Arsenal's Captains: Patrick Vieira

Arsenal Football Club have called upon many inspirational leaders down the decades, here Arsenal football historian Jon Spurling profiles the most influential.

Along with fellow Frenchman Remi Garde, 20-year-old Patrick Vieira (signed from AC Milan for £3.5m) was Arsene Wenger’s first signing and within 30 minutes of his introduction as a substitute against Sheffield Wednesday in September 1996, it was abundantly clear that a prototype new-age midfielder was now in Gunners fans’ midsts.

Before the match Wenger had sent his directives to caretaker boss Pat Rice from Japan, where his contract with Grampus Eight still had a few weeks left to run. Wenger addressed the crowd in ‘Big Brother’ style on the Jumbotron screen before the Wednesday match. The acoustics were extremely poor - virtually the only decipherable comment was, ‘let’s win tonight’) but in Vieira, who replaced Ray Parlour five minutes into the second half, Wenger’s message could not have been clearer.


Patrick Vieira

Patrick Vieira


For 45 minutes, table-topping Wednesday had played the Gunners off the park but Vieira’s awesome physical presence and short accurate passing induced terror into Wednesday’s previously well ordered back line. The Gunners ran out 4-1 winner, courtesy of David Platt’s leveller and an Ian Wright hat-trick.

After the game the larger than life Wright even suggested that Vieira’s introduction was the most sensational Gunners debut since he destroyed Southampton on his debut five years earlier.

The sense of relief and excitement among fans was palpable. The Gunners’ midfield had been unbalanced for hearts, lacking creativity and genuine physical strength, ever since the break up of the Davis - Rocastle - Thomas triumvirate in the early 1990s.

Quickly, Vieira became a fixture in the side and typically he would stretch out one of his telescopic legs, snaffle the ball off an opposing midfielder and lope forward to set into motion another Arsenal attack. Very quickly he developed an almost telepathic relationship with Ian Wright. During the 1996/97 season a raft of Wright’s strikes came after a pin-point slide-rule pass from the Frenchman.


Ian Wright

Ian Wright


Despite his raw potential, Vieira still had his critics. During his first 18 months at Highbury he was shown 23 yellow cared and, as Tony Adams later commented, “played right on the edge too often. In the modern game this meant that Patrick’s impetuousness could land the rest of the team in trouble on some occasions.”

His keenness to drive forward during those early months and neglect his defensive duties also left Adams and co exposed on several occasions. Doubts were raised about Vieira’s ability to last the course in the English game and sceptics pointed out that at AC Milan, his career ground to a halt partly because the coaching staff believed him to be too much of a rough diamond to prosper in Serie A.

In the summer of 1997 Arsene Wenger did Vieira and Arsenal fans a favour by signing Emmanuel Petit from Monaco for £3.5m. The two French midfielders dovetailed perfectly, screening the defence and surging forward to magnificent effect throughout the 1997/98 double-winning season, which also saw the pair link up to conjure France’s third goal in their destruction of Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final.


Vieira and Petit

Vieira and Petit


By the conclusion of his first full Premiership season, Vieira was regarded as one of the world’s finest midfielders. After Christmas, as the Gunners stormed towards their second double he proved himself to be the equal of Manchester United’s Roy Keane in terms of his influence on his side.

It didn’t come much better during that historic season than Vieira’s two scorching strikes against Manchester United and Newcastle United at Highbury. His swirling strike past Peter Schmiechel put the Gunners two goals ahead in an eventual 3-2 win and his 30-yard drive, struck cleanly and beautifully, was the crowning glory of the Gunners’ 3-0 win over Newcastle as Arsenal closed in on the title.

By the season’s end, he was granted his own chant by the Highbury faithful - “He comes from Senegal, he played for Arsenal,” a ditty which stuck with him throughout his nine-year career in north London.

By the end of the 2001/02 season, with an injury-ravaged Tony Adams dropping heavy hints that he was about to retire, Vieira, whose seniority in the side increased and whose displays rarely wavered from being top drawer, seemed the natural choice to succeed Arsenal’s existing skipper.



As the team grew increasingly Francophile in nature, Henry, Pires and Vieira came to personify Wenger’s exhilarating team, which secured two FA Cups in 2003 and 2005, and most thrillingly of all, the league title once again in 2004 after going the entire season unbeaten. Vieira it was who scored the decisive goal in the final match that year against Leicester, after the Gunners fell behind early on.

His regular spats with Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy personified the intensity of Arsenal v United clashes in that era.

Frustratingly for Vieira and any Arsenal captain, the Champions League constantly eluded him, despite the high level of domestic success enjoyed by the Gunners. The team’s best shot at glory with Vieira as skipper appeared to come in 2004, before Chelsea triumphed at Highbury.

Perhaps therefore, it was not surprising that the Frenchman was lined with a move to Real Madrid throughout the middle part of the decade - twice he turned them down at the last minute during successive close seasons. In 2005, having secured the FA Cup with the decisive penalty against Manchester United - which proved to be his final kick for the club - he was quoted as saying he would “stay at Arsenal forever,” and even posed in the new redcurrant kit prior to the team’s final season at Highbury.



But then, in early July, a bid from Juventus proved too tempting for both the player, now nearing 30, and the club who had financial considerations in mind with the imminent ground move.

Arguably Wenger’s most influential signing was gone, and he would enjoy further domestic success in Italy with both Juve and Inter Milan before returning to England with Manchester City. There are those who suggest that, as with Liam Brady in the 1980s, Vieira’s towering presence has never effectively been replaced.

But then, players of the quality of Patrick Vieira in their prime don’t emerge very often.

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