To mark 18 years since Gilles Grimandi signed for Arsenal, we've looked through the archives and found this Arsenal Magazine interview from October 2003.
Gilles Grimamdi left Highbury in 2002, much in the manner that he arrived in 1997. No fuss, no drama, no headlines. The same could be said, in fact, of the five years in between, when he featured in over 150 games in an Arsenal shirt. The archetypal ‘utility man’, Grimandi slotted in whenever called on, wherever needed - at the heart of the defence, or adding bite to the midfield. He even bagged six goals along the way.
Eric Cantona once described his fellow French ‘artist’ Didier Deschamps as a ‘water carrier’. It was not meant as a compliment. Yet it is the so-called ‘water carriers’, the often unsung members of the supporting cast, who allow players like Cantona to shine. Every good team needs such players and the Arsenal side which, during Grimandi’s five years at Highbury won two ‘doubles’ - were no different. The French defender-cum-midfielder executed his flexible commission with total commitment. Modest, never flash and always dependable.
That Arsène Wenger, who knew all about Grimandi from his time at Monaco, should go out of his way to bring the player to Highbury, should be compliment enough. But he had other admirers too. The French daily, Le Monde, once went as far as listing Grimandi as one of the six figures who had played a crucial part in Wenger’s Highbury Revolution (the other five were Pat Rice, Boro Primorac, Peter Hill-Wood, David Dein and Freddie Ljungberg). Grimandi is quick to play down his contribution.
“Of course I am proud of my achievements, but I don’t think you can put me in that six. I just did what I was asked to do. I think many players have done a lot more than me for Arsenal. I just tried to do what was asked of me and give my best - I’m not being modest, it’s the way I think.
“When you play alongside people like Patrick [Vieira] and other top players, it’s always easy. You just have to know your job and work for them. Playing at the back was always a bit harder - it wasn’t my natural position - but I was just delighted whenever I could be part of things. I might have been on the bench a lot, but for me, just being included in the first 16, with so many wonderful players around me, was a great thing.
"When you play alongside people like Patrick [Vieira] and other top players, it’s always easy. You just have to know your job and work for them"
“I still have a lot of friends at Highbury, and try to stay in touch as much as possible. I went to see the guys a month ago when they were over for a friendly in Geneva. I’d say I’m especially close to Patrick and speak to him on the phone as often as I can.”
If he was rarely in the limelight, you get the feeling that that was the way Grimandi liked it. While his team-mates opted for sports cars and 4x4s, Grimandi would often turn up at the training ground in his mini, and he was even spotted travelling around London on a double-decker bus.
A man who grew up in the Alps, London was Grimandi’s first experience of life in a big metropolis, but it was one that he came to relish.
“It was very difficult at first adapting to London. But after a few months, I fell in love with the place. I know I am not the only one. Most of the guys I know who have played there for a few years all miss it like crazy when they go. It’s a fantastic city. I really would like to come back and spend more time there at some point.”
For Grimandi, Highbury has cast a long shadow. His search for a new experience on and off the pitch almost took him to the Far East last summer. In the end he opted instead for the Wild West, and signed a two-year contract with Denver.
“I’ve had a difficult time since I left Arsenal. Initially, I was going to sign for a club in Japan. But I turned it down as it didn’t feel right - I just wasn’t ready to travel so far. Then after three or four months I signed a contract in the USA, with Denver. It was a two-year deal, but after about four weeks there I started to feel really unhappy.
“I’d been so happy at Arsenal that it was always going to be difficult going elsewhere. In the States, particularly, the attitude to football was so different. It just didn’t feel right and before the season started I told them I wanted to go back toEurope. They weren’t pleased, of course - they wanted to keep me to my contract. Financially and psychologically it was a difficult thing to do, but I think you always have to be honest, both with yourself and other people.”
He has now returned to the more familiar surroundings of France, and just recently was invited by a fellow former member of London’s French set to step up a level.
“When I came back I stopped playing altogether. I wasn’t sure whether I ever wanted to play again. But then, in July, I started training with a club in the French Second Division. I spent about four weeks with them and felt really strong physically; then the other week, I got an invitation from Strasbourg [in the French top flight] to go and train with them.
“Marc Keller, who used to play for West Ham is now a fairly influential figure behind the scenes at Strasbourg. He’s an old friend of mine, and he persuaded me that I should join up with them to train and see how I liked it. I’ve just been with them for a few days now, so I really don’t know how it will go, but I’ve given myself 10 days to decide whether I want to carry on. At the end of those 10 days, I’ll know whether I am up to it, whether I am enjoying it, and whether Strasbourg are interested. I realise that this will be a big decision - it is probably my last chance to play football at this level.
“Now, I realise that England is the best place to be a professional footballer,” continues Gilles. “I think that is true generally, but also I think it suits my style of play. One thing you really notice when you go elsewhere is how much the mentality of professional players differs. In England everything is geared towards thinking about the football. In Europe, I think, players spend too much time thinking about other things.
“Of course, I’d love to come back and play in England. But being out of the game for a year made it very hard for me to break back in. Most clubs were worried that I wouldn’t be sharp or committed enough. Anyway, at the end of the next 10 days they will know and I will know.”
For such a thoughtful, intelligent individual, who clearly retains his love for football, management would be an obvious option. And he’s had the benefit of a pretty good role model:
“I learnt huge amounts from Arsène Wenger, both at Monaco and at Arsenal. I always knew he was a fine coach, but especially since leaving I have appreciated just how good he is. I am not sure that I could do what he does. There is a lot more to being a good coach than just understanding the game.
"I learnt huge amounts from Arsène Wenger, both at Monaco and at Arsenal. I always knew he was a fine coach, but especially since leaving I have appreciated just how good he is"
“I was offered the chance to manage a side in the French Second Division actually, but I knew that I wasn’t ready to stop playing at the time. However, if I do retire, I will consider management more seriously. I think I will try and do something related to football, anyway. I did some work with French TV last season and enjoyed that. I really do love the game; I just love to watch matches. If I can carry on earning my living from the game that would be fantastic.”
Mind you, Grimandi is not one of those players who cannot see beyond the game. The work ethic and willingness to muck in that he demonstrated on the pitch reflects an attitude to life in general. And if you happen to be holidaying in the French Alps next summer and find your bags being carried by a hotelier who looks like Grimandi - the chances are that’s because it is him.
When I mention the small hotel he runs in the Alps, he seems surprised. “How on earth did you find out about that? It’s a tiny place - in a really small village. I like to work there in the summer - just so that I can see what it’s like to do something apart from football.”
Gilles is keen not to reveal the exact location - the hotel is well off the tourist trail and he wants to keep it that way. But he does recall one English football fan, who turned up in the hotel by chance.
“This guy just kept staring at me. Eventually, he came up and said - ‘you’re the spitting image of that Arsenal player, Gilles Grimandi.’ I told him, ‘That’s because I am Gilles Grimandi.’ He was a bit surprised.”
Grimandi is also contemplating a return to school - to hone his communication skills. “Once I’m sure that it’s time to stop playing, I am keen to do some studying. I’m a firm believer that we always have a lot to learn. Just because you have a successful career as a footballer, it doesn’t mean that, at the age of 35, you know it all. I would like to do a part-time degree in communications.”
Whatever decisions Grimandi makes about his future, long and short term, they will probably be the right ones. He is clearly a man who knows how to listen to his mind and his heart as well as his body.
“I’m 33 now. Physically, I could maybe go on playing for two or three years. But, it’s not just about your body. So much depends about what is going on in your head. In France, English football is rated very highly, but playing for Arsenal has a special meaning. However hard it was to walk away from that, I knew I had made the right decision when I left in 2002. In my heart, I knew I wasn’t quite up to another season, especially with younger players coming through. I think it’s always important to know when to stop. I am just very proud of the fact that I was part of Arsenal for five years. It’s left me with some wonderful memories.
“I think at the time, you don’t realise quite how special it is. When you go elsewhere you start to understand that there is nothing else quite like it.”
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