The announcement that Patrick Vieira has retired from football evoked memories in me, for on two occasions I had the pleasure of interviewing a footballer whom I've long admired. The first encounter was via a conference call in London, the second involved a one-on-one meeting in Milan that preceded playing alongside the then-Internazionale midfielder during a five-a-side training session. Those spine-tingling minutes spent on foreign AstroTurf will take some beating. He had this presence, you see.
During the face-to-face interview, one topic of discussion was the issue of management, with Vieira's old foe Roy Keane in charge of Sunderland at the time. Vieira was adamant that he would never become a boss. I believed him, and still do. Three years later, on July 14, 2011, the Frenchman took up the role of football development executive at Manchester City, after his playing contract at the club expired at the end of the 2010-11 season. This is unlikely to be the first step on the road of becoming a manager, but it is an intriguing shift in career path, one that might be an opportunity missed by the club he first made his name with in England: Arsenal.
Vieira's achievements at Arsenal have been well documented. Cherry-picking his many, many highlights: signed from AC Milan in 1996, Vieira became the beating heart of a powerful Gunners team. His leggy, box-to-box runs became iconic; his venomous strike against Manchester United in 1997 an embodiment of his power. The Frenchman lifted three Premier League titles at Highbury, helping the 'Invincibles' go an entire campaign unbeaten in 2003-04. He also won the FA Cup four times, the success in 2005 - sealed by a Vieira penalty, his final kick in an Arsenal shirt - being Arsenal's last grip on silverware. After nine years in North London, he was moved to Juventus.
One can argue that Vieira's level waned following this move in 2005 - to his credit, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger usually gets it right when opting to let a player go. Regardless of his displays or struggles for fitness, Vieira claimed four Serie A titles whilst at Inter. A natural-born winner, you might say. And, having worked with Vieira at Inter, Roberto Mancini made the enforcer his first signing at Manchester City in 2010. Indeed, Mancini said at the time: "Patrick has a winner's mentality. He is one of the great players of his era with almost every honour in the game to his name."
In May 2011, Vieira made a cameo at Wembley, coming on in the 90th minute as City ended a 35-year trophy drought with a defeat of Stoke that sealed the FA Cup trophy. Fittingly, the outing was to be Vieira's last in professional football, his success coming six years after he got his hands on the same trophy with Arsenal. It seems no coincidence that the habit of winning appears to follow Vieira, a winner of the 1998 World Cup and European Championships two years after with France. It is this know-how that Arsenal have missed.
Sentimentality matters little to Wenger, a wise man dubbed stubborn, not afraid to scrub back the varnish and brush on a youthful shade of paint. It would be ignorant to suggest that the mere presence of Vieira would have reminded Arsenal Football Club of how to be tangibly successful. Yet one cannot help but wonder whether the Gunners have indeed missed a trick by not acquiring Vieira for themselves. Brian Marwood, City's chief operations officer, and an Arsenal alumni himself, is confident of the benefits of the appointment, stating: "He will be a huge asset to our club as old and young alike benefit from his knowledge." More telling are recent quotes from Vieira during an interview in January this year.
"I believe that in the last five years young players have become less patient then we used to be," Vieira said. "They are maybe more talented than we were and that's why they want things to happen quickly. I try to make them understand that what is important is to play at the top level for 15 or 20 years. I try to tell them that good things will come if you work hard. You will get a better contract. You play well and the club will give it you - that's normal." Sound at all familiar, Arsenal fans?
Of course, it remains unknown if Arsenal have the financial wiggle room to have even laid on such a package for Vieira, who will also help to deliver City's social responsibility programme and get involved on the commercial side. It will, though, be intriguing to discover during Wenger's next press conference whether he did speak with Vieira about joining Arsenal's staff. Reacting to Vieira hanging up his boots on Thursday, Wenger said: "At Arsenal we will be forever grateful for Patrick's contribution."
Vieira's legacy will now continue off the field, but at City and not Arsenal. He is clearly settled in the North West and has much respect for Mancini. "I am confident that I can make a significant contribution to the club's ongoing success," the 35-year-old said. A true winner never stops striving.
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