This time last week Sir Alex Ferguson was explaining the true nature of his relationship with Arsène Wenger. Far from bearers of scalding hatred, they were really a bit like Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.
It was true that from time to time they had the odd divergence of opinion, just as Ernest and Scott did when the latter had the roof taken off his Citroën before a drive from Lyon to Paris in a rainstorm, but nothing that couldn't be amiably resolved over a glass of the good red and a heartfelt exchange of mutual admiration. This report was endorsed by Wenger and both men were seen wearing relatively straight faces.
Yesterday, Ferguson was accusing his rival of having a mental problem over his feelings towards Ruud van Nistelrooy, and compiling a detailed report on the various atrocities committed by Arsenal players at Old Trafford last Sunday night. Wenger, of course, left the lair of his "friend" with the assertion that it was the home of cheats.
You would be inclined to laugh if it all wasn't so pitiful, so wretched in its failure to see a bigger picture - and if English football wasn't so desperately in need of some adult leadership from its two most successful and best rewarded managers.
It is surely time that these two began to grow up. While they are doing so they might ask themselves why it was the chief executive of Manchester United and the vice-chairman of Arsenal - for the benefit of those who tend not to immerse themselves in the workaday posturings of football's backroom power-wielders, their names are David Gill and David Dein - felt obliged to make some gestures of peace, however feeble.
There is no big mystery for most of the rest of us. The reason was clear enough in the wake of the latest stomach-churning excuse for a big, defining match between the nation's leading football clubs. It is that when it comes to self-interest, scoring a point, assuaging a defeat or defending the indefensible, neither Wenger nor Ferguson could care less about the prestige and the dignity of the game they profess to love.
This week they had the perfect opportunity to turn that belief on its head. They could have said that football had left itself open to ridicule and contempt once too often and that it was their job to do something about it. We do not know whether they even thought about it, but if they did, if they pulled back their blinkers for a second and then rejected the idea, their failure of conscience is even starker than we might imagine.
Wenger was in town, reminding us of the brilliance of his recruitment and teaching with his ridiculously young second string's victory over Manchester City, when Dein made his visit to Old Trafford bearing a rather skimpy olive branch.
Why, so soon after agreeing with Ferguson that their supposed mutual loathing was an invention of the media, didn't Wenger go along? Why didn't he say, "Alex, mon ami, it is time to bury this ludicrous hatchet"? Or, as the elder statesman, why didn't Ferguson send out an invitation, uncork one of his better clarets, and explore the possibility that in future they both behave like fully fledged graduates of the game and life itself? Why? Because, for all their knowledge and their passion and quite breathtaking achievements, we have to conclude they are simply not big enough. They don't have the guts or the stature or the generosity of spirit.
They prefer to fight their public, demeaning battles, smear each other's teams while doggedly refusing to accept the imperfections of their own, and score off each other with a pettiness and a malice that would be reprehensible in troubled adolescents. Their refusal - or maybe it is an inability - to take the briefest look at themselves and the image they present is astounding. They practise alternating statesmanship. If Ferguson wins, he is benign and analytical and has been known to praise the opposition. If he loses, he rages at the moon. It is the same with Wenger. The bottom line is quite basic. Neither can bear to lose. Of course, this is the starting point of any successful career, but with that success there is normally some maturity, some understanding that you can't always win.
The self-indulgence of Ferguson and Wenger would be less shocking if English football hadn't become a wasteland of arrogance and fractured discipline, if fighting hadn't started again on the terraces, if David Beckham hadn't been allowed to go without any kind of punishment for publicly confessing to subverting the laws of football - as an example of his extraordinary intellectual power. Or if the ruling body which absolved him hadn't recently lost a chief executive for attempting to do a sleazy deal with a red-top tabloid, if the graph of Premiership crowd attendance wasn't slipping, and Chelsea hadn't felt obliged to write off the £16m they paid for a self-confessed cocaine user.
Last Sunday was supposed to be an antidote to such moral anarchy. Some imagined it would represent the best of the national game. Instead we had a mockery of sportsmanship, on and off the field. And then there was a food fight, the kind of thing that happens at a party of spoilt kids. Wenger said it didn't happen. Ferguson is writing up a report.
Where are the League Managers Association and the Professional Footballers' Association? Have their voices been heard this week, have they issued calls for restraint and perhaps even a hint of remorse? Has the PFA's Gordon Taylor called his eager lieutenant Gary Neville and told him that he should modify his behaviour on the field to suggest more a seasoned pro than a one-man riot waiting to happen? Has John Barnwell reminded Ferguson and Wenger that they are meant to be leaders of men and boys, and not a couple of warring fishwives? Probably not. Naturally we haven't heard from the Referees Association about the woeful control and inadequate decision-making of their man, but that's another story and will, as long as referees are so fiercely protected, remain so.
Someone, though, has to take some responsibility. Last year when Arsenal behaved so badly at Old Trafford, and Ferguson raged that the Football Association had allowed them to get away with murder, the Arsenal board intervened and told Wenger that his myopia simply had to stop. He had to impose the rudiments of discipline on his team. It worked splendidly for a while.
Now it seems that we are back pretty much where we started. Arsenal behaved impeccably while they were winning, except notably when Robert Pires notoriously dived for a penalty. Wenger said the Pires scandal was a matter for the referee. When Arsenal eventually lost, they threw pizza. When he lost a Cup tie against Arsenal, Ferguson sent a boot flying at the eye of Beckham, a human tragedy that compelled the England captain to wear a paparazzi-friendly Alice band.
Ferguson is 62 and a knight of the realm. Wenger is 55 and a prince of the game. It is age, and honour, enough for them to stop and consider before it is too late that they may be helping to destroy the game they claim to cherish.Reuse content