Offside, 3 February

Wenger v Ferguson: a matter for the Met?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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I’ve detected a worrying trend. As I get older not only do coppers look younger but increasingly I find myself agreeing with Alastair Campbell.

In November 2004 Campbell penned a disconcertingly reasonable article in the Observer criticising the excessive number of minutes of silence observed at football matches. Of course Campbell’s concerns are very different from mine. While I recoil at the coercive nature of such emotionally correct rituals, Campbell is evidently worried that the social glue of public grief will lose it sticktogetherability – as Iain Dowie might say – if there are too many minutes of silence. So, no need to worry, it’s just an accidental intersection of otherwise divergent opinions. It could happen to anyone.

But then a couple of weeks ago it happened again. Writing in The Times about the feud between Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson, Campbell asked: ‘Am I the only one who thinks that there should be more, not less needle between our top football managers?’ (2) Blimey, if the former Downing Street spinmeister continues in this vein I’ll be out of a job. To agree with Campbell once is probably coincidence but to concur twice is downright spooky. Where will this end? Admiring Tony Blair’s taste in casual clothes? Laughing at Jack Straw’s jokes? I shudder to think.

We’ve come to expect journalists to throw up their arms in mock horror whenever there’s an outbreak of argy-bargy between Arsenal and Manchester United. This time, in the run-up to Arsenal’s home game against United, the football authorities and the Metropolitan Police stepped in to break up the verbal bunfight between the two managers. ‘When these two great teams meet it should represent all that is good about our domestic game’, said new FA chief Brian Barwick. ‘We’re prepared to take whatever action is necessary to end hostilities between the clubs’, warned FA chairman Geoff Thompson.

Of course there’s something quite undignified about two grown men trading insults in public but the authorities are more concerned about the perceived threat to public order. ‘Any activity in the build up to the game which increases the intensity and hostility of the supporters should be stopped’, said Islington police chief Barry Norman. At the risk of sounding like the prospective Tory candidate for Godalming, don’t the police have more pressing matters to attend to, like solving crimes? Certainly passions run high when Arsenal and United meet, but you don’t see hundreds of rival fans fighting pitched pizza battles, lunging at each other with two-football tackles, or going to ground theatrically and feigning injury.

While the police are taking the managerial feud far too seriously, a poll on the BBC News website suggests that most football fans aren’t that bothered. While 29 per cent felt the spat was damaging for the managers and their clubs, 35 per cent thought it was entertaining and intriguing, and a further 36 per cent said they couldn’t care less. While I think that a bit of needle can only add spice to a football rivalry even I’m getting rather bored with the interminable, self-obsessed squabbling between the two managers. Yes, we know you don’t like each other. You’ve made your points now please shut up.

It is often said that Ferguson is a master at playing mind games, as illustrated by Kevin Keegan’s infamous ‘I’d love it if we beat them’ rant as Newcastle blew a 12-point lead to hand the Premiership title to United. But Ferguson’s psychological armoury, when you examine it, is remarkably crude. When Arsenal won the Double in 2002 Ferguson refused to acknowledge the flaws in his own team. His jibe that ‘They are scrappers who rely on belligerence – we are the better team’, was not so much psychological warfare as schoolyard name-calling (‘Your mum’s so fat…la-la-la-la I’m not listening’). At the time Wenger’s cool retort that ‘Everyone thinks that they have the prettiest wife at home’ suggested that Fergie had met his psychological match. However, Wenger’s composure has been shaken by the recent downturn in Arsenal’s fortunes. His recent ‘I will never answer questions any more about this man’ outburst demonstrated that his fabled sangfroid was in shreds.

The increasingly hysterical tone to the public slanging-match between Wenger and Ferguson tells us a lot about the shifting balance of power in English football. In the past the tense relationship between the two men was an expression of their two teams’ struggle for Premiership supremacy. The football always came first while the verbals were just an entertaining sideshow. However, as Chelsea have left both United and Arsenal trailing in their wake this season, the puerile bickering between the Arsenal and United managers has become amplified. And right now neither man’s wife looks as pretty as Jose Mourinho’s.

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Topics Politics


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