LONDON — Earlier this season, the sports pages of English newspapers were delighted when the public row between Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger kicked off (though no one expected it to be continuing and even gathering pace three months later).
Sports editors danced with delight as a wonderful story, handed to them on a plate, became a banquet.
Last week, the big football story was the war of words between Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, with the latter accusing the Scot of trying to influence referee Neale Barry during halftime of the League Cup semifinal.
A few years ago, there was a memorable television interview with then-Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan who “lost it” during a live interview when, his emotions there for all to see, said: “I would love it, really love it, if Leeds beat Manchester United,” after Ferguson’s mind games finally got the better of him.
Do you notice the common link here?
If there is a managerial row going on, the chances are Ferguson will be right there in the thick of it. However, Ferguson doesn’t get involved in slanging matches with the managers of Charlton, Southampton or Tottenham, only those in charge of the clubs who are also in the race for the Premiership title.
Ferguson knows the game, knows the system (some believe he invented it) and knows how to rattle people — managers, referees and the media. If there is anything Ferguson can do to gain an advantage for United he will do it regardless of the consequences.
It is a calculated act designed to hopefully unsettle the rival manager, because by doing that uncertainly can spread to the team.
And while as a journalist the Ferguson vs. Wenger feud is food and drink for my profession, looking at the bigger picture such behavior — or rather, misbehavior — damages the game and has a worrying knock-on effect that has made the Feb. 1 “rematch” of Arsenal and United almost unrefereeable.
Last week, Ferguson gave an interview to Glenn Moore of the Independent which was calculated to undermine Wenger and Arsenal — by coincidence or not, depending on your view, the Gunners lost 1-0 at Bolton on the day the interview appeared. In Fergie’s mind it was mission accomplished.
In the interview, Ferguson raked up the bad blood between the pair which started after United’s 2-0 win at Old Trafford in October, claiming Wenger called his players “cheats” in the tunnel and “came sprinting towards me with his hands raised . . .”
This from the manager who cut David Beckham’s eye when he kicked a boot in the midfielder’s direction after a dressing room row!
Wenger’s response was to say he would never answer any more questions about “this man.” Sir Alex Ferguson was, in Wenger’s world, the Clint Eastwood of football — the man with no name.
But a few days later, in an interview given to French television, Wenger could not resist what he said he would never do, claiming his rival had “lost all sense of reality” and “lost a lot of credibility by saying what he has.”
Twisting the knife Wenger said: “We need to introduce video replays as quickly as possible. If you take the example of Manchester United, they would be in mid-table now if officials had the benefit of them.”
THE GENERAL VIEW of the English media is that Sir Alex Ferguson has finally gotten to Arsene Wenger, winning the mind games hands down two weeks ahead of the Highbury showdown.
Wenger, according to most of the football writers, has “lost it” and Ferguson has “got under his skin.”
This is surprising as Wenger is probably the most intelligent manager in the Premiership.
I am only being slightly flippant when I say Wenger speaks better English than any of the other 19 Premiership managers, his vocabulary and wit in a second language a testament to the Frenchman.
I shall never forget Wenger’s immediate response last season when he was told that despite being below Arsenal in the Premiership, United had the better team. He said: “Everyone thinks they have the prettiest girlfriend.”
Last Sunday, the Football Writers’ Association held a tribute night dinner in honor of Wenger for his services to English football, the first overseas recipient of the distinction.
Wenger stood up and gave an ad-libbed speech that was a joy to behold.
This correspondent does not go along with the majority of his colleagues who feel Wenger has been undermined or affected by Ferguson.
However, Wenger wants the Football Association to charge Ferguson with bringing the game into disrepute. There are no grounds for that and does anyone seriously believe a £5,000 fine would worry Ferguson?
There is no point in expecting the chairman of the F.A., Geoff Thompson, who has made anonymity into an art form, to intervene.
The League Managers’ Association say they have no power over their members (!) and the respective chairmen of Arsenal and United would not risk upsetting their managers by telling them to talk about something else rather than each other.
WHAT THE LATEST (and, it can be said with confidence, not the last) outburst guarantees is that the meeting of Arsenal and United at Highbury should have parental guidance.
There has been no love lost between the teams for the last 10 years or so but now there is a complete breakdown in diplomatic relationships — the only thing the managers have in common is their opinion of each other.
The referee, probably England’s premier official Graham Poll, will almost have to “spoil” the game, clamping down on any tackle that goes beyond the call of duty.
Make no mistake, the continued and escalating ill feeling between the managers will seep through to the players — there are already enough old scores between the contestants to be settled without fuel being thrown on the fire in the manner that it has.
WAYNE ROONEY — again.
Last Saturday, he scored Manchester United’s winner at Liverpool in front of their famous Kop end and as a former Everton player this was the stuff of dreams.
Not content with scoring the “ultimate” goal, Rooney stood provocatively in front of the Kop with his hands behind his ears though, as the United striker’s ears are already members of the Sticky Out Club they did not need any help in this respect.
Referee Steve Bennett failed to caution Rooney for unsporting behavior as he surely should have — if Rooney’s actions in front of 8,000 Liverpool fans in the Kop were not unsporting or incitement, one wonders what is.
The striker went on to play like a raging bull, fortunate not to receive a second yellow card to the one he was eventually given for a late challenge. You did not have to be a lip reader to know some of the things Rooney was saying to Bennett and Liverpool players.
Rooney rarely seems to enjoy playing, his facial expression and body language aggressive and antagonistic with confrontation only a tackle or refereeing decision away.
The teenager still has as many red and yellow cards as Premiership goals to his credit, a head-to-head statistic that shows no sign of altering.
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