Spurs and City didn't think Vermaelen was big enough - but Arsene did...
Creating a team brimming with young talent relies on a scouting system that is the envy of most football clubs. Arsenal's network of talent spotters have played an integral part inunearthing the players in whom Arsene Wenger is currently placing hisfaith. But every so often even Arsenal's successful scouts are taught a thing or two by 'Le Professeur'. That is certainly the case when it comes to Thomas Vermaelen. Belgium beauty: Vermaelen has been one of the Premier League's outstanding performers this season Vermaelen: Arsenal have sent a 'big message' to Premier League rivalsRobin van Persie delighted to share goalscoring burden for the GunnersArsenal 4 Wigan Athletic 0: Goal machine Vermaelen is double troubleHappy Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger hails his new special onesTwo months from the end of last season, as Arsenal prepared for the departure of Kolo Toure to Manchester City, chief scout Steve Rowley was charged with the task of finding a suitable replacement. After an exhaustive search, Rowley had drawn a blank. Nobody fitted the bill. Then Wenger told his trusted aide to run the rule over Vermaelen. It was not that the Ajax defender was unknown to Rowley or his man in Holland, former Arsenal youth-team player Peter Clarke. Rather Vermaelen had thus far failed to tick all the required boxes. Arsenal's scouts were not alone in their view. Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill twice checked on Vermaelen while Manchester City made numerous visits. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp revealed recently that Vermaelen had been recommended to him. But mediocre displays at left back and worries about his height had so far put off all concerned. Size doesn't matter: Some feared Vermaelen would be too small for the Premier League Rowley can be forgiven for wondering why Wenger thought Vermaelen could be the answer to his centre-back quandary, having seen him play left back for Ajax in a 4-0 defeat to Sparta Rotterdam and a 6-2 trouncing by PSV Eindhoven. But Wenger had a hunch and his interest had been awakened not by Vermaelen's spat with Robin van Persie in the Amsterdam tournament two years ago, but by his display in the centre of defence under the Highbury floodlights in 2005. Vermaelen kept Thierry Henry quiet on that rain-lashed evening, prompting Wenger to store the name of the Belgian, then 20, in his memory bank. Vermaelen remembers it well. 'My best match against Arsenal was when Thierry Henry was playing here,' he recalled. 'The atmosphere at Highbury was not really normal. The crowd was so close. If you made a sliding challenge you almost flew into the spectators.' Persuaded that Vermaelen was worth another look, Rowley headed for the Belgian seaside resort of Oostduinkerke to watch him train with the national squad. On a bumpy pitch, playing in a three-versus-four training match, Vermaelen made Rowley realise just what Wenger had spotted. Vermaelen gave his all: focused, aggressive and with a leap that defied his lack of height. THE PREMIER LEAGUE'S FIVE SHORTEST CENTRE-BACKS Daniel Gabbidon (West Ham) ..............................5ft 10in John Mensah (Sunderland) .................................5ft 10½in Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal) ............................6ft 0in Ryan Nelson (Blackburn) .....................................6ft 0in Kolo Toure (Man City) ...........................................6ft 0in ...AND THE FIVE TALLESTZat Knight (Bolton Wanderers)............................6ft 5in Anthony Gardner (Hull City).................................6ft 4½in Christopher Samba (Blackburn Rovers)..........6ft 4½in Brede Hangeland (Fulham) ................................6ft 4in Sylvain Distin (Everton) .......................................6ft 3½in 'The scout told me afterwards that he had hidden in the forest,' said Vermaelen of Rowley's visit. 'They know more about me here at Arsenal than you might think.' Arsenal's stringent background checks found that, much like Wenger, Vermaelen was a true student of the game. His nights off were not spent in nightclubs, but rather with team-mates watching games from around Europe or football DVDs. Such dedication began in the youth ranks of Belgian side Germinal Beerschot before he joined Ajax's academy at 15. And Vermaelen's success at Arsenal has come as no surprise to Urbain Haesaert, the man behind his early football education. 'He is intelligent, has great technique and is a very coachable player,' said Haesaert, who is now Ajax's chief scout in Belgium. 'Honestly, with a player like Thomas you don't know where his limitsare. He jumps like a spring, he has a terrific long pass, anticipateswell. It will be a hell of a job to find a player with his qualities atthat age in Europe.' Haesaert also praises Vermaelen's character. 'He does not seekpublicity. Thomas is very self-critical. He is the type who does notget carried away when he is doing well. He will never be associatedwith nightlife, drugs or anything like that. He is too much of a pro.' West Ham's Gabbidon(c) is the smallest centre-half in the Premier League His adaptation to living in London has been helped by having his girlfriend Aimee with him in his Hampstead Heath apartment. On the pitch, his adaptation to the speed and power of the Barclays Premier League has been seamless. Eyebrows may have been raised by his £10million fee but Wenger has bagged a bargain Before he arrived, former Arsenal skipper Tony Adams said: 'Thomas is a very good player but I don't think he's ready for the Arsenal. I don't think the punters would like another small one.' He may be revising his opinion now. To be fair to Adams, Vermaelen's success has left plenty with egg on their faces. Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa have been left ruing their decision not to move. Arsenal's equally sceptical scouting staff can just give thanks that Wenger knows a future Arsenal star when he sees one. Vermaelen: Arsenal have sent a 'big message' to Premier League rivalsRobin van Persie delighted to share goalscoring burden for the GunnersArsenal 4 Wigan Athletic 0: Goal machine Vermaelen is double troubleHappy Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger hails his new special ones Explore more:People:Harry Redknapp, Martin O'Neill, ThomasVermaelen, Robin van Persie, Thierry Henry, Anthony GardnerPlaces:London, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Belgium, Europe
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