London- Sometimes, end-of-era curtain calls happen without the necessary fanfare. So it was, at the 2005 FA Cup final, one of the great individual rivalries in English football took centre stage for its final scene. But nobody knew it at the time. Nobody foresaw that Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira would both soon be gone from the clubs they captained with colossal influence.
The game went to a penalty shootout. After four shots each Arsenal had the edge as Paul Scholes’s kick had been parried by Jens Lehmann. On to the fifth. Keane strode up and scored. Then Vieira’s turn. During the slow-burn walk between centre circle and penalty spot, Keane and Vieira crossed paths. These two symbolic warriors, these dominant opposing forces, exchanged not a glance as they brushed past one another along the simmering stride of the shootout. Part football, part spaghetti western, the moment should have been directed by Sergio Leone.
Keane and Vieira represent one of the Premier League’s most riveting eras. Starting in the mid-1990s and spanning almost a decade, this was the period which embodied the best of Sir Alex Ferguson versus the best of Arsène Wenger. Here were two managerial overlords who composed great teams built on heavyweight splendour. Just the right mix of fire and finesse. Either one or other won the league back then, often with the opponent finishing a notably piqued runner-up.
Keane, in his book The Second Half, used the term “electric” to define that prolonged tussle between Manchester United and Arsenal. “We’ve not seen the like since – that bitter rivalry. There isn’t as much physical contact in the game now. Clubs are buying a different kind of player – technically gifted, but not fighters … It wasn’t just myself and Patrick; there were so many rivalries all over the pitch. I see players in the tunnel today, hugging one another before a game. I don’t think any of the United lads would disagree with me; they hated Arsenal. And the Arsenal lads hated United.” That sense of direct conflict, which Keane and Vieira relished and argue contributed to making them better competitors, created an intensity that lasted several compelling years.
When Ferguson bought Keane, a player Brian Clough described at the time as “the hottest prospect in football”, from Nottingham Forest it commanded a British transfer record to conclude the deal. He ever so nearly went to Blackburn Rovers but an administrative oversight allowed United to nip in and strike a sudden deal. A sliding doors moment in the Premier League story. Ferguson would later explain: “He looked like a Manchester United player as soon as I saw him.”
A sum of £3.75m back in 1993 felt substantial. It would be comfortably repaid. Ferguson knew he would have to start the process of replacing Bryan Robson, such an imposing figure at Old Trafford but well into his mid-30s and increasingly injury prone. Keane fitted that bill and became a cornerstone of the United teams that would collect trophies with a brilliant relentlessness. If Fergie had his hairdryer, Keane could cut down a team-mate (or opponent) with a fearsome look, a cutting remark, a flicker of ball-winning indignation. “Every training session would be like a cup final,” said Ryan Giggs. “He would drive you on in every single game … with him in the team you always felt like you had a chance.”
Vieira arrived at Arsenal three years after Keane began life at United. A prodigious French talent who had joined Milan aged 19 and marked out as one for the future, he moved to London as a sort of advanced present from Wenger, who was in the process of leaving Japan to take over at Highbury. Vieira made an instant impression, and to fully understand that it’s useful to recall that Arsenal’s midfield in previous seasons was not the most inspiring section of the team. The job had been shared by David Platt, John Jensen, Stefan Schwarz and a group of homegrown grafters in David Hillier, Steve Morrow and Ian Selley.
Vieira’s style staggered his new team-mates. “I had never seen a midfield player like that – he was almost feline in his movements, so tall and elegant,” said Ian Wright. “When I first saw him the first thing I thought was that some of the midfielders in England are going to eat him up because he was quite slim and skinny. Then when we started training we couldn’t get near him. We knew we had someone world class on our hands.”
The way he managed to win the ball with a telescopic leg and spring up to pass it on with pace and accuracy all in the same move was remarkable. He was as tenacious as he was technical. Dennis Bergkamp called him “one of the first modern midfield players” and the way he played certainly felt different to what English football was accustomed to.
There are countless contenders, in a variety of categories, that merit inclusion in any list of special signings in the past 25 years of football in England. The maestros – Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola – who introduced an aestheticism and style, and a modern professionalism that rubbed off on so many around them. The supreme goalscorers – Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Sergio Agüero. The class acts in a less fashionable position when awards tend to be handed out – Peter Schmeichel, Ricardo Carvalho. The big presences on the pitch who helped to change perceptions at their club – Frank Lampard, Yaya Touré. The surprising packages who became cult heroes – Carlos Tevez, N’Golo Kanté …
If only there were a clear, indisputable, mathematical formula to establish a best signing in 25 years of transfers across multiple clubs. Who knows, maybe transfer fee multiplied by number of trophies plus points gained while on the pitch minus disciplinary problems times number of shirts sold would do the trick. But it’s not very realistic. It boils down to that inexplicable, visceral reaction – how a player makes you feel, if they make you shake with emotion and shout to the heavens because of what they can do on a football pitch.
The best? The most invaluable? It’s your subjective gut feeling against everyone else with an opinion and we all know how that pans out in the wonderful world of football debate.
In that first chapter post-Premier League rebrand, around the mid-1990s, the financial windfalls and greater freedom of movement encouraged the English game to excitedly broaden its horizons in terms of player recruitment. It inspired an influx of exotic talent. Anything suddenly felt possible and it was fresh and eye-opening and made us all a bit giddy. That Tony Yeboah screamer for Leeds blew our minds. Faustino Asprilla, a zany Colombian, turned up in Newcastle sporting a fur coat in the snow. Jürgen Klinsmann did a self-deprecating celebration dive and drove a Beetle while at Tottenham. A pair of Moroccans, Mustapha Hadji and Youssef Chippo, went to Coventry and fans began to come to matches in a fez. Paolo Di Canio had his favourite Italian restaurant in Sheffield. Juninho brought a Brazilian flavour to Middlesbrough. Manchester City had a maverick wizard from Eastern Europe in Georgi Kinkladze. Anywhere we cared to look there was a player to capture the imagination.
With all these Premier League memories swirling around, somehow Keane and Vieira, twinned together by their combative efforts, their leadership by example and their rivalry during some epic seasons, keep shining through. Their capacity to influence their team in a radical way, to help to transform the success rate of a club, to become somehow emblematic, packs a serious punch. It wasn’t just the way they played in themselves, it was the way they made others play, that had such impact.
As for splitting them it is not easy at all. (Would you be brave enough to tell the one you don’t pick?) Keane won more in English football – seven Premier Leagues to Vieira’s three (although the Frenchman added a handful of Serie A titles) and four FA Cups to Vieira’s three. Keane has the Champions League and Vieira a World Cup and European Championship.
Shoved off a very enticing fence, Vieira’s idiosyncratic style redefined what a great central midfielder could look like on the blossoming Premier League scene. He could scrap with anyone but he had what Marcel Desailly described as “sophisticated technique” as well. Vieira cost a fraction over £3m in 1996, when Wenger intercepted as the player was on his way to meet Ajax. Another sliding doors moment. It speaks volumes that people still pine to find the next Patrick Vieira, but that remains easier said than done.
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