I wasted my best years on the bench at Arsenal
YOU have to feel sorry for Chris Kiwomya. Browse any list of transfer flops and he will be there, the man that the 90s forgot.
A free-scoring starlet at Ipswich, Kiwomya was 25 when he joined Arsenal for a then-hefty £1.25m in 1995, arriving on the same day as John Hartson.
Tipped to succeed the ageing Ian Wright, he was full of confidence, lightning quick and approaching his peak. But bar a few fleeting appearances, it would be the last anyone saw of him for nigh on three years.
A couple of weeks later, the man who signed him – George Graham – was sacked following allegations that he had received transfer bungs.
Then came Bruce Rioch and Arsène Wenger, both of whom consigned Kiwomya to the reserves. Even there he banged in the goals, but his only reward was loan spells at French side Le Havre and Malaysian outfit Selangor.
These days, the 43-year-old – who left Highbury in 1998 before ending his career at QPR and Grimsby – is far from bitter. He does, however, wish he hadn’t wasted his best years on the bench.
“I don’t regret going at all,” he recalled in 2001. “I played with some great players at one of the biggest clubs in the country.
“I just think that if I had gone at an older age, like now that I am stronger mentally, I might have been able to look at myself in the mirror more and say: ‘Keep going’.
“Some of the older players, like Tony Adams, Martin Keown and David Seaman, did try to encourage me. Martin in particular was really good. He used to tell me: ‘Get down the gym, keep working, you’ll get your chance’.
“But I found it hard. I was at my peak and playing in the reserves. I should have left after 18 months.”
In fairness, though, Kiwomya is just thankful to have got his chance at all. Born in Huddersfield of Ugandan descent, he joined Ipswich in his early teens, winning an apprenticeship after scoring a spectacular overhead kick in a trial game.
Yet despite making his debut at just 17, the striker became disillusioned with life at Portman Road under manager John Lyall and by 1990 was ready to head back north and start afresh.
“My brother had come down to drive me back and we were just on the point of leaving when the club rang saying they wanted to see me,” recalls Kiwomya. “Mr Lyall said he wanted me to stay and I liked what he was telling me. His record with young players at West Ham, like Paul Ince and Stuart Slater, was impressive. I owe him so much for making me a better player.”
Nicknamed ‘Lino’ by Lyall for his tendency to end up on the floor, Kiwomya vindicated his manager by becoming one of the Tractor Boys’ most consistent per- formers, striking up fearsome partnerships with Dalian Atkinson and Jason Dozzell and spearheading promotion to the Premier League in 1991-92.
“Chris epitomised the close affinity that players can have with the fans,” said Lyall, who died in 2006. “Watching him in those days from the North or West Stands, they felt like they were watching one of their own.”
It was, then, no surprise that Kiwomya would end up back at Portman Road. After spells as a young coach at Arsenal, he joined Ipswich as an academy coach under Jim Magilton in 2008 before stepping up to the reserves during Roy Keane’s reign.
“He was a very dignified figure when running the reserve team here, and so encouraging to the more nervous younger players,” said John Wark, the Ipswich legend.
That approach would produce striker Connor Wickham, who subsequently joined Sunderland for £8m, as well as current Ipswich regulars Luke Hyam and Josh Carson.
And it was that ability to nurture young talent that persuaded Notts County chairman Ray Trew to appoint Kiwomya when Keith Curle was sacked in February.
“Chris is well respected throughout the football community for his ability to develop players, as well as spotting raw talent in youngsters,” said Trew. “And anyone who has been fortunate enough to speak to him in person will have seen his enthusiasm for every detail of every performance.”
MISSING IN ACTION: As a Gunner, Chris Kiwomya hardly got a lookin, but as Notts County manager he is showing his brilliant eye for spotting talent. Inset: playing for Ipswich in 1993