So, there we go. Tobin Heath’s holiday in North London is over. A contract that was only meant to be a year-long was terminated 3 games before the end after a hamstring injury cut short her season. It brought to a close a stint at Arsenal which seemed to generate more noise off the pitch than on it, with very little game time, and very little output in matches. It leaves one asking the question: What was the point?
Now, first of all, I should admit that I am not a member of the cult of Heath. I knew next to nothing about her when it was ‘accidentally’ announced by Anita Asante on Sky Sports that she was coming to Arsenal, other than she played for Man United the previous season, scored a great goal against Man City, then spent most the season out injured (scarily, a rather accurate prediction as to how here time progressed here). Yet to everyone else this was Steve Carell’s‘ The Office’ levels of ‘STAY CALM’ as Twitter went into absolute meltdown.
Tobin Heath is huge is the eyes of her fans all around the globe, both with her football on the pitch and with her actions off the pitch with Christen Press. The popstar-like fame she possesses almost seemed to make her like the Taylor Swift of football (another cult I am thankfully not a part of). All this hysteria, excitement, and fandom, it was all coming to Meadow Park this season. It was the signing of a mega superstar, comparable to when Ronaldo made his return to Manchester United last summer. There was a personal connection too, as Heath is a lifelong Arsenal fan. Her social media profile has pictures of her at Emirates Stadium attending matches, in the changing rooms taking part on tours. This was the signing fans had long been waiting for. Heath the Gooner was coming home, to finally become a Gunner. This was a real statement of intent from Arsenal. Sadly, a statement is all it was.
Because despite all the hype and the excitement, Arsenal hardly saw Heath at all. A season decimated by injury and fitness issues saw her only make 18 appearances, at a time when Arsenal were fighting on 4 fronts. Throughout her tenure, she never once completed 90 minutes. And in the few moments she was fit enough to play, she hardly contributed, amassing just the 3 goals, including a volleyed finish against Hoffenheim and a late tap in to add the gloss on a 5-0 victory over Leicester City.
Arguably, her biggest moment was her injury-time equaliser at Man City’s Academy Stadium to salvage a point where none looked on offer, a point which could prove critical in a title race threatening to go down to the wire. However, 1 salvaged point across all matches, across all competitions, is not the major on-field impact we were hoping for. But then again, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as the track record of American superstars coming into the WSL and performing is not great.
Only the season prior, clubs in the WSL were making American double loan signings, in an attempt to use their quality and experience to improve their standings. Man City brought in Mewis and Lavelle, Man United signed Heath and Press, and Spurs acquired Alex Morgan and Alex Morgan’s baby. Out of all of them, Mewis was the closest to having a positive impact on the side. The rest struggled to stay fit, struggled to be picked to start, struggled for form, and struggled to even make the team. If Heath wasn’t signed to be a superstar that would contribute on par with the likes of Miedema, why was she signed in the first place?
The summer of 2021 was turbulent for Arsenal. A wretched campaign has seen Arsenal out of the title race before Christmas and had only been able to salvage UWCL qualification with a last gasp penalty from Kim Little against Everton and a lame 0-0 draw at home to Aston Villa on the final day. Arsenal, so often the metric for success in the WSL, had failed to build upon the triumph of 2018-19, and had stalled so badly they suffered two consecutive seasons without silverware, and now sat 9 points off the top. The fallout saw Joe Montemurro depart, along with a host of major stars. Jill Roord and Danielle van de Donk both went to the continent after disappointing seasons.
Young talent like Ruby Mace opted to jump ship. Contract renewals were difficult as players found themselves questioning the ambition and direction of the club. Leah Williamson, for whom Arsenal is absolutely everything, could only be convinced to extend for 1 more year. In response to the unrest and frustration, the club went on a summer shopping spree, to bring in stars that could help Arsenal challenge again. In came in Champions League winner and former WSL top scorer Nikita Parris, the long-sought-after Japanese playmaker (and good friend of Miedema) Mana Iwabuchi, and of course, Tobin Heath. On paper, superb acquisitions, but sadly, this did not translate onto the pitch.
Arsenal started the season in superb form, managing to get to Christmas only dropping 2 points. But this was built on the likes of Mead, Little, McCabe and Williamson in red hot form, combined with the ‘new manager bounce’ that Jonas Eidevall had brought in. Arsenal’s title challenge had been in spite of, rather than because of, the summer window. The summer acquisitions had been tantamount to a misguided political gesture, to demonstrate the intent of the club to fans and players, without consideration as to how they would integrate into the team or align with the new manager’s philosophy. Jonas’ preference is to have his forwards play a high intensity, high energy, high pressing style. At 33 years of age, it’s not a style Heath would likely be compatible with. So, with limited appearances, and limited output when on the pitch, does that make the Heath signing a flop? No.
Unlike the rest of the summer acquisitions, the signing of Heath was done in the knowledge it was always going to be short term, by only giving her a year-long contract. And it was a signing by opportunism, rather than design. Her arrival came late on in the window, after the WSL season had already kicked off. It was an chance too good to turn down. For Heath, it was a chance for her to fulfil her dream of playing for the club she adored. For Arsenal, it was a chance to tap into both her high profile and her footballing experience. And in that regard, it worked.
All season, Heath fans from near and afar flocked to Meadow Park for the sole purpose of seeing their idol play in front of their eyes. A particularly memorable moment in my season was witnessing two university students from Nottingham, neither of whom were Gooners, make the journey south by coach for the sole purpose of watching Heath play in a late-night midweek Conti Cup tie with Man United, and potentially see Press as well, who would occasionally drop in. The commitment they showed and the love they had was admirable, and it represented a wave of positivity throughout the fanbase, combined with the joy of witnessing the strong start to the season. And off the pitch, she brought a wealth of experience and knowledge to impart onto the squad that only a serial World Cup Winner could provide. And the best thing was, as is the case with most signings in Women’s Football, this was all achieved for free.
The signing of Heath was never about her scoring lots of goals, breaking lots of records, and winning us lots of trophies (although that would have been nice!). It was a chance to see one of the most famous and renowned footballers on the planet grace our club for a season, and to enjoy whatever moments, no matter how few, came our way. And on the 23rd of January, as Arsenal stared down the barrel of yet another defeat at the Academy Stadium, Heath took her chance with aplomb to claim a point against Man City, sending the away end into ecstasy. She had her personal moment of glory. She had become a Gunner. And just for that moment, that one, glorious moment alone, it was worth it.