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By ESPN Staff

Departed Pires sad to leave 'unforgettable' Highbury

Robert Pires admits he will miss the 'unforgettable' atmosphere at Highbury and his 'amazing' bond with the Arsenal fans.

The 32-year-old French winger ended his six-season association with the Gunners earlier this week after his contract expired, joining Villarreal as a free agent.

Pires was an integral part of Arsene Wenger's team but was always likely to move when it became clear the Gunners would not change their policy of only offering 12-month contract extensions to senior members of the squad.

Pires may be set to end his career in Spain, agreeing terms on a two-year deal with the team he helped knocked out of the Champions League semi-finals, but the Frenchman admits Arsenal will always hold a special place in his heart.

'In England what strikes me is the respect between the players and the fans - it has been amazing during my six seasons,' Pires told Arsenal TV Online.

'Every time at Highbury was unforgettable, I always had shivers when I came on to the pitch.

'It is strange, I cannot really explain it, but when you come on, with those fans, it is always a great moment.'

The French midfielder recalled his 'shock' introduction to English football after a £6million move from Marseille during the summer of 2000, when he also helped Les Bleus to European Championship glory.

Pires said: 'When I arrived, the first game of that season was at Sunderland.

'I came here to play, but before the game, Arsene said to me `you will start on the bench today just to see how things are in England'.

'I did not know why he told me that really, and was a bit disappointed because I wanted to play.

'Then after 20 minutes I said to myself `what on earth am I doing here?' I thought `this football is not for me' - in my opinion there should have been two red cards for massive fouls on Patrick Vieira.

'So then I understood why I was on the bench that day and why Arsene Wenger had said that to me.

'It was a shock and it was hard at first.

'I needed six months, and it was hard because the French league and the English league are completely different, especially physically.

'I was used to the fact you were more protected by the referee, and that was not the case here.

'So that is why it took me six months to adapt properly, but then I loved it.'

Pires' last appearance for the Gunners ended in disappointment when he was substituted after just 20 minutes of the Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris, following the dismissal of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann.

Arsenal are set to start a new era in the Emirates Stadium next season and Pires added: 'All the games I have played for Arsenal will stay forever in my head, what I will never forget, though, is that tunnel at Highbury.

'I never thought before a tunnel could be so small, and that tunnel will always stay mythic for me.'