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After being signed from Cannes, where he debuted for the club at 17 and was captain two years later, Patrick Vieira’s career seemed to be heading into the buffers at AC Milan. He joined the club in the close season of 1995, and twelve months later, he had made just two first team appearances with most of his time being spent with the reserves.
He was a young player lost in a big system and seemed to be on the way out of the club. There were links with Ajax, but no deal was agreed. Then, in mid-August, it was announced that Vieira would be joining Arsenal. Initially, the timing of the announcement seemed somewhat strange, as Gunners’ manager Bruce Rioch was heading for the exit door at the same time. When the new man arrived to fill the hot seat, everything became clear. Moving into Highbury was the player’s France compatriot, Arsène Wenger, who was clearly beyond the move to sign Vieira, even though not officially at the club when the deal was struck.
In one of the most astounding moves in modern transfer history, Wenger lifted an unknown midfielder from the obscurity of the San Siro backwaters and transformed him into the iconic leader of the team that, eight years later, would become known as ‘The Invincibles’ as Arsenal completed the 2003-04 league season undefeated. Patrick Vieira would go on to become the toast of all Gooners. The manager would later describe him as, “the umbilical cord between the team and the fans.”
Vieira debuted for the club in November, an unheralded talent with plenty to prove, but as Wenger reshaped the squad and, in fact, the whole club, Vieira prospered. By the end of his first season, he had made 38 appearances across all competitions, and the new look Gunners were firing on all cylinders, finishing in third place in the league, only missing out on Champions League qualification on goal difference. It was merely the French hors d’oeuvre though, to be followed by the main course the following season when Vieira was joined in midfield by Emmanuel Petit.
After regaining their supremacy in the league following Blackburn Rovers’ brief day in the sun, Manchester United had won the last two league titles and were everyone’s favourites to secure the hat-trick, as Ferguson’s team’s dominance seemed invulnerable. Not for the last time, however, Arsène Wenger and his new team would prove to be a troublesome thorn in the sides of the Red Devils, and were out to prove their credentials when United visited Highbury in November 1997. In a game of tactics and tenacity, skill and physicality, Wenger’s team prevailed with Vieira notching one of the goals in a 3-2 victory. As statements of intent go, this was both vociferous and strident. Arsenal were after United’s title, and Patrick Vieira was the man disputing the now traditional midfield hegemony of Roy Keane and his fellow Reds.
Unfortunately for both player and club, a knee injury in the same game meant a month out of action, and shortly after his return, bursting with vigour and an overwhelming desire to make up for lost time, red cards suddenly became a familiar sight for the combative Frenchman. Dismissals in January against Coventry City and then a month later against Chelsea, meant more time out of action, although the latter was one of the few occasions that his manager saw the incident and called the decision as “absolutely ridiculous.”
For all that, Vieira quickly got things back on track and with his driving power in the middle of the field, Arsenal wrested the league title from the grasp of Alex Ferguson, by a single point, being crowned top English club for the first time since 1991. They also added the FA Cup for good measure, beating Newcastle United 2-0 in the final, to achieve the domestic double. The silverware proved the key to unlock the door to a period of success for the North Lindon club never previously attained over such a prolonged period and, when Tony Adams retired in 2003, there was only one candidate to take up the armband. The player who had been such a leader on the pitch was now officially recognised as Arsenal’s main man.
Across a nine-year spell, Vieira would play over 400 games for the club and win three Premier League crowns and four FA Cups, including another ‘double’ in 2002. It is, however, the 2003-04 season, with Vieira now sporting the captain’s armband that neatly bookends the transformation from sadly neglected talent in Italy to a colossus of the Premier League.
For fans of North London clubs of a red persuasion, the simple statistics of played 38, won 26, drawn 12, and lost zero, will forever be remembered as the ‘Season of the Invincibles.’ At the time, especially given the competitiveness of the Premier League and Manchester United’s rapacious hunger for titles, it seemed mere fanciful hubris that any club could go through a domestic season without being beaten, but that’s what Arsenal did with Patrick Vieira dominant in the middle of the field. During the campaign that season, he would only score twice, but the second of those was such a tasty dish for the Gooners. He netted the first goal in the 2-2 draw that saw Arsenal lift the title on the home pitch of North London rivals Tottenham Hotspurs.
It, of course, goes without saying that with the White Hart Lane crowd baying for their team to deny the visitors an unbeaten season, the pressure on Vieira and his team-mates was immense, but notching the opening goal, and then leading his team with the outright determination not to bend the knee, the Gunners got over the line and Patrick Vieira lifted the Premier League trophy, thus earning the club the now fabled sobriquet, and himself a place amongst the Pantheon of Gunners’ greats.
Always one for the perfect finale, Vieira’s last game for Arsenal also had a poetic denouement. In the 2005 FA Cup Final, against Manchester United, it was Patrick Vieira that scored the decisive penalty securing shootout victory to the trophy to North London. The following season, he moved to Juventus.
Back once more with a Serie A club, Patrick Vieira was no longer the unseen, unnoticed young player hoping for a break to get into the team. Now he was a world star, multi-trophy winner, and the man that travelled from AC Milan’s reserves to be a Premier League Invincible.