London is a wonderful city. It boasts over eight million people, an array of beautiful buildings and pretty parks, as well as 11 football teams playing in the Premier League and EFL. Enigmatic French centre-back William Gallas is evidently a huge admirer of London, spending 12 of his 19 seasons as a professional footballer in the city. In his spell in England’s capital, he was a huge success. He won the Premier League, League Cup and has worn the captain’s armband on many occasions.
A spell like this should make him an icon and idol. This is where the issue lies, however. He isn’t loved at his club because William Gallas isn’t synonymous with any one team. He split his 12 years in London between Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, racking up a whole host of controversial moments wherever he went. His strops were infamous, his
morality was questioned year upon year, even his choice of shirt number was scrutinised. It is easy to forget that through all the transfers, Gallas was a tremendous defender.
Prior to his London-laden clubs, Gallas was a rising talent in France. Sport is in his blood, with his cousin Mathieu Bastareaud playing centre for the French national rugby team. While Bastareaud was learning the laws of the scrum, Gallas was breaking into the first team at Ligue 2 outfit Caen.
His football career very nearly didn’t happen. Gallas started off as a striker in his youth team, often getting frustrated at the fact that his teammates were regularly getting offered trials at pro teams while he wasn’t. He tried different positions, plying his trade both on the wing and in midfield. Eventually, his coach talked with him. He told the player that there was just one year left with the youth team, Clairefontaine and that he should try defence. “Why not?” thought Gallas. He had nothing to lose.
This advice from the coach was pivotal in the career of William Gallas. He played a game at right back, and again at centre back. He was eventually offered a trial with Ligue 2 side Caen. He took the trial by the scruff of the neck and earned himself a contract. In his first season, Gallas helped Caen to the league title. He couldn’t help Caen from being relegated
the following season, but his performances stood out in a turbulent period.
Marseille were impressed by the leadership shown by the young defender. He may not have been the tallest centre-half on the market, but his reading of the game and his strength in the air more than made up for his lack of inches. He was brought in on a free transfer, thus rendering the risk factor low. The deal was a triumph for both player and club.
In his first season with the southern French side William Gallas struggled to break into the first team. His free transfer and lack of top experience meant that he was easily overlooked by the coaches as Marseille finished 4th, attaining a UEFA Cup spot. His second season was significantly improved. Marseille finished second, qualifying them for the Champions League
with Gallas playing 42 games in all competitions.
In the Champions League, he scored the winner against Manchester United which put his name in the headlines of the English papers. He gathered the ball near the halfway line, carried it forward, played a one-two with a teammate and darted into the box, stabbing the return pass into the back of the net. Marseille finished 15th once again the season after, but his performance against Manchester United remained an ace card for Gallas who knew that he was going onto bigger and better things in his career.
Claudio Ranieri was impressed at what he had seen of young William Gallas and brought him to Chelsea in the summer of 2001 for £6.2 million. This was the beginning of a 12-year stint in London. This would also be the most successful period of his career. A big part of the reason why Gallas’ time at Chelsea was so successful was the calibre of his defensive partners. When he arrived at Stamford Bridge, he was paired with World Cup and European Championship winner Marcel Desailly. By the end of his period at Chelsea, he was paired frequently with John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, two world-class centre-backs.
Gallas was a versatile player who was adept at playing both in the heart of defence or either fullback position. This was an invaluable asset to both Claudio Ranieri and Jose Mourinho, as the defensive pack could be seamlessly reshuffled if injury or suspension occurred. This versatility was a big part of the reason that Chelsea was so successful in the early 2000s. The Frenchman won two Premier League titles under Mourinho. Despite this, Gallas is not thought of well by Blues fans.
In the 2005 Champions League semi-finals, Chelsea lost 1-0 to Luis Garcia’s infamous strike. A frantic goal-line scramble ended in William Gallas hooking the ball off the line amidst the confusion. This was a hugely controversial moment as Gallas was adamant that the ball never crossed the ball – though, this was over a decade before goal-line technology was introduced. While this was hardly the fault of Gallas, this sore semi-final loss cannot be spoken of without referring to him. It is misfortune by association.
The main reason why Gallas is poorly thought of by Chelsea fans is a result of his exit from Stamford Bridge. As is so often the way in the modern game, money paved the way for the fallout. Gallas had one year left on his contract and wanted to stay with Chelsea. He believed he ought to be paid more; he had starred in back-to-back title wins for Chelsea, and had just represented France in the World Cup final in Berlin.
Due to his exploits with France, he asked if he could take an extra week off before heading back to training. Chelsea denied him his request, wishing to have their full roster travelling to America for pre-season. They claimed it was for the good of the team. Gallas, however, believed it was more cynical; to market their squad as having a World Cup finalist in the
The hold-out hit fever point when Michael Ballack signed for the Blues. The superstar German was given Gallas’ number 13 shirt, causing the defender to see red, in more ways than one. He was furious and demanded to leave, supposedly threatening to score an own goal if he was denied his move – a sentiment that the player fervently denies.
William Gallas saw red once more, on September 1st 2006, as he signed for Chelsea’s London rivals Arsenal. This was a huge deal as it saw England left-back Ashley Cole move the other way for Gallas + £5 million. The deal saw the Frenchman move to the Emirates on a four-year contract. The defender wasn’t at Arsenal for more than a couple of days before controversy struck again though…
This drama was less newsworthy than his alleged threat to score an own goal. But to football purists, it was a spit in the face. He took the number 10 jersey. Number 10. A centre-back. This was seen as a bizarre decision at best, and a selfish one at worst, with some questioning if Gallas felt the need to take it as some sort of power trip. The answer was actually more selfless than selfish.
After the retirement of Dennis Bergkamp, the number was vacant. Nobody really wanted to take the number due to the added pressure. Arsene Wenger and William Gallas discussed the idea for a while and it was decided that it made more sense to give the number to a calm head like William Gallas than put the pressure on a young forward from the academy, or a new striker. Rather than taking it to prove he was the most important man in the team, he took it to relieve the pressure – a real show of leadership.
This act of selflessness and leadership shone through to Arsene Wenger, and only a year after signing for the Gunners he was appointed club captain. This was a rollercoaster period for Arsenal. In the 2007-08 season, they finished 3rd in the Premier League, reached the semi-finals of the League Cup and the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but suffered heavy defeats to English teams over two legs in both competitions.
The captaincy was stripped from Gallas in February 2008, following the reaction of the Frenchman to an emotional and disappointing draw against Birmingham City. In the tough away fixture, Croatian forward Eduardo had his leg brutally broken, causing his teammates to be physically shaken. In the 95th minute, Gael Clichy gave away a penalty through some
criminal defending, allowing the Blues a way back into the game.
Gallas, the captain of the club, walked up the pitch in disgust, refusing to complete his defensive duties as he stood on the halfway line. He walked into the opposition half in a strop, seemingly protesting the decision. James McFadden converted the penalty as the game finished 2-2, while the captain kicked an advertising board and had to be restrained from confronting the fans. Eventually, Gallas ambled back to the middle of the pitch after the final whistle was blown, slumping down in despair and weeping.
At the time the fans were furious, many of them failing to ever really forgive their captain for the child-like outburst. The players were livid. Gilberto Silva confronted Gallas after the game. Arsene Wenger was neither furious nor livid. He was resigned to a feeling that is usually delivered by parents and teachers. He wasn’t angry; he was disappointed. His
captain has let him down. Arsenal were top of the league going into the game, but a poor subsequent run of form lead to an eventual 3rd place finish.
Much to the surprise of the Gunners, Wenger kept Gallas as captain the following season. He may have started the season as captain, but he didn’t finish it. In an interview, Gallas came out and criticised the team, particularly the “weak mentality” of the younger players. Gallas expressed anger that his words were twisted and manipulated by the media, though
this didn’t stop the Frenchman being docked two weeks’ wages as well as having the captaincy stripped from him.
Gallas was angry, but he was a professional. He continued to play to a high standard and ensured his fight and passion was a point of pride for the rest of the team. He may have lost the captaincy, but he was still keen to lead by example. He was a goal-scoring revelation in the Champions League, grabbed a derby goal against Spurs, and put in a herculean performance against Manchester United.
Gallas’ final year at the club was relatively uneventful, following a nasty knee injury at the tail end of 2008/09. He left Arsenal with a lot of fans happy to see the back of him. Though, if truth be told, the team did miss his grit in the years to come. His move to Arsenal was steeped in controversy, following the bizarre move from Chelsea. So it was fitting that his move away from the Emirates was just as controversial.
Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal’s biggest rivals, was the next stop on Gallas’ Underground tour of London. PSG were targeting the defender, Juventus too. But in the end, White Hart Lane beckoned. He cited his family as being the reason he chose Spurs, that he had no desire to relocate, either moving away from his family or uprooting them.
The king of controversy reared his head again in the first North London derby of the season. Harry Redknapp came over to Gallas in the changing room, supposedly, and said that he’d like to really inject some edge into the derby. He spiced it up by making former Arsenal captain William Gallas the Spurs captain. This certainly caused a media reaction, while Tottenham went on to record their first league away victory over Arsenal since 1993.
William Gallas continued to establish a strong European presence, helping Tottenham on their foray to the Champions League quarter-final. He put in two stellar performances in each leg of the last 16 match-ups against Milan. Though, he couldn’t help his side navigate their way past Real Madrid. Defeat ensured the ghost goal semi-final defeat to Liverpool in 2005 was the furthest that Gallas had ever managed; the glittering trophy alluded him his entire career.
His final season in London was a disappointment. Injury curtailed his performances and he missed a chunk of games around Christmas time. When he came back from his medical treatment, he said that he felt his manager Andre Villas-Boas had lost faith in him. He felt that the Portuguese lacked the scruples to have an honest conversation. His second half of the season was limited to mainly Europa League and the occasional substitute appearance. He was released from his contract at the end of this season, and finally, 12 years on, left London, switching Peckham for Perth.
There was talk of Gallas expanding his London love affair. Both West Ham and Crystal Palace had their sights on the centre-back. It appeared salary issues were the reason why he couldn’t sign for either club. He even looked at teaming up with Claudio Ranieri again at Monaco, as well going back to Marseille, but a deal was never put on the table. Eventually, he moved to Australia, electing to be the big fish in the small pond down under.
William Gallas has had his own ups and downs for the national team, but to write about the French 2010 World Cup debacle would turn this article into a novel. Instead, I will reiterate that Gallas, while a proud Frenchman, is a Londoner at heart.
He has played over 319 Premier League games over 12 years in the capital. He has played for the three biggest teams in the city, excelling for – and simultaneously infuriating the fans of – all of them throughout. He also goes down as the only player to have played competitively for Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs. William Gallas may not exactly be in the running for the most popular player to have ever graced the league, but he certainly can stake his claim for being one of the most memorable.