The man who saved Arsenal

Revealed: How the Vieira deal averted a Highbury crisis and brought Wenger back from the brink
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The Independent Online

Arsène Wenger's decision to follow the lead of his new vice-captain, Patrick Vieira, and re-affirm his commitment to Arsenal by signing a four-year extension to his existing contract, signals the end of one of the club's most turbulent, and potentially destructive, summers.

There are those who wonder why the manager has taken so long to agree to put pen to paper, but such was the gravity of the issues facing him during the last six weeks that the Frenchman simply had no time to worry about his own future. Whether it be the Vieira saga, when the France international threatened to leave the club because they lacked ambition and, in so doing, precipitate the departure of others, or the concerns surrounding the financing of the new 60,000-seater stadium at Ashburton Grove, which is pivotal to Arsenal's master plan, Wenger has had to be at his conciliatory-best to avert a major crisis at Highbury.

"I believe that Arsenal are at a turning point in the history of the club," said Wenger, who, later this week, will make an official announcement about his contract at the same time as the board reveal their plans for raising the capital for the new ground. "That means I have to make sure that I can maintain it where it is at the moment. It may seem quite obvious, but it is not that easy to do."

Arsenal's chances of remaining a force in England and Europe rest largely on the club's ability to hold on to their star players – most crucially the talismanic Vieira. According to his team-mate and confidant, Robert Pires, persuading Vieira to stay was imperative if the club were to avoid imploding. "It was vital," the France midfielder says, "because, by keeping one of the main leaders of the team, Arsenal are demonstrating that they want to progress. If you let a player of Patrick's stature leave, then your whole credibility is shot to pieces. That's why keeping him here sent out an important message. For me, it shows that Arsenal are serious about wanting to be one of the best clubs in the world."

Pires is the first of Vieira's close friends to confirm the fact that the 25-year-old, who joined the Gunners in 1996, had indeed wanted to move clubs during the summer. So far as Pires is concerned, Vieira's reasons for wanting to leave were understandable, although he insists his fellow countryman has now returned to Arsenal determined to settle in again.

"He wanted to leave because he'd been here for five years and felt it was time to discover a new culture, a new championship," Pires said. "I don't think anyone could hold a grudge against him for that. But now he's decided to stay because he likes the club and because the people here have confidence in him. The proof is he's been named vice-captain and is the heir-apparent to Tony Adams. Coming back to England, the Premiership and Highbury will give him a lot of pleasure and he'll knuckle down and enjoy the season."

Vieira, it would seem, shared Wenger's concern that the Arsenal board might spend a lot of money on the development of the new ground, and neglect the needs of the first team. He is keen to strike a balance between investment on and off the field. "There are many big clubs who build large stadiums and then don't have the team to play there," said the manager. "To get this kind of thing right is very important. I believe that Arsenal's only chance of becoming one of the five or six biggest clubs in the world is by moving to the new stadium. And my role is to make sure that, until it is built, I keep Arsenal at the top level. That is something that will be crucial for the long-term history of the club."

Pires was also anxious to point out that many of the tabloid newspaper quotes attributed to Vieira, including criticism of the fans and some of the players, were the stuff of fabrication. "Obviously," Pires said, "I was very worried about the stories in the papers and I did try to reach Pat on several occasions, but he was on holiday and his mobile was never on.

"Deep down, though, I suspected it wasn't Pat talking. I've known Pat for six years, and I'm sure he would never make those sorts of remarks. It's not his style. None of those words came from him – they were put in his mouth by someone else [an agent]. The way I see it, people outside the club did everything in their power to make him leave."

Pires added: "At the time, all I knew was that Patrick was a big boy, who was quite capable of making up his own mind. If he'd decided to join Real Madrid, I would have been one of the first to wish him well because he's a great player. Don't get me wrong, that's not to say that I'm not absolutely delighted he's opted to stay at Arsenal, but you have to respect a player's choices. Perhaps he did consider leaving, but there must also have been a part of him that wanted to stay. I don't know whether he will end his career here, but he's definitely part of the club's immediate future."

Crucially, Vieira's decision to prolong his love affair with Arsenal helped others, including Pires and Wenger himself, make up their minds about their futures. "Keeping Pat was an important factor in persuading others to stay," Pires says. "If you have some of the best players in the world and you let them go, that means you don't want to win trophies and progress. Arsenal's huge efforts, both financial and sporting, to hold on to Pat prove the club are ambitious and want to step up another level from last season."

Having swallowed his pride and rejoined the club, has Vieira come back a different person? "Honestly," Pires says, "no. Pat is a guy who progresses on the pitch but stays the same off it. He's still the same Pat that I first came into contact with in 1995."

Arsenal fans will be hoping Vieira is still the same majestic, dominant midfielder they have been worshipping for five years.

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