Pires ready for Villa venture

If Frenchman Robert Pires can recreate a quarter of the skill and nous he showed at Arsenal, then Gerard Houllier may have netted himself a real coup. Over to Rob Gate.

Not many clubs would toy with the possibility of signing a 37-year-old outfield player. Aston Villa, though, are hoping their gamble on former Arsenal and Villarreal midfielder Robert Pires pays off.

Pires was an iconic figure during his time at Highbury between 2000 and 2006, providing some memorable moments under Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman's touch, vision and end product was a big part of Arsenal's success during his spell, where he teamed up with Messrs Bergkamp, Vieira, Cole, Ljungberg and Henry to create one of the Barclays English Premier League's most potent teams.

While Pires may be best remembered for his time with Arsenal and the French national side, it was at Metz where he honed his skills. In 1993 Pires made his debut for Les Grenats against Lyon and went onto make 171 appearances for the club, scoring 43 goals. It was in the 1995/96 season when he made a real name for himself, as he first helped his side win the French League Cup on penalties against Lyon before going onto win the Ligue 1 young player of the year award.

Tony Cascarino was one player who spotted Pires' early talent during a spell in France in the mid-1990s. “Technically, he was brilliant,” said the former Marseille, Nancy and Red Star 93 forward. “He had two great feet, a great football brain and was taller and stronger than he appeared.”

It was not just Cascarino who spotted the emerging talent, as Marseille quickly moved to sign Pires one week after the 1998 World Cup final. However, Pires' spell at Marseille was to be an unhappy one, not just on the field, but off it also. In his first season at the Stade Velodrome, the team missed out on the league title by one point and then suffered heartbreak in the UEFA Cup final as Parma brushed them aside 3-0 in Moscow.

Off the field, Pires was abused by his own fans and even attacked at the club's training ground. Arsenal finally rescued the World Cup winner from his Marseille nightmare at the end of the 1999/2000 season, agreeing a GBP6m deal for the midfielder to replace the departed Marc Overmars. After an indifferent start to his Arsenal career, Pires finally got to grips with the English game in his second season in London.

It proved to be a memorable campaign for the winger as he played his part in Arsenal's English Premier League and FA Cup-winning side. The season ended on a cruel note for the Frenchman, though, after he was ruled out of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea after injuring his cruciate ligaments in an FA Cup tie against Newcastle.

Pires made his return to the Arsenal team in November of that year, but he could not help his team stop Manchester United from winning the EPL. He would, however, score the winning goal in the 1-0 FA Cup final win over Southampton. The following season not only cemented Pires' name in the history books but Arsenal's too, as he helped the Gunners go through the whole 2003/04 league campaign undefeated. Pires was an instrumental figure in Arsenal's success as he and Thierry Henry managed an incredible 57 goals between them.

However, in 2006 Pires decided to call time on his Arsenal career and move to Villarreal in a bid to secure his long-term future. Pires' last Arsenal appearance came in the UEFA Champions League final defeat against Barcelona. It was a day to forget for Pires as he was sacrificed after only 18 minutes due to Jens Lehmann's red card. Wenger's decision to replace the midfielder was “proof that the coach did not trust me like before”, according to Pires.

Four-and-a-half years on from that night in Paris, Pires has found himself back in England yet again. With Villa now in the middle of building a young British side, Pires could well be the man to give the team the perfect blend of youth and experience needed to help crack the top four. “I know in Arsenal they have good reserves but they have very, very good young players here for the future of Aston Villa,” said Pires, who has trained with Arsenal for the past few months. ““Barry Bannan and Jack Wilshere are similar. They have good quality and good vision. For Arsenal and Aston Villa this is good news.”

The 37-year-old has signed an initial six-month contract with the Midlands side and has not ruled out playing until he is 40. “I like football,” he said. “It's my passion. If I have the mentality I will go to six months or why not more? Can I play until 40? I think so, yes. Every day, every morning, it is difficult. If you are younger, it is easy. But, if you have the mentality, it is not a problem.”

If Pires can recreate a quarter of the skill and nous he showed at Arsenal, then Gerard Houllier may have netted himself a real coup.

Pires is currently married to French model Jessica Lemarie. He met his first wife Nathalie whilst playing for Metz in France and has a penchant for 4X4s.

FACTFILE Club: Aston Villa D.O.B: 29/10/1973 France caps: 79 France goals: 14 France debut: v Mexico, August 1996

Moment to remember: Pires was part of the France squad that won both the World Cup in 1998 and Euro 2000. He also played his part in Arsenal's ‘Invincible' season back in 2003/04.

Moment to forget: Playing only the first 18 minutes of the 2006 Champions League final due to Jens Lehmann's red card. It signalled the end of his Arsenal career.

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