It was unsurprising that the very fixture that once produced a cleansing at Highbury in George Graham's era as manager should again have ignited so much fury, given Arsène Wenger's infinite capacity for paranoia. As the former Arsenal and England striker, Alan Smith, has revealed, Graham read the riot act in 1990, reminding his players in no uncertain terms of their obligations to the club, their families, the game and themselves after the 21-man mass confrontation at Old Trafford resulted in the Football Association imposing fines of £50,000 on both clubs and deducting two points from Arsenal and one from United.
Smith has received little thanks from the current Arsenal dressing-room for his piercing analysis of the players' behavioural failings, but his criticism was spot on, for his Arsenal went on to win the championship by seven points.
The problem then for football was more pressing, the issue one of behaviour more malevolent in a sense than the current outbreak of after-match childishness, which, had Sir Alex Ferguson's players not been involved, albeit to a very minor extent, the wily knight could have been gleefully rubbing his hands about. The minister for sport, Richard Caborn, was wide of the mark to suggest that children would copy this behaviour in the school playground. The kids I for one mix with know better, for they understand the difference between right and wrong.
Ten years or so ago, it was becoming the fashion whenever a couple or more players became involved in a confrontation for all the team, sometimes including the goalkeepers, to go steaming in. There would be arms and legs flying everywhere and the poor referee had no chance of doing his job properly. Occasionally, the linesman would go galloping across the pitch, flag under arm, and it really would be Keystone Cops. The mayhem could be used as cover by the sly perpetrator of mischief.
At Highbury on 4 November, 1989, a strong man was needed to keep apart the warring factions from Arsenal and Norwich. Unfortunately, it was George Tyson from Sunderland in the middle, not Mike, and police officers came on to the pitch to restore order after Arsenal's injury-time 4-3 penalty winner. Rather like last Sunday there was deemed to be an offender and a lesser guilty party: by the end of the month the FA had fined the visitors £50,000 and Arsenal £20,000, but even so, there was still another case pending by the time the commission were able to meet.
A League cup match between Wimbledon and West Ham had seen a 17-man fracas after the Hammers' captain, Julian Dicks, had been sent off. Both clubs were subsequently fined £20,000. I quickly realised that such fines were chickenfeed and the warning went out at the end of the season that points deductions could be imposed in future.
In those pre-Sky days, an FA mandarin could not with absolute certainty bet his lunchbox that some skirmish down in the Fourth Division did not go unreported and unremarked, but when the next "brawl", "mêlée" or mass confrontation came up, it was, of course, at Old Trafford involving Manchester United and Arsenal.
The points sanction was duly applied but it has been used sparingly since. It is the best weapon to use against cheats to deny them the opportunity to prosper, but it must be applied with care and precision, not as a bludgeon. It becomes increasingly difficult to apply such a subjective sanction in the latter part of a season when championship and relegation issues are to the fore.
The referee in charge at Old Trafford back in 1990 was the imposing and vastly experienced Keith Hackett, now the assistant to Philip Don at the head of the professional referees board. There have recently been some scurrilous whispers undermining Don - who works by the book no less in his current position than he did when in the middle for Fifa - suggesting that Hackett would be more in tune with the managers and players, meaning that he would be more likely to allow referees to operate in a common-sense manner with less reliance on the yellow card and the strict interpretation of the laws. This may be true and, if so, there is no better reason for leaving well alone. Far be it for a Lancastrian to attempt to read one Yorkshireman, let alone two of the beggars, but Don is like a pawky opening batsman, suspicious and difficult to get to know, while Hackett is toweringly gregarious, a football politician.
Don was in the stand at Highbury on Friday evening when the referee, Mike Riley, who had made ample use of his cards on recent visits to Arsenal, made full allowance for the heavy downpour and controlled the game with a smile and a quiet word.
The Arsenal players seemed to be listening, perhaps chastened by the horrible pictures from Old Trafford.Reuse content