Since playing a key role in Arsène's 1998 triumphs, this former Arsenal striker has become virtually anonymous and also larger than life, as Ian Davey discovered
“Riding along on the Christ-oph-er Wreh” went the memorable anthem conceived in honour of the Liberian striker who arrived at Arsenal in 1997. He was so good, in fact, that Arsène Wenger signed him twice (he had taken him to Monaco when he was just 14); and he was even supposed to be cousin of a former World Footballer of the Year, George Weah.
Wreh announced his arrival in England with a swagger: “When Arsenal first tried to sign me, people at Monaco told me not to come here because they had Bergkamp and Ian Wright, but it never bothered me… I never thought I had anything to prove to people. In Liberia I’m a star and I trust in my own ability.”
The self-hype seemed justified when he scored on his full debut in March 1998 – a 1-0 win at Wimbledon that started the ten-game streak that helped Arsenal overhaul Man Utd to take the title. More goals in 1-0 wins – at Bolton, then in the FA Cup semi-final against Wolves – earned him more brownie points and a starting place in the Cup final against Newcastle.
But before the year was out he had played his last game for Arsenal and was soon embarking on a series of loan spells that took him to AEK Athens, Birmingham and Den Bosch in Holland. All were short-lived. In the end, Wreh signed for a Saudi club, Al Hilal. But within a year he fell out with them and swapped Riyadh for Paisley.
St Mirren fans will be forgiven if their memories of the Liberian are blurred. In 18 months he managed 57 minutes on the pitch. Darlington, Brann Bergen, Beijing and Luton were all touted as possible destinations for the next leg in his world tour. But in each case, his wage demands, his weight, or both, proved a stumbling block.
Since leaving Highbury, the former Double winner had managed to double his waist measurement. This didn’t stop him dreaming of succeeding Weah as the national team’s saviour – a role for which he had once been widely touted. Unfortunately, by now he was just about the only Liberian who still believed it. More common was the view expressed in this match report from Liberia’s African Nations fixture against Niger in 2002: “Lone Star’s odd man out was a complete disparagement of spectators… Chris Wreh’s lethargy on and off the ball robbed the Lone Star of many scoring chances… The overweight former Arsenal poster boy must either shape up or ship out.”
He hasn’t featured for Liberia since. But rather than take stock and shape up, he sought to deflect the criticism, with a bizarre attack on, of all people, Weah. In September 2002, during a trip to Egypt, where he was in talks with yet another club, he told the BBC: “We [the national team] became a one man show. Weah always had his favourite group of players that he used in the team even if they were unattached to any clubs. He ignored others and I was one of his victims. Weah made everyone believe that he was the one and only person supporting the team financially, which was untrue. All the players used to pay for their air tickets to play for Liberia.” Apart from the fact that attacking a national hero was hardly the way to regain popularity, it was a tad ungrateful, given that it was Weah who had first persuaded Wenger to take Wreh on at Monaco.
In February last year, Wreh was back in England, this time training with Northampton. New boss Terry Fenwick apparently saw something he fancied beyond the folds of fat; but then, just seven weeks into his contract, he was sacked.
Two months later the Liberian resurfaced at Bishop’s Stortford, managed by fellow ex-Gunner Martin Hayes. The Ryman Premier League side even went to the trouble of getting his registration with the Egyptian FA rescinded, enabling Wreh to make his debut in a friendly against Enfield Town. Only he didn’t show up. “Even if he had turned up for the Enfield game I wouldn’t have put him on the bench, never mind started him,” Hayes said. “He missed several training sessions. I could never get hold of him.” He did make one appearance for Bishop’s Stortford – a month after signing – against Hendon Town. Sky turned up to film the event and they were rewarded with a late cameo from the bench and even another debut goal. It was too late to convince Hayes who showed Wreh the door.
But the Liberian butterball just keeps bouncing back. This summer, reports have linked him to the team formerly known as Wimbledon. He might struggle to recognise the MK Dons as the team he made his English debut against six years ago. But then he too is now a poor imitation of his previous self.
From WSC 212 October 2004. What was happening this month