James Lawton: Old Trafford was Arsenal's turning point
Saturday 27 March 2004
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.
Latest in Sport
Robin van Persie to Fenerbahce: Manchester United striker 'agrees to personal terms' with Turkish side
Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs posts bizarre video of his Miami holiday being invaded by an iguana
Women's World Cup 2015: England secure third place as they beat Germay in extra time with penalty by Fara Williams
Arsenal transfer news: Gunners will only consider 'astronomical offer' from Atletico Madrid for Santi Cazorla
Why is it that there’s no women’s team at Manchester United? - Michael Calvin
- 1 Isis propaganda video shows 25 Syrian soldiers executed by teenage militants in Palmyra
- 2 Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
- 3 Optical illusion turns blue demon into brunette
- 4 Right to die: Belgian doctors rule depressed 24-year-old woman has right to end her life
- 5 The biggest first date turnoff has been revealed
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
Sickness and disability benefits could be reduced by £30 a week as part of £12bn welfare cuts