At the end of every Premier League season, teams submit to the league a list of players who are being released as their contracts expire. A few weeks ago, those lists were made public, and one of the most notable names on the released list was Abou Diaby of Arsenal.
It wasn’t really a surprise that Diaby was released. He’s made 22 appearances for Arsenal in the past 4 seasons. Combined. In the last two Premier League seasons Diaby played 16 minutes of a possible 6840.
Diaby’s career at Arsenal will mostly be remembered for what could have been. Despite one of Arsenal’s longest-serving players, having been there for 9 years, injuries have ravaged his career thus far and he only played 180 games for Arsenal. Diaby’s injuries at Arsenal kept him out for a total of 222 weeks.
Despite all that, Arsenal fans and Arsene Wenger still held out hope that Diaby would still come good at some stage. With good reason, because, when he did play, Diaby was absolutely magnificent. Diaby has the ability to be every bit as good as the best midfielders in the world. He has almost flawless technique and the creativity to destroy teams single-handedly.
It’s clear that Arsene Wenger holds Diaby in high esteem and the way that Diaby’s career has panned out has upset and frustrated him immensely.
Wenger holds one man responsible for Diaby’s injury woes. A man by the name of Dan Smith.
On 1 May 2006, Arsenal travelled to Sunderland for a league game. Arsenal were having a disappointing league season by their standards (though they were excellent in Europe, making the Champions League final) and were competing with Spurs to see who would finish 4th.
In contrast Sunderland were having a truly dismal season, and had already been relegated by the time Arsenal came to visit. At times like this, where a team only has pride to play for, they usually decide to play some of their academy products to see if they can cut it in the league. That’s what Sunderland did, and halfway through the 2nd half when they brought on young full-back Dan Smith.
Smith was a promising young player. He’d come through the ranks in Sunderland’s youth setup, and had played for England at various age group levels. However, his first-team appearances for Sunderland before that substitute appearance had included a red-card on his debut and an own goal, so he would have been desperate to prove his worth.
When Smith was brought on, Arsenal were leading 0-3. In situations like this, a common instruction from a manager to a substitute, especially a young player, is to go and put themselves about, i.e. go and make a few tackles, and generally make an impression on the game.
Unfortunately, late in the game, Smith made a late, reckless tackle on Diaby, breaking his ankle and causing ligament damage. Smith publicly apologised for his tackle, and says he contacted Arsenal to apologise.
At the time, Wenger was raging about Smith’s tackle, accusing Smith of deliberately hurting Diaby, and he threatened legal action, saying
"I am very upset and very disappointed with the tackle. Having watched it again I just feel I will not leave this case there because there was bad intention in the tackle. There was only one intention in this tackle - to hurt the player - and it's a career-threatening tackle. I will take legal advice to see how far I can go."
Nine years on, Arsene Wenger still believes that Dan Smith is responsible. In an interview in France last year, Wenger denied Diaby’s an injury-prone player saying: “He is not a fragile player. He was the victim of an assassin's tackle that went unpunished”
It’s almost become canon to blame Dan Smith’s tackle for Diaby’s problems. But, if you think about it, then that’s not necessarily the case.
It’s wrong to say that Dan Smith’s tackle ended, or even ruined Diaby’s career. Because it didn’t. Smith’s tackle may have put Diaby out injured for a few months, but Diaby came back the following season, and the three seasons after that were the most productive of Diaby’s career. In those three seasons, Diaby played 104 games for Arsenal, and was capped by France, and it was in that time that people got to see just how good a player he was.
Diaby’s career started to go downhill from the 2010-11 season. Long after Dan Smith’s tackle on him.
It may be true that Dan Smith’s tackle caused some sort of permanent weakness in Diaby’s ankle, which has in turn been the cause of all his other injuries over the years. It may also be true that Diaby is just a player prone to getting injured. But it may also be true that Arsenal bear some responsibility for what happened to Diaby, and that may explain why Arsene Wenger keeps bringing up Dan Smith’s tackle.
Arsenal often get criticised for the number of injuries their players pick up throughout the season. Leading fitness coach Raymond Verheijen believes that Arsenal’s injury problems stem from outdated methods in training and conditioning of players, plus the view that Arsenal don’t manage the return of their players from injury well, with Arsenal often accused of bringing players back too quickly. If this is true, then it’s possible that Wenger is using Dan Smith as a scapegoat for his own staff’s failings when it has come to Diaby’s fitness.
It’s certainly true that Dan Smith’s tackle ruined the career of one man. But that man wasn’t Abou Diaby.
At the time he made that tackle on Diaby, Dan Smith was 19 years old. His Sunderland career to that point consisted of a red card on his debut and an own goal in his next game. So, it’s plausible that when Dan Smith was sent onto the pitch that night, he knew he might be getting his last chance.
As it turns out, that game was the last time Dan Smith ever played for Sunderland.
As Diaby was recovering from his injury and establishing himself in the first team, Dan Smith was trying to rebuild his career up in Scotland, where he had joined Scottish Premier League side Aberdeen in what proved to be an unsuccessful spell. After unsuccessful spells at St Johnstone and Huddersfield Town, he drifted out of the professional game.
Somewhat ironically, or depending on your point of view, karma at work; Smith’s own career was blighted by knee and ACL injuries. There was also the spectre of that tackle on Diaby haunting him wherever he went. Dan Smith said “As a 19-year-old it did scar me. When you are in that situation and you have a bit of a career going it is tough to take when it is all you are remembered for.
"From there I was the guy who broke Diaby's leg," he added. "I wasn't the guy who represented England at all those youth levels; I wasn't the up-and-coming Sunderland player."
Even though Diaby’s career has been on hold for the past 5 years or so, at least he’s been financially secure for years. In contrast, Dan Smith had to try and find a regular job after his football career ended.
A point I’ve made before is that footballers don’t usually get a proper education, despite the odds of them making it being so small; so there aren’t too many employment opportunities available to an ex-footballer. While Abou Diaby was still on a large contract at Arsenal, Dan Smith has had to take jobs in various call centres around Sunderland, while continuing to play semi-pro football.
Dan Smith’s football career post-Aberdeen has included stints at non-league teams based around the Tyne and Wear (Newcastle and Sunderland) region. Teams like Blyth Spartans, Chester-le-Street Town, Spennymoor, Gateshead and many others.
Even at those clubs, some of who only play in front of a handful of fans, Smith could not escape his past. “Word would go round 'that was the guy who broke Diaby's leg’.
"You are playing there for fun, not to try to make a career and you have to listen to someone shouting, 'that is the f*****g w****r who broke Diaby's leg'."
Abou Diaby’s career is still in progress. A few teams were willing to sign him this summer, with Premier League side West Brom offering him a contract. Diaby eventually singed for Marseille, and at the age of 29, could still enjoy several more years of being a footballer.
Dan Smith emigrated to Australia, where he has a job selling CCTV. Smith is playing semi-pro football for Holland Park Hawks in Brisbane, which is the fifth tier in Australia. Smith was offered the chance to try out for some clubs in Australia’s A League, but decided that he’d be happier at Holland Park, where he also coaches the women’s and under-16 teams.
Smith seems to have found some sort of peace with life in Australia, saying: “I think the beauty of me moving over here is it’s a fresh start in terms of when you were there you were tarred with a brush that you didn’t want to be tarred with, it was one of those things where you couldn’t get the monkey off your back.
“I think they forgot that I was just a young lad trying to make an impression on the game and it didn’t work out ... that was 10 years ago and I think me moving here has been a perfect example of a fresh start.”
Smith added that he doesn't believe Wenger should still accuse him of ruining Diaby's career, saying: “Arsene Wenger is one of the greatest managers in the world. You must listen to what he says, and I respect the fact that he defends his players, that’s what any great manager would do. At the same time, I find it a little hard for him to accuse me of being the cause of all the difficulties of a player who has had a 10-year career.
“I think he said that ‘every player needed his ankle’. But everyone also needs his knee or his head.
“Everyone gets injured. Some manage to return, and others, unfortunately, do not. This is football. If I could remove the evil I have committed, I would. Unfortunately, I can not.”