Date: 14th July 2011 at 8:45pm
Written by:

Today, Patrick Vieira announced his retirement from professional football at the age of 35. Vieira is a winner of three Premier League titles, five F.A. Cups, 4 Serie A Titles, 2 Supercoppa Italianas, 1 FIFA World Cup and 1 UEFA European Championship. He also has five cats apparently (!) He made 406 appearances for Arsenal between 1996-2005, scoring 49 goals, accumulating 11 red cards and captaining the side for three of the most successful seasons in the club`s history.

That doesn`t so much constitute an introduction as an entire article. Those are the facts of a glittering football career. They don`t need much decoration. But I`ll try anyway. Patrick Vieira would, in all probability, make an all time Arsenal XI for Arsenal fans of any age or vintage. Whilst Anders Limpar is my favourite ever player for sentimental reasons, Vieira is the symbol of my time as an Arsenal fan. He joined the club when I was 12 and left it when I was 21. He was present during the years that I was formulating an understanding of the game of football and of my club. He was a behemoth, the coat peg upon which I hung my club allegiance for many years. There was a time when I felt like he carried the entire club onto his broad, African build.

What made Vieira such a special player to me, was that he had the perfect blend of qualities. I recall the man himself once saying in an interview with the club magazine in 2003, that his multiculturalism informed his ability. He had French feet, but played with an African heart. I`m frustrated that he is remembered so incompletely. Whilst he was an impressive and fearless warrior, he had faultless technique- which seldom goes credited. Cast your mind back, how many times did he flick the ball over the head of a bemused opponent in the centre circle, before catching the airborne ball on his toe and sauntering off, his opponent left like a dog chasing its tail? With his bow feet, his passing was precise, his tackling fierce but accurate.

With his litany of red cards, there are many that counter that he was a dirty player. He wasn`t. How many of his red cards were for serious foul play? How many for two footed challenges? How many opponents left reeling on the turf in agony? Most of his offences were for acts of petulance or retaliation. Vieira came to Arsenal a gangly, but impressive midfielder, quietly honing his craft under the watchful eye of the likes of Adams, Winterburn, Wright, Dixon, Keown and Bould. As those Arsenal soldiers fell to age, Vieira blossomed into the fierce heartbeat of a great side. The chrysalis from wide eyed, awkward limbed young midfielder into the team`s unafraid beating heart was a beautiful transformation to see. He began his Arsenal career with an awe inspiring debut against Sheffield Wednesday. He ended it snarling into Gary Neville`s face, (“If you want to kick him (Reyes), you`re gonna have to kick me first!” in the Highbury tunnel, Feb 05) and smashing home a winning spot kick in an F.A. Cup Final.

Patrick was born in the city of Dakar in Senegal in August 1976. He moved to France when he was 8 years old. His father, by now estranged, had served in the French army, which granted him citizenship. Vieira showed talent as a footballer and joined Cannes` Youth Academy at the age of 13. By age 17 he was a regular. By 19, he was captain. This is when he was first spotted by Monaco manager Arsene Wenger. Vieira dominated Wenger`s Monaco midfield with a special performance at the age of 18. Wenger never forgot that midfield display. By 19, A.C. Milan had noted his talents and snapped him up in 1995. But the three foreigners rule still operated in Italy at the time. With Desailly, Boban and Weah still very much in their prime, Vieira was left to corrode in the reserves. By August 1996, Arsene Wenger had agreed to take over as manager of Arsenal. In one of his first phone calls with his new bosses, Arsene asked Arsenal to purchase a young French midfielder from A.C. Milan`s reserves.

He made his debut against Sheffield Wednesday in September 1996, coming on as a first half substitute for Ray Parlour. Arsenal were 1-0 down and performing miserably. Vieira upped the tempo and turned the game, his gangly limbs foxing the Owls midfield. By the end of the match, Wright had bagged a hat trick and Arsenal had won 4-1. But the crowd had no doubts who the star of the show was. Vieira says it was a fine induction into life at Arsenal. “I saw at first hand the passion of this Arsenal side when Wrighty grabbed his hat trick.”

Vieira continued to shine throughout his debut season. I recall a match against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park, when he had been asked to fill in at centre half while Steve Bould was administered with stitches. Vieira picked the ball up from centre half, slalomed the length of the pitch before slotting Ian Wright through on goal. We knew we had the complete midfielder. In the summer of 1997, Arsene Wenger bought pony tailed French centre half Emmanuel Petit from Monaco. The concoction was explosive. With Petit deferred to a cultured, midfield sitting role that combined his defensive acumen with his cultured passing range, he and Vieira formed a symbiotic partnership that was the perfect concerto of string and brass.

Arsenal and Vieira enjoyed an incredible season in 1997-98, with the Gunners winning the ‘Double.` Who could forget Vieira`s lolloping run and 30 yard smash into the roof of the net against Newcastle? “I was delighted because I had proved myself. Winning the title for the first time is always the most precious experience.” Though there were too many examples of his petulant streak- a needless off the ball kick to Ian Pearce`s backside, the handball and subsequent torrent of abuse to referee Steve Lodge that saw him sent off at Coventry- he produced a fabulous season. That summer he topped it all off by winning the World Cup with France, setting up his comrade Emmanuel Petit for the third goal in the World Cup Final.

Vieira continued to blossom onto a warrior of a midfielder, just as capable of weaving his way through a web of opposing midfielders with a deft feint as he was to hare 40 yards downfield to retrieve possession with a perfect tackle. As Arsenal and United duelled for supremacy at the top table of English football, Vieira became embroiled in the Premier League`s most absorbing sporting rivalry. Vieira and Keane were two winners, two battlers, men who took defeat as a personal affront, that would lock horns at the highest level of the game. (Literally at times). It was pure theatre and the sort of sporting rivalry that should be cherished by all football fans. Marked by animosity, engendered by respect. The fact that United fans still sing about Vieira in unflattering terms shows the extent to which he was considered our great gladiator. He was becoming the symbol of this Arsenal team.

He would miss the crucial penalty in the 2000 UEFA Cup Final defeat to Galatasaray and would endure further heartbreak in Cardiff a year later when Arsenal somehow tossed away the F.A. Cup Final against Liverpool. (Steven Gerrard was moved to say in his post match interview; “I learned a lot today. Mainly that Patrick Vieira is much better than me.”) Though he tasted international success in the summer of 2000, winning the Euros with a blossoming French side. By now, Petit had left and Arsenal were looking like perennial bridesmaids. He had begun to consider his future, with the vultures at Madrid lurking. But Wenger handed him the vice captaincy in close season 2001, with Adams on his last legs. Arsenal and Vieira redoubled their desire and won the Double again in 2001-02. Vieira captained the side as they clinched the title at Old Trafford, putting in the sort of midfield display that had even the great Roy Keane swinging at thin air. It was majestic, it was aggressive but controlled, it was technically executed to a tee. It was pure Vieira.

With Adams` retirement in 2002, Vieira was appointed captain on a full time basis. He began to flourish. I recall an F.A. Cup replay at Stamford Bridge. Vieira took to the pitch, his knee heavily strapped and his face anguished. He was clearly unfit. Within fifteen minutes he`d scored one goal and set our other up as he propelled the team almost single handedly into a two goal lead. There was a point in the second half when three Chelsea players chased him from one touchline to the other. Vieira didn`t surrender the ball. At full time, after a satisfying 3-1 win, Vieira came over to salute us in the Matthew Harding Stand. By now, he could barely even walk. Four days later, with the title charge in full swing, Wayne Rooney`s equaliser for Everton at Highbury threatened to derail the assault. Minutes after the equaliser, Vieira popped up in Everton`s area and smashed home the winner. He wasn`t the fist pumping; chatterbox legend seems to have peculiarly remembered him as. Indeed, his team mates asserted that he was very quiet in the dressing room and on the pitch. But he was leading by example.

One of my associative memories of this whole era would be that Vieira chant. It became more than a ditty to salute a player, it became a war cry. At away grounds, with a hostile home crowd booing and jeering, the Vieira chant was always our stock standard response. It was an incantation to our leader, imploring him to deliver us from the evils of the opposition. It became like a tribal chant to a distant deity. More often than not, Vieira`s shoulders stiffened to the task and he delivered. In 2003, Arsenal`s Premier League campaign hit the skids and the club finished a heart breaking second place to Manchester United. Arsenal did win the F.A. Cup- but Vieira picked up a knee injury in mid April and missed the run in and the Final victory over Southampton. It`s probably no coincidence that our title charge limped down the tunnel with him that April.

The next season saw Arsenal`s desire stiffened by the disappointment as the club produced its finest season ever, winning the Premiership title without incurring a single defeat. Even if you take away all of his other achievements or the bond that he forged with the club and its supporters, the fact that Vieira captained that side means his name is forever scrawled into Arsenal folklore. With World Cup winner Gilberto alongside him, Vieira found new life as a slightly more front footed midfield player, springing attacks with the diligent Brazilian sweeping up behind him. If you want an illustration of what a great midfielder Patrick Vieira was, ponder on these questions. Was he a defensive midfielder? No. Was he an attacking midfielder? No.

But the summer after the Invincibles season, Vieira once again had thoughts about leaving. He looked pretty set to join Real Madrid, with his manager`s wishes. Wenger had already identified Michael Carrick as a replacement. But Vieira had a change of heart at the last minute and stayed with the club. In truth, it wasn`t his best season. Though he scored 7 goals in 2004-05, he looked like a player in need of a fresh challenge. That said, with his last kick of a ball in an Arsenal shirt, he atoned for the heartbreak of his UEFA Cup Final penalty miss and showed his mettle, taking the 5th penalty and steering it into the roof of Roy Carroll`s net to win the F.A. Cup for Arsenal. It was a fitting end. That summer he joined Juventus for £13m. His crown had been passed to 18 year old Cesc Fabregas. It was a decision that was vindicated as Vieira returned with Juventus in March 2006 to play Arsenal. Fabregas gave him the run around. Robert Pires floored him.

However, he enjoyed great success in Italy, after the Calcio scandal he left Juve forming part of an Inter side that won four Scudettos and two Coppa Italianas. He then spent two seasons under Roberto Mancini at Manchester City as an experienced foil for a side that was aiming for the upper echelons of the game. He helped them to a top 4 finish and an F.A. Cup. Though appearances were limited, his knowhow was acknowledged by Mancini as a crucial factor in his squad. Vieira was a player who spent his entire career at the top table of the game. This summer, he was released by City and decided to retire.

Vieira forms a huge part of my understanding of one of Arsenal`s great teams. He engendered all of its qualities. Whilst one is not to decry the talents of the likes of Bergkamp, Pires and the celestial Thierry Henry, Vieira dealt in the engine room. Strikers and wingers can add touches of colour to games that dance across your imagination for decades. But Vieira played in central midfield. There`s no hiding there. There`s no disappearing for 30 minutes before lashing a volley into the top corner and having everyone reappraise your previous anonymity. In central midfield you clock in and you stay clocked in for every second of the 90 minutes. In 9 years, Vieira never missed a beat. He will always be special to me as a footballer, as the fulcrum of a special side. The Gallic flair, the beating African heart all equated to the soul of Arsenal Football Club. Let us salute him today as a club legend and one of Arsenal’s greatest sons. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA