Wenger and Vieira: Such sweet sorrow

For nearly a decade they had one of the closest relationships in English football. Then Arsène Wenger decided Patrick Vieira was expendable. Glenn Moore examines an emotional parting that overshadows tonight's European showdown at Highbury
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Patrick Vieira thought he was part of a family. He was wrong. He was part of a business. His misapprehension was one of the reasons Vieira decided to stay at Arsenal when Real Madrid came calling in the summer of 2004. He thought then, he later reflected, about the extraordinary relationship he had "with my team-mates, my manager, the fans and everyone who worked at the club from the guys in the club shop right through to the secretaries".

The ephemeral nature of this "extraordinary relationship" was revealed to Vieira the following summer when Arsenal sold him to Juventus. Initially, he felt betrayed and angry. Ultimately, he realised "that's business, that's football".

Tonight, for the first time since leaving, Vieira will be back on the Highbury turf as Juventus play Arsenal in the first leg of their Champions' League quarter-final. It will be an emotional night both for Vieira and for Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger.

Wenger is the man who rescued Vieira from Milan's reserve team and built three championship-winning teams around him. He is also the man who made the decision to let Vieira leave. That was when Vieira had to face the game's hard realities, when he discovered Wenger was his employer, not a surrogate father to the boy who never knew his own sire.

Vieira will not have been the first footballer to have confused the two. The relationship between a manager and his players is at the heart of any football team. Most footballers call their manager "boss", or "gaffer". In many cases "Dad" really would be more appropriate.

For decades men like Sir Alex Ferguson and Dario Gradi have acted in loco parentis, football's cloistered world effectively making them as much a father as an employer. Boys are entrusted into their paternal care. In the better clubs their development, as players and men, is carefully overseen by the manager.

Until, that is, the needs of the team outweigh those of the individual player. That is when the relationship breaks down.

In the case of Ian St John, the former Liverpool and Scotland striker, it was fractured one Saturday afternoon when he learnt before a match at Newcastle from a journalist that he had been dropped by Bill Shankly, who had signed St John, then an international, but in many ways still a gauche 20-year-old, from Motherwell more than eight years previously. He had been a fixture in Shankly's first great Liverpool side. Now, without warning, he was being written into Anfield history.

"We had a deep understanding," St John wrote in his autobiography. "If it wasn't a father-and-son understanding, it was something very close indeed - or so I thought." It was a long time after, and only after St John had experienced for himself the tough verities of management, that the wounds healed.

Two decades later, despite the riches that give talented footballers financial independence while still teenagers, and the greater pace with which boys pass into adulthood, these near paternal bonds still thrive. They do so at Old Trafford, at Gresty Road, and at Highbury.

Taking his cue, perhaps, from Guy Roux, the great patriarch of Auxerre, Wenger brought to Highbury a modern refinement of the father-figure role. To an Arsenal team more accustomed to the stern governance of George Graham he appeared to bring a welcome warmth.

"You want to play for Arsène because he's such a great human being," Tony Adams remarked recently. "George was the dad you couldn't talk to."

Like a New Man father Wenger helped Adams and Paul Merson battle their addictions, and now seeks to steer Sol Campbell out of his personal maze. But like all the great mentoring coaches, like Sir Matt Busby, Ferguson and Gradi, he has done his best work with young players. Wenger looks back with sadness on his failure to guide Nicolas Anelka - but then he was competing against the actual familial influence of Anelka's brothers. More typical has been the blossoming, under Wenger's care, of men such as Thierry Henry, Kolo Touré, Cesc Fabregas, and Vieira.

Vieira arrived at Highbury before Wenger, having been signed at the latter's direction, in order to meet the Uefa transfer deadline, while the manager was seeing out his contract with Nagoya in Japan. Remi Garde joined at the same time and Arsenal's in-house magazine made them the subject of a feature in which both received equal coverage. Garde was more experienced and already a French international. Vieira was unknown and though the magazine noted "a year ago many tipped him as the new Marcel Desailly" there was no indication of the talismanic figure he would become.

Garde, troubled by injury and unable to adapt to the physical demands of the English game, dropped by the wayside. Vieira took a while to impress the coaching staff but once in the first team he flourished. His debut came in September 1996, when he came off a bench he had shared with two other youngsters, Matthew Rose and Paul Shaw, to replace the injured Ray Parlour against Sheffield Wednesday. His impact was immediate, a remarkably assured debut that is still recalled in hushed tones by Arsenal fans who were present.

Under Wenger's tutelage Vieira became one of the dominant players of the Premiership era, perhaps matched only by Roy Keane - who was himself to find that the bonds of mentor and captain were not as strong as he had believed.

Vieira's emergence as a player of world class brought its own difficulties for Wenger. "On the one hand it was a fantastic feeling to have a player like him," Wenger commented, before adding, "on the other it was a bit concerning as well. We always used to say, how will we replace him? Every year we told ourselves we were going to feel the heat during the summer because there would be a lot of pressure on us and we would end up selling him."

The long goodbye Wenger foretold began in earnest in 2004 when Real Madrid tapped up Vieira during the European Championship. Wenger was angry at the timing of the approach - with a major tournament going on it would be difficult to find a replacement - and disappointed at Vieira's encouragement of it. In the end, Vieira, perhaps piqued by Real's refusal to pay him a galactico wage, was unable to tear himself away from Highbury and Wenger. But he admitted in his autobiography: "I underestimated the psychological impact of my on-off departure for Real Madrid - I turned out to be much more unsettled by it than I thought I had been."

Wenger took note. He had already begun to question Vieira, startling the player, when Real were rejected, by responding not with warmth but the sharp question: "I hope you're not choosing the easy option?" So when Juventus asked the next summer Wenger weighed the issue, considered Vieira's age, and decided it was time to sell his captain.

Vieira was shocked, but Wenger expected that. "It is always difficult to tell a player he is no longer wanted when you have been in battle together and given everything together," he told L'Equipe recently. Wenger, who often uses martial terms, added: "It is warrior-like language but it is like that, separating from a player, it is telling him he is no longer strong enough. He often feels it is a betrayal."

So it was with Vieira. When David Dein, the club's vice-chairman, told him that, rather than demanding he stay, Arsenal were prepared to let him leave, Vieira concluded: "If that's how it is, whatever happens now, I'm off."

To judge from the warm words this week Wenger and Vieira have not become estranged in the way Ferguson and David Beckham have. In that case there was a real schism, the sort that fuels the plot of television soap operas for years, after Ferguson, a dominating father figure, resented Victoria Beckham's growing influence. There is, however, bound to be a certain coolness between the Frenchmen. For Wenger the relationship changed when Vieira almost left in 2004; for Vieira it will have done when Wenger ruled he was expendable a year later.

The biblical analogy, as Vieira comes "home" is not the heart-warming New Testament tale of the Prodigal Son but the hard Old Testament one of Abraham and Isaac. Wenger was prepared to sacrifice Vieira for the greater good. In the long term it brought Arsenal £14m and an end to the annual, destabilising doubt as to the captain's future. In the short term it may rouse Vieira to inflict defeat on his old team. Yet, even if it does, Wenger will have no doubt about his decision: his former captain made an impressive start in Italy, but has attracted increasing criticism of late.

Wenger's focus is now with his new protégés, with Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini and Emmanuel Eboué; at least until they, too, lose their value to the family. As Wenger might be tempted to remark, when he sees Vieira tonight: "It wasn't personal, Patrick. It was business."

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