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I'm in Milan and I'm slaloming through cones the colours of traffic lights, predominately using my right foot. The ball is under my control, and, as I gaze forward,15 yards away stands Inter Milan and France midfielder Patrick Vieira. His body language invites my pass. I fizz the ball into his feet, and he returns first-time. I adjust my torso shape to strike at goal, with gritted teeth I wind up to shoot...
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me rewind roughly 10 hours. It's 4.40am and I am awoken from a largely disjointed slumber by the high shrill of an unfamiliar telephone. Out-of-sorts, I reach for the receiver as a monotonous voice reminds me of the wake-up call I requested on my arrival. An eye-lid wrinkles open, revealing the indigo of the early-morning sky. Velvety and rich, it is contradictory against the surroundings of my austere room. It is time to get up.
The combination of adrenaline and fatigue allows me to recall the following events in vivid, flashing images: Coach transfer. Rummage for passport. Check-in. Order Earl Grey tea and berry-based muffin. Yawn and stretch. Meet Will from Ford's feelfootball.com. Board plane. Buckle-up. Finish a chapter of 'Middlesex'. Take off. There is laughing from a couple in the seats behind. "Tea or Coffee, sir?" A fragmented nap ensues. Turbulence. Nervous laughter from behind. Ears popping. Touchdown.
Warm foreign air wraps around my face as we disembark. A taxi driver with thick caramel-coloured glasses takes us from Milan Malpensa airport to Sportland - the venue of the day's event. The site is vast and boasts indoor and outdoor pitches in impressive condition. We are based on the AstroTurf encompassed in a chalky-white shell similar to a golf ball. The texture of the playing surface resembles a green. We move through to the reception area where picture frames of stars hang from stippled walls.
The faces of Kaka and Gennaro Gattuso catch my eye. Standing inside the facilities, their stills represent their endorsement for its ethos. There are numerous stars looking down at me, including the unmistakable physique of Vieira. The 32-year-old is not due to arrive for a while, but already his presence is felt. He will endure a saturated day of press: face-to-face, telephone and television interviews in three different languages. I have the former scheduled at 3.20pm. It will be a one-on-one 10-minute slot with the Arsenal legend.
My arranged dialogue with PV would not, however, be the conclusion to my time in his company. The day centred around a training session, which would take place straight after. Competition winners would participate with Vieira, and so would I. It promised to be a potpourri of emotions. The proposed sequence of events would be alien: to adopt my journalistic carriage and conduct an interview, before briskly switching off my Dictaphone (tucking it away ever so safely) and beginning a warm-up, waiting for Patrick to intervene.
But before the specifics of the aforementioned occasions, an interlude, if you will. Let me refresh your memory of Vieira's achievements and events leading to his prominence. Senegalese-born, the towering enforcer started out at AS Cannes before heading to his current side's fiercest rivals, AC Milan. In 1996, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger brought him to North London. It would be in the red and white that Vieira would earn a reputation as one of the best midfielders in the world.
He lifted three Premier League titles and four FA Cup trophies under Wenger, during which time international glory was also manifested. Vieira played a role in France's not-so-distant dominance when in 1998 they claimed the World Cup and two years later the European Championship. In 2005, he brought an end to his career with the Gunners and headed back to Italy. A season with Juventus was followed by a transfer to Inter Milan - where he has already won two Serie A titles. He is now under the management of Jose Mourinho.
Interlude over, and I am handed a royal blue training strip by the people from Ford's feelfootball.com. I quickly change from my smarter attire as Patrick emerges. There is a simmering of excitement from the arriving participants: they have spotted their hero. From a distance, he moves with elongated strides, accompanied by his agent. Meanwhile, I thumb through my pre-prepared questions and double check the battery life on my Dictaphone. An Italian reporter is up first, whilst I wait in the wings. Before long, I am introduced to the star of this piece. He shakes my hand before, as part of his duties for the event, completing some signatures. "Ready?" I ask. "Yes," he replies.
We discuss several topics, including Wenger's war of words with Uefa president Michel Platini, France's recent troubles under Raymond Domenech, how Wenger's management style compares with Mourinho's, his thoughts on the Champions League, whether he will pursue a career in management, and Arsenal's shock loss to Hull City. Of his former club's defeat, he said: "When they lost at home to Hull it is really difficult. I don't believe that Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool will lose points against Hull. I really believe that one or two more experienced players at Arsenal would be great. I think that is what they miss. But they do have the quality. In one game they can beat anyone, however one game and the whole season is something different."
(Skysports.com will continue to drip-feed you the stories over the coming weeks, so keep a beady eye out). Interview over and I thank him for his time before pacing over to the players dressed the same as me. It immediately dawns on this Englishman that his Italian is more than limited. I am embarrassed at my lack of refinement as the group I am placed with coherently asks me questions in my native tongue. Your scribe slurs mainly Spanish words with a green-white-and-red accent. It is cringe-worthy, but I am enjoying myself.
A warm-up commences, with the coaches politely doing their utmost to ensure I understand. It is not long before Vieira drifts over. He meets with the players, who excitedly pat his back and grasp his extended hand. We begin a drill and Patrick looks on. His observation adds weighty pressure to our touches as we dribble through the placed cones. The standard is decent, and all of a sudden I feel an added anxiety. My subconscious has somehow convinced my conscious that I am representing England. I am the benchmark of the country's talent, exposed for all to see.
With that unwanted self-indulgence on my shoulders, the session continues. Next is a shooting drill, which brings us back to the first paragraph of the article. My teeth are gritted, and I am focused on firing across goal. My mind visualises my moment of glory. *Thud* as I strike through the ball. The sprawled shot-stopper is beat, but the silvery globe cannons off the woodwork, and out. This would be the closest I would come to scoring throughout that specific drill, for the goalkeeper turns out to be a Dino Zoff in the making.
Vieira gets involved in a crossing exercise and a match. His face illuminates with a grin from ear to ear when the younger, more gifted, footballers demonstrate a flash of skill. It winds down and everyone is overjoyed but bushed. Vieira concludes the event with a speech to the players. I head off to change back into my regular clothes, stashing the now-cherished kit into my bag. A flight back to London awaits me. It has been a splendid day.
Ford's Feel Football programme engages fans debate with Champions like Jose Mourinho, Anders Frisk, Patrick Vieira, Stefan Effenberg and Ruud Gullit online at www.FeelFootball.com and at live events around Europe.
What can i say that hasn't already been said? I think the fact that we have Man Utd and Chelski fans bigging him up as one of the greatest EVER Premiership players says it all. He truly is a LEGEND and in my opinion, the best player Arsenal have had in the last couple of decades. And yes, that is taking into account your Wrighty's, Bergkamp's, Thierry's etc. I love them all, but no single player has ever had such an impact on a team. Likewise, we have never missed a player as much as Paddy. PLEASE COME BACK, WE NEED YOU!!!!!!
Posted 14:37 10th October 2008
Viera epitomises the complete midfielder. He is an Arsenal legend, that will never change! I remembered when Roberto Pires uncharacteristically tackled him and won the ball, which led to us trouncing Inter Milan that day. Many thought he was finished, but look at him again under Jose, I am quite sure Jose would be grateful for having both Viera & Flamini in his team because Flamini was beginning to turn into the new Viera. I would like see Viera become a manager, just like Roy Keane. If he can inject his leadership and ability into his team, they would be hard to beat!
Posted 21:19 5th October 2008
Patrick Vieira is the most complete player l have ever physically seen play for Arsenal. When he came on as a sub back in 1996 for his debut v Sheff Wed l thought crikey what have we got here. By the end of the season you could see he was going to be something very special to The Arsenal. Big Paddy gave us 9 wonderful years & its always a delight when a player of his stature leaves that you truly wish them every success at their new club & thank them for making your life that little bit happier. How fitting his last game should be to score the winning penalty against Man Utd in the F.A. Cup Final...we've won nowt since he left, coincidental..possibly...Patrick THE GREAT Vieira thank you!!
Posted 17:19 5th October 2008
He is still playing great football. yesterday saw him play his 7th game in a row, something which has not been done for two years due to injuries but if fit I think Inter could be a real handful for anyone in the Champions league.
Posted 11:25 5th October 2008
Man United fan here. Well written article that caught my attention after a late night shift! Vieira is one of the best players to grace the premier league since its creation an one of the best valued signings Arsenal have made. Whilst as a United fan Keane is always the holding man I'd think of along with Milans Gattuso and Pirlo, Vieira was always one of those players, like an earlier comment suggested, would have liked to see play alongside Keane just once. Not more, because well, Scholes is best midfielder an unsung hero till recent years but has been doin for club an formerly country. Anyways again great article an shame that other United fans haven't appreciated the talents of what was an still is a quality player an a former world cup winner. No champions league medal tho... ;)
Posted 06:13 5th October 2008
I have to say I wouldn't be surprised one bit if Sunderland made a brave bid for Patrick Viera come Xmas. I think Keane privately would scretley be delighted to sign his former rival. Keane misses players like Viere who are hardly going to complain about the shopping centres in Sunderland! I think Keane knows Viera would make the choice independently of hir mrs unlike some players!!!
Posted 21:37 4th October 2008
True LEGEND. Looks and sounds a 'nice guy' even though have not spoken to him. ASK ROY KEANE.
Posted 14:39 4th October 2008
He was the heartbeat of the side and has never been replaced. I really hoped we'd have brought him back to be the experienced player we need. Hope one day he is on the touchline as our manager. Been a fan of The Arsenal or 35 years and Vieira is, in my opinion, our best ever player.
Posted 12:36 4th October 2008
Patrick Viera ...what a player...... During the later stages of the 90's and starting of this decade, i don't think there were better midfielders than Viera and Roy keane... they are kind of guys legends are made off....... Viera's poise and elegance to the gritty, in your face Keane... what battles.. I would pay money even today to watch the two of them battle it out even for 5 minutes.... Patrick Viera.... u deserve respect even from a chelsea fan
Posted 10:01 4th October 2008
Absolutely spot on article mate. Vieira was and still is the most complete holding midfield the premiership has ever graced. He was as many commentators would agree with me, simply majestic!
Posted 23:44 3rd October 2008
good luck paddy u are one of my favorite players of all time u had everthing except speed but u didnt need it u wer that good u truly are one of arsenals greatist players
Posted 22:55 3rd October 2008
As great as Thierry Henry was, and as entertaining, and skillful as he was - we could win games without him. It was when Vieira was out the side you really noticed the difference. Regardless of his age or how good he is now, i'd chew an arm off to have him back starting tomorrow.
Posted 20:59 3rd October 2008
Even as a Liverpool fan, I have immense respect for Vieira. His power, poise, form, fitness, strength, aggression and abilities were/are amazing. He was one of 2 defining defensive middies in the EPL during the 90s. The other was his foil, Roy Keane. Their battles against each other are still the stuff of legends. His work at the Gunners really (in my opinion) helped put elevate them to the levels they achieved. Yes, they had other amazing players (name a position, they had 2 in that spot easily), but without his play in the engine room (passing, leading, tackling, scoring) the Gunners wouldnt have been as huge. Though Wenger runs the shop, Vieira's example is what set the tone for the players he would bring in (which really shows you how good Fabragas is). He is an amazing figure in the sport. The article was well written and hopefully we'll have something similar about Stevie G. written like that too! Good luck with everything Mr. Vieira, you truely are (again, in my opinion as a Reds fan) the definitive Gunner!
Posted 15:28 3rd October 2008
This article is beautifully written! I take my hat off to Mr James Dall.
Posted 15:28 3rd October 2008
How true...Patrick, please voice to Arsene Wenger that two more experienced players in the team will remove the heart-ache of Hull.
Posted 14:52 3rd October 2008
It's great to have all four English teams through to the Champions League knockout phase and on the last five occasions that's happened at least one has got to the final, so hopefully that's a good omen...
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