James Lawton: Wenger should recall past Highbury sins before adopting the moral high ground

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The Independent Online

Arsène Wenger as Basil Fawlty has never been an irresistible image, at least not until this last week when the Arsenal manager elected himself as the unofficial head of the inquiry into Premiership crisis. Now every Wenger utterance surely puts you in mind of the "Don't mention the war" episode.

In Wenger's case, what we are apparently supposed not to consider is the real reason why the national game is suddenly looking into the mirror and seeing something less than the most beguiling item on the sports menu.

What is that reason? Is it that the Premiership has had a less than spectacular kick-off, that goalscoring has hit a trough, that Chelsea's wealth and relentless organisation is suggesting another formal claim on the Premiership? None of this has helped, no doubt, but it is time to get serious. A big, bright light has been turned on the game - by a summer of superb competition and sportsmanship in the Ashes cricket series - and what a significant number of people have seen, more clearly than ever before, is a ghastly set of values built on shameless self-interest.

Wenger has brought many gifts to the English game in his essentially brilliant stewardship of Arsenal. However, candid self-examination is not one of them and this has never been more evident than in his orchestration of what can only be described as football's phoney debate.

The Arsenal manager shaped the critical discussion at the start of the week and must have been gratified when almost everyone fell so slavishly into line. He declared: "When somebody spends £50, £60, or £70 on a ticket it is not because he wants to be bored. It is because he wants to enjoy a football game."

Indisputably so, and, warming to his theme, Wenger proceeded to lambast all those lesser football men, who in the absence of anything like the resources of himself, Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez, have come up with defensive formations. This was all very persuasive by Wenger, but only if you happened to forget that in one of the great showpieces of last season, Arsenal's FA Cup final with Manchester United, he came up with a game plan so devoid of aggression, so deeply passive, he might have been handed, along with the trophy, the "Mahatma Gandhi Vase".

This, of course, was conveniently overlooked in reams of Wenger-sponsored analysis. Every old saw was resurrected, right down to the business of deciding on what is the point of professional football, to win or to play with a certain style and to entertain? Overlooked utterly was the most important question facing every player, club official, referee, administrator and, perhaps most crucially, manager in football: when in the name of decency and sanity is a football man going to step up and say, "Yes, I have my responsibilities, my duties to the wider interests of the game which supports me and all my people"?

The question could be asked, profitably, in every corner of football, but because Wenger has been setting such a pace of opinion it is reasonable to narrow it down to this man who the season before last was granted, not unreasonably, the status of messiah when his team produced both beautifully realised football and an unbeaten Premiership campaign.

When Wenger hands down his tablets of stone does he ever reflect for a moment on the fact that, at the very least by sins of omission, he has made his own contribution to the growing disaffection with his game?

Does he have any recall of his absolute failure to take a reflective public position on the fact that in the course of his managership at Highbury his team have collected 60 red cards, in quite a number of cases in the most stomach-churning of circumstances? Does he dwell on the fact that in all the tide of cheating that has engulfed English football, few instances rival the performance of his star player Robert Pires when he deliberately swerved into a Portsmouth player, dived, and won a penalty? Then Wenger announced it was a matter for the referee, a position he moved from hugely when shortly afterwards he railed against what he described as the cheating of Wayne Rooney, who won a penalty in a much more debatable situation in a match against Arsenal which disfigured last season.

That was the match which ended in arguably one of the most scabrous breakdowns in discipline in the history of English football, when, according to allegations that have never been convincingly denied, pieces of food were thrown at the United manager by Arsenal players. On this matter Wenger's silence was deafening. Now, however he lectures the Premiership on its need to please the public.

Comparisons between the behaviour of England and Australian Test cricketers and so many Premiership players were constantly, unavoidably made in the course of the summer, and they do not need to be laboured now, but nor do they need to be buried as they have this last week when football has examined itself so superficially.

If Wenger could look beyond his own trenches - this week he also called for the abolition of international friendlies, a move that, had it been introduced 40 years ago, would have denied Sir Alf Ramsey the chance to build so superbly the nation's one World Cup-winning team - he might just see that football's malady lies as much in its heart as its tactical deployments.

Nor does he need to look beyond his own club to see some of the starkest evidence of support for such a contention.

What, for example, is many people's idea of the most uplifting moment of this last joyous summer? It was when Freddie Flintoff, although gripped by the elation of the greatest victory of his life, stooped to commiserate with the beaten Brett Lee. And where would many look for the nadir of sportsmanship? To that sickening image, perhaps, of half the Arsenal team gloating and jeering in the face of Ruud van Nistelrooy when he missed a penalty. They might also say that the Dutchman's sickening tackle on Ashley Cole in a later engagement was not exactly a journey to Corinth, but here the issue is Wenger's self-appointed role as the ombudsman of football.

It is, he should know, a role only for football citizens who are above suspicion.

Greed at root of English rugby's descent from conquest to civil war

Just two years after it invaded the hearts of the nation, the plight of English rugby is as ugly as it is pitiful. Civil war comes in the wake of triumphalism and a total failure of the Rugby Football Union and the leading clubs to take conciliatory positions.

Money is, as in so many areas of life, the most obvious evil, and it would be naïve not to believe that it will remain at the root of most of the game's problems. However, a little healthy pragmatism would not be amiss.

Historical perspective can often help in these matters. Rugby should take a careful look at the current situation of football's Premiership, where club and country have never been further apart.

In football, self-interest has become such a force that the lessons of the past are not so much ignored as unregistered. One of them is that English football was never so warmly considered than in the wake of the national team's World Cup triumph in 1966.

The Football Association may have been briefly mindful of this when it sanctioned the grab-all Premiership with the feeble proviso that, in the interests of the national team, soon enough the league would be streamlined to 18 clubs. That was more than a decade ago. The Premiership remains at 20 clubs, three-quarters of whom are completely without hope of making any serious impact on the competition.

Two years after winning the World Cup, English rugby seems equally devoid of vision and self-knowledge. Immense physical pressure has been applied to the leading players, not least the national hero Jonny Wilkinson. No one has stepped back from the trough.

Having sold its birthright to Rupert Murdoch, we can only hope English cricket can find a way back from a similar brink.

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