news release could have been written by a Chelsea message board poster. A talented French teenager signed for a nominal fee, Diaby was the first "next Vieira," anointed before his predecessor's career was even buried. The comparison was too obvious not to make. Both were six foot four inch box to box midfielders, French by way of Africa, and so unfairly skilled for their height they resembled a Create-A-Player from FIFA more than any living, breathing human being.
His tenure with Arsenal was doomed from the very beginning, the bright promise of talent stamped out by the brute force of injury. In an instance that would become far too common, a reckless, borderline malicious, challenge changed the course of history for player and club. I dare not speak the assaulter's name in these parts, as Labour Day 2006 was perhaps the defining moment of the club's dark decade. A dash of reckless challenges became standard modus operandi when facing the technically, if not physically, robust Arsenal squads in the mid-aughts, with Diaby being the key piece of collateral damage from that tactic.
Injuries often begat injuries, and Diaby's presence in the training room was far more the rule than the exception. That initial crushing injury no doubt played a part in many, if not most, of the thirty-six (36!) subsequent injuries that torpedoed the midfielder's career.
After that injury, there was no consistent form for either club or player. We remember the moments, sure. Kicking John Terry in the face in 2007. Forming an extremely interesting midfield triumvirate in 2009 with future Barcelona want-aways Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song. Being victimized by a Joey Barton flop in 2011. Bossing Liverpool in 2012. Never once with a season to remember, but always back with hope that one was right around the corner. That this was the year he/we would stay healthy and put it all together. Unfortunately for him, the past couple of years, where we actually have put it together, at least in terms of winning a trophy, he has not even had a glimmer of fitness hope.
So: the player who so many of his colleagues and coaches regarded as one of the most talented in the sport is now unemployed at the young age of 28. You might point out that it cannot really be the end of an era if we have already put the trophy drought behind us. As any historian will tell you, eras tend to not have specific beginning and end dates or events; their boundaries are more fluid, with protracted and often unclear transitions. I would argue that this moment is the nail in the coffin of the early Emirates era, one that will likely not be remembered fondly by most, but one that I will certainly cherish.
There was something exciting about rooting for a relative underdog that was simultaneously under-achieving - at least based on the historic goals of the club - and over-achieving (who was a better winger for us, Bendtner or Eboue?). There was always that hope that we could shock the world, and chief among those giving us hope was Abou Diaby. Let's remember him, and that era of the club's history, for the promise and the moments, instead of leaning only on the ultimate disappointment of Diaby's career at Arsenal.