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Friday, Sept. 26, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Arsenal, Wenger out of excuses this time


LONDON -- It's Groundhog Day for this column.

Christopher Davies

A week after writing about Arsenal's disciplinary problems this week's topic is, er, Arsenal's disciplinary problems. Don't blame me. Blame Arsenal.

If they keep dominating the headlines for having players sent off and causing trouble after the final whistle . . .

The Gunners showed why they have the worst disciplinary record of any club in the history of English football, with a display against Manchester United that was as far from Pele's vision of "the beautiful game" as is possible.

Arsenal players behaved like a pack of wild dogs and will rightly be hammered by the Football Association, because on Wednesday the F.A. did not so much throw the book at the Gunners, but an entire volume.

It charged Arsenal for failing to ensure the proper behavior of its players, and a fine of at least £150,000 can be expected for the club if found guilty, while Martin Keown, Lauren, Ashley Cole, Jens Lehmann, Ray Parlour and Patrick Vieira were handed a total of 11 misconduct charges.

On top of this, Arsene Wenger has been asked by the F.A. to explain comments made about Ruud van Nistelrooy, when the Arsenal manager implied the Dutchman was a cheat.

Vieira was dismissed for two cautionable offenses during a stormy game, though of course he didn't deserve to be.

Arsenal players who have been sent off under Wenger -- 52 in seven years -- are either (a) unlucky or (b) the manager didn't see it. Sometimes a player can be both (a) and (b).

Wenger, as supporters in Japan are aware, is a thoroughly decent, educated, eloquent man who gives the impression he could talk in-depth about just about any subject, and who would have reached the top of any profession he had chosen.

So why does such an intelligent man consistently defend the indefensible?

It is one thing to back your players in public, but Wenger has made self-denial into an art form.

Can he seriously condone the loutish behavior of Keown (37 going on 12) at the end of the 0-0 draw, when he aggressively poked fun at van Nistelrooy who had missed a stoppage-time penalty?

Come to think of it, one wonders what Keown (who, when once asked for a photograph by a father who was with his son, took the camera and prepared to take a picture of the father and son together) thought of his actions when he saw them on television.

Would Wenger shrug off similar scenes had matters been reversed and Thierry Henry was surrounded by United players as they delighted in his misery after failing with a penalty?

Vieira accused van Nistelrooy of exaggerating his action and fooling the referee, as the Arsenal captain swung a leg in the Dutchman's direction which earned him his second yellow card.

Memo to Mr. Vieira -- if you really want to see cheating, look at your fellow countryman Robert Pires' dive against Portsmouth eight days earlier.

Despite its pleas for innocence and victimization, Arsenal's disciplinary record almost defies belief.

In Wenger's seven years in charge, the 52 red cards Arsenal has collected has seen its players serve 148 games in suspensions, the equivalent of four domestic seasons.

Players have paid £150,000 to the Football Association in fines, while Arsenal has twice received suspended fines of £50,000 for its poor disciplinary record.

Vieira's red card at Old Trafford was his eighth -- a Premiership record -- which took him above Roy Keane and Vinnie Jones (Vieira was also sent off in a League Cup tie, making his total in English football nine).

Over the last two full seasons, plus the current campaign, Arsenal has collected 20 red cards and United two -- both by Roy Keane.

The F.A. has clearly decided enough is enough and when the dust eventually settles, Arsenal could look back on suspensions totaling 30 matches from its two games against United -- an ignominy that should embarrass Highbury.

Apart from the fracas at Old Trafford last Sunday, Sol Campbell has a misconduct charge from the Community Shield pending, while Francis Jeffers (now on loan at Everton) was also sent off against United in that game.

Arsenal's familiar claim is that the world is against it, but in domestic football over the last five years Vieira has been sent off six times, cautioned 36 times and been found guilty of five misconduct charges.

Vieira is a wonderful player (when not suspended) but he is becoming a one-man crime wave.

In 1990, when Arsenal was docked two points for a pitch brawl against -- surprise surprise -- United, the Highbury board reacted by fining the then-manager George Graham and four players.

It is difficult to imagine Wenger and any players being similarly punished, though Arsenal's official statement was the nearest thing to a public rollicking for the manager and the players.

It read: "The club demands high standards both on and off the field and the board believes these were not met last Sunday.

"Arsene Wenger has already addressed the players on this issue."

Exactly when the Highbury Six will appear before an F.A. disciplinary commission is uncertain.

Disciplinary wheels at Soho Square move slowly and some cases have taken eight months to be heard.

Anyone charged by the F.A. has 14 days in which to reply.

The subsequent antiquated system allows clubs and players to use delaying tactics, such as claiming solicitors need more time to present their case, while finding a mutually acceptable date for all parties -- the commission, lawyers, players, manager and match officials -- can often lead to a gap of months between the original offense and the hearing.

For example, Thierry Henry faced a misconduct charge relating to comments directed at referee Graham Poll on Dec. 18, 2001, but the case did not go before the F.A. until March 6, 2002. That was a relatively swift process.

The Community Shield was on Aug. 10, but it looks like it will be at least two months before Campbell's hearing takes place for his misconduct charge for kicking out at Eric Djemba-Djemba.

And then, of course, if there is an appeal against the verdict and/or sentence, the time span can become even lengthier.

However long this may take, Arsenal is facing the prospect of playing at least one game without virtually its entire defense, with perhaps all six players suspended en masse.

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


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