When Arsène Wenger refused to dismiss completely the suggestions last summer that Patrick Vieira might come back to Arsenal, you started to wonder if there might actually be some truth in the reports that Wenger was about to perform one of the biggest policy reversals of his managerial career.
Surely, Wenger, the great champion of youth, was not going to re-sign a 33-year-old midfielder whom he had sold four years hence and was clearly not up to the job anymore. No-one would blame Wenger for saying so and, sentimental value aside, quite frankly what would be the point of bringing Vieira back to the club?
The real reason behind Wenger's reluctance to boot the story into touch was, those close to him explained, a matter of sensitivity. Wenger simply did not want to embarrass Vieira. He never had any intention of signing him from Internazionale but he knew that if he said so then the next morning's newspapers would look very hurtful.
It begs the question why Manchester City's new manager, Roberto Mancini, has decided that for all the players he could buy with Sheikh Mansour's money he wants a 33-year-old way past his best. Wenger knew that in the summer but was too polite to say so. Mancini seems to believe that, despite a more pressing shortage in defence, Vieira is worth it.
At the risk of insulting the memories of Vieira when he was arguably the English game's most influential player, this is a signing that harks back to the City from before the Abu Dhabi salad days. Back when they signed the likes of George Weah, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and David Seaman, long after their best-before dates had elapsed.
Vieira was a brilliant player in his day. In August 2002, Sir Alex Ferguson caused a storm when he claimed that Vieira wanted to join Manchester United "but they [Arsenal] wouldn't let him". Arsenal had reclaimed the league the previous season and Vieira was regarded as the best midfielder in the country. Everyone wanted him.
Vieira had some monumental seasons – the 2001-2002 title-winning season, the unbeaten season of 2003-2004 – and he was one of the best players in the tournament at Euro 2000. He rewrote the book on the ideal central midfielder. Instead of the smaller, powerful Bryan Robson template here was a hardman who could pass, score goals and looked as graceful as a West Indies fast bowler.
One of Vieira's first memories of Arsenal was Tony Adams's dressing-room confession in 1996 that he was an alcoholic – a bizarre episode for a 20-year-old French-Senegalese kid who had not yet mastered the language. Vieira was different to his Arsenal team-mates. They laughed when he drove to the team's Christmas party – an indication that he was not planning on drinking much.
But Vieira was old-school in one respect: he played through the injuries. In the 2003-2004 season he often had to spend hours after games soaking swollen knees and ankles. Like so many players who start young, the injuries take their toll and by the time that Arsenal sold him in 2005, the likes of Ferguson were not making inquiries.
On his day, Vieira is still capable of reviving some of the old magic that made him such a difficult opponent – skilful, tough and perceptive – but those days are pretty rare now. Injuries and form mean that he has only played four games for France since September 2007 and his last appearance, for his 107th cap, was against Nigeria in June. For France's friendly against Spain in February 2008, Le Parisien newspaper awarded him 2 out of 10 for his performance.
Mancini had a strong relationship with Vieira when they were both at Inter. Perhaps he only wants Vieira to give the team the strong leader that it seems to lack for the six months he is contracted. But whether Vieira can cope with the tempo of Premier League games – a tempo he once thrived in – is quite another matter.
Vieira was a giant of English football, but his number was up long ago. That was March 2006 when he came back to Highbury with Juventus and a 19-year-old Cesc Fabregas ran him ragged. Fabregas scored that night and Vieira was booed every time he touched the ball.
In the first leg of the Champions League game against Manchester United last year, Vieira looked like a passenger and was substituted at half-time. This season, Vieira has started seven league games for Inter and made two substitutes appearances in the Champions League. This is a man winding down his career, not one of the world's leading players.
Vieira may yet get in the France World Cup squad – the main motivation, he says, for moving to City – but that will probably be because neither Lassana Diarra nor Jérémy Toulalan have particularly impressed in central midfield. It would be a shame to see Vieira given the run-around by the likes of Keith Andrews on Monday, but that is the risk if he returns.
In his day, Vieira was part of some of the Premier League's most exciting moments, not to mention that engrossing Highbury tunnel ruck with Roy Keane in 2005. Keane was the madman that day with his comical rant ("I'll see you out there, shouting yer mouth off, you. Every week, you, making out you're a nice guy").
Watch the clip now and it feels like it belongs to a different era. Rather like Vieira.
Patchy Patrick: His Arsenal record
Patrick Vieira's nine years at Arsenal began in September 1996. He lifted the League and Cup double in 1997-98 and replicated that in 2001-02. FA Cups followed in 2003 and 2005, either side of his central role in the 'Invincibles' campaign of 2003-04 when the Gunners went unbeaten in the League all season. He also finished League runner-up five times and once in the FA and Uefa Cups, before joining Juventus in July 2005.
The English game also brought out the Frenchman's worst side. He picked up his first suspension after just 11 games, receiving in total 100 yellow cards and 10 red in 406 games. In August 2001, he was dismissed in successive games against Sunderland and Liverpool, incurring a five-game suspension.
The number of times that Patrick Vieira played for Arsenal. In 2008 he was voted the club's fifth greatest-ever player.Reuse content