The term ‘journeyman’ has become an overused label, dished out to almost any footballer whose career path meanders its way through a host of lower league minnows. Primarily a term given to out of form strikers, a top heavy ratio of clubs played for/career goals scored seems to be the hallmark of the ‘journeyman’. However, Nicolas Anelka was different – an enigma. Whilst he bared the prime trait of the journeyman, having played for a total of 12 different clubs, Anelka’s goal-scoring record sets him aside from the rest.
Born in the Le Chasnay region of Northern France in the late 70s, Anelka was not born into a footballing family. Having migrated from Martinique, his mother became a secretary at a local school. Trappes, a small town outside of Paris, soon became home for the Anelka family.
As a youngster, Anelka spent a decade within the youth system of his hometown side, Trappes Saint-Quentin. In 1993, Anelka began training at the INF Clairefontaine, one of France’s leading footballing academies. Two years later, he was signed by Paris Saint Germain. After spending just one season in the club’s youth system, he made the step up to senior football and, in doing so, beginning his roller coaster career.
However, the Frenchman’s career at PSG was short lived. After just ten games and one senior goal, Premier League Arsenal came calling, and a fee of half a million pounds was agreed. Whilst he struggled for first team chances in his debut season, his second season in England was far more successful. Anelka spent three seasons at Highbury, registering a total of 28 goals in 91 appearances. However, his performances in his final season, coupled with an apparent attitude problem sparked by rumours of a move to Spain, saw him out of favour with Arsenal supporters. He also unintentionally acquired the nickname ‘Le Sulk’.
A single season at Real Madrid then followed. Despite the success of winning the Champions League after a 3-0 win over fellow La Liga side Valencia, Anelka then returned to PSG in the summer of 2000, signing a six year deal. He scored ten goals in 39 appearances, before being loaned back to the Premier League, this time with Gerard Houlier’s Liverpool. Despite scoring four important goals during his time at Anfield, he was not offered a permanent deal.
Anelka’s next move came in May 2002, when he signed for Manchester City for a fee of around£ £13 million. During his three years at Maine Road, Anelka scored several important goals, most notable against his former teams Liverpool and Arsenal, against rivals Manchester United and against Chelsea; a goal which ended Jose Mourinho’s unbeaten run as Blues boss.
From there, Turkey became Anelka’s next destination and the fourth country on his global tour of goal scoring inconsistency. A return of 14 goals in just under forty appearances were pivotal as Fenerbahce’s stormed to the Super Lig title.
A year later, in August 2006, ‘Le Sulk’ returned once again to England. Bolton Wanderers, then managed by Sammy Lee, offered Anelka a route back into the Premier League. His stint at Bolton was one of Anelka’s most prolific, notching up 21 goals in just 53 games for The Trotters.
When he eventually left Bolton, Anelka spent four seasons in West London, with Chelsea. In his first season with the blues, Anelka missed Chelsea’s seventh penalty against Manchester United in the Champions League final, handing the Reds the trophy.
However, in the three seasons that followed, Anelka endeared himself to the Stamford Bridge faithful. His stint with the West Londoners was his most successful, in terms of both goal scoring and major honours, as he won one Premier League title and two FA Cups.
During his time at Chelsea, Anelka’s international career fell into disrepute. Despite scoring over a dozen goals for his country, his international career came to an ugly and abrupt end during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After an alleged argument with coach Didier Deschamps and his staff, Anelka was sent home from the competition and did not play for France again. Following this, he was once again labelled ‘The Incredible Sulk’.
In 2012, Anelka signed for Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua, for a fee in the region of £12 million. However, he struggled for form in the Far East, and also managed just two goals during a short loan spell with Italian giants Juventus.
A year later, Anelka decided it was time for one last hurrah in the Premier League, this time with West Brom. The Frenchman’s debut, a 3-3 draw against West Ham, made took all the headlines. As well as being a six-goal thriller, Anelka scored two of the goals. However, he also took the limelight for the wrong reasons. His celebration, a hand gesture known as the ‘Quenelle’, was seen as being anti-Semitic.
Following a five match ban and an £80,000 fine, Anelka went AWOL before eventually announcing via social media that he had terminated his contract with the Baggies. Since then, he spent one season in India with Mumbai FC, before officially retiring in 2016.
His six months in the Asian sub-continent provided a fitting climax to Anelka’s roller coaster career. A total of twelve clubs from seven different countries may seem the hallmark of the journeyman, however the Frenchman’s impressive goal return at almost every club he played for makes him immune to this label. Anelka was not a journeyman, simply a goal scorer who could not settle.