Mr Ruthless reveals a taste for fair play

FA Cup sensation: why winning is not always everything

THERE IS more than a touch of irony about Arsene Wenger, the Frenchman who arrived in England to take charge at Arsenal three years ago, being cast in the role as the saviour of old-fashioned English fair play.

His prompt, sporting gesture yesterday of offering an FA Cup replay to Sheffield United after a disputed goal belies his reputation as a ruthless, win-at-all-costs operator, whose team is not afraid to mix aggression with flair.

Last season, Arsenal, led by reformed alcoholic Tony Adams, won the Premier League and FA Cup "double" - making Wenger, 48, one of the leading contenders for the vacant England manager's job.

His ruthless streak is well-known, particularly since he fought with the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, through the pages of the tabloids. Indeed, his view of the game is singularly uncompromising. "We are not a dirty side but a fair side. This game is about physical contact." he said in 1997. "I want positive aggression. If you're too soft, you don't win many games."

Wenger was born in the Alsace region of France, and exudes the somewhat clipped, austere manner associated with its citizens, as well as their Germanic thoroughness. An economics graduate of Strasbourg University who speaks seven languages, he is unmarried, partly, he claims, because of football. "This is a very demanding job where there never seems to be enough time," he once said ruefully. "My pleasure comes out on the field - a nice pitch, a ball and good players."

But winning at Arsenal has come at a price. The team boasts one of the worst disciplinary records in the Premier League, with six players sent off this season, including Frenchman Emmanuel Petit twice. Wenger has always been fiercely defensive of his players' indiscretions, claiming that they are victims of their own success.

But he has also been criticised for axing home-grown players, such as former-star-turned-chat-show-host Ian Wright, in favour of his fellow countrymen. Last season, Wenger left Wright out of the final game, the showpiece FA Cup Final against Newcastle United at Wembley, in favour of the teenage French striker Nicholas Anelka - a move which left Wright, the club's record goal scorer, heartbroken. In 1997, he also sold reformed alcoholic and drug addict Paul Merson for pounds 4.5m, angering fans who had stood by the player during his well-publicised difficulties. And he has been accused of poaching players as young as 15 as he bids to secure Arsenal's future.

But last night, Football Association chiefs, desperate to find a new role model for the game in the wake of Glenn Hoddle's resignation and allegations of match-fixing, were swift to pay tribute to the Frenchman. "Everybody welcomes the sporting gesture by Arsene Wenger. He is to be congratulated," said David Davies, the FA's acting chief executive.

Wenger was equally magnanimous. Shortly after the match, he said: "We have the feeling we didn't win the game like we want to win our games. Spirit-wise we did not want to cheat. The best we can do now is to offer to replay the game here against Sheffield United."

Steve Bruce, who manages Sheffield United, said: "It's just what I'd expect from the mighty Arsenal." And, it might be argued, from the man who leads them.

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