Patrick Vieira paid tribute to a host of former managers and team-mates after he was awarded the Football Writers’ Association tribute award on Sunday evening.
The former Arsenal and Manchester City midfielder flew in from America, where he now manages New York City FC, to receive the award at London’s Savoy Hotel.
David Dein, who played a large role in getting Vieira to England for the first time to join the Gunners in 1996, presented the France international with a copy of his original Arsenal contract, while other speakers also enthused.
But it was his long-term adversary, Manchester United skipper Roy Keane – with whom he clashed with on the pitch on many occasions – who arguably paid the most fitting tribute.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be bosom buddies buying each other a drink in the pub but out of everybody I ever faced as a player, he drove me to become better,” he said.
“Obviously Arsenal were the team that really challenged Manchester United and, for a short time, went past us. And as their leader Patrick was immense.
“Without doubt I’d put him alongside (Zinedine) Zidane, (Paul) Scholes, (Steven) Gerrard and (Frank) Lampard as one of the very best I’ve ever played with or against, he was that good. On his day, when he was driving Arsenal on with the sheer force of his personality, he was unplayable.”
But the player himself kept his own acceptance speech more to a list of praising those around him for allowing him to “become a man” during his time in England.
He thanked former Cannes team-mate Bernand Lambourde as well as Emmanuel Petit and Martin Keown, two Arsenal players who were present at the evening, and also France international colleague Lilian Thuram.
The 39-year-old also spoke with fondness of his time in the Barclays Premier League with both Arsenal, with whom he lifted three league titles including the unbeaten ’Invisibles’ season, and City.
“This country is really special for me because this is where I played my best football,” said Vieira.
“I became a man in England having moved here at the age of 20. Many people helped me settle in and told me I could do things I did not think I would ever be able to do.”
Keown also made a speech and praised the impact Vieira had on the other, sometimes more heralded players he appeared alongside – even if he did not train to the level he performed on a Saturday.
“You look at Denis Bergkamp and you look at Thierry Henry and people say they are great players and rightly so,” he said.
“There are statues of these guys outside the Emirates Stadium but without Patrick winning the ball and giving it to them they would almost be redundant.
“But sometimes during the week it was as if his non-football playing brother turned up for training instead, we used to call him Mr Floppy, but on a match day he was a different animal.”