Date: 27th July 2008 at 12:48pm
Written by:

The penultimate in our series of Arsenal legends takes us to Africa. A physical and symbolic leviathan of a central midfielder. Somebody who came to embody every facet of Arsenal’s play in their most successful period since the legendary side of the thirties. He had balletic grace combined with a muscular effervescence in perfect harmony with a warrior’s will to win. The man would say of himself in 2003, ‘I play with a French brain and an African heart.’ He even had the requisite disciplinary problems of late 20th Century Arsenal. The cultural hybrid would prove a very potent weapon in the Arsenal’s armoury, though the player himself would flirt very openly with the idea of embracing more far flung lands.

Patrick Donale Vieira was born in Dakar in Senegal on the 23rd June, 1976. Young Patrick expended his formative years in the Christian Cape Verdean area. But aged eight, the Vieiras emigrated to the quiet town of Dreux in France. Patrick would not return to his homeland again until the age of 27. Vieira caught the eye as a young footballer with his lanky, awkward posture, physically he stood out. Yet his awkward build disguised a subtle skill. He was snapped up by the Cannes academy and his physical attributes saw him easily amalgamate with older age groups. He made his first team debut for Cannes aged 17 and was made captain at the tender age of 19. Vieira did not yet know it, but one outstanding performance in particular would change his career forever. He put in a commanding performance against Arsene Wenger’s Monaco, aged 18. Wenger would not forget it quickly.

Such was his promise that Patrick’s reputation spread to Northern Italy, and in 1995, he earned himself a move to Italian giants A.C. Milan. But suffocated by the prohibitive rules in Italy on foreign players and with Milan stacked with the likes of Desailly, Boban and Wenger discovery George Weah, Vieira only managed two first team appearances in the 1995-96 season. In the summer of 1996, Vieira’s career was in danger of stagnating. But a call from an old flame would reverse his fortunes. Arsene Wenger phoned Vieira to tell him he would be the new manager of Arsenal, Wenger suggested Vieira join him in North London. He agreed. In September 1996, Wenger addressed his new audience on the jumbotron screens before a home match with Sheffield Wednesday. But rather than with a Big Brother style greeting on the Jumbotron, it would be a midfield foil on the substitutes bench that would really announce Wenger’s arrival. After twenty minutes, Arsenal were a goal down and Ray Parlour was injured. A taciturn French U-21 international, with his lank, lean frame, would enter the fray and change the game. He instantly took control, his telescopic limbs simultaneously foiling Wednesday’a attacks, before morphing into the lanky springboards for Arsenal’s forrays. Arsenal won the game 4-1 and Vieira’s was lauded as the finest Arsenal debut since Glenn Helder. However, the irony of that assertion would soon fade.

In a match against Wimbledon in November 1996, Steve Bould left the pitch to receive treatment for a head wound. Vieira slotted in at centre half, a last ditch slide tackle at the heart of defence, followed by a lilting 60 yard run would set up Ian Wright as Bouldy was still having his thinning hairline seen to. One week later he journeyed with the team to Old Trafford to face the legendary Roy Keane, Vieira raised his game and held his own. It seemed the bigger the challenge, the more he wanted it. Vieira’s first goal arrived in the shape of a last minute equaliser against Derby County at Highbury. It was clear this was a young man who revelled in responsibility. He became the heartbeat of the team and won the Capital Gold Young Player of the Year in a season that Arsenal finished third. By the summer of 1997, Wenger had seen enough to convince him to build the side around Vieira’s awkward frame.

Arsene felt Vieira needed a partner in the centre of the park as he remodelled from a 5-3-2 formation to 4-4-2. With Stephen Hughes too inexperienced and David Platt’s limbs beginning to creak, Wenger turned to a ponytailed centre back from his old club Monaco. Petit was bought to protect the centre halves, allowing Vieira to patrol the centre of the park and maraud forward with impunity. Petit’s cute passing range also provided the wing heeled duo of Overmars and Anelka with ammunition. The chemistry between Vieira and Petit was as explosive and complimentary as it was a few metres behind them with the fabled back five. Few could argue that it was the finest central midfield partnership in the club’s history. A thirty yard screamer against Newcastle in April 1998 was the highlight of a season in which Vieira was the rock on which the Double winning success was founded. But not satisfied with the Premiership and F.A. Cup victories, Vieira and Petit won the 1998 World Cup that summer. The zenith of their partnership arriving in the last minute of the Final as Petit latched onto a Vieira through ball to seal a 3-0 scoreline for France against Brazil. This provoked the infamous Daily Mirror headline, ‘Arsenal win the World Cup.’ Zinedine Zidane might have disagreed, but it was currency for Gooners everywhere to rejoice.

Vieira’s slim and lanky frame was beginning to fill out and a more muscular presence was evident. But Vieira’s reign was beset with disciplinary difficulties. In the heat of physical battle, Vieira the battering ram was often singled out for special treatment. Of Vieira’s 9 red cards, I cannot think of one that was awarded for a bad tackle. Often temper got the better of him. This was exemplified in a regrettable exchange with Neil Ruddock in October 1999. In the first minute, as West Ham won a corner, Ruddock was marked by Vieira, and Ruddock made a number of slurs against Patrick’s French nationality. In the 85th minute, Vieira was awarded a second yellow card and Ruddock once again waded in with the insults. Vieira cracked and aimed a volley of phlegm towards Ruddock. Ruddock incurred no punishment, Vieira was banned for seven matches. Six months later, Mustpha Hadji was sent off for Coventry against Derby for spitting at an opponent. The incident received only fleeting coverage and Hadji was banned for one match. Football Association justice sponsored by the national media was beginning to grate with Vieira, as it already had with Petit. Petit left the club in 2000, the shadow of the player he had been in 1998. Vieira was now the sole bastion of central midfield, which also made him the solitary target.

In the opening game of the 2000-01 season, Vieira was controversially sent off against Sunderland after Darren Williams dramatically clutched his face under minimal contact. But the proceeding game would really see fireworks when Vieira was sent off again by the attention shy Graham Poll against Liverpool at Highbury after Jamie Carragher kicked Vieira in the throat. Poll also lamentably sent Hamann and McAllister off for the most trivial of offences. My memory of that night was that it was my first game in my season ticket seat in the Clock End. In the final minutes of the game, both sets of fans lent a chorus of ‘send the fucking ref off.’ Rumours abound that Vieira was about to end his love affair with Arsenal, fed up with the scorn of the authorities. In the next game, Vieira showed everybody what he was all about, scoring two goals against Charlton and inspiring a stirring comeback to win the game 5-3. After his first goal, he runs to the front row of the Family Enclosure and shares a warm embrace with the supporters. The game epitomised two things about Vieira. Firstly, the more scorn and criticism and controversy hoisted upon him, the more he responded (he was not even yellow carded for another 28 games following the incident v Liverpool). But it would also symbolise something that made his legend a touch more human, his rapport with the supporters.

The legendary Vieira song, set to the tune of ‘Volare’ was without exception the first one to permeate the Highbury air when the players emerged from the tunnel. Vieira was the symbol of Arsenal and the heartbeat of the team. The supporters recognised his indomitable spirit and his importance to the side. We could not really articulate what he meant to us, so simple geography set to an old Italian by numbers classic had to suffice. The relationship endured rocky periods, the summers of 2001 and 2004 respectively saw Vieira strongly consider a move to Madrid. In 2001, Wenger convinced Vieira to stay using the vice captaincy as a carrot. In the summer of 2004, with Wenger’s patience wearing thin, he refused to try and convince Vieira to stay, telling him curtly to make up his own mind. Vieira decided to remain, tearfully telling the assmebled press he could not bear to break up the family. The other facet of his colourful career that made him a symbol for Wenger’s Arsenal was the spectre of rivalry. As Wenger jousted with Ferguson and Arsenal sparred with United, so Vieira jostled for surpemacy with his mirror image in Roy Keane.

Every great hero needs a nemesis and Vieira’s apotheosis stature was cemented in a number of fiery meetings. Two absolute giants of the English game locking horns in a fierce competitive rivalry engendered by a strong mutual respect. It’s hard to believe that English football has ever witnessed a more enthralling sideshow. It is no coincidence the venom has somewhat drained between United and Arsenal since both player’s departures. An iconoclastic eyeball to eyeball exchange at Highbury in 1999 set the tone for a number of exchanges. In the Highbury tunnel in March 2004, Vieira turned to Keane and irreverantly exclaimed, ‘come on, smile man.’ Keane responded, ‘if we were eight points clear at the top of the league I would smile, we aren’t, so I won’t.’ Ironically, months before, Keane had wheeled Vieira away from the scene of altercation after van Nistelrooy’s histrionics earned Vieira a red card. In Februry 2005, their final encounter, their competitive spirit spilled over in the tunnel. Vieira approached Gary Neville and firmly told him that any more ‘treatment’ dished out to Reyes would see Neville answerable to the considerably less slight frame of Vieira. Keane got wind of the exchange and approached Vieira in no uncertain terms. Even the most ardent advocate of fair play would be hard pushed to decry this as anything other than enthralling theatre.

Vieira enjoyed a littany of success at Arsenal. Winning the Double in 1997-98 and 2001-02. He won a further F.A. Cup in 2003, though he was injured for the Final. He captained the side in their unbeaten season in 2003-04 and was instrumental in France’s 1998 World Cup win and 2000 European Championships victory. However, after his final flirtation with Madrid in which Vieira changed his mind and decided to stay, everything seemed to stagnate for him. Wenger had obviously been relying on the money from Vieira’s sale, having already agreed terms with Michael Carrick, only to have his plans disrupted. Vieira’s heart did not really look to be in it and a fresh challenge was obviously required. Though he cemented his legend with his final kick in an Arsenal jersey, slamming home the winning penalty in the 2005 F.A. Cup Final. When a sizeable offer arrived from Juventus in 2005, with the fledgling Fabregas earning his red and white wings, Arsenal accepted. Symbolically, Fabregas ushered in a new era in March 2006 when Vieira returned to Highbury with Juventus and was consummately outshone by the Spaniard. (And amusingly ousted from the ball with a crunching challenge by renowned hardman Robert Pires in the build up to Fabregas’ goal that night).

Patrick Vieira came to assume the mantle of club legend. He resided over the biggest successes in Arsenal’s history, many of them with the captain’s armband fastened to his arm. He was our heartbeat in every sense of the word, his gladatorial physical will and sense of responsibility served him in earnest in heated arenas. But his most under rated quality was his technique, I lost count of the amount of times he would indulge in some keepy uppies in the centre of the battle, flicking the ball up over the head of the unsuspecting opponent, catching the ball on his boot before spinning away with his detractor utterly humiliated. Vieira was a link between the pitch and the stands, the rapport he enjoyed with supporters is unlike any I have seen. The battles with Roy Keane and even the plentiful red cards came to form a paradigm for a fruitful period of Arsenal’s history. But more simply than that, he came from Senegal, he played for Arsenal.LD