Football: Bergkamp fuels conspiracy theory

The striker's claim that Arsenal are being persecuted has provoked an instant response. By Nick Harris
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DENNIS BERGKAMP'S claim yesterday that Arsenal were being victimised by referees was met by a fervent rebuttal from a leading official, who found an unlikely ally in a former Gunners manager.

Bergkamp was speaking in the wake of Arsenal's 2-1 FA Cup win against Wolves on Sunday, during which Emmanuel Petit became the club's seventh player to be sent off this season and the 19th since Arsene Wenger became manager in September 1996.

Bergkamp said that players were being unfairly dealt with because of the club's reputation for indiscipline. "I know that for sure," the Dutch striker said.

"Decisions are going against us because of it. If the men who make those decisions know about the reputation before the game then it can count against us. We have players booked, and sometimes it's hard to understand why."

Philip Don, the Premier League referees' officer, said he was sure that there was no anti-Highbury conspiracy. "Referees go out to do a job and call it as they see it," he said, and added it was not in his officials' interests to make victims of anyone. "Referees cannot afford to go and victimise teams.

"There are independent observers at every game and referees get marked down [for making errors]. At least 90 per cent of Premier League referees get marks of seven [out of 10] or above. And this season I think it's around 95 per cent."

Although he was unwilling to comment on specific cases, Don said that if a referee believed a player had used abusive language to any official, then the rules had be enforced. Steve Dunn, officiating at the Wolves game, said Petit was sent off for abusing a linesman.

"Strong language to an assistant is the same as to a referee," Don said. "It's a sending-off offence without a shadow of a doubt."

Petit's dismissal on Sunday was the second time he has seen red this season, the first occasion being against Charlton in August. His red card at Wolves was due to bad language and he incurred one of his two yellow cards at Charlton for dissent.

Although Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, Ray Parlour, Gilles Grimandi and Patrick Vieira have all also been sent off since last August, only Dixon has been dismissed for mistimed fouls alone committed during the course of a match.

Ray Parlour was dismissed against Lens for kicking Cyril Rool's head; Grimandi was sent off for butting Leeds' Alan Smith, and Vieira was shown a red card for elbowing Charlton's Neil Redfearn.

Keown may have had his ban rescinded on appeal following his involvement as a peacemaker in the Paolo Di Canio incident at Hillsborough, but Arsenal would still seem to be the victims of their own inability to control tempers, whatever provocation they are at times subjected to and whatever they believe the pre-conceived attitudes of the match officials to be.

For all their manager's protestations of victimisation - "I am very upset by what has happened and I just ask for an honest referee, that's all," Wenger said on Sunday - there is a feeling, even among Arsenal stalwarts, that referees are not entirely to blame for the north Londoners' problems.

The Gunners' former manager, Terry Neil, conceded: "One thing is sure and that's it's not a healthy situation. I'm sure words have been spoken in private [about behaviour at the club]." He added: "You don't win what Arsenal football club have over the years without being competitive.

"The people I've got most sympathy for in football are referees."

Part of Arsenal's problem, Neil added, is that officials have to act on strict mandates from Fifa. "People don't get sent off these days for sticking one on someone," he said. "It only takes a word, a gesture."

Both of which, Arsenal players seem to have a fondness for.