meets the Highbury
idol who has grown to
love the English game
AS he strode forward from the centre circle with the ball at his feet, the defence ahead of him backed off until he heeded the encouragement ringing in his ears from team-mates to "take your chance, shoot... shoot." So he did, from 25 yards, and the ball flew into the roof of the net for one of the goals of the season.
It sounds just like Roberto Di Matteo's Wembley goal for Chelsea after only 43 seconds of last year's FA Cup final. In fact it was Patrick Vieira a month ago for Arsenal against the opponents they face in Saturday's final. Same again against Newcastle, Patrick? "The shot... ah yes, I like this goal. Maybe at Wembley again, why not?"
Vieira then gives a throaty laugh and his face beams the appealing smile that has finally replaced the apprehension on his face when first we sit down. He has been evasive all week until, confronted one last time, he can escape no longer. His insouciant attitude to the interview he promised has been annoying but also strangely enjoyable - what a coup to be able to intimidate this season's dominating scourge of midfields.
Once he sees there is nothing to worry about, Vieira relaxes and opens up. Much like his football, in fact, since arriving from Milan for pounds 3.5m almost two summers ago now. "The first season was adaptation," he says. "Now it is better. I like the English football, I like the spirit and determination of the English player. The player is `libre', free to enjoy his game. It's the big influence of this country."
Vieira, too, has been a big influence on this country. Last season there were signs of his capacity to dominate games with his telescopic tackling and rampant runs. This year he has been a vibrant phenomenon. Arsenal have had important figures all over the pitch, huge ones in Tony Adams in defence and Dennis Bergkamp in attack, but Vieira, at 21, has been the key to the door as a forceful, mobile bond between their experienced expertise.
As the song they sing at Highbury about him goes, he comes from Senegal - "This is why I like England," he says. "The atmosphere. I can hear them and sometimes I don't think about the game for five or ten seconds." After living with grandparents for a while, he left Dakar at the age of seven, though, to join his mother, by now a school dinner lady, who had gone to seek work in Paris.
His footballing talent was spotted at the age of 15 and he was recruited by Tours for their centre de formation. The club were relegated from the top division, though, and money became tight. Cannes stepped in and he was given a full debut at the age of 18 by the coach Lus Fernandez, one of his boyhood heroes from that brilliant French midfield of the mid-Eighties.
A year later he found himself captain, only agreeing to take on the job after calling the players together to find out if he would be acceptable to them at so tender an age. "On the pitch was OK. I am enjoying my game. But outside the pitch, I don't talk sometimes, only when people ask me. That's why I am secret."
An open secret. From just along the Cote d'Azur, Arsene Wenger first noticed him but it was Milan who came in. "It was very difficult," he says. "I came from a small club and now there were big players who had won everything. Yes, I felt small," adds this 6ft 4in figure.
Such a feeling, coupled with the difficulty of breaking through so much talent and thus making only two Serie A starts, may have coloured Vieira's view that the Italian game was just a job of work where the fear of losing was overwhelming and the passion of the fans more potentially violent that vocal, though he encountered, he says, none of the racism that Paul Ince did when with Internazionale.
Milan's displeasure with him when he was involved in a car crash with George Weah as the pair drove to a match in Monaco without informing the club of their whereabouts did not help his cause, either. Whatever the circumstances, it was a relief to join Wenger in London.
"Arsene spoke to me a couple of times when I was at Milan and I wanted to join him above Paris St Germain or Ajax because of the English football. It is interesting to watch. Everyone in France and other countries says it is just physical but when you play in it, you know how good it is. Technically, it is better than they think."
He prefers, he says, the unrelenting rhythm of the game here to the staccato of Italy. "The first thing the people want you to prove is that you like the shirt, that you like the club and you will do your best for them," he adds. "And that is how I am. When I play I don't calculate, you know, I just play."
One of Vieira's many strengths has indeed been the spontaneous, expansive and expressive movement of his game. His industry and energy about the pitch make him the model of the mobile modern midfield player. Such a lack of calculation, too, has taken him into dangerous disciplinary areas this season.
Before Christmas there were five yellow cards and a red. Television has also captured him flicking a kick off the ball at West Ham's Ian Pearce, for which he faces FA action. He can also be prone to final-whistle confrontation, as his anger at Paul Ince's tackle on Ian Wright in midweek showed. Much of it is impetuous youth, rather than malice, however. Like other shy characters, the field provides an outlet for aggression, which he is coming to channel.
"Sometimes I don't think until it's too late," he admits. "But I won't change my determination on the pitch, I don't change my game. When I have a bad moment or because of the seven yellow cards, I can't care about that. I have to have the contact."
Clearly he has learnt something, as only one yellow card since the turn of the year proves. "Maybe I know the teams better and if some player helps you to lose your head," he also points out significantly.
As his temperament matures, so his game has shown a marked development this season. Early on there was a tendency to surrender possession too cheaply and in dangerous areas of the field, with opposition able to exploit the space he had vacated.
After Arsenal's celebrated team meeting early last December to talk over and rectify the shortcomings, Vieira and his French central midfield partner Emmanuel Petit came to accept the need for defensive duties and greater discipline as shields for the back four. He may talk about freedom in football, about "more joy" in the English game, but the awareness of the responsibility of his role has seeped through.
"It is a hard position, an important position," he says. "Tactically, you have some things to do. But I am young and I want to play. All the time I like to enjoy the game. It is what Tony Adams says all the time - 'enjoy the game'."
It has shown through as Arsenal have played with an increasing enjoyment and confidence. Should Vieira continue to develop the potential that Wenger so astutely spotted and acquired - and which Milan were said to be willing to buy back a few months ago - by increasing the range of his passing, of which he gave glimpses against Liverpool in midweek, and having more confidence in his ability to contribute goals, then the world game could have another Frank Rijkaard or Marcel Desailly in its midst.
Next month's World Cup finals in France could even see it, as he was named by the hosts last week in their preliminary squad of 28. If or when it happens - if or rather when he imposes himself on Newcastle at the weekend - this correspondent will look back fondly to the day when Patrick Vieira felt he needed the protective presence of an Arsenal press officer.Reuse content