Just a short jaunt back in the time machine, to the year 2000 for this week’s Highbury Hero, when Arsene Wenger paid £6,000,000 for one of our French Musketeers, the brilliant technically gifted, wide attacking midfielder Super Robert Pires.
Robert had a very distinctive running style, slightly splayed feet with his mane of black hair flowing behind him. He was an exquisite player to watch. A superb passer of the ball, he had such a silky touch with brilliant close control, an excellent finisher with a great strike rate for a wide midfielder. Robert was a very intelligent footballer, who had a knack of making the right run to get on the end of chances. Robert would often come up with a goal or an assist to unlock even the most resolute of defences.
His link up play with Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp was a joy to behold. He also had a good turn of pace. In fact Robert’s only flaw was sometimes he wasn’t that good defensively, neglecting to come back to help out the defence. But he more than made up for that with his attacking attributes and I do remember him making one fantastic tackle on Patrick Vieira of all people, when Paddy was playing for Juventus at Highbury in the Champions League. Robert was such a vital member of Arsenal’s great side at the start of the Millennium.
Born in Reims, France on 29th October 1973. Robert’s father was Portuguese and his mother Spanish. He started with Metz, making his debut in 1993, later moving to Marseille for £5,000,000 in 1998.
Pires had a fine international career and ended up winning 79 caps for France, scoring 14 goals. He was a member of the French 1998 World Cup winning squad and he provided the assist for David Trezeguet’s winning goal in the final of Euro 2000.
So Robert arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2000 with a big reputation, after a battle for his signature with two of the giants of European football Juventus and Real Madrid. Robert was bought as a replacement for Arsenal’s flying Dutch winger Marc Overmars. Both were great players but completely different. Marc was more more of a speed merchant. Very direct and clinical when through on goal.
For the first game of the 2000-01 season up at Sunderland, Arsene Wenger wisely put Robert on the bench, so he could observe at close quarters what English Football was like and get a feel for it. He was stunned by the speed and physicality of the game. Patrick Vieira was getting stuck in, giving as good as he got and ended up getting sent off. Pires came on and it was a baptism of fire for him.
Robert commented in the press that the English game was too physical. He found it very difficult to come to terms with the Premiership. He didn’t speak English and it must have taken him about six months, before he started to acclimatise to our game.
But he did show flashes of his brilliance. His first goal for the club was a cracker against Lazio and he endeared himself to every Arsenal fan when he scored the winner in the FA Cup Semi-Final, up at Old Trafford, against the old enemy Tottenham.
Arsenal v Spurs FA Cup Semi-Final 2001
I remember the traffic was horrendous heading back down south. We were crawling along when a limo full of Arsenal fans in front of us, pulled up next to some Spurs fans who’s car had broken down and shouted out the window “Do you know the way to Cardiff!” I couldn’t possibly repeat what they replied!
So it was off to the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff, for the first FA Cup Final to be played there. Where we battered Liverpool and should have had a blatant penalty, but lost 2-1, despite taking the lead through Freddie Ljungberg.
The next season 2001-02 Pires really came into his own. He was in sensational form. I recall he made a great goal for Freddie Ljungberg, when he turned Steven Gerrard inside out, up at Anfield to secure us the points in a 2-1 victory.
Arsenal win at Anfield 2-1 2001-02
In March he also scored a fantastic goal against Aston Villa, at Villa Park when he flicked the ball over Boateng’s head, then had the audacity to chip the ball over Peter Schmeichel and into the net.
Pires scores a magnificent goal at Villa Park
Enjoy the Goal so buy the shirt at Classic Shirts
Robert was playing out of his skin, then just six days later Pires having scored against Newcastle United, at Highbury, in the Quarter-Final Replay of the FA Cup, did his cruciate ligament and missed the final two months of the season. So Robert missed out on the climax of the season beating Chelsea 2-0 at Cardiff in the FA Cup Final, with goals from Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg, then going on to win the Title, against Manchester United, at Old Trafford 1-0, when Wilford got the winner, to clinch the Double for the third time in the club’s history.
The rest of the players showed a lovely touch after the final home game, an entertaining 4-3 win against Everton, when all the players were introduced one by one to the Highbury crowd to a massive cheer, as each player lifted the Premiership trophy, when the name of Robert Pires was announced and he stepped up to the biggest cheer of all from the Arsenal fans, all the other Arsenal players knelt down and bowed to him, paying homage to his part in winning the Double that season. He also won the Football Writers Player of the Year Award.
Robert didn’t play again till the end of October in the 2002-03 season, but he still scored 14 times in the League, although It took him a while to get back to his best form. At the end of that season in the final home game against Southampton Robert scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 win, the third goal was a sublime chip over the keeper.
Pires hat-trick v Southampton 2003
Ten days later Robert then went on to score the only goal as Arsenal retained the FA Cup, against Southampton in the Final, on a wet day in Cardiff as they closed the roof on the Millenium Stadium in 2003.
Pires win the FA Cup for Arsenal 2003
Our hopes of retaining our League Title petered out earlier, as we went down 3-2 at Highbury to Leeds United. But little did we know it would be another 50 games before we’d lose another game in the League!
Robert was again one of the key elements in the Invincibles as we stormed to the Title in 2003-04, clinching it at all places White Hart Lane, where Robert was once again one of our scorers in a 2-2 draw, which was enough to give Arsenal the Title with four games to spare. The Arsenal players celebrated on the pitch in front of the Arsenal fans, despite warnings from the Spurs stewards not to do it.
We win the League at Shite Hart Lane
Robert scored 19 times in all competitions that season and It was an amazing feat of concentration and will power by the team to keep focused in those final four matches after winning the Title. But somehow they managed to become the first side since Preston North End in 1988-89 to go a whole season unbeaten.
The unbeaten run continued into the 2004-05 season. Arsenal surpassed Brian Clough’s fine Nottingham Forest sides unbeaten record of 42 games. But as Arsenal went into the 50th game at Old Trafford against Manchester United unbeaten there was a travesty of Justice as United kicked us from the first minute to the last and the referee Mike Riley let them get away with it. They should have had four players sent off that day and we had a dodgy penalty given against us when Rooney took a dive and you won’t find one Arsenal fan who doesn’t believe we were cheated out of our unbeaten run that day. In 50 years of watching football I’ve never seen a worse display of refereeing.
Robert chipped in again that season with another 14 League goals and scored in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Blackburn Rovers, in a 3-0 win to take us to the Final, Robert played in the Final, where revenge was sweet, as we won the FA Cup on penalties, after being completely outplayed by Manchester United at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. It was well worth the four hour delay on the last train out of Cardiff heading for London, as we rolled into Paddington in the early hours of the morning.
2005-06 was Robert’s final season at Arsenal, but it was to be a memorable one. Although Robert was 32 by then, he was still getting his share of games, but was often left on the bench that season, when Reyes and Hleb would get the nod over him, despite the fact that Robert comfortably out scored the pair of them put together that season, with eleven goals to their combined nine.
But Robert did start in the historic last ever game at Highbury and scored as well in the 4-2 win against Wigan Athletic, as Arsenal again finished above Spurs on the last day to clinch the final Champions League spot!
The last game on the last day at Highbury
So we come to Robert’s final appearance for The Arsenal the Champions League Final in Paris against Barcelona. Arsene Wenger choose him to start the game. I have so many regrets about that match. Why didn’t we become the first London side to win the Champions League. Why didn’t Thierry Henry finish that one on one with the keeper to put us 2-0 up, as we’d seen him do countless times for Arsenal. Why didn’t the referee wait a few seconds and play the advantage, while Barcelona stuck the ball into an empty net, so we could keep 11 players on the pitch and one of the biggest regrets, why did Arsene Wenger sacrifice Bobby Pires when Jens Lehmann got his marching orders. Why did he keep Hleb on, a man who flattered to deceive, a player who if faced with an open goal would always look to pass it sideways, rather than take the responsibility to shoot. To keep him on, and take off a far superior player, even at 32, a player like Bobby Pires, who had the stature, the experience and was a proven match winner, in a game of that magnitude was a massive error in my opinion. Robert was distraught and it took him a long time to forgive Arsene for that decision not to put his trust in Robert. A special player, who could have produced a moment of magic that night in Paris.
Robert turned down a one year contract with Arsenal, mainly because he was no longer first choice at Arsenal. He went to Villarreal to play in La Liga for four years. On an emotional night at the Emirates in 2009 Bobby returned to play against us for Villarreal in the Champions League. “Super super Rob, super super Rob, super super Rob, super Robert Pires” rung out around the stadium as the Arsenal fans showed how much affection they still had for the legendary Robert Pires.
In 2010-11 season Robert played 9 League games for Aston Villa, but by then his legs had gone and he couldn’t get around the pitch like he used to. Robert also played 8 games for FC Goa in the Indian Super League in 2014-15. On the 25th February 2016 Robert announced his retirement. He is still a familiar face at London Conley training and I believe now coaching at Arsenal. He played 284 games for Arsenal and scored 84 goals.
All Robert Pires 84 goals for Arsenal
Once again thanks for reading. There’ll be another Highbury Hero next week.