The long goodbye

Patrick Vieira, who left Arsenal for Juventus yesterday, was a colossal player but his relationship with the Gunners had been fraying for years

That was the old Arsenal way. The new methods could scarcely have been given a more thrilling introduction than when Arsène Wenger sent on Vieira for his debut at half-time against Sheffield Wednesday on 16 September 1996 with Arsenal 1-0 down at Highbury. Those who were there tell of a stunning performance that transformed the game into a 4-1 victory for Arsenal and breathed the first optimism into Wenger's reign.

At 29, and three Premiership titles, four FA Cups, one World Cup and one European Championship since that game, Vieira left Arsenal yesterday with a legacy in English football that will take some matching. First of all, he transformed our usual expectations of a midfield enforcer built along the compact lines of Graeme Souness or Bryan Robson into a new template. Tall, thin with an ability to pass the ball but with a strength that manifested itself differently to the traditional short, pugnacious players in that position.

What Vieira does share with his British predecessors who have occupied centre-midfield is a quickness of temper that, on occasions, has had a devastating effect on his career. For many years he was unable to resist the provocations of players far below him in the hierarchy - one immediately thinks of Neil Ruddock - and he was sent off 10 times for Arsenal. That sensitivity to slights, and a constant examination of his own status, has contributed much to his decision this week to leave Arsenal for Juventus.

There are few players with a keener eye for their own value than Vieira. Last summer, when Real Madrid finally believed they had signed him for around £22m, it was his insistence that his salary was equal to the other galacticos that finally scuppered his move. There are few who would argue against Vieira's militancy that he be counted among the very best, but the transfer U-turns and dead-ends that have characterised his summers for the last three years also have consequences of their own.

It means that now Vieira is to finally leave the club which, along with Wenger and Thierry Henry, he has transformed into the most beguiling attacking unit in the Premiership, there is ambivalence rather than despair. The departure of Henry would cause a Highbury uprising - among even the notoriously bourgeois elements who deliver their post-match dissertations over the tables of Islington's more expensive restaurants. But in Vieira's case there will only be a sense of resignation.

He is still capable of great feats, and he held the Arsenal midfield together more or less alone against Manchester United's onslaught in the FA Cup final in May and went on to score the decisive penalty in the shoot-out in what proved to be his last game for the club. In Arsenal's second leg defeat to Chelsea in the Champions' League quarter-finals more than a year ago he gave one of his most complete performances. He played 15 minutes of France's World Cup final victory in 1998 and started every one but the first of their matches on the way to winning Euro 2000.

Yet ever since the first interest was expressed in Vieira five years ago the ties that have bound him to Highbury have been allowed to fray gently. Like Steven Gerrard over the last two years he has placed his own club on trial, calling for new players and demanding that they match his ambition to win the Champions' League and compete with United and Chelsea in the Premiership. It has been a relationship that has been allowed to deteriorate to the point that Vieira can justify his departure with the haughty insistence that Arsenal no longer want him. He has hardly done much to kindle their love over the last few summers.

Vieira will rightly be remembered for his supreme contribution to Arsenal's three Premiership titles, the first two won in spite of Sir Alex Ferguson's virtual dictatorship of English football and the last with the remarkable 49-game unbeaten run that defied Roman Abramovich's Chelsea regime. Along with Henry, Vieira has embodied that rebel spirit at Arsenal that refuses to be cowed by the austere weight of power and tradition at United and the new financial muscle at Chelsea.

He was courted for years by Ferguson who once boldly told reporters that everyone wanted to come to Old Trafford - "even Patrick Vieira" - in the days when United were the club who needed only to crook a finger to sign the biggest names. Vieira never succumbed and it always seemed to irritate Ferguson. Over the last season he pointed out on more than one occasion the amount of attention Arsenal's captain would lavish on the referee and how that seemed to affect the officiating of matches.

Vieira will also forever be remembered in song at Old Trafford as the player who presented Ryan Giggs with the ball as the first act in that astonishing FA Cup semi-final goal of 1999. He was also forced into the shadows by a giant performance by Papa Bouba Diop in the first game in the 2002 World Cup which Senegal shocked the holders by winning. It was not clear at the time but that was the beginning of the end for that great France team who were equally unconvincing at Euro 2004.

His red cards will linger in the mind too, not least the two he received in three days against Sunderland and Liverpool in 2000. There was the spitting at West Ham's Ruddock in 1999 and the subsequent shove with a policeman as he was sent off which earned him a six-match ban. The Football Association also charged him for kicking Olivier Dacourt in November 2000. They were unusual outbursts for a man whose game never seemed to be fuelled on rage in the same way as, say, Roy Keane.

Keane. Unless they meet again in the Champions' League, Vieira will have to concede that his old United adversary had the last word. It was in the tunnel at Highbury before the 4-2 defeat to United on 1 February and resulted in a confrontation that told everyone watching on television who was about to boss this particular affair. Not the referee Graham Poll and certainly not Vieira. He gulped and said nothing as Keane lambasted him for an earlier threat to Gary Neville. Eyeball-to-eyeball it was the Frenchman who blinked first.

There is no doubt Vieira is a success story for English football. A young man wasted in Milan's reserves who came to Highbury with just two Serie A games to his name and became one of Wenger's greatest revolutionaries. A sophisticated man who was one of those French émigrés invited to meet president Jacques Chirac when he visited London in November. Vieira has his own charity, Diambars, in Senegal and is genuine in his desire to raise the standard of living in the country where he spent his first eight years.

Before France's Euro 2004 match against England, Vieira was asked what habits he had adopted during his time across the Channel. He insisted that he could not resist a full-English fried breakfast at least once a week. It was, in all likelihood, a joke on us reporters but it was meant affectionately and designed to show his sense of belonging. It was that belonging, at Arsenal especially, that has been eroded a little too easily over the last few years.

Comments