Sure, he was not averse to administering the odd kick — some less sly than others — during his playing career. But there is no doubt he was the engine of the great Arsenal teams of the noughties. The measure of his significance marked by the failure of the club adequately to replace him.
In many ways, he is to Arsenal what Paul Scholes is to Manchester United: an embodiment writ large of the club's sense of itself. United too found their man irreplaceable. Which is largely why he has come back from retirement this season: his manager found he couldn't do without him.
Perhaps recognising the similarity, Vieira was talking about Scholes to Mark Ogden in an excellent interview in this morning's Telegraph. And he reckoned the return of the Ginger Genius was an admission of failure on Manchester United's part. They couldn't replace him properly, so required him to come back and fill the fill the Paul Scholes-shaped hole he had left on his departure. It could, Vieira suggested, turn out to be the mistake of the season.
It was an intriguing thought. But I have the growing feeling that, far from an error, Ferguson's decision to re-embrace his finest ever youth team product, could prove a title-winning manoeuvre.
Vieira these days works upstairs for Manchester City. It is not entirely clear, beyond shaking a few hands on match days and conducting the odd interview, exactly what his role is. But if any club can afford to keep a loyal, old retainer on the pay roll it is City. And this evening, his club will welcome back a prodigal of their own. Carlos Tevez is likely to make the bench for the crucial fixture with Chelsea.
Vieira, however, saw none of the problems he outlined in Scholes's return in Tevez's second coming. A brilliant striker, fresh from a season on the golf course, Vieira thought he might provide just the impetus City's stuttering championship pursuit requires. It could be. Though the return of a man so contemptuous of his colleagues' efforts that he happily pursued his own selfish agenda and walked out on them with barely a backward glance might just as easily fatally unbalance the collective morale. Only time will tell.
But of this there is no doubt: the return of Scholes and Tevez has given the title run-in the most compelling subplot. Which of the old timers will have the biggest influence? Which johnny-come-lately will be most coveted? Which of the two will be doing something neither of them can have anticipated last October and be cradling a Premier League winner's medal in their palm come May?
The vision that keeps coming back to me, however, is this one. Over the next eight games, the cut and thrust is such that the two teams enter the final straight just a point apart. Just as the Premier League stage-managers at Sky would have wished, all has come down to the derby at the Etihad on April 30. What a game that promises to be. City, confident after the crushing manner of their win in the season's other derby; United desperate for revenge.
And, in my vision, it turns out the pattern of the game in many ways reflects the season. City are full of verve and enterprise; United, not as eye-catching as they have been in the past, barely summon up an attack. But for all City's enterprise and zest, United — with the once maligned David De Gea performing miracles — hold out.
With 20 minutes remaining, it is still goalless. In an attempt to break the deadlock, from the bench, Roberto Mancini calls Tevez. Unlike in Munich last autumn, the little Argentinian is desperate to get on the pitch. He tears out there, his every intervention soundtracked by throaty boos from the visiting fans, who still smart over his treacherous transfer from their realm.
Tevez is everywhere, darting with venom and purpose, immediately making the difference. De Gea saves well from him on a couple of zesty occasions. Then, with but a minute of stoppage time remaining, he tears into the box and smacks a shot unstoppable even by the young Spaniard goalwards.
The blue sections of the crowd are on their feet celebrating the championship-winning strike. But the ball hits the crossbar, at such a rattle it bounces back up field, falling at the feet of Michael Carrick. He spreads it quickly wide to Wayne Rooney, haring down the wing. He crosses into the under-manned City box. There is a scramble. A failed clearance. A deflection. And the ball lands at the feet of the Ginger Genius, standing, unattended by any defender, but two yards from the goal line…
The fact that this scenario was told to me by a City-supporting mate, who claims it has been haunting his dreams for the past few weeks, suggests to me there are not many who share Vieira's view that bringing back Scholes might prove to be the error of the season.