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Friday, Oct. 29, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Mystery solved: Ferguson hit by orange juice during brawl


LONDON -- There is nothing this column likes more than an exclusive though it would normally be a player moving to another club or a manager quitting than a culinary scoop.

Christopher Davies

But as the fallout from Manchester United's 2-0 victory over Arsenal last Sunday rumbles on, I can reveal it was not, in fact, soup (variously described as tomato, carrot, pea or vegetable in reports) that was tossed at Sir Alex Ferguson in the after-match fracas in the tunnel as was reported widely. It was a jug of orange juice.

My initial reaction to what has become known as Soupgate was -- "Why would players drink soup straight after a game?"

While splendid as an hors d'oeuvre for dinner, soup is hardly the most thirst-quenching of liquids and investigations revealed that my doubts were founded -- it was O.J., which would at least explain the carrot confusion.

So what REALLY happened in the wake of a nasty, spite-filled acrimonious game at Old Trafford?

Legally some names have to be withheld but the trouble kicked off when there was a tunnel exchange between Arsene Wenger and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Suddenly punches were being thrown. One intended for Wenger instead broke the nose of Paul Johnson, the Arsenal equipment manager.

Pat Rice, Wenger's assistant, was thumped while Ferguson had two slices of pizza thrown at him by one Arsenal player with another washing it down with the orange juice.

At that point peace (as opposed to pizza) was restored or as much as it can ever be between two teams whose dislike of each other individually and collectively is making games between the clubs open warfare.

Feb. 1, 2005, is the date of the return match and all police leave in London is likely to be canceled -- not to keep the supporters from fighting but rather the players, managers and staff.

Games between Arsenal and United are becoming almost unreferee-able and in hindsight Mike Riley no doubt wishes he had taken a firmer grip early in the match rather than trying to just manage flash points.

The reason he did this was because had he produced four yellow cards in the opening 20 minutes the chances are one of those cautioned would have committed a second bookable offense and been sent off, a scenario officials try to avoid where possible.

Yet Riley allowed United, particularly Gary Neville, far too much leeway and by the time he started to produce his cards the dark tone for the match had been set.

It was remarkable neither Riley nor his linesman saw van Nistelrooy's nasty stomp on Ashley Cole's knee that brought the United a striker a subsequent three-game ban after the Football Association had studied video evidence.

Fine player though he is, there is a feeling within the game van Nistelrooy has gotten away with too much for too long. He was fortunate UEFA took a more lenient view of the errant elbow that struck a Sparta Prague defender in the face a few days earlier.

Sky Sports covered both United games and incredibly almost glossed over the two the incidents involving van Nistelrooy -- surprising for a station that will spend goodness knows how long playing back and discussing a marginal offside.

Its reluctance to highlight indiscretions by United players, of course, has nothing to do with the possibility Sky Sports is worried that Ferguson, who does not speak to the BBC, will stop his after-game interviews with the satellite channel if he felt there was an emphasis on adverse publicity involving his team.

ARSENAL MANAGER Arsene Wenger has been asked to explain his post-match comments about Mike Riley and Ruud van Nistelrooy, particularly the "cheat" reference to the United player. This columnist understands the club is compiling a video tape to be used in evidence that, being polite, does not show the Dutch striker in the best of light.

Most believe it should not be too demanding a task.

Obviously disappointed at the defeat which ended Arsenal's record unbeaten run of 49 games in the Premier League, Wenger, who this week extended his Arsenal contract until 2008, was also upset by United's aggressive approach and what he perceived as refereeing errors, not least the penalty awarded when Sol Campbell stuck out a leg and Wayne Rooney hit the deck.

Here, one has to sympathize with Riley who has a split second from one angle to make a decision. He saw a defender's leg go out and a forward tumble -- penalty.

Slow-motion replays from different angles suggested that contact, if any, was minimal and Rooney was "being professional" by taking advantage of the situation.

Campbell's immediate and significant reaction, even before he realized a penalty has been awarded, was to berate Rooney for diving/cheating.

Of course, there is the sound of pots and kettles here because Arsenal winger Robert Pires has proved a master in the falling-down stakes and one wonders how Campbell would feel if Rooney, as an England teammate, dived to earn a penalty in a World Cup tie against Germany?

Arsenal's frustration was compounded by the fact they believed -- rightly -- that van Nistelrooy, who scored the penalty, should not have been on the pitch by then.

The Gunners are hardly choirboys and their disciplinary record was poor until, ironically, the mass brawl at Old Trafford a year ago which saw four players suspended and the club fined. Since then Arsenal has cleaned up its act but on Sunday was the victim of a United hit squad allowed to push the laws of football to the breaking point by Riley.

DIOMANSY KAMARA, Portsmouth's Senegalese striker who cost a club record £2.3 million from Italy's Modena, does not speak English but in the international language of football, it is astonishing the player still seems illiterate.

Last Sunday, Kamara was cautioned for removing his shirt after scoring at Newcastle. He must have been the only person in the professional game not to know this was now a mandatory cautionable offense.

The penny did not drop because Kamara did his version of the Half Monty again when he opened the scoring against Leeds in a Carling Cup tie two days later.

This time, manager Harry Redknapp, in his best Cockney-French, tore a strip off Kamara. Redknapp must have been fearful for the striker scoring a second goal in case he did the same thing and was sent off.

Jim Smith, the Portsmouth assistant manager, summed up Kamara: "He's an idiot."

Smith added: "We'll super-glue his shirt to his shorts so he can't take it off. He's an exciting talent but he's got to learn to control himself."

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


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