by William Abbs
In episode 1F18 of The Simpsons, “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song,” Bart’s dog escapes at school during show-and-tell and Principal Skinner is sacked because of the ensuing chaos. Having terrorised his headmaster for such a long time, Bart expects to feel happy at this turn of events. Instead, racked with guilt at the consequences of his actions and missing the competition that his rival offered, Bart tries to get Skinner his job back. With her brother confused by his emotions, Lisa offers him an explanation:
I think you need Skinner, Bart. Everybody needs a nemesis. Sherlock Holmes had his Professor Moriarty, Mountain Dew has its Mellow Yellow, even Maggie has that baby with the one eyebrow.
For several seasons, the Premier League’s Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty were Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira. My club allegiance leaves me inclined to cast Keane as Holmes — on the side of good — but that’s a personal preference. Keane shares the loner tendencies of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation and Holmes’ description of Moriarty as “the Napoleon of Crime” draws a crude geographical link with Vieira’s France but, truthfully, it doesn’t matter which player might better resemble which character. Neither wrote a treatise on binomial theorem at the age of twenty-one, as Holmes notes of Moriarty, and neither has ever been seen in a deerstalker hat. What matters is that my high regard for Keane owes itself to the performances he consistently put in because of a fierce sense of competition with his peers, foremost amongst them Vieira.
The two players embodied the antipathy that existed between their clubs at the time. Fixtures involving Arsenal and Manchester United are a great deal less intense now, with the Gunners failing to adapt as well as United have to the challenge posed by Russian and Arab billions at the top of the table, but a large part of the rivalry vanished with the departure of the two captains. Holmes and Moriarty tumbled to their deaths over the edge of the Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem” as Conan Doyle killed off both characters at once; less dramatically, the Premier League lost Keane and Vieira in quick succession in 2005, with fewer than six months separating Vieira’s transfer to Juventus and Keane’s Old Trafford exit. It was as if they defined so much about each other that, once one left the scene, the other had to depart too.
Vieira was Arsène Wenger’s first signing on becoming Arsenal manager in 1996. Indeed, the £3.5m deal with Milan went through before Wenger officially took over at Highbury. Over the next nine years, Vieira won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups in north London. Uncapped by France when he joined Arsenal as a 20-year-old, within four years Vieira had won the World Cup and the European Championship. He then assumed the club’s captaincy in 2002 upon Tony Adams’ retirement. Vieira’s final game for Arsenal was the 2005 FA Cup final against, appropriately enough, Manchester United. He scored the decisive penalty kick in the shootout and Arsenal, of course, haven’t won a thing since.
The triumphs that Vieira and Arsenal enjoyed, though, were punctuated by continued success at Old Trafford. Wenger’s side celebrated the Double in 1998; Ferguson’s won the Treble a year later. As ripostes go, it was a pretty bloody marvellous one. While Arsenal and United traded silverware on the pitch, Keane and Vieira were locked in an individual battle to be regarded as the country’s most important midfielder. The running feud between the pair during a match at Highbury in August 1999 — which United won 2-1 thanks to two goals from Keane — was perhaps the first sign that this was no longer just a sporting contest, but a personal dual. Five-and-a-half years later, it became apparent that the two men could hardly share a tunnel let alone a football stadium.
That incident, which followed the ‘battle of the buffet’ at Old Trafford six months earlier, after United prevented Arsenal from going 50 league games unbeaten, proved to be the beginning of the end for both Keane and Vieira. With slapstick and slanging matches starting to overshadow the football, they now resembled less the well-drawn literary figures of Holmes and Moriarty and more the aging, petty neighbours played by Sid James and Terry Scott in the film spin-off of Bless This House. A once totemic rivalry was descending into a petty disagreement between men morphing into caricatures. With Chelsea on course to win the league a few months later, Keane and Vieira were no longer arguing over the destination of the title – just the size of their egos.
Both Wenger and Ferguson started to plan for life without their captains. Juventus offered £13.75m for Vieira in July 2005 and his manager accepted. In November, Keane talked his way out of Old Trafford following a series of loose-lipped performances on MUTV that infuriated Sir Alex. I can’t have been the only United fan to have wondered, though, what it would have been like to have had both in the same side. After all, Vieira’s assets as a player were so obvious that, were you to give a child a pen and tell them to draw a box-to-box midfielder, they would — after tears and a few strict words as a result of the recalcitrant youngster’s likely insistence on drawing a cat instead — eventually sketch a tall figure with an improbably small head and a number four on his back. Vieira and Keane would have complemented each other perfectly as midfield partners but, as it was, I suspect they benefited one another just as much from afar.
William — who will be Dr. Abbs one he completes his PhD on football writing — writes over at Saha From The Madding Crowd, as well as for The Two Unfortunates, Two Hundred Percent, and a few other places as and when the mood takes him. Follow him on Twitter: @WilliamAbbs.