James Lawton: Old Trafford was Arsenal's turning point

There Are two certainties about tomorrow's meeting of Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury. One is that Sir Alex Ferguson will cry to the gods for a performance that does not mock all his great years as the most successful manager in the history of British football.

The other is that at no stage will Arsenal begin to reproduce the gutter-level behaviour which so disfigured the meaning of their club, and the achievements of their brilliant manager, Arsène Wenger, in the Old Trafford fixture earlier in the season. And it is here that we might indeed find the key to the extraordinary reversal of fortunes experienced by England's greatest football clubs.

Some said that what happened at Old Trafford, when Martin Keown and Lauren and Ashley Cole submerged Ruud van Nistelrooy in their bullying spleen, was relatively trivial, something way down the food chain of football disrepute.

Others said it was an appalling statement about the discipline and demeanour of an otherwise superb team. Wenger, bewilderingly for all his admirers, seemed to take the former view. He gratuitously insulted Van Nistelrooy, and said he would defend his players. The club directors, perhaps led by the traditional voice of the Hill-Wood family, at last reined in their virtuoso manager. They issued a grovelling apology, and said that they would not be a party to any defence of the indefensible. Wenger complied, however reluctantly.

There are no doubt other reasons why Arsenal have maintained such marvellous consistency ever since, but surely it is impossible not to believe that the Old Trafford incident served as the most dramatic warning that an unacceptable point had been reached in the players' conduct on the field. Certainly there is no doubt Arsenal's discipline has sharply improved, and it is one of the oldest truths in the game that a disciplined team is well on the way to being one that wins a lot more often than it loses.

Ferguson's tide of triumph only began to flow relentlessly when he addressed United's own disciplinary problems, and Brian Clough's extraordinary, eccentric winning of two European Cups at Nottingham Forest was underpinned by the terror of his players that they would offend him with any unprofessional behaviour.

Now we look at Arsenal and see a team finally showing the resolve and the composure to make a serious challenge for the European Cup after years of failure so profound that it was plainly eating into their collective psyche. That such a transformation could be worked by a group of players who so recently did such a fine impersonation of a malignant mob is truly remarkable. So, too, is the fact that it is reasonable to presume that United are well capable of ransacking their memories and producing a performance that will rescue at least a little pride - and that it will happen in a game marked by quite impeccable behaviour.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones