By Les Crang
From the moment he gave Diego Simeone a forearm smash (fourth min) during a Champions League game with Lazio in 2000, Grimandi became one of my favourite player - and I was not alone. Fred Atkins: Arsenal – The French Connection: How the Arsenal Became L’Arsenal
Was Gilles Grimandi the 1990’s equivalent of Perry Groves? Loved by some, hated by others? A bit part player with no defined role? In many ways Grimandi could be all these things and so much more.
Looking back at Grimandi’s time I was always surprised he never even appeared in a French Under-19, Under-20, Under-21 or full team. Not that he was any Michel Platini or Zinedine Zidane, but was he really much worst than Bruno Cheyrou who made three appearances for France? Gilles Grimandi was never going to set the world alight with his skill or speed (what skill or speed?), but like Edu (who in many ways succeed him), he was a great squad player and always seemed to give his all either legitimately or with a late challenge.
Gilles Grimandi was a full-back, centre half and midfield general. Not that he mastered them all too well on occasions. But when Wenger signed him in the summer of 1997, Arsene seemed to want a utility player to cover for his aging and suspension-prone defence and just as suspension-prone midfield of Vieira and Petit. Gilles Grimandi had come from Monaco after winning a league and cup double in 1997. Grimandi said he left Monaco because ‘the atmosphere at the heart of the group [the Monaco squad] wasn’t very good’. When approached by Arsenal in 1997 he had gone to ask a certain resident of his hometown, Eric Cantona, whether he should go. On account of Cantona not being home, Gilles decided to joining a ‘growing French enclave at Highbury and his compatriots called him “bouclette” [curly].’
For those that remember, Wenger had a busy pre-season buying the French triumvirate of Grimandi, Petit and Anelka as well as Boa Morte among others. Season 1997/98 would be an interesting introduction to England for Gilles. A season in which Dennis Bergkamp was at the height of his powers. This could no more be underlined in the famous hat-trick that Dennis got in a 3-3 draw with Leicester. Unfortunately, Grimandi’s game was memorable for other reasons. Spurling wrote of him :-
Gilles Grimandi (‘just a French Gus Caesar’, according to one Gooner Contributor), was in his early season mode, which meant Bould was exposed to Heskey’s raw power time and again.
It was Grimandi who gave away the last seventh minute of injury time goal for Leicester’s equaliser to the snarling Steve Walsh, when heading the ball out for a corner when no one was near him.
He was poor at the start, but with Adams injured for parts of the season, he did slowly settle in, even though to much ridicule at times. This changed when Gilles got his first goal against Palace in a 1-0 win at Highbury. Even more significant was he had a groin strain whilst playing, but injuries meant he played through the pain barrier.
Atkins said of the goal and effect:
The atmosphere became more forgiving and Grimandi, who’d be playing at every position across the back four, started to turn the tide when he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, when injuries forced Wenger to pick what was effectively a reserve side. Hovering to the left of the goal just outside the six-yard box, Grimandi, covering for Nigel Winterburn at left back, volleyed in a partially cleared corner from a difficult angle and looked as surprised as anyone to see it fly in. His delight was obvious, as was that of his team-mates, and although it was his only goal of the season it clearly lifted both his self-esteem and the esteem of the crowd.
In Gunning for the Double, Wenger was quoted saying:
The crowd has got on Grimandi’s back earlier this season. I told him he had to show what he could do. In Monaco you can talk to the fans and win them over - there are so few of them!
"The following season of 1999/2000 ended with me learning to respect Grimandi’s ‘determination’"
Grimandi played 33 league and cup games in Arsenal’s double team in 1997/8. He got one goal and six bookings. Ill discipline was often a sign of Gilles. Even in his final game of the double season Grimandi could still annoy Arsenal fans. In the FA Cup final against Newcastle in a 2-0 win Christopher Wreh started up front instead of Ian Wright. As it was Wright’s last game, many waited for him to come on in the final minutes. When the sub sign went up it was for Grimandi and not Wright which some felt was ‘a final dagger in the heart of a player who professed to bleed Arsenal’.
A double winner in two seasons, in two different countries, and two different teams. All that after one fanzine wrote, ‘We will never win the league with players like Grimandi in the side and that is an undeniable fact’. Not bad going.
The following season was injury ravaged. He played a mere 12 league and cup games and got a sending off against Leeds. A season in which we were going for the double ended with us winning nothing. Less said the better.
The following season of 1999/2000 ended with me learning to respect Grimandi’s ‘determination’. The game that put me over the edge was the 1-1 draw against Barcelona in Spain in a 1-1 draw. After going 1-0 to Barca, Grimster put in a late tackle on Pep Guardiola which got him sent off. I thought when he hit Pep, it was because he was just checking if his blood had Barca DNA. Gilles also got four goals (two in the league, one in the FA cup and one in the Uefa cup) that season. Again, he played over 40 league and cup games. He also got sent off against Spurs, which obviously helps any cult following at Arsenal.
In season 2000/2001 Grimandi certainly deserved a French cap. Arsenal, having lost our midfield lynchpin in Emmanuel Petit to Barcelona (whose manager didn’t even know what position he played in), Grimandi came to play alongside Vieira. A recurring theme that season was his use of aggression, though, obviously I won’t be one to complain about Grimandi’s use of the dark arts.
"When the French players came to Arsenal, many British commentators felt they would not be able to cope with the speed and power of the game. Petit, Vieira and Grimandi certainly knew what speed and power was, and they knew enough about aggression"
Grimster’s aggro came to the fore in an infamous clash between Lazio and Arsenal, on October 17, 2000. In an atmosphere where Luis Suarez would feel very much home, Atkins said of the opening incident of Grimandi’s forearm smash to Simeone as:
While Lazio tried to defend a 1-0 lead following an early own goal by Sylvinho, Mihajlovic was busy trying to get Vieira sent off. And in a turbulent closing period to the game, during which Robert Pires grabbed a superb equaliser on the break, Grimandi managed to hit Simeone just above the eye, so hard that he allegedly needed six stitches. Pictures of the incident show Simeone, perhaps choking on the taste of his own medicine, showing the cut to the referee, while Grimandi gives the most brilliant of Gallic shrugs. If this had been an unprovoked incident on a street corner it would have been worthy of a jail term, but it was difficult to suppress a vicarious thrill at seeing this act of payback.
In a Guardian article afterwards, he said of the incident (for which he received a three-match ban):
When I [hit Simeone], two or three seconds later I thought, ‘Why did you react like that?’ I react too quickly. Off the pitch I don’t like fights; I’m not aggressive. But it’s my personality in football. I got two or three red cards at Monaco as well. Sometimes opposing players are not very fair but I have to learn not to react. I’m 29 and I think I’m going to stay calm now.
It is sometimes forgotten, that when the French players came to Arsenal, many British commentators felt they would not be able to cope with the speed and power of the game. Petit, Vieira and Grimandi certainly knew what speed and power was, and they knew enough about aggression.
During the pre-season of 2001, the doyen of many Arsenal fans, Patrick Vieira, complained vociferously in the press about Arsenal not having enough ambition, making eyes at Manchester United and Real Madrid to come and get him. Instead, after three seasons without a trophy (and being robbed by the referee of an FA Cup in 2001), Wenger went out and bought Sol Campbell, Wright and Jeffers, among others. Arsenal had also bought Edu. The season of 2001/2002 would be Grimandi’s final season at Arsenal and Vieira stayed.
Grimandi would play 26 league games, but was slowly being moved down the pecking order at Highbury by Edu. Grimandi’s place on the bench for the 2002 FA Cup final place even went to Edu. The story could end there with Grimandi, but for me, I like the story that when Pires came to Highbury, it was Grimandi who helped him adapt with the change in London. That shows the kind of guy he is.
"I like the story that when Pires came to Highbury, it was Grimandi who helped him adapt with the change in London. That shows the kind of guy he is"
Also, more importantly when Arsenal left Highbury and moved to the Emirates, the first game (Dennis Bergkamp testimonial) is remembered not for the skill on the pitch, the last game of Dennis career or the legends on parade. It’s remembered by many for Grimandi taking out former Spurs player Edgar Davids just as he’s about to score.
I miss a player like Grimandi. Not for his aggression (because he wasn’t always about aggression, as he could play the defensive midfielder pretty well). But the smile as he’d put in a shift in on the pitch, that’s my abiding memory. He was never the complete player like Pires or the clown like Eboue, a man whose talents we sometimes laughed at and who laughed with us. Grimandi was a consummate professional. As someone said before:-
Grimandi didn’t have the talent of Nasri or Fabregas, but ended up winning more medals than either and more importantly, if you’re an Arsenal fan, it’s almost impossible to think of him without smiling.
Amen to that.
*Fred Atkins book Arsenal – The French Connection: How the Arsenal Became L’Arsenal has an excellent chapter on Gilles for those interested.