By Les Crang – Senior 80′s Correspondent
I had to look into the deepest part of my soul and be born again,” he says.I read many things including Buddhism but there was one book which helped me more than any other and it was given to me by my friend Jan and was called The Prophecy of the Andes. It tells the story of a traveller who makes a discovery about the world and the way it works.I could have gone to see a doctor but instead I did my own therapy. I found my doctor in this book.
Emmanuel Petit discussing how he coped with the loss of his brother.
It has more often than not been discussed in Arsenal fans that Arsenal lack a defensive midfielder. A man to sit in the middle, break up attacks and get an occasional goal with surging runs. Many have said the man mountain of Patrick Vieira was that man. Other people, including Dan Betts (aka Jokman) wrote a thought provoking piece entitled Enough is Enough. When will Arsenal Replace Gilberto? Discussing the need for a player like Gilberto to act as a defensive midfielder. For me though, under Arsene Wenger, Gilberto and Vieira are not ‘pure’ defensive midfielders, especially Paddy. They didn’t sit deep and break up attacks like Emmanuel Petit, probably a player under rated by some, most likely next to Sol Campbell, the best bargain signing Wenger ever bought.
Emmanuel Petit (or Manu as he was often called) was Born in Dieppe in Normandy. Fred Atkins in his excellent book Arsenal – The French Connection noted that Petit’s early life was surrounded in tragedy. For example, when aged 12 years his father appeared unscathed from France’s deadliest car accident in Dieppe in 1982, in which 53 died. Also one of his favourite teachers died in an avalanche, whilst a close friend committed suicide before he left for Monaco.
One of the most significant events in Petit career though occurred on 10th April, 1988. Petit’s Dad received a call from the local football team, where Petit’s brother elder Olivier was playing and his other brother had been watching. Petit’s Dad was informed Olivier had died playing football. The impact of the death would still impact on Petit 15 years later, when he would say of the death of Marc Vivien-Foe on the pitch :-
There are times when you should sit back and think about the men before thinking about the game….When a player dies on the pitch in these circumstances, there are other priorities. Of course, like Sepp Blatter [the FIFA president] says, the sport – the game – must go on, but you must first honour the player, stand close to his family and support them. When Marc-Vivien Foe collapsed on the pitch, I immediately thought about my brother. I was in shock. I know what his family must feel like, having been through it myself.
Emmanuel moved to Monaco under the tutelage of chief scout, Pierre Tournier who would go on to discover Lilian Thuram , Gilles Grimandi , and Sylvain Legwinski. Emmanuel Petit’s first manager at Monaco was of course Arsene Wenger. Both Pierre and Wenger would have a great impact on Manu. Petit would make his debut for Monaco as a central midfielder and occasionally would play full-back. He made his debut in 1989 and would also play in the French Cup final in 1989, which Monaco would lose 4-3 to Marseille:-
The importance of Marseille in French football, might be underlooked by some Arsenal supporters. Marseille were a team that had the loud, brash and financially flush Bernard Tapie chairman. Tapie would then go on to buy the French League in many ways. He would buy players like Chris Waddle, Trevor Steven and Jean-Pierre Papin. There would also be rumours (later found to be true) of opposing team’s players taking bribes to throw games when playing Marseille. Arsene Wenger did not like the fact that Tapie was an early example of ‘financial doping’ in France (something he has discussed about Chelsea before). Of the bribes in France, Wenger said recently :-
“You hear rumours and after that you cannot come out in the press and say: ‘This game was not regular’,” Wenger said. “You must prove what you say. To come out is difficult. It is very difficult to prove it. From knowing something, feeling that it is true and after coming out publicly and saying “Look I can prove it” is the most difficult.”
The effects still hurt. “It is a shame. Once you don’t know any more if everyone is genuine out there, that is something absolutely disastrous. I think we have absolutely to fight against that with the strongest severity to get that out of the game.”
Petit would see Wenger’s distrust of the Marseille model after a 3-0 defeat to them. Petit was called in by Wenger to watch the game, especially two of the goals. Petit has been called in as :-
Petit didn’t realise what was going on but as the youngest and least corruptible member of the team he had been singled out as the most reliable witness by Wenger.
[After telling Wenger he felt they had played poorly, his manager said] “Ok, you can go, that confirms exactly what I was thinking. There are a number of us who think some of our players have been bought by Marseille.”
Petit would go on to play for Monaco up to the season of 1996-7, a season in which they would win a League and Cup double in France. By now. Petit was a full international and also captain of Monaco, but had decided to leave France, and had looked to England. He was famously approached by Spurs and meet chairman Alan Sugar about a transfer at White Hart Lane, then asked to think about it, borrowed some money from Sugar, and got a taxi to meet Arsene Wenger and sign for Arsenal. He was then unveiled famously with Arsene Wenger and Marc Overmars at Highbury.
To be honest, I thought, well Overmar will be brilliant, but a French guy with a ponytail, I had never heard of? I do not think I was that impressed by our new signing. But rumours, later confirmed by Petit arose, that put him within high esteem by the Arsenal supporters and that was:-
Up until now the alleged meeting with Tottenham Hotspur and taxi from White Hart Lane to Arsenal were pure legend, but former Arsenal star Petit, speaking to Four Four Two Magazine, cleared up rumours regarding the meeting with Tottenham Hotspur, and the rumours that the club paid for his taxi to Arsenal, when the Frenchman snubbed a move to White Hart Lane in favour of joining the Gunners. Petit said:
“I don’t know if it was Gerry Francis who paid, but it’s true the day I arrived in England I first went to White Hart Lane. I had a meeting with Mr Sugar and they made me an offer.
“Two hours later they ordered me a black cab, it was pre-paid, and I went to see Arsene Wenger at his place. When I arrived he was with David Dein, and two hours later I’d given my word to Arsenal”
Patrick Vieira said of him:-
‘I knew that Manu would be a superb signing,’ recalled Vieira. ‘He could tackle, he could distribute the ball and he could add weight either up front or back in his own defence. Some saw Manu as a mirror image of me in terms of ability. That was a compliment, although I was more of a box to box player than him.’
His first season at Arsenal didn’t really seem to start well. He would have some outstanding games later in the season, but him and the team at the beginning of the season were not quite on fire. Maybe the biggest game before December would be against Manchester United, the Premier League champions at Highbury:-
The 3-2 win would put us back in the race for the league title. Or so it seemed. The next four games would include 3 defeats from four games. These included a 2-0 defeat away to Sheffield Wednesday:-
A home defeat to Liverpool and a humiliating defeat at home to Blackburn:-
For the Sheffield Wednesday game both Manu and Patrick Vieira were missing. Vieira had injured himself in scoring against United and sliding on his knees.
This place Highbury is not quite so worryingly as it used to be. We won every individual battle out there whether is was in defence, midfield or up front. Our strikers had the beating of Arsenal’s back line. For all the talk about their centre-halves and what they are known for, we won everything.
In the 1997–98 Double-winning season, it was Tony Adams and Martin Keown, not Wenger, who sidled up to Vieira and Petit at the Christmas party and told them to start shielding them during matches.
After that, Petit and Vieira acted in unison, shielding the defence. Often, Petit would do the defensive work, allowing Paddy to move further forward. Paddy underlined the importance of this partnership saying:-
On the field he know he can count on me, that I am the first to defend him in a physical combat and that I think exactly the same of him. Sometimes on the field we could find each other with our eyes shut.
After the Blackburn game, Arsenal and the defence tightened up. For me, three unique things happened. Nicolas Anelka was banging in important goals after Ian Wright was injured. Overmars was ripping it up on the wing, scoring 16 goals that season. The final one, was Petit. He was like a midfield version of Tony Adams. With a motor. Hard. Commited. Willing to win at any cost.
After the defeat to Blackburn Arsenal went on a run of 18 games, including a 9 match winning run and overturned a 12 point lead United had previously held. The culmination of this fine run would be the 1-0 defeat of Manchester United at Old Trafford in March 1998:-
Vieira and Petit controlling the midfield and Marc Overmars at his brilliant best, the Gunners were always on top and when, after 79 minutes, Overmars found himself clear in the United penalty box and slid the ball under the goalkeeper to score the winning goal, Arsenal were right back in it.
The season of 1997-8, Petit scored only two goals that season. His first was in a 5-0 win over Wimbledon at Highbury and the winner against Derby in a 1-0 win over Derby [the first two goals on the video below]:-
After the game against Derby he said after about his groin injury he had got in the previous game with Barnsley:-
It was giving me problems during the game but I was determined to play and to stay on. I am just determined to play in the match against Everton as well. If I can play, I will. I know I should rest but is is not impossible to cope and I will.
You have to like an attitude like that as a fan to be honest. To finish off a glorious season, Petit set Overmars up for the first goal with a pass over the top from the halfway line:-
Anyhow, the season culminated in Wenger’s first double of the 1997/8 season. A second double in two different countries. How could it get better?
Well, the World Cup in France of 1998, culminating in France, being 2-0 up, but down to 10 men against favourites Brazil. Then France break from a Brazil corner, substitute Patrick Vieira passes inside the defender to Petit running through. One touch, a gentle shot slowly trickles towards goal. Petit scores. 3-0 to France. Petit on his knees. Not being French, but being the Arsenal it was a great feeling.
The Daily Mirror comes out with the famous headline, Arsenal Win the World Cup.
The following season, Petit still had his golden moments. Perhap my personal favourite was the goal he got at Spurs when he put the ball over the head of the defender and buried it, in a 3-1 win:-
Unfortunately, it was also a season in which Petit’s passion started to cause us problem. He had been sent off before, in the double season, rather comically against Villa, when he had raised his hands, gently touching the ref by accident, who sent him off for violent conduct. Season 1998/9 though would see him sent off twice (and one in an F.A cup tie). In the sending off at Everton Wenger defended him saying:-
You could see today that he’d missed some games [he had missed the previous months games due to suspension and injury] and his reactions were not right which is why he was sent off. The two yellow cards were not for bad fouls, they were just a little bit late.
After this, Petit came out saying he was leaving England due to the victimisation from English referees. In the end he stayed another year. By then, Petit was about to turn 30 and Barcelona were offering £5,000,000 for him. Arsene accepted the bid. It made financial sense, but what a shame.
So what did Petit offer? Well, watch the video below at the bottom. The dead ball delivery for corners, his free kicks and through balls. The lifted pass over the top of the defence. I just seemed to have forgot how bloody good he was. I still rate him way above Paddy to be honest. He is also incredibly loyal to Arsenal. He once said :-
If I have one regret its leaving Arsenal for Barcelona. I saw this separation as a break-up, like the end of a love story when you know it’s all over but despite everything wish the other party would make the effort to stay with you.
I still think Petit rates with Peter Storey as are finest defensive midfielder. But with more skill :-
Let us not forget, that Paddy said of him on his departing:-
We are still really close, I played with Manu the right time of my career and he helped me a lot. He was really mature, and a sweet, emotional boy. He looked sometimes like he didn’t care, but no. Manu will kill for you, he will die for you, he will give you everything.
Something most fans would love to see from Ozil if you believed Paul Scholes.
And lets not forget something else Petit had. The best fans song ever:-
His name’s a porno flick,