My best friend Doug phoned from Antibes.
He said : “Balotelli is staying!”
Then, two Saturday mornings ago, he called with the result of Friday night’s big game: Lyon O Nice 1.
I saw 10 minutes of highlights on YouTube and it looked as if Nice had been battered for most of the match..
Before that coach Patrick Vieira had lost his first 2 games.
He needed a result. One goal was enough to do it and it’s always fun to beat a bigger club in their own back yard.
Thinking about Pat reminded me of Arsenal’s greatest days at Highbury, which I described in a 15-chapter book that has thrilling Vieira moments in Chapter 8 :
2000/01: The season of rotation
…..,.That Saturday, against Charlton, the sympathetic Arsenal fans sang Vieira’s name even before kick-off, and they continued to sing his name after the game started. After nineteen minutes, Vieira glided forward on to Kanu’s sublime pass and scored by baffling keeper Dean Kiely with a right-foot stepover and a left-foot flick over his body. Then Charlton’s Andy Hunt scored twice and the visitors led 2-1 at half-time, which dampened down the atmosphere considerably until Thierry Henry equalised within forty seconds of the restart. It seemed that Arsenal would surely win now, but a Graeme Stuart near-post volley made it 3-2 to Charlton. Two minutes later Vieira was set up by Kanu again and he fired a 25-yard shot into the bottom corner. Henry scored Arsenal’s fourth, then Vieira fed Silvinho, who made it 5-3.
After two traumas in four days, which had left him in the depths of despair, Patrick Vieira had come out and played like a super-gladiator. This comeback performance was majestic, a statement of intent, an expression of loyalty, an exhibition of skill and spirit that spoke louder than any words could have done. Wenger’s teams for the last five years have always been a blend of warriors and technicians, but that day Vieira was a warrior-technician who played with passionate virtuosity. In football, as in jazz, you admire technique and you admire passion, but it is the combination of the two that is exciting – when they play brilliantly from the heart. There is nothing more thrilling than passionate virtuosity, and that was exactly what we saw that day. In that super-motivated mood, Patrick Vieira was colossal, phenomenal, fictional, a supremely strong anchorman who played deep in his own half but cruised forward like a twenty-first-century Beckenbauer to win the game. No other player in England, no other player in the world, could have started the week with two red cards and ended it with two goals of such quality.
Naturally, Arsene Wenger was delighted. `I’m pleased that we could win this game after such a controversial week, and as well by the performance of Patrick Vieira today. Because he was outstanding and exceptional. Not only because he’s a great player, but mentally his response was great. I think he had a little bit less aggression. One of the positive effects of this whole controversial situation was that today there were less fouls on him. Charlton tried to play football against him. Some people asked me if I thought of leaving him out. And I said, “Never for a minute did I think of not playing him.” Because I know how strong this guy is mentally. And he has shown that today. I never thought he would walk out on Arsenal. He’s committed to the club. He’s committed to the fans. He knows how much people love him here. And how much he has improved since he has arrived here.’
Vieira said later, `The day after the Liverpool game I spoke to the manager and to Mr Dein. What we talked about was enough for me to keep going and to want to stay at Arsenal. The sending-off was frustrating. I said things straight after the game and that is the time when you are emotional. You can’t make an important decision when you are feeling like that. But I want to make one thing clear: I will never leave Arsenal.’
THE 2000 AGM
Concerning my future, I’m very happy at Arsenal at the moment. And I’m pleased as well that the directors want me to stay.
- Arsene Wenger
The AGM on 7 September was notable for Peter Hill-Wood’s comment that the new stadium would cost £200 million. A few shareholders moaned and groaned, perhaps believing that there was, somewhere, a perfect football club with perfect directors, perfect players and a perfect manager. So when you give them a very good team, a superb manager and ambitious plans for a new stadium, and you hand them a press release detailing a £47 million share deal with Granada Media, they will still complain.
So it was fitting when shareholder Martin Wengrow stood up and made some comments which caught the mood of the silent majority. `With all due respect to the earlier speakers, I would just like to say a very big thank you to Mr Wenger for the fantastic quality of footballers he’s brought to this club.’ Loud applause. `Also for the fantastic quality of the football that’s played. I’ve never looked forward more to coming to Highbury every week in fifty years than I do at the moment. I’d just like to say that whatever the outcome of the negotiations, thank you very much indeed for being here. I think we all hope that you do extend your contract. I think everybody here, every Arsenal fan, perceives you to be very much an Arsenal person. We sense that the club has got into you as it has us. We’d be immensely proud and absolutely delighted if the directors make every effort to keep you here. I think you can lead us right into this century with loads of success, and I hope it’s your last job in football. We love you!’
The applause which followed lasted eighteen seconds. It was the applause of 800 people thanking someone for saying what the earlier speakers should have said.
Wenger then stood up and spoke in his lucid, modest way. `What can I say after that?’ he said. There was laughter. `Good afternoon, everybody. It’s quite impressive to face you. Because usually I can never see you during the whole season. You’re behind me, or on the other side in the stand. Judging by your questions you’re quite an offensive team.’ Laughter. `I like that! I’d like to thank the gentleman who was so nice to me, but I feel that we can do better. We have to do better and we want to do better. Concerning my future, I’m very happy at Arsenal at the moment. And I’m pleased as well that the directors want me to stay. And I don’t see why we can’t find an agreement!’
The shareholders were ecstatic. Everyone was dreading going into a new stadium without the guiding hand of Wenger because, at this moment in time, he seemed to be the only man on the planet who could ensure that Arsenal would have a team as good as their new stadium. Clearly, the club would pay whatever it took to keep him, matching whatever he was offered by Milan, Real Madrid or Barcelona. If it took £2 million a season to keep him, or £4 million, so be it.
As the autumn progressed, Wenger was pleased to see his Brazilian left-back begin to score vital goals. Silvinho, a steal at £4 million a year ago, had replaced Nigel Winterburn and was proving to be a special player who could do special things, even if he would never be able to defend as heroically as Winterburn had done for thirteen years. Silvinho’s excellent distribution put him on a par with Roberto Carlos of Real Madrid.
However, Carlos is a power player, an elemental force, a rumble of thunder, while Silvinho is a zigzag streak of lightning who can deliver a better final ball.
Against Charlton on 26 August he had scored the fifth goal in the 89th minute, racing on to Vieira’s pass, swerving into the box and firing across Kiely in fine style. Against Chelsea on 6 September he had enjoyed an eventful night. He got a yellow card for a foul on Panucci, collided with Luzhny to allow Hasselbaink to score a sensational twenty-yarder, lost Zola for the second Chelsea goal, played Henry in to make it 2-1 and then saved the game when a ball went loose on the edge of the Chelsea box. He pounced on it and smashed a banana shot just inside the post to earn a 2-2 draw. That 86th-minute equaliser meant that Arsenal were now unbeaten by Chelsea in five years.
In Arsenal’s first Champions League game of the season, against Sparta in Prague a week after that Chelsea game, he scored in the 33rd minute. Kanu hit a long diagonal pass that Pires chased to the corner flag. Pires then found the Brazilian on the corner of the penalty area, where he was unsupported with nothing on, and Silvinho just skipped inside Mynar, quick as a hummingbird’s wing, darted towards the goal, swerved left again and clipped the ball across the advancing keeper Postulka for the only goal of the game.
After that Silvinho did not score in the next fifteen games, but his next goal, when it came during the match in Moscow with Spartak, was one of the finest ever seen in that competition, a classic demonstration of how to destroy a sweeper defence with a breathtakingly quick counter-attack. And it happened just 77 seconds into the game. Silvinho won the ball deep inside his own half, played it infield to Pires and then zoomed off on an 83-metre sprint across the snowy grass and icy mud. Pires passed to Henry, who accelerated towards the Russian sweeper and right-back.
Henry, four yards outside the penalty area, facing Ananko and Tchuisse, nutmegged them, taking out both defenders with a sublime pass through Ananko’s legs which played in Silvinho, who glided round the Spartak keeper, Filiminov, and gently rolled his shot into the net. The best thing about the goal was that the defenders did nothing wrong.