My Perfect 10: Vladimir Petrovic

The new issue of FourFourTwo is a 'Playmakers Special'. This week on FFT.com our writers will be celebrating their favourite fantasistas – and Professor Champions League starts us off with the discarded genius who played Wengerball before the term even existed...

Vladimir Petrovic could, as Arsenal historian Ivan Ponting noted, "drift through games with the detached air of a man out for a quiet afternoon’s plane-spotting" but that didn’t stop me loving him. The mercurial Serbian playmaker was, his Gunners team-mate Brian McDermott said, "like a messenger from the future, letting us know that one day English football would be ruled by players like him."

There is some justice in Brian Glanville’s pithy verdict: "Gifted but sporadic". But when you watched a side as fractured, aimless and infuriating as Terry Neill’s Arsenal in 1982/83, Petrovic’s visionary, inconsistent genius was easier to stomach than Brian Talbot’s running, the industrial pointlessness of which symbolised an era when British football confused activity with ability.

In 1982, eastern European football as almost as remote as the dark side of the moon so when a frail blond playmaker nicknamed Pigeon arrived at Highbury that winter, nobody knew quite what to make of him. Unfortunately one of the people who didn’t know what to make of him was his new manager who often used Petrovic, a playmaker revered for his talent by Red Star Belgrade fans, as a winger.

Luckily, the players recognised his ability. Tony Woodcock and Alan Sunderland would soon learn to cry "Vladi! Vladi!" and stretch their arms out appealing for the perfect through-ball.

The official stats – 22 appearances (three as a sub) and three goals – would seem to confirm the dismissive view of Ponting and Glanville. But he joined a team in transition, in the sense that Arsenal were going from bad to worse: a team that seemed mesmerised by its own decline. They didn’t play anything as pretty as Wengerball. Nor were they as soporifically efficient as George Graham’s Gooners.

Heady days: Vladimir Petrovic and Ashley Grimes

Though they had some talent – the North Bank could still sing "We all agree, Rixy is better than Hoddle" and almost believe it – few playmakers have been asked to make the play for such a dysfunctional outfit. Tenth in the old First Division in 1982/83 flattered that Arsenal team.

Watching from the North Bank, trying to blend in by perfecting the requisite amused fatalism, I was intrigued by Petrovic. If he did, as Stewart Robson told Jon Spurling in his book Highbury, "have a tendency to drift out of games completely", it was hard to blame him as Kenny Sansom thundered down the left (a tactic which was by 1982/83 merely underlining the law of diminishing returns), scrambled defensive clearances went astray and his through-balls found spaces his team-mates weren’t aware of.

A free-kick first alerted me to Petrovic’s spellbinding genius. Memory tells me that it was against Stoke City in January 1983. Arsenal had won a free-kick 35 yards from Stoke’s goal at the Clock End. The North Bank groaned, awaiting the usual dance of indecision that preceded every promising set-piece that season. But Petrovic strolled up to the ball, curled it around the wall and into the net.

Nobody cheered for a second or two. We weren’t used to free-kicks being taken that quickly and emphatically and, as the goal was at the other end of the pitch, many on the North Bank must have wondered if it was all a mirage. But as the Arsenal players drifted back towards the centre-circle, the North Bank realised it hadn’t been seeing things and let out a mighty roar.

Though the crowd began to chant "Vladi", his teammates quickly realised he wasn’t destined to stay. The Serb had only made his debut in December but by March Neill had decided he was surplus to requirements. (I asked Neill about this many years later and he said he’d desperately wanted to keep Petrovic but had been foiled by the ever-changing financial demands from his agent and Red Star.) The next game, an FA Cup quarter-final against Aston Villa, Petrovic was superb, turning two opponents inside out before scoring a blinder.

He never did anything that match-changing again. Yet those Arsenal fans still pining for the assured artistry of dear departed Liam Brady adored him. And on the last home game, against Sunderland, he ran rings around everyone. He was so brilliant it was like watching one of those impossibly perfect performances I’d only read about in comics like Score, Roar and Roy of the Rovers.

That was his last-ditch attempt to persuade Neill and Arsenal to keep him. Even with most of the stadium chanting "Are you watching Terry Neill?" it didn’t work. Petrovic was off that summer – to Paris and then to Antwerp. Neill would be gone a few months later, booted out in December 1983 with the Gunners just five points clear of relegation.

When Petrovic left, he told Spurling, he received a letter from one Arsenal fan saying: "Maybe one day Arsenal fans will enjoy watching a skilful team rather than a bunch of kickers and runners." As the Serb joked: "I wonder if Arsene Wenger wrote the letter?"

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The 'Playmakers Special' issue of FourFourTwo is in stories throughout September 2010.

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