Wednesday 22 November 2017


Rory Smith

First Patrick Vieira, then Thierry Henry, William Gallas and finally, Cesc Fabregas.

The post of captain of Arsenal used to be a job for life. In recent years, though, it has come to be imbued with a transience, bandied around partly as bribe and partly as passport to the latest target of Arsene Wenger's futile flattery.

The highest status a club can bestow on a player did not persuade a diminished Vieira to spurn the advances of an even faster fading Juventus in 2005, or his countryman Henry to turn his back on Barcelona two years later.

Gallas' erratic behaviour cost him his position and his career at the club, and Catalan patriotism eventually outweighed pride for Fabregas.

Arsenal have grown accustomed to seeing captains desert their ship. And this week will have done little to dissuade the club's increasingly despairing fans of that view.

Robin van Persie still has not opened talks over a new contract, despite erroneous reports to the contrary.

The armband he inherited from Fabregas has inspired arguably the best form of the Dutchman's career, but as Arsenal sink deeper into the stasis highlighted by a fractious AGM on Thursday, there is a feeling it serves simply as the 'for sale' sign hanging over the club's most desirable property.

That, though, underestimates the seriousness with which the 28-year-old treats his post.

Friends report that he pores over the programme notes he produces for every home game -- far from a given for most of his peers -- desperate to strike the right chord with fans and team-mates alike, and always determined to give an open, honest message. He has taken it upon himself to organise bonding sessions for his team-mates, to upbraid those who shirk their responsibilities and praise those who contribute.

It is a sharp contrast to his predecessor, a far more demurring character, but one that has won the approval of a number of his forebears.

"I think the captain of Arsenal has the right to be a bit controversial on occasions," Tony Adams said last month.

"It does not surprise me, because of that, that he has not yet signed a new contract. But what I like about Robin is that he has tremendous passion for the club. I think he will be a fine captain."

It is a blessing that will mean a lot to Van Persie, but one which, perhaps, could be seen to strike a discordant note; not on the basis of his present form, full of game-changing heroism and lion-hearted leadership, but certainly in the context of his history.

"We could all see he would be a star," said Patrick Paauwe, a team-mate at Feyenoord, the club where Van Persie first rose to prominence as a troublesome teenager. "But a captain? I'm not sure I would have said that."

It is not hard to see why Paauwe would make such an assessment. After all, even Wenger, the player's staunchest backer for almost a decade, admitted last week that his striker "had a history of being a bit temperamental, to say the least."

How typically understated. At Feyenoord, Van Persie found himself at war with the manager, Bert van Marwijk -- now his coach with the Dutch national team -- and with a host of senior players. Feyenoord in 2001, when the 17-year-old Van Persie first joined the first-team squad, was not the shell of a side that it has since become.

In the team which won the UEFA Cup in its own De Kuip stadium that season were the likes of Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jean-Paul van Gastel, Kees van Wonderen and Paul Bosvelt: big names, and big egos, all.

"You can put it down to impatience," says Paauwe. "Robin was maybe not the sort to take things one step at a time. That was a team full of important players and it is crucial to fit in.

"Robin has said himself that, if he had known then what he knows now, he might have stayed a bit longer. That would have been great for the club.

"You could see that right from the start he was going to be a big player. Jean-Paul van Gastel told me that after playing just once with him when he was in the reserves. But he was young, and he wanted to play a big role straight away.

"Everyone at the club cared about him. Pierre (van Hooijdonk) and Paul Bosvelt, the manager, they spoke with him a lot, even the president. It was in everyone's best interests that he stayed, but in the end, he had so many problems that him leaving was sad, but inevitable. It was a real pity. Both sides could have been more understanding of each other."

Some of those arguments have entered into Dutch football folklore and, more lastingly, YouTube infamy.

There was the dispute over a free-kick with Van Hooijdonk in front of 50,000 fans, where the teenager takes the set-piece when the elder player is preparing his run-up. There was the time Van Marwijk relegated him to the reserves because "his behaviour made it impossible for him to remain in the squad a moment longer."

Van Persie, the son of an artist and a sculptor, admits he spent most of his time at school in the corridor, punished for his quick lip. De Kuip was no different.

The writing, as Paauwe says, was on the wall. He was sent home before the 2002 UEFA Super Cup game with Real Madrid and refused to extend his contract.

Aad De Mos, one of the most respected youth scouts in Holland, had first seen Van Persie play as an eight-year-old. "Robin saw the game really well then," he said. "But we saw how easy it was for him to squander his talent. At Feyenoord, players like Bosvelt and Van Hooijdonk told him to shut up and carry water bottles. You have to be able to accept that."

Van Persie's travails, though, were not simply the products of youthful ego. "He was one of the new generation of players coming through," believes Paauwe. "He had had a different sort of education to the older guys, and we had to change a lot to understand them."

That education was on the streets of Kralingen, the diverse neighbourhood of Rotterdam where Van Persie lived with his father, Bob.

The tremendous wealth of the port city sits cheek-by-jowl with some of Holland's most troubled estates; on the streets, teams of kids play fast, technical football in mesh cages.

On Van Persie's team was Said Boutahar, now of Real Zaragoza, and Ajax's Mounir El Hamdaoui, once of Tottenham; and on the sidelines, Bouchra Elbali, the girlfriend of Moroccan descent who is now his wife. There, he was a natural leader, the best player on the best squad.

"That education, playing with kids from different backgrounds in that style, made him different," said Paauwe.

"That is why he is like he is, and now that he has matured so much mentally, why he is as special as he is. And he is special: the sort of player I will tell my grandkids I played with."

So, too, will his Arsenal team-mates.

Unlike Paauwe, they will say he was their captain. Given his displays this year, and his dedication to the role, none will wonder quite why he was granted the honour.

Irish Independent

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