September 17, 2021

Patrick Vieira's journey to Crystal Palace: The natural leader who was initially reluctant to become a coach

July 28, 2021

This summer marks a decade since Patrick Vieira's retirement as a player. The final 18 months of that career were spent at Manchester City just as the club were taking their final steps towards becoming true Premier League heavyweights. Vieira had a role to play.

"By that time, he was not somebody who could get around the pitch," Simon Wilson tells Sky Sports. "He was not somebody who could have a massive influence on the way that we played. But he was a locker room influence at that time. It was his leadership and presence."

Wilson was City's strategy and performance manager at the time and offers rare insight into the thinking that persuaded the club not only to bring Vieira to Manchester but also to keep him there beyond his playing career. His contract was extended on lucrative terms.

"The club did not know what he would be after playing but they wanted him to be something. They wanted his skills and capabilities around the club. We knew it would help in some way. It was my job to help transition him from a playing career into something else."

Wilson still remembers the initial conversation in which the pair discussed the next move. The verdict from Vieira was surprisingly emphatic. "The first thing he said was, 'I know I don't want to be a coach. No way in the world do I want to be a coach. I just could not do it.'

As a result, Vieira embarked upon what Wilson describes as "the McDonald's graduate scheme" - spending a week in each department of the club. His tour of duty would include ambassadorial work, attending games and doing meet-and-greets with the sponsors.

"He started off by saying that he really liked the community work, the charitable causes, and he could see himself doing that. Slowly, he became more attracted to the academy because he missed football. He liked the development side but not the first-team stuff."

It was two years before he took charge of the elite development squad at City and another couple before he took his first senior job in New York. Ten years on from that initial reluctance to embark upon his coaching journey, Vieira is a Premier League manager.

Crystal Palace's decision to appoint the 45-year-old Frenchman as the replacement for the hugely experienced Roy Hodgson is seen by some as a gamble but Wilson is optimistic.

He witnessed Vieira growing into the role in Manchester and - having been appointed as director of football services for City Football Group - was partly responsible for entrusting him with the New York City job in Major League Soccer. Wilson was impressed.

"Everyone has an idea of what good looks like. It was not just the results and performances. I have seen a lot of coaches work and the way that he works with the team is fantastic.

"He is that classic example of someone who can walk into a room, say nothing, but he just has that presence about him and that has carried through into his coaching. Despite that, Patrick is very low ego. He is quite understated, quite self-conscious, actually.

"He is massive and charming, everyone loves him. But if you speak to him one-on-one, he is surprisingly reflective and shy in some ways. I always thought it was an ideal combination. He had those natural leadership qualities but he was also willing to utilise his staff.

"It created that really connected staff and you almost had the best of both worlds. You had the staff integrated but when a decision needed to be made, it carried real weight because it was coming out of his mouth with his body language and style.

"There are some people who have had amazing careers but because of that they could not accept players who could not do what they could do. Patrick is not like that. He would expect effort and application, he would command respect, but he was always giving."

It helped that Vieira was quickly surrounded by "some of the best support staff" that City had. The whole operation was designed to mimic a first-team environment.

Kristian Wilson, who has joined Vieira at Palace, stepped up from the position of skills coach within the academy. Simon Davies and Christian Lattanzio were also there to provide support with Matt Cook handling the fitness side. "It was fully loaded," says Wilson.

"Two assistants, analysts, physio, strength and conditioning coach. That team was almost our vision of what a great coaching staff looked like. It was a super team and we let him run it like he was the manager. The way that they were working was just top class."

There was a temptation to move Vieira to New York City for the club's inaugural MLS season in 2015, but it was felt that this was a little too soon for Vieira and a little too risky given the unique charms of the competition on that side of the Atlantic. Jason Kreis took the job.

"We went with the accepted wisdom at the time that you need a coach who knows the league and that someone like Patrick would be way too raw. We were hearing about the salary cap and how we would have to compromise some of our style-of-play values.

"That is because you can't find the funds for positions like full-backs. If you want full-backs who can invert or whatever then you are going to have to pay more than $30,000 because you will not find that skill-set in that salary range. We probably started to believe that so we went with an American coach who knew the league and had been successful in that league."

The plan did not work. Not only did New York City miss out on the playoffs but only one of the 20 franchises picked up fewer points in that first season. Kreis, for all his credentials, was moved on and the City Football Group was forced into a rethink.

"It made us reflect on what we wanted. If we were going to lose, we may as well do it the way we want to do it. We saw more upside from the development of Patrick and the development of the players working with Patrick than we did in doing it this way."

The appointment brought career progression and continuity.

"When he got that job, we all felt like he was one of our own. It felt like a whole group of people had got an opportunity which was nice to see. They kept true to the way we had been working in that academy. Patrick had no experience of doing it another way."

That was significant because Vieira took certain customs, certain improvements, that he had implemented in Manchester City's academy into his first senior role.

"Back then, the coaches would sit in the coaches office, the medical staff in the medical office, the sports scientists in the sports science office, the analysts in the analysts' office. Patrick was the first one to say that he wanted one big office and all of his team in it.

"We used to work like that in the academy, but because he had that experience, he took that with him to first-team level. One of the reasons why we liked him so much was because he had that integrated way of working with a lot of empowerment for the staff."

It took time for the results to follow. Fifteen games into the season and Vieira's side had lost more games than they had won. "The first two or three months were very difficult because Patrick was trying to institute a perfect way of playing," Wilson explains.

"He was transitioning to first-team football, playing a Manchester City way, which is a bit idealistic. We were making big mistakes in games while trying to instil the principles. In time, we knew the more that those principles were enforced we would get better at it.

"You could see there were green shoots after four or five months and certainly in the second year when we were competing at the top end of the table. We were playing a style of football that nobody else was playing and we were winning with it."

Fourth overall in that first season, winning 11 of their final 19 regular-season games, the improvement continued into Vieira's second campaign in 2017. New York City finished second overall and though there was no playoff glory, the point had been made.

"We gained a competitive edge because we were able to add more value to those $30,000 players than other teams were. Credit to Patrick for staying true all the way through that."

Playing for Patrick

Ethan White was precisely the sort of affordable full-back that Vieira needed to coax more from. There were superstars at New York City: Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and David Villa among them. But the handling of players such as White was just as important.

"He played attacking football, out from the back, everything on the ground," White tells Sky Sports. "If you play the ball in the air, it is highly frowned upon. But the good thing is that he will walk you through everything and explain it in a way that the players believe in it."

White remembers Vieira as "a players' coach" but that did not stop him ending up watching from the stands one evening when a traffic incident in New York led to him being minutes late for a pre-match meeting. Vieira empathised but remained firm.

"Patrick is a man who lays out his rules," says White. "I was not even upset with his decision. I understood it. He is the captain and you get on the boat together with rules in place. You all have to pull together and follow those rules. It is about respect.

"When he is coaching you, he knows how to treat you like a friend in the right moments and he knows how to treat you like he is your coach in the right moments. He knows how to speak to you in a very good way. Patrick is an incredible guy.

"There is nothing better than having a coach who understands what it is like to be in your shoes. Most coaches have played but it is different when it is a player who my generation will have seen play in some of the most iconic matches for Arsenal and for France."

Nowhere should Vieira's reputation have counted for more than in his home country, so the move to Nice in 2018 looked a smart one. But his two-and-a-half years there were no more than a qualified success, finishes of seventh and fifth not enough to convince.

The circumstances were not the easiest with ownership changes and increasing expectations. It was a learning experience on the pitch, dealing with the idiosyncrasies of Mario Balotelli and trying to coax consistency from the mercurial Allan Saint-Maximin.

But both the former player and the former administrator share the view that Palace have a new manager who is stronger for the experience and well placed to deliver in England.

"If I were a Crystal Palace supporter, I would expect Patrick to have the guys buying into what he wants to do, playing some exciting football," says White. "Eberechi Eze being out is unfortunate but Michael Olise is an exciting player. I am sure they will be exciting.

"Look at Jack Harrison's success at Leeds. Patrick was a big part of Jack's development. He is an example of how Patrick can develop a player so I am 100 per cent sure that he will be good for the young players. He provides a support system to get the best out of them."

Whether the support system is there for Vieira himself remains to be seen. He has brought with him only one coach so far, not the myriad of staff that he worked with in Manchester and New York. But Wilson is backing him to soon develop new relationships at Selhurst Park.

"I expect Patrick to very quickly build up his credibility and trust within the club. He is very good on the relationship side, he is very classy. He will command the respect of players. He will be able to connect with all types and he can speak a number of languages.

"He will delegate, he will take on ideas. Patrick is intelligent enough to do that. It is not like he can only play one way. He can get in the middle of that and find a nice balance at a club like Palace. I think it is a good appointment, it is just about the time and the backing."

Ten years on, this once reluctant coach is ready for the challenge.

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