His battles with his Manchester United counterpart are only part of Patrick Vieira’s legacy. A proper player, says Johnny Nic…
Who’s this then?
Patrick Vieira will be 45 on June 23. He enjoyed an 18-year career and was easily one of the finest midfielders in the world in his peak years. He completed 651 club games in total, scoring 58 goals and got 107 international caps for France with six strikes to his name.
He played for six clubs in total and since retiring has been involved in coaching and has managed New York City FC and Nice.
He got his start at just 17 for Cannes in the 1993-94 season. He played three campaigns and impressed so much that by the age of 19 he was already the club captain. He only played one full season in 1994-95 and midway through the next Inter Milan bought him, only to put him in the reserves so that he only played two games.
This was the moment that Arsene Wenger took over at Arsenal and having seen the impressive leggy youngster at Cannes, handed over £3.5million for his signature. It would be arguably the best deal of his entire managerial career.
He impressed immediately, so much so that he was described in The Times as a “thinking man’s Carlton Palmer”. Praise doesn’t come higher than that!
He spent nine seasons at the Gunners, playing over 40 games per season, apart from 38 in his first, racking up 406 appearances, winning three league titles, and four FA Cups. Again, in a theme we return to most weeks, if we haven’t been sold an outright lie about resting players, there are so many players who play in the high 40s or 50s for years and don’t suffer the burnout now assumed to be every players inevitability as to make us rightly question its efficacy.
He was part of the Invincibles side which went the whole of the 2003-04 season unbeaten and, some say, was the last time Arsenal were really any good.
Throughout that time, there were all sorts of rumours of his departure, especially to Manchester United, which his agent did his best to amplify. But despite in 2001 saying he was leaving, he stayed until the end of the 2004-05 season at which point he was offski to Juventus for £13.5 million. But Juve were severely bent and although they won the title with Patrick in midfield playing 42 games, they were stripped of it – which sounds sexier than it was – and relegated. A lot of stars jumped ship and Paddy went to Inter Millan and won three consecutive league titles and two Supercoppas. If you count his win at The Old Lady, that was four titles on the trot. From there he was off to the newly-minted Manchester City for a season and a half and an FA Cup win before his knees finally gave way and he retired.
Internationally, he won the little matter of the World Cup and the Euros too. Easy when you know how, huh?
After retiring he stayed on to take the City coin in a training and youth development role or “Football Development Executive” if you prefer and then as the reserve manager, or “Elite Development Squad” if the word ‘reserves’ is too downmarket.
Looking for new horizons, in 2015 he was interviewed to be Newcastle’s manager. He dodged a bullet there. But he ended up as the boss of New York City FC for 90 games across two and a half years. His win ratio of 44% was reasonable and enough for Nice to offer him a job for 89 games. He wasn’t very good, only won 39% of the games and was given the auld tin tack in December 2020. Currently residing in the ‘where are they now?’ file, the future is unwritten for PV.
Why the love?
Loved at the time, and possibly even more now, as Arsenal fans compare this statuesque man to the wet flannels that populate the team now. At Highbury he set a standard that was so high, so imposing and effective that even now, 16 years after he departed, many people say he was the last true leader the club had. Today’s squad of weak-minded overpaid dilettantes are not fit to lick the Vieira boots, or so goes the theory anyway. It seems ironic that a side that for about a decade and a half that was packed with big personalities and hard-faced winners, has for at least as long been full of men of the exact opposite character. It’s no wonder their fans so easily take against them. There seems no reason not to, especially when you are being thoroughly shafted for ticket prices.
Patrick both literally and emblematically represents a time for the north London side that is now long gone. He was both the backbone and the guts of Arsenal, as season after season they went up against Manchester United. He would not back down, he would not give in and he would not go quietly. In that he became much loved and not just by Gunners fans. Seeing someone who can drag a whole team through a game is a skin-prickling, emotional experience. Paddy brought his A game almost every time and would stick it right up ye, given half a chance.
At which point we must raise his confrontation with Roy Keane. The players may have got a lot richer but this is what we have lost in the process. This was what made football popular. This was what bound us to the game. This is what brought us back season after season; the cramped brick tunnel, everything. This is not now. This has gone. Will it ever be allowed to return?
He was as hard a player as any of his era, which probably explains his mighty 15 career dismissals – 13 second yellows and two straight reds – for various crimes, most of which involved kicking people very hard, or stamping on the soft and tender dangly bits of a loathed opponent, spitting at them, or possibly delivering a headbutt. How Arsenal fans would like that sort of guts in 2021 instead of the dancing-around-our-handbags nonsense they have had to put up with for what seems like forever.
Patrick was a sublime talent, capable of spraying a 50-yarder to release a striker like Ian Wright, as effortlessly as he could break up an attack with a well-timed tackle. He arrived late into the box to strike it, he covered large amounts of ground in what seemed like a very few strides. He policed the back four all on his own, sweeping up, clearing out and setting free, the front six.
His box-to-box work was on a different level altogether. What I always remember is him losing possession at the front of the middle third in a game against Everton, turning and chasing the ball down, finally putting it and the Everton player into the stand down by his own corner flag at Goodison Park to huge applause from both sets of fans. It was typical of how he would correct his own mistakes.
A big bastard at 6’ 4”, he could dominate a midfield from any position, left, right or central. Once in possession and travelling at speed, stopping him would almost inevitably involve you getting hurt. When you combine sheer skill and sheer physicality, you get one of the best midfielders of the modern era.
He is loved precisely because he was, in the very real way, a ‘proper’ footballer, which is to say he was full to the brim with all the skill you needed to be a world champion, but also full of the sort of aggression which appeals to the base drivers in all of us.
It should also be said that he looked especially great in an Inter Milan shirt. Those black and blue stripes really suited him in a way that the less substantial light blue of City never, ever did.
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What the people say
It’s now 16 years since he left Arsenal and 10 since his retirement. Time flies, huh. Patrick is a player who by 2011 was becoming sadly old-fashioned. His robust methods and 100% commitment looked oddly out of place as the bloodless tippy-tappy world really got its feet under the top tables. Arsenal’s conversion from their title-winning mix of high skill and robust aggression to being ceaseless fanny merchants was entirely typical and emblematic of a broader change in fashion.
Starting out in 1993 meant he bridged two worlds – old school football where you could get away with a lot, and the new world, where you very much couldn’t. There are few if any players like him now. That’s not a mere blip of history, it is as a result of a game warped and bent out of shape by pointless rule changes and now wearing the heavy cloak of despair that is VAR.
It isn’t mere nostalgia to think that players like Vieira made football great. They absolutely did. And he has few if any equals today, however you want to measure it. What’s more, I think most who remember those days know that it is true. We are sold modern football as though it is always new and improved across the board, but that is a dirty lie.
We start with a 4_4_haiku
Long legs steal the ball
Legs spraying the ball forward
Legs stretching to goal
— 4_4_haiku (@4_4_haiku) May 14, 2021
– The fact that he really wasn’t a ‘DM’ at all, and that he doesn’t get credit for having elite technique to go along with his physicality.
– The doc he did with Keane after they retired was oddly hilarious. hearing Roy Keane in his soft Cork accent disagree with Vieira’s choices in a combined 11 is highly amusing. “Patrick, Patrick, Patrick”
For as brilliant as he was at football, the story of Roy Keane buying him an ice cream is always the first place my mind goes when I hear his name. Warms the heart. pic.twitter.com/SEbQho6b72
— Rob Scott (@RobSc0tt) May 13, 2021
– Remember his debut well. Was watching with friends and Arsenal had to bring him off the bench. We looked at his physique and all said, “the next Carlton Palmer”. We then proceeded to watch in awe as he utterly dominated the rest of the game. Boy, Arsenal could do with him now.
– Fantastic assist for Giggsy to score ‘that’ goal in 99. His contribution to United’s Treble should always be cherished
– I’m a Liverpool fan and he schooled Gerrard time and again in his early days. The words “bestrode the pitch” could have been written for him
– David Dein’s second best signing.
– My favourite player ever. His classic box-to-box runs were the finest sight in football.
– The only man to have made Roy Keane smile in the tunnel before a game.
– He’s one of the few players that gave us ballboys the time of day when we were waiting in the tunnel at WHL. I don’t care if he was Arsenal, it was a privilege to see a player like that boss the midfield in his prime.
– I’m not sure I had ever seen a player like Patrick Vieira before. I had seen tall players before and players who could tackle, players who could pass and score and players who could grab a team by the scruff of the neck and drive it forward, but not one who did it all! Special.
Four great moments
I’m putting this here again because I think it’s important as it acts as a marker between two worlds and illustrates just what has since evaporated. Also I love to see Roy snorting like a man who has just left a nightclub bathroom looking for a fight…
His first goal for Arsenal was a classic edge of the box strike…
Roy’s smile in the last seconds of this tells you absolutely everything about the fire in both their bellies…
What a bloody strike this is. Unstoppable…
How many times do wonderful players make average coaches? A lot of times. So often in this column the once great player goes into management and doesn’t do very well, all of which points to two facts. Firstly, that clubs are needlessly overly impressed by a player’s career. There is nothing to suggest a player of the highest quality will be any good at management because he was a great player and yet this myth persists to this day. And when they are any good, it is usually nothing to do with how good a player they were.
The ex-pro’s name opens doors, but so often they walk through them and fall off a cliff. Clearly, each thinks their case is different and they’ll be the one to be the Johann Cruyff but clubs should not be fooled by this. The student of the game, who has not played at the highest level, or indeed at all, is just as likely, if not more so, to decode football into understandable bite-sized chunks.
So now out of work he may go back into punditry which he did a bit of in 2014 for ITV, or he may return to a coaching role. Still in his mid-40s, he’s got a lot of years to fill yet. Maybe some sort of coaching role with the national side would suit him.
One thing is for sure, he’ll never have to buy a drink in north London.