Football: Wenger thanks Arsenal oldies

Norman Fox finds the Highbury manager is still keen on his ancient wonders
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ON THE eve of Arsenal's FA Cup fifth round tie against Crystal Palace today and in the run-up to Wednesday's Coca-Cola Cup semi-final second leg with Gullit-less Chelsea, Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, admitted his relief at not following his first instinct on his appointment and getting rid of Highbury's "old guard".

He said he was "astonished and amazed" to have spent the past week involved in extending contracts for the very players he, and they, anticipated would by now be in the lower divisions or retired. They are, he said, "essential" to Arsenal's reviving Premiership challenge to Manchester United, especially at a time when the club have suffered a number of injuries and suspensions.

The last of the long-serving defenders, Lee Dixon, took up the option on an extension to his contract on Thursday, which means that the familiar names, Dixon, Adams, Bould, Keown and Winterburn, continue to defy the prediction that they would be the first to be brushed aside. "No, certainly I did not expect this would be the situation when I joined, and neither did they," Wenger said. Tony Adams feels that Wenger has taught them to "listen to our bodies" as well, of course, as being more disciplined in their lifestyle.

Although Wenger will not be able to use the suspended Adams today, he says that having most of the older players available for "difficult matches like this" is reassuring. Palace, difficult? "You have to remember that Palace may have the worst home record in the Premiership but away from home they are one of the best. So we have to be very cautious." But that is against his nature. "I always want to be positive about football because that is what the fans demand." Even so, he is happy to stick with a part of George Graham's "boring, boring Arsenal" mainly because the ageing defenders are better forward-looking players than either their reputations once suggested or Graham allowed.

Wenger explained: "When I arrived I expected that I would have to make changes in that defensive area, but they did so well that I just had to ignore how old they were. Even when we were playing badly in November and December, Bould and Winterburn were just great. As a manager I cannot just say because a player is getting old I will not give him a contract."

Reflecting on the hard-drinking tradition of British players, he said: "I think when I arrived some of them had already accepted that they had to change or they were finished, so it was easy for me. You cannot survive today unless you are at your best. Tony Adams could not have gone on as he was, ignoring the pains and not training in the week."

On arriving in Britain he was appalled at the number of players being urged to appear when they were injured or being given pain-killing injections. "I would never do that. If a former player cannot walk when he is 40, then you have to take responsibility for that." Adams said that before Wenger took over "a player who would have a knock would have the manager down his throat telling him to get back out there".

Wenger says that extending careers is in part to do with using a squad system, which, ironically, has been a famous point of dispute at Chelsea recently. Adams agrees that a squad system is essential "for the pace and demands of the game today". These days he is all against the "play until you drop" attitude, and, in both senses, he should know.