Robert Pires didn’t blast the ball into the net; he caressed it, stroked it, arrived at its house with a nice bottle of Bordeaux, a couple of glasses and a wry grin.

Robert Pires didn’t seem to care about scoring goals. He was bloody brilliant at it, but often looked utterly unfazed whenever he did. And he did it a fair bit, too: 62 times across six glorious seasons in North London, and either side of those Highbury adventures, a hatful for Metz, Marseille, and Villarreal. Robert Pires didn’t play a football match every weekend; he stood there and painted one.

Ever an outsider (a natural winger, I guess) and speaking Spanish and Portuguese while growing up in France, as well as French when starting out in England, perhaps Bobby’s artistic tendencies were embedded from youth. Instead of artistic intensity, his creativity instilled a brilliant nonchalance seldom seen on these shores. An early looming aversion to anything draining—physically, emotionally, or otherwise. His first wife once mused “Pressure and aggressiveness do not work with Robert; he has to be free.”

And on the canvas that became his home, the tightly packed slice of beautiful greenery bursting out from the red of Highbury, he truly was free. The lithe Frenchman, out on the left with his flowing locks and sliver of goatee creeping out around that smile, floating around that pitch like a fisherman plucking little translucent gems from the French Riviera before the tide comes back in.

Worn-out pundits, occupying every seat from the TV studios to the local boozers, often with startling similarities between them, initially claimed that Bobby was too soft for the battlefields of the then-Premiership. But, of course, they would, wouldn’t they? A delicate, flaky Moules marienères might seem too soft to serve at The Queen Vic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fucking glorious thing. But Bobby adapted. The pressure and aggressiveness that people claimed were incompatible with the man changed him entirely. From the heat of his baptism into English football emerged a different beast, beautiful stained glass cast from the delicate Riviera sand.

If Thierry Henry was Arsenal’s swashbuckling leader, and Dennis Bergkamp, the cultured old strategist, then Pires was the wisecracking, nonchalant sidekick. Among the cool ones, he was undoubtedly the coolest one. Happy to let the ball find him, often when it bounced out of a despairing challenge from a desperate defender on Vieira, or Henry, or Silva, or Bergkamp, Bobby would wait. It came to him. He didn’t chase it; he didn’t seek it out and look to control it. He merely steered it, a steadying artistic hand gently guiding the brush to create beautiful strokes. He didn’t take games by the scruff of the neck, even when he scored a hat-trick: he seduced the game into his bed, feathering its collar with one hand, tickling the ball into the goal with the other. If Arsène’s Invincibles were about power and ruthlessness, then our Bobby was a conductor. Not the engine, or the battering ram, or the reinforced protective walls, but the conductor. Sleepy eyes and a little cloth cap, bottle of Grand Marnier in the pocket of his impeccable trousers.

 

If the Arsenal faithful were wary of their arrival from Marseille in 2000, then his first goal was a prophetic moment. The Gunners needed a draw and were 1–0 down against Lazio in the fire pit of the Stadio Olimpico. Enter Bobby: capitalising on a loose ball, he wafted down the left, somehow simultaneously at full tilt and a leisurely stroll along the beachfront. One touch, look up, Peruzzi’s off his line. Second touch, a raking right-foot shot that nestled gently in the top bin. Le bac supérieur. Europe here we come.

Among the varied and prized collections of Pires’ goals in the red of Arsenal, there seems to be a continuous theme. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but there are only two paths. ‘You pick the ball up on the left. If you want to feign down the outside and delicately cut inside, turn to page two. If you want to flick your feet around the ball and charge down the line, leaving the fullback in a cloud of your own magnificence, also turn to page two.’ And on page two? A lovely vignette of Bobby curling, never blasting, a deft effort into the far right-hand corner.

Occasionally he’d do something different, fucking with the pages, going straight to the dragon’s lair without first fighting the elves: Bobby bloody loved to lob the keeper. Just to ensure the ball was, much like his talents and flowing locks, just out of reach for anyone else on the pitch. And the culmination of this splendour? You know exactly when it was. Against Aston Villa. Why lob just the keeper? Je suis Robert Fucking Pires, je voudrais lob the defender first. And then he saunters off like he’s just picked up his morning groceries, wagging his finger, as if to say “Je… Suis… Robert… fucking… Pires.”

Every young Arsenal fan wanted to be Robert Pires at some point. We all did. We all wanted that hair, that swagger, that nonchalance, that ability to warmly glide the ball into the back of the net as if placed by a gloved hand. We all wanted to be Bobby. But the best thing is we couldn’t. There’s only one.

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