Arsenal and Man Utd. Two teams that haven’t got on since the dawn of time. We had the brawls in 1990, which ended with both teams being deducted points, we had the Van Nistelrooy incident, which saw a cumulative ten match ban for Arsenal players alone, Pizzagate, red cards, fights in the tunnel, the list goes on.
Keane, Vieira, Van Nistelrooy, Keown, Neville, Reyes – all of these had spats with each other. And it does not stop with the players – Wenger and Ferguson have been taking pot shots at each other for years.
But the build up to this match was different. There were compliments, there was respect, in fact there was barely a hint of animosity. Could it last?
The answer was yes, mostly. The game was fiery and competitive, but played in an excellent spirit. Players would commit fully to tackles then help their opponent up, there were pats on the back, nods of appreciation and, at the final whistle, mutual respect shown in the congratulations for both sides. Even Eboue and Ronaldo, well known for their histrionics, behaved impeccably. It was a truly honourable occasion.
Except for two people. Alex Ferguson, and Anderson.
The former started early. After Evra had picked up an early yellow card for a wild challenge, he clearly tripped Eboue right in front of the dugout. For once, the Ivorian made no fuss of the challenge, getting up without complaining, and everyone prepared to carry on. There was no question of a second yellow for Evra, as the foul was entirely innocuous.
But Ferguson went absolutely ballistic on the touchline, as if Eboue had punched Evra, or stamped on him. And it was over absolutely nothing. Experienced observers knew exactly what was going on, however. Ferguson was playing off Eboue’s (deserved) reputation, trying to influence the referee by suggesting that he was making the most of fouls. He wasn’t, but that isn’t the point.
I can’t remember which former player it was that said Ferguson taught them to appeal for every throw in, as if utterly convinced it was yours, even if you knew it wasn’t. He was using the same tactic. He knew he wouldn’t change the referee’s mind – what he was trying to do was allow Evra to get away with a later foul on Eboue by putting doubt in his mind. It is a tried a tested tactic that he uses. And it is utterly infuriating.
But what followed was far worse. Ten of the United players were playing with dignity, but they had an exception in their ranks, Anderson, who on his first Arsenal-United outing, was becoming roughly as popular as Teddy Sheringham.
After debating numerous decisions by the officials, Adebayor committed a foul, and Anderson barged to within an inch of the referee, sending him backwards a few steps (and there was me thinking you couldn’t touch the ref). Worse still, he frantically brandished an imaginary yellow card, pleading for Adebayor to get booked. Which, as you know, is a mandatory yellow card offence. But Howard Webb did nothing.
Then Cesc fouled him. It wasn’t a good challenge, and may have even picked up a yellow anyway, but Anderson took it upon himself to stop, then start on a manic rolling spree, flipping himself over and over again on to his ‘injured’ ankle until the card came out. He then stood up and casually walked away. Cesc’s mocking of him in the aftermath was highly amusing, and I hope this sort of pathetic play acting gets his the reputation he deserves. Simulation is, of course, another yellow card offence.
On the stroke of half time, United took the lead, and Anderson made a point of breaking the huddle, turning to the Arsenal fans, and putting his fingers to his lips. Players have rightly been punished for this before – incitement coming under the hood of ungentlemanly conduct. Which, in case you haven’t got the theme by now, is another yellow card offence.
But back to Ferguson. After the match, he came out with an extraordinary rant, which although it initially deflected attention from the match on to his comments (as was his plan), has since been ridiculed in more than one newspaper, and in fact on MOTD2.
“They got their second goal from pumping the ball into the box. It got a bit of a deflection when they pumped the ball into the box in injury-time and ended up at the back post”
What match was he watching? Clichy made a fantastic run down the left, and whipped in the perfect cross. If Giggs made that cross he’d be purring. Instead, it was ‘pumped in’. Comments like that make you look like a fool, Alex. But it got worse:
“Their second goal came from him not giving a free-kick for a foul on Louis Saha on the far side. It should have been a foul for us.”
After the ‘foul’, Arsenal played the ball into touch, United threw back in, Arsenal won the ball back, attacked, and lost possession, giving United a goal kick. Then Arsenal won it back, before losing it once more, until Clichy won it back and embarked on that run.
Following the same logic, any manager can watch his team concede a goal, and then complain about a foul twenty minutes earlier that led up to it. Talk about clutching at straws.
Up to that point, these were just the rants of a frustrated manager, annoyed that his side had lost a three point swing in injury time. But then he took a turn for the sinister.
“I think Howard Webb has a great chance to be the top referee but today was a big game for him and, at times, he favoured Arsenal”
I have no qualms with managers being annoyed with referees after they’ve had a poor game. What infuriates me is hearing a manager question their impartiality, especially after a match in which they have largely performed well. The patronising tone with which he makes this accusation is even worse – the clear message is that Webb did not do enough for United.
Well, here’s the news Alex. Referees are not there to give you everything. They are supposed to call each decision as they see them, and on the most part, he was good on Saturday. All he did wrong was be over officious at times, which affected both sides, and not give Arsenal a penalty for a clear shirt tug on Hleb in the first half. Quite rightly, the FA have asked Ferguson to explain his comments. I imagine he’ll struggle.
And as if that wasn’t enough, his final rant was hypocritical in the extreme.
“On our bench, we were getting terrible abuse from people two or three feet away from us. “
“There is a lack of security here. It is absolutely disgraceful the abuse you and your staff take. All sorts of things are been shouted and screamed at you and there is an absolute danger here.”
A few things. Firstly, I do not condone abusing players or managers to the extent that goes on in most Premiership grounds – some of the chants are shocking. Neither do the stewards, who ejected one such fan during the game on Saturday.
But the most shocking chant I have heard can be heard most prominently at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane, and it is aimed at Arsene Wenger. For Ferguson to complain that he takes abuse at the Emirates, yet sit there smiling at Old Trafford as tens of thousands of ‘fans’ sing about Wenger bring a paedophile, is utterly ridiculous. Pot, meet kettle.
Whether Ferguson was rattled into making stupid comments, I cannot say. But he must take abuse at every ground, not least for angering people with the sly digs and comments he makes in the media leading up to a game. What does he expect when he specialises in winding people up?
If he goes to Old Trafford, and condemns his own fans for the song they sing about Wenger, then he can criticise Arsenal fans who hurl abuse at him. Otherwise, he is a hypocrite of the highest order.
But in an attempt to end on a positive, 21 players and one manager acted impeccably on Saturday, to the surprise of many. Wenger, Eboue, Ronaldo, Rooney – all had the potential to come out of the game somewhat negatively. All behaved with honour.
Such a shame that two had to spoil it.