Published: 28 OCT 2004
FIXTURE I NO LONGER ENJOY
Let me start by telling you a bit about Manchester United & myself. I started supporting Manchester United in April 1981 after they played out a draw with Liverpool. I was only six at the time and just became fond of seeing them play: the kit, the way they played the game and the big names. Over the years the club has grown to mean more & more to me and brought me terrific highlights, some of which were not in wins. Strangely one of the biggest highlights for me was the end of the 1991-92 season when after looking like champions so long, Leeds pipped us at the post. We were so near & yet so far. Down, defeated, but I still loved the club. Alex Ferguson suggested United had learned & would use this experience to progress. Peter Schmeichel said we would win it within the next two years and Bryan Robson said that after finishing 13th, 6th & 2nd three seasons in a row, the only way was up.
Over the years the club has grown into a moneymaking monster with revenues growing to huge levels. But on the field the cut & thrust of the game of football has still been fantastic. Big name transfers, European nights, which are special, brilliant opposition players, Managers & dignitaries joning the who's who of football & show business to watch the big games. Since 1997 I've been part of a worldwide mailing list of Manchester United fans that debate & differ on lots of issues except a love of the club. It is the common bond that unites us. Send an e-mail to the list and within seconds people all over the world are reading it. And it's all about the club we love - Manchester United.
Since the inception of the Premiership Manchester United & Arsenal have won 11 of the 12 titles that have been handed out. Both clubs have produced brilliant results, spectacular football and records of all sorts. Up until the end of 2002 I really enjoyed the games between the two. Now I no longer do. And after the game on October 24th 2004, I wonder if I ever will again.
I really should have been an Arsenal fan because the person that had the most footballing influence on me when I was young was my Arsenal supporting uncle. I remember watching the 1979 Cup Final with him & he was delighted with Alan Sunderland's winner over United. It was two years before I began supporting United as I stated earlier, but the drug that is football/soccer means that although you support one team, you can still admire others. And Arsenal was a side I always really admired. Under George Graham they were men of class, inspired by the history & tradition of their club and played a brand of football that utilised players who although not world class, could get brilliant results for Arsenal. "The Arsenal" as they were known, produced magnificent results such as at Anfield in 1989 and performed some heroics, like the 1994 Cup Winners Cup final. George Graham's side could put together long unbeaten runs such as the run of 1991, which saw them lose just once all season in the league, and all in all they were a very impressive unit.
Since SKY obtained sole rights of showing live Premiership games, the coverage of these games has reached new levels. SKY have approximately 5 times the number of cameras at a game compared to what the BBC & ITV had and with the technology they use their coverage has changed the game forever in Britain. Goals and incidents are replayed whenver there is a break in play and referee's decisions are verified within seconds. Since SKY's arrival the referee's role has become far more important and now we are more often than not talking about referees after the games instead of the players & managers. A co-incidence? I think not.
Alex Ferguson has had his verbal jousts with many a Manager over the course of the Premiership. He has locked horns with Dalglish & Keegan, winning the battle with the latter but scoring 1-1 with Dalglish. But in October 1996 a new man arrived that would alter the very being of Arsenal football club. Arsene Wenger's first game in charge of the Gunners was a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford. He brought new ideas to Arsenal and at the tail end of the 1996-97 season he, along with Roy Evans angered Alex Ferguson when they rejected Ferguson's bid to extend the season. Manchester United found a lot of difficulty trying to compete in Europe and England and Ferguson asked for help but none was offered. It is a point Arsenal fans love to point out that Wenger's comments infuriated Ferguson so much that Arsenal won the title. But that title win was the following season.
The first time Arsenal showed resilience under Wenger was when they overhauled United's 11-point lead to win the 1997-98 title. They put together a fantastic ten game winning streak to win the title with two games to spare and were full vale for their win. They came to Old Trafford and won 1-0. Although it disappointed the hordes of United fans, you could not but admire their 1-0 win and great self-belief. SKY love to show the pictures of that Arsenal fan celebrating wildly on the final whistle. Back then it all seemed to be about joy & passion on both sides. Ferguson's response was typical. He took out his chequebook, signed three excellent players and with Roy Keane back from injury, spent the next three seasons keeping United firmly ahead of Arsenal in second place. The games between the two sides produced excellent football but the odd incident. But all in all there were some memorable encounters. United fans will remember fondly the 6-1 in February 2001. Equally, Arsenal will point to their 3-0 win over United in September 1998 & 1-0 with a Thierry Henry wonder goal in October 2000.
Towards the tail end of 2001 though something changed & I suspect it was with Wenger himself. Arsenal had spent three seasons playing second best, had seen United win the Treble and were rightly tired of this. Towards the end of 2001 Newcastle beat Arsenal 3-1 at Highbury and Thierry Henry berated referee Graham Poll for some of his decision making. Little did we think that this would be the image we associate with Arsenal for a long time. The FA charged Henry and the perceived sense of injustice at Highbury was palpable. Arsenal carried that defeat like a cross on their shoulders all the way to a title win. They won the title at Old Trafford of course and again deserved to be champions.
Arsene Wenger is a very intelligent man. He speaks a number of languages, has received a good education & comes across very calm. But I really have to question how he handles Arsenal football club. His comments are constantly designed to infuriate not only Alex Ferguson but also every living breathing Manchester United supporter. When Arsenal won the titles of 1998 & 2002, Ferguson was first to praise them & congratulate them as he did with Dalglish's Blackburn in 1995. When Manchester United were crowned champions in 2003 Wenger's boast was that Arsenal were the better team.
Wenger thinks a lot about the comments he makes and is excellent at getting the media to do part of his job. The last Manchester United/Arsenal fixture I enjoyed saw us beat Arsenal 2-0 on December 6th 2002. Without Roy Keane, it had looked unlikely that we would beat them. Instead of congratulating United on a deserved win, Wenger instead focused on how in the build up to Veron's goal, the ball had brushed Ruud Van Nistelrooy's hand. The fact that Ruud brilliantly set up a move that saw United score was overlooked as was Keown hitting Van Nistelrooy in the same game. Wenger cleverly does not see the incidents he wishes not to comment on: The man is an absolute genius at making it look as though Arsenal are the constant victims of some sort of campaign to stop them winning.
The next game between the two saw Arsenal beat United 2-0 at Old Trafford in the FA Cup. Arsenal were again deserved victors but Wenger again poured fuel on the fire saying that his reserve side had won the game. By the time United travelled to Highbury & drew 2-2 in a nail biting game at the end of the season, Arsenal had dropped points and United had the smell of a title. In what has become almost a deja-vu type scenario, Wenger & his Arsenal side claimed they were on the receiving end of a bad-refereeing decision. Sol Campbell was sent off for elbowing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the face. Never mind the fact that one of the goals Thierry Henry scored was offside, the fact Wenger perceived that Ole had dived was more important. The fact also that the linesman was no more than ten feet from the incident was lost on Wenger.
Arsene Wenger is a bad loser and that is a fact. The well documented battle of Old Trafford in September 2003 saw Wenger refused to condemn his players, not see certain incidents and claim that Ruud Van Nistelrooy does not do himself any favours. The media did play up the antics of Arsenal's players after that game, but apart from Keown's comical primate dance, their actions were those of spoiled children who had been taught that losing is not an option. Van Nistelrooy for his part did kick out at Vieira, but Vieira, rather than letting the referee deal with it decided to kick out. Again, the sense of injustice descended over Highbury. Their chairman chastised their players in Public. Their fans reaction? To tell him to keep his nose out of it. By now Wenger's brilliant psychology had infiltrated the players and fans alike that any thought of defeat brought a sense of injustice: The sense of injustice that made Martin Keown do something that he must surely look back on now with embarrassing shame.
I think that the two games in a week at the end of last season when United drew 1-1 and beat Arsenal 1-0 in the FA Cup semi final gave Manchester United a renewed sense of being able to beat Arsenal. Wenger got it wrong tactically in the Premiership game and playing Cygan in a left wing role must surely be questioned. This allowed United to formulate a plan that saw them win the FA Cup match. I suspect that these games had a huge effect on Wenger and once he also failed to Chelsea in the Champions League this "unbeaten run" took on a new significance. I do think all Arsenal fans whether they admit it or not, would swap it for the Treble, or even the Champions League. Is it that Arsenal's continued failure in big games causes Wenger to react badly to losing? Losing out to Manchester United domestically in 1999, the UEFA Cup final of 2000, continued failure in the latter rounds of the Champions League and the two semi final losses last season. Why also is it blatantly clear that the hierarchy at Old Trafford are no strangers to praising Arsenal (as is plain from both the autobiographies of Roy Keane & Alex Ferguson and the praise Ferguson has heaped on Arsenal for each of their three Premiership crowns) yet praise has never seem to come in the reverse direction? One of Ferguson's final team talks prior to the 1999 Champions League final was to tell his players that Arsenal were a better side than Bayern Munich and United had overcome Arsenal in the big two domestic competitions & thus should beat Bayern. Surely, even the most die-hard Arsenal fan would see that as a huge compliment? And although our Champions League record is not something that allows us to laugh at Arsenal, as we have won it only once, our players and staff are big enough to admit to a certain amount of luck in winning that final as was again stated in Roy Keane's autobiography. Would Wenger or any of his players make such an admission?
And so to this season's first offering. It is not even 72 hours after the game and some 450 million people know the tale of what happened. Rio Ferdinand & Van Nistelrooy should have been sent off, United got a lucky penalty yet had another clearer one denied and there was an incident on the tunnel. Now let me say that Van Nistelrooy's tackle was a bad one and had Riley seen it he would have walked. But for all the by now all familiar sense of injustice and labelling Ruud Van Nistelrooy a cheat, it is the same old same old from Wenger. Again, he did not see the incident where soup & pizza was thrown at Ferguson. Again he feels Arsenal were unjustly treated and again he has ensured that his players have another cross to bear until Manchester United & Arsenal meet again. I opened a daily paper today horrified to find Reyes saying Arsenal will "gain revenge" for the so called kicking he got in Sunday's game. One has to wonder what form of revenge will this be? Will United players be singled out for physical abuse? Will they call upon their fans to make it hostile? Are they advocating that someone be hurt? Reyes received four hard challenges two of which saw the Neville brothers booked. Does this sort of play warrant the tags Wenger has placed on United's players such as "cheat" and "kicking us all over the park". You have to wonder what Wenger said in that dressing room last Sunday. And also, why, if so many players seemed to "square up" to each other, Arsene Wenger saw no incident. Instead of praising his side for their wonderful 49 game run that saw them become record breakers, he's more interested in calling United leg breakers.
In an age with so much violence in the world, do we really need all this? Some of what I saw in the papers today reminded me of statements I've seen from war zones. "Revenge" is a strong word. Football is meant to be about enjoying the game. Are we really enjoying it? Ruud Van Nistelrooy describing our penalty as a "present" and Wayne Rooney saying he wasn't touched are not helping the situation. These comments are aiding Wenger on his injustice crusade, playing right into his hands. The mind wanders back to a game between Liverpool & Arsenal three years ago. Francis Jeffers got a penalty for a "foul" by Riise where like last Sunday the contact was minimal. Wenger did not see the incident. Then there was Pires dive against Portsmouth last season that won them a point. Arsenal fans used interpretations of the rule book to such effect that it became almost impossible to disagree with them. This, something their manager had brilliantly taught them. Wenger is calm, calculated & knows the media inside out. He has got inside the minds of all Arsenal players & fans to such a level that even when he says something he can make them believe he never said it. In 2002 he said that Arsenal would go unbeaten all season. When, in October 2002, Everton, inspired by Wayne Rooney made that comment seem silly, he claimed he never said it, and claimed he said they "could go unbeaten all season". This man cannot be under-estimated for his brilliance at using Basic English to achieve his goals.
For all Wenger has done on the positive side there are a lot of negatives to his time at Arsenal. There is no better indictment of that than Thierry Henry. Wenger gave him the confidence to become one of the world's top players. But on the flip side Henry behaves like a spoiled brat if things do not go his way. As stated earlier there was that spat with Graham Poll in 2001. Last Sunday he had words with Roy Carroll because Roy was taking the full time allotted to release the ball. After United's second goal, Scholes tackled Henry after re-starting the game. Henry passed the ball off & immediately ran to Scholes almost as if Scholes had no right to tackle him. Other players Wenger has added have question marks over their temperament. Lehmann is never far from controversy while Patrick Vieira must have been alongside the referee on at least ten occasions last Sunday, looking for a card when United fouled a player. All in all, I get the impression that these Arsenal players believe that anyone who challenges them physically or for the title, must be punished. That attitude has to be coming from their manager. Is it a co-incidence that Wenger chose to comment on the Wayne Rooney transfer at the start of the season? With a player of immense talent joining United, Wenger questioned the terms of his contract at United. Another brilliant tactic to get at United & to fire up his own players. Anyone who dares challenge the Arsenal dynasty must be brought to task.
I'm not looking forward to the clash at Highbury next February. If we are beaten I've no problem with that, but I wonder what sort of frenzy Wenger will stir Arsenal into? And for all his perceived injustice, maybe he should have a look at how Kenny Dalglish handled the two defeats to Manchester United in the 1994-95 season. In the first, Henning Berg was dubiously sent off at Ewood Park for a professional foul on Lee Sharpe. United won 4-2. In January 1995 United won 1-0 with a late Tim Sherwood goal ruled out after the referee claimed he spotted Shearer pushing Roy Keane in the build up. Dalglish remained tight lipped, claimed he thought Berg shouldn't have been sent off and that Sherwood's goal should not have been ruled out. No paranoid claims in the media, no cross to bear, just a run that saw Balckburn win the championship. Wenger could learn a lot from Dalglish on how you react to a defeat. Dalglish & Ferguson are no bosom buddies. But you sense that Dalglish respects Ferguson, while I don't think you can say the same for Wenger. Finally let me say I'm not putting all the blame on Wenger for no longer enjoying this fixture. Some of our players have let themselves down and our own Manager is no stranger to clever comments in the media or getting our players to almost win at all costs. Also seeing effigies of Malcolm Glazer and seeing balaclava-wearing fans burning an American flag at a reserve game is not helping our image. I'm all for stopping Glazer but let's do it with brains rather than brawn, in any case that's another days work. But you have to wonder why the sort of incidents seen in recent United/Arsenal games did not happen in pre-Wenger days. I remember in 1988 we were 3-1 down to Liverpool at Anfield in a game that could have seen them win the title. Norman Whiteside came on, put in a few hard challenges & after getting to 3-2, Strachan rounded their keeper & slotted into the net. He crazily smoked an imaginary cigar in front of the Kop. Ten thousand Scousers stood with anger in their eyes. I wonder what would happen if a Manchester United player did something similar at Highbury next February. The thought scares me.
Wenger's army are at their best when crushing teams like Charlton by four or five goals. But when a team can match and beat them then their players are calling for cards, their manager is commenting on the opposition players and not seeing any of his own players' indiscretions. It makes me wonder why this sort of thing has happened to Arsenal in games V ourselves, Newcastle, Liverpool, & Portsmouth and why for us it only happens against Arsenal. Why was there no complaints from Wenger about United players behaviour in Arsenal's 3-1 win over United in November 2001 or in any game Arsenal have beaten United? The only conclusion I can arrive at is that Wenger is a bad loser who is a genius at getting inside his players minds & telling them everyone is against Arsenal. But ultimately at what cost will this be? It would be so refreshing if for once we got a game from these two giants that made headlines for brilliant football, class play and great spirit. After all forty-six years ago that was the last memory some of our fans had of a great side that perished. That game made the headlines for nine goals, a great Arsenal fight back & a standing ovation by both sets of fans at the end. Will we see that in February? I won't hold my breath.
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