A true icon of the modern day game officially retired on the twenty fifth of February 2016 at the age of forty two.
A glittering career full of impressive numbers and shiny trophies, but his professional path contains one blot, and it happened on the day when his talent was on one of the biggest stages.
Robert Pires effectively saw the most glorious period of his career end on the 17th of May 2006, in Paris, in the 18th minute of the Champions League Final.
Robert Pires joined Arsenal in 2000, after two successful seasons in Marseille. No one would have dreamed of the impact this handsome Gaul would make when he signed, although he had a fine pedigree.
He was first capped in 1996 and was part of the triumphant French teams of 1998 and 2000. Upon signing for the Gunners, it is now common knowledge – thanks to the plethora of Robert Pires documentaries – that our ‘Bobbi’ was restricted in his game time at first. He was put on the bench and was instructed by Arsene Wenger to watch the game and acclimatise himself with the pace and power of the Premier League.
Pires did exactly that and baulked at what would he would be expected to contend with. He has openly admitted that the majority of tackles that were flying in would be called as fouls in Ligue Un, and the pace was so frenetic that he struggled to keep up with watching the game, never mind play it effectively.
He should never have doubted himself.
Replacing a fans favourite in Marc Overmars, overcoming and adapting to the Premiership’s unique set of rigours initially saw Pires look a little out of his depth, but the season saw glimmers and twinkles of the treasures he possessed in his boots. His winner in the Semi-Final of the FA Cup Vs neighbours tottenham in particular, endeared himself to the Gooner faithful and was the start of a labour of love. He simply couldn’t get enough of scoring in derbies.
Twelve games against our bitter rivals our Bobbi played, scoring eight goals and never once did the Frenchman lose. It is often said that if you want to find success at a club, then scoring against your enemies is a good start. Well, Pires was often unplayable against our neighbours in white and the anguish he caused them only served to tie the bonds of adoration with Gooners just that little bit tighter.
This may have got fans onside with the fleet footed Pires, but it was his second season in 2001/02 that truly elevated him to stratospheric levels.
There was one moment during that season that could be used as evidence for his artistry. Against Aston Villa, chasing a pumped ball up top, he first lobbed George Boateng, before finding himself outside the box. Seeing Peter Schmeichel off his line, he volleyed the ball – no, volleyed doesn’t begin to do justice to the caress that his boot gave the ball – he feathered the ball over the Great Dane and a goal that will find itself forever replayed in goal compilations was created. He found his niche that season.
A trinity of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires was the most potent attack force that season, and Robert capped a Double-winning season by winning the FWA Footballer of the Year and Arsenal’s own Player of the Year. Take into consideration that he missed the last two months of the season through a horrifying knee injury only adds a gloss on the achievements he managed that campaign.
The image that is conjured when I remember this magician of football is the Premier League trophy being awarded for 2001/02. The whole squad on their knees as a walking-impaired Bobbi was ushered onto the field to lift the crown aloft. His team mates making sure all and sundry knew who had lifted the level of the squad – who deserved the plaudits above all else.
The injury didn’t dampen the lascivious licks of flame that was his talent. Upon his return, he scored fourteen goals in just twenty starts and scored the winning goal in the FA Cup Final of 2003 Vs Southampton. In 2004, he was an integral part of the Invncibles team which blew their domestic rivals away with panache. In his six years at Arsenal, he had won two Premier League titles and three FA Cups.
There are players who spent far more time at the club, who had more of an opportunity to leave their indelible mark upon fans memories. There are players who scored more goals, who had far more tricks in their repertoire. The majority failed to come close to the dazzling light of Bobbi.
Pires was never the type to let fly with twenty five stepovers. His act was subtle, it was his nuances which left defenders floundering. A dip of a nonchalant shoulder, a deft swipe of the tip of his boot, and the game suddenly opened up and the crowd roared with delight.
His strength was an underplayed factor as well. To adapt in the heat of the Premier League kiln, to rise after a debilitating injury, to silence doubt. It all takes a spirit that some do not possess. It was his winning mentality that carried him through and often saw him soar above the mediocre and provide either an assist or goal that would break the deadlock.
He was a skilled fencer, he was the pretty boxer, untouched by enemy gloves. He was voted the Sixth Best Gunner of all time. In six years he opened the eyes of all who saw him and made them see the future.
Robert Pires, we all adore you and you have our eternal thanks for the service you gave and the joy you provided. The ending to your fantastic story didn’t end in Paris in 2006. It continues with the memories you forged.