This edition of The Cult is a special double-header that was originally published in August 2015. You can enjoy our full oeuvre here.
Cult Grade: The Rivalry
You don't enjoy the Premier League as much as you used to, do you? With life being a game of relatives, that's obviously not to say you don't enjoy it – you and I both know full well it's still better than about 98% of other things on this cursed planet – but it's waning.
Maybe waning isn't quite the right word. Lilting. Lilting in a slightly precarious direction. And you know when it was at its best, assuming you were alive and kicking 'back then'? For six years or so, beginning with Man Utd lifting the Champions League trophy in Barcelona in 1999, and ending with Chelsea winning the domestic title for the first time under Roman Abramovic's ownership.
Since then it's grown bigger, flashier – and then infinitely bigger and flashier than that – to become a hulking turbo-charged insanity pit, dripping with agents and official chewing gum partners and tattoo sleeves and eight different replays of a goalkeeper slightly mishandling a cross, and Jamie Redknapp thinking he's important. But not better.
There's a reason why you like it less, a revolutionary truth that I am willing to share: there's too much money in the game now. The recent Man City vs. Chelsea game was great because it's elite football, and because to me at least it's always great to know that Mourinho's weekend has been ruined, but it wasn't blood-and-thunder great, and it never will be. Everywhere you looked on the pitch – from Yaya Toure to Sergio Aguero to Diego Costa to Matic to Cuadrado to Courtois to Mourinho himself – were guys whose attachment to their clubs began and ended with their agents.
I accept, of course, that had Patrick Vieira's agent said to him he'd earn a grand a month at Arsenal, he wouldn't have turned up at Highbury. But I believe with all my heart – and that was where you felt it, not in the ever-so-slightly anaemic thrill of excellent football you get now – that not a single player who faced off in those epic Manchester United vs. Arsenal battles of the early noughties were playing for the glory of the lifestyle. They were playing for the glory of football.
So to pick two players to represent that era – the best, lest we forget, that there will ever be – we must select the two granted the highest accolade by their respective fans, who still say, with poignant anti-logic: "We need to find the new Scholes/Vieira."
Entry Point: High
As players, their achievements are perfectly balanced: Paul Scholes eats Patrick Vieira for breakfast domestically, with 11 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues to Vieira's three and none, but during his time at Arsenal Vieira added a World Cup and European Championship to the cabinet. They would also, if you combined them, make the greatest player that ever lived, a superhuman with the capacity to land the ball on a muffin from 60 yards, score 20 goals a season and stare into the boiling tar pits of Roy Keane's eyes with nothing more than an inviting smile. Vieira is the only guy I've ever truly believed wasn't scared of Keane, and that in itself is a Cult marker.
For me, the most interesting thing about the Arsenal team Arsene Wenger oversaw from the late nineties was that its shining stars had careers that, prior to Highbury, were magnificent by objective standards, but still not quite brilliant. Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Sol Campbell – all were seen as excellent (although Vieira least of all) but none had cemented anything like the reputation they deserved. You can already feel the dynamic that would create the desire to prove what they each individually were. Instead of what I assume Diego Costa wants, which is to prove he is worth every penny of about 200k a week and finish with the Golden Boot and his hands on the Champions League.
And at Old Trafford, you know the story: the Manchester United youth team had become the senior team. In the Class of '92 documentary, to a man they pick Scholes as the best of them. There's a move that will be as familiar as blinking to any fan of the Premier League: Scholes gets the ball in midfield, then turns inside with his hip lowered and in the same movement sprays a pass 40 yards to the toe of a winger that no one else had seen, and adoring anticipation ripples around the stadium. Equally, can't you just see Vieira, limbs flowing out of midfield and then that pinpoint pass that seemed to come from an arched shoulder?One can, of course, revisit the facts from that wonderful period: Arsenal winning the league by beating United at Old Trafford; United going 5-1 up at half-time in 2000; Ryan Giggs in the FA Cup semi; Martin Keown bouncing around Van Nistelrooy like a demented chimpanzee in the Invincibles season; Ray Parlour giving him a flat-palm smash to the stomach; Pizzagate; Henry's over-the-shoulder volley from the edge of the box; the utter, committed violence with which they played the 2004-05 game at Highbury that began with Keane freaking out in the tunnel; Scholes' lunge on Reyes...
...god I miss it all. The best summation of it is this: both Scholes and Vieira, who even in the early noughties would have earned gargantuan amounts had they left at that time, were offered various exit routes. A hallmark of my summers in that period was the debate over where Vieira would go to – Real Madrid or Barcelona – while Scholes was coveted, until it became so obviously futile, by everyone. Scholes never left, Vieira only when he was past his prime. Neither could drag themselves away.
The Moment – No Shaking, 2004-05
There's a lovely moment in the pre-match handshakes before the game at Highbury, which Arsenal eventually lost 4-2. It's most famous for the pathetic attempt by Gary Neville to act like he's as tough as Roy Keane by grabbing the hand of Vieira and giving him the eyes, which Vieira ignores; but just before him, Scholes does a funny little 'oooh no thanks mate' recoil when Vieira's hand appears.
Now, of course, either everyone does the nice friendly handshakes or your whole team dons a #prayforLuis t-shirt in support of your decision not to.
"I'm star-struck when I see Paul Scholes, because you never see him. On the pitch you can't catch him. Off the pitch he disappears." Luis Figo
"If it had come to a fight, Patrick could probably have killed me." Roy Keane