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Friday, Aug. 22, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Arsenal plays rough, but F.A. going too far with Campbell charge


LONDON -- Arsenal struggled for the opening 25 minutes against Everton last Saturday. Then Sol Campbell was sent off and Arsenal clicked into top gear, playing some outstanding attacking football that saw it win more comfortably than the 2-1 scoreline suggests.

Christopher Davies

It is not an unfamiliar scenario for Arsenal to play with 10 men. During Arsene Wenger's seven years in charge there have been 51 red cards shown to Arsenal players, and when it comes to winning with a numerical disadvantage no one does it better or has more practice.

Francis Jeffers was dismissed in the Community Shield two weeks ago for kicking Manchester United's Phil Neville and six days later Campbell was sent off for denying Thomas Gravesen a goal-scoring opportunity, an offense that carries a one-game ban.

Two games, two red cards and one misconduct charge (more on that later) as Arsenal's Groundhog Day existence continued.

Wenger gives the impression that most of the time Arsenal is playing The World, citing conspiracy theories with his players singled out while other sides go unpunished for similar or worse disciplinary excesses.

At the same time Wenger seems to accept red cards and misconduct charges as part and parcel of Arsenal's overall game plan. Dismissals, like injuries happen, but the end justifies the means and under Wenger, Arsenal has finished first or second every year.

Cleaning up their act could mean the Gunners not cleaning up on trophies as they have in the past seven years, so Wenger plays the odds of reds against points and has proved to be a winner.

Arsenal plays its football on the edge, stretching the laws and the patience of referees to the breaking point, using every trick in the book (and a few that aren't) in pursuit of victory.

That approach, coupled with Wenger's superb management, his coaching, plus some of the Premiership's finest players makes Arsenal the team it is -- a very mean machine but also a successful one.

In 2001-02, Arsenal accumulated 11 red cards and won the Premier League. The previous season, Arsenal's most disciplined under Wenger, saw three red cards and the Gunners finished 10 points behind Manchester United in the title race. There may be an immoral moral there somewhere.

Where Wenger has a valid point is with the misconduct charge leveled against Campbell from the Community Shield and his worry about the growing influence of television on the Football Association's disciplinary process.

The 24-hour Sky Sports News, which is on in various F.A. offices and all English newspapers' sports desks, can show an incident over and over again.

The more you see it, the worse it becomes and familiarity can breed not so much contempt as a disrepute charge. Wenger believes this is the case with Campbell's retaliatory kick, unseen by referee Steve Bennett, at Eric Djemba Djemba in the Community Shield.

"The F.A. have a responsibility to keep a clean image," said Wenger. "But there looks to be selected targets and the hype of an incident can be more important than what really happened.

"Of course Campbell should not have reacted as he did, but it was a minor incident."

Djemba Djemba's thigh-high tackle caught Campbell in his right groin and Campbell spun around and aimed a retaliatory, but far from severe, kick at the Cameroonian.

Bennett saw Djemba Djemba's foul and called the United player to him. On this occasion Bennett decided to man-manage the situation, preferring a few sharp words with the player rather than a yellow or red card.

The referee was unsighted for Campbell's reaction, which left the door open for the F.A. to take action. The video advisory panel, comprising a former player, referee and manager, decided there was a case to answer and the F.A. duly charged the Arsenal defender.

The VAP is a wonderfully English creation, a toothless body with no real power which delays and complicates the process it should not be part of.

All the VAP can do is make recommendations, but the F.A. disciplinary commission has gone on to find a player not guilty despite effectively being found guilty by the panel.

Why the F.A. can't make up its own mind, without the middle-man VAP, is one of those questions that has not been satisfactorily answered -- "the VAP gives another view," is the best English football's ruling body has come up with.

The F.A. should take a leaf out of UEFA's book. UEFA only takes action against players who, on video evidence, have been seen to kick, punch or head-butt opponents in incidents of obviously excessive violence which have gone unnoticed by the officials.

Campbell's kick would never have been followed up by UEFA had it happened in a European tie and if the England defender is found guilty by an F.A. disciplinary commission he could be handed a three-match ban.

Had Bennett seen it, he would no doubt have merely spoken to Campbell as he did Djemba Djemba. Arsenal is livid that its player could be suspended for an incident which would have merited only a ticking-off, while Djemba Djemba's foot in the groin challenge, far worse than anything Campbell did, went unpunished.

It is farcical and illogical, but very F.A.

An Arsenal statement said: "The club find this charge difficult to accept especially in the light of the initial challenge on Sol Campbell by Eric Djemba Djemba."

Quite right, too. It is the F.A.'s disciplinary system that brings the game into disrepute, as well as the occasional player, and the sooner new chief executive Mark Palios looks at the procedures and hopefully makes changes, the better.

In the meantime Campbell, sent off for an errant elbow in the direction of Manchester United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last April, which meant a four-game ban (it was his second red card of the season so an extra one-match suspension is added on) is looking at a similar ban as the 2003-04 season gets underway.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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