James Lawton: Keown's gang war mentality is simply cheating the game

FA must punish club incapable of honestly assessing its own behaviour after Arsenal centre-back leads disgusting assault on Van Nistelrooy
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The Independent Football

It was hard to imagine back in March that Martin Keown could ever surpass his nauseating performance when Arsenal played Roma in a Champions' League tie at Highbury. Remember the grotesque play-acting that led to the dismissal of Francesco Totti?

Well, surpass it he did with his sickening taunting and roughing-up of Ruud van Nistelrooy at the end of Sunday's game at Old Trafford. One veteran witness certainly said it for me and, I like to think, all those who look beyond labels and tribal prejudice and see what is in front of their eyes, when he declared: "It was one of the worst things I have seen in 50 years of watching football in all corners of the world. I didn't know whether to vomit or to cry."

That is an extreme view only if you didn't look into the contorted face of Keown - and those of his team-mates Ray Parlour, Lauren and Ashley Cole - and see a spewing of hatred which challenged the belief that we were observing the behaviour of mature and hugely rewarded professionals.

Nor was it simply a matter of verbal violence. Keown leapt into the air and landed on the bewildered Van Nistelrooy's back, delivering a blow in the process. Both Parlour and Lauren pushed him heavily. It was a disgusting gang action that contained, the camera shows clearly enough, a significant element of physical assault.

Of course, we are not talking about career-threatening tackles or a mass punch-up, but in an odd way that latter scenario would have been less sickening than what happened at Old Trafford. What was so wrenching was to see the horrific gloating and physical aggression directed by a group of professionals at one other, who just happened to be in the turmoil of missing a certain match-winning penalty.

One image that came to mind: the victim of a mob, isolated and lost. Another extreme view? Look at that film again and even if you are Arsène Wenger, without a blindfold that is, you are defied not to have your stomach turn.

At this point it is probably necessary to nail an extremely large red herring, as the Football Association must when it gets round to the pressing matter of delivering adequate punishment to a club which seems incapable of honestly analysing its own behaviour. It is that somehow Van Nistelrooy was the cause not the victim of scenes which may not be banished from the mind for a long time, if ever.

The Dutchman, who according to some is one of the biggest cheats in the game, is now accused of a theatrical performance which led to the latest dismissal of Arsenal's captain, Patrick Vieira. It is a travesty of reality. Van Nistelrooy's offence, for which he received a yellow card, was to bundle roughly into his opponent.

When Vieira then lashed out with his foot, Van Nistelrooy stepped back sharply - as people tend to do in such circumstances - and looked at the referee with an expression which asked "what was that all about?" What it was, and it was fortunate that the referee was close enough to see, was still another example of the Arsenal captain slipping out of control.

That this should happen is perhaps no great surprise. This was his ninth red card, a total that is quite shocking in someone of his responsibility - and though it is true he is still short of the total of Sunday's peacemaker, United's Roy Keane, the difference is that the Irishman, at the urging of his manager, some time ago accepted that his lack of discipline had become not only impossible to justify but also directly threatened his career.

As reactions have unfolded, the key to any judgement of Arsenal's conduct is analysis of Van Nistelrooy's behaviour.

Wenger and his club - and those Arsenal fans who did not agree with the considerable number of their company who have, believe it or not, already expressed their own disgust at the behaviour of Keown and company - would do well to consider the magnificent contribution to the debate of the former Highbury striker Alan Smith, now a football writer and television analyst.

In the studio, in his column in The Daily Telegraph, and during a conversation we shared yesterday, Smith was unequivocal. He said that in his opinion the accusations against Van Nistelrooy for his behaviour on Sunday were quite groundless. He also said that the player's reputation as a cheat is hugely inflated.

Said Smith: "In my opinion Van Nistelrooy didn't do much wrong at all beyond earning a yellow card for the initial collision with Vieira. He stepped back when Vieira kicked out, that's true, but it was a natural reaction. He certainly didn't dive or suggest in any way that any contact had been made. In no sense was it cheating.

"I just think Arsenal have to take a long, hard look at themselves," he added. "I don't like saying this, I still love and admire the club in many ways, but there comes a point when you have to own up to the fact that something is wrong."

Perhaps the greatest service Smith has offered to his old club these last 24 hours is his reminder of what happened after Arsenal and United were involved in that notorious mass rumble at Old Trafford 13 years ago. "Our manager, George Graham, spoke to us all a few days later. He said that we owed it to ourselves, our families and our club to behave in a more professional way. He said that a winning team was a disciplined team. We took it to heart - and we won the title."

By way of the sharpest comparison with Graham, there was the reaction of Wenger to the rush of cautions earned by Vieira - and Emmanuel Petit - early in their Highbury careers. Wenger said that English football had to be careful about how it handled his star players. They might just get fed up and pack their bags for home.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of the value of discipline was seen on Sunday when United steadfastly refused to be drawn into the ugliness which consumed Arsenal at the end of the game. That echoed the fact that last season Arsenal's title challenge crumbled in the absence of their best defender, Sol Campbell, missing because of suspension.

Some thought, coincidentally, that United's awareness of the need for discipline might have been carried to a fault when none of Van Nistelrooy's team-mates except the wonderfully committed young Cristiano Ronaldo responded to the threats so brutishly directed at their colleague.

Keane might have also been a little more forthcoming when asked if he thought Van Nistelrooy had over-reacted to Vieira's violent gesture. "No comment," Keane said, almost coyly. That sent out an equivocal message indeed, and made the professional assessment of the old Gunner Smith all the more valuable.

When Sir Alex Ferguson made his weekend statement that there was indeed an obligation for all managers to impose discipline and rid their players of the habit of cheating, it was natural that many would see it as a mischievous attempt to isolate further the evasive Wenger. But the fact is that Ferguson's words on this occasion carried the support of his actions. He admitted that one of his players had, a year or so ago, shown a distinct tendency to dive, and he had been given a hard word. He refused to name the player but the obvious inference had to be that it was indeed Van Nistelrooy.

Until Sunday, the strongest argument that could be put to Wenger was that he needed to act in his own interests. Now that unassailable point has been passed. Action is required not only for the benefit of Arsenal but for the whole game. Wenger's players behaved in a way that was quite unacceptable, and at last he should have the courage to say so.

Ultimately, though, whether or not he does is beside the point. The FA must show that they can be other than spineless when faced by an important disciplinary issue. They must punish Arsenal in a way that truly hurts - and Wenger, and his conspiracy theories, can go where he chooses.

Given the brilliant gifts he has otherwise bestowed upon the English game, we have to hope it is not straight to his wardrobe with a bag to pack, but if that is the case, so be it. The most luminous football in the world could never begin to justify the squalor of what we saw from Arsenal at Old Trafford.