What to say about Manuel Almunia? In stark contrast to the five loanees, Almunia together with Fitz Hall – the two “permanent” additions to the squad (both have been handed one-year deals) – are preceded by reputations in England that make fans’ approaches to them more definitive.
Let’s be clear about this: no matter how we may have judged Almunia in the past, he was playing for Arsenal, and no matter how you feel about the club – whether you think it’s a pretty nasty club, supported by deluded fools, hilariously underachieving, always moaning, or not – they are most definitely a cut above our dear old Watford.
Like most Arsenal players, Almunia was always considered a bit pants by opposition supporters, whilst Arsenal fans living in their own fantasy world demanded that the keeper be given an England cap, having never been picked for Spain, which for a goalkeeper, with Iker Casillas, Victor Valdes and Jose Reina already in the frame, is no disgrace. This was greeted by derision, but showed that his own fans held him in fairly high esteem. And this is a man who has kept 53 clean sheets in 175 Arsenal appearance – not shabby. Perhaps it was our jealousy of Arsenal, perhaps it was just the odd calamitous mistake that swayed our opinion, and hey, what goalie doesn’t make the odd howler? Maybe it was his stupid hair, or gormless, hangdog waiter expression that soured our judgement. Or maybe it was that behind a defence that was, in those days, still fairly solid and supposedly one of the best in the country, he constantly looked out of sorts, causing chaos and panic in all but the most blinkered Arsenal fans.
Until, that is, the event that befalls all Arsenal players – the sudden fall from grace. The transition from “England’s number one” to “useless tosser not fit to lace *insert new unproven and also ultimately doomed youngster here*’s boots”. It was Lukasz Fabianski who succeeded Almunia, a man who himself was deposed from the throne before he’d even got the seat warm. A 2011/2012 season was spent trapped at Arsenal, with no danger of even making the bench, Almunia’s only respite coming with a month long loan at West Ham where he played four times. And no he’s here, released by Arsenal – an insertion of experience into our squad.
Almunia is 35, after joining Arsenal at the ripening age of 27, and not becoming their first choice until he was 30. This is not a long-term deal. Putting quality aside for a moment, we should think about what this means for the team. Before Sean Dyche was sacked, he had sealed a deal to bring Tom Heaton in from Cardiff. A solid if unspectacular keeper, Heaton – rather bizarrely, second choice to the erratic David Marshall at the Bluebirds/Red Dragons/Malaysian Playthings, would have been a certain improvement on Scott Loach, and would have been a long term signing: perhaps not good enough for the Premier League, for which we are supposedly destined, but a player we can rely on for a good few seasons. With the change in management, this deal was scuppered, Zola not even willing to take him on trial to see what the fuss was about. Despite this, it was clear that Zola didn’t fancy Loach, and duly sold him off to Ipswich. Did he have Almunia in mind when this happened, or was he thinking more long-term? Jonathan Bond is talented, but not the finished article – strong performances usually punctuated with moments of shakiness. Is this signing of a veteran simply a stop gap whilst Bond goes on loan to gain some much-needed match experience? Or is it a genuine attempt to make Almunia the Watford number one for the foreseeable future. At 35, he presumably has a few years in him at least. If this is the case, how good is he?
As noted, Almunia has never been especially popular in this country, but the level at which we have always watched him is high above the Championship. This man, not long ago, was playing in the Champions League – coming on in the final in 2006 after Jens Lehmann’s red card – any preconceptions we have about him don’t really apply, at least not that much. I may think Nicholas Cage stinks up any Hollywood film he appears in, but if he turned up in the local community theatre’s production of Pinter, I’d be more than interested. David James has shown that not all aging Premier League custodians can just turn up and impress in the Championship, but we should remember the gulf between where he’s been and where we are before we decry his signing as desperate and pointless.
I would have preferred Kuszczak though.