James Lawton: Will Wenger salvage the building blocks of survival from ruins of his dream team?

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The Independent Football

Given the catchpenny ways of football, betrayal is probably too strong a word, but it is still extremely disheartening to see what the young team he so recently clucked over like an old hen is doing to Arsène Wenger.

They are making him look not the genius who nearly pulled off a season of seasons, a manager whose game shone so brilliantly, so inspiringly almost within touching distance of a triumphant spring, but somebody who was removed too far from reality by the wonder of his own dream. Heaven knows, it was a thrilling throwback of a dream.

It said he didn't have to pay through his aquiline nose to replace a Thierry Henry he believed had run his course with Arsenal. He had the raw material of a stunning replacement in Emmanuel Adebayor. In midfield, Cesc Fabregas had the gravitas along with the skill to grow into any vacuum of aura left in Henry's wake. Mathieu Flamini had enough steel, Alexander Hleb enough craft.

Unfortunately, they didn't and now (with the exception, at least for the present, of Fabregas) they are either defecting or demanding the kind of wages which go to players who have proved both their talent and their competitive mettle or, in the case of Philippe Senderos, failing to justify what a cold jury would say has been excessive faith by Wenger. As Manchester United and Chelsea dispute the greatest prizes of English and European football, as the hardest of appraisals always suggested they would, Wenger faces the most damaging charge that can be made against a leading manager of the modern age.

It is of a certain naïvety. Wenger wanted to believe so much in his young, potentially magical team and he made many football lovers, despite old allegiances, have a sneaking desire to believe too.

That was underpinned by some stunning performance. Was there anything better, for example, than Arsenal's blood-tingling performance against the reigning European champions Milan in their own San Siro?

Did anyone ever accept a challenge so masterfully as the young Fabregas? The dream was alive that night, as it was when, in the wake of the triumph in Milan, Arsenal outplayed United and Liverpool for substantial slices of vital matches. But, of course, Arsenal didn't last and Wenger, far from being lauded for the nobility of failed but lofty ambition, faced inquisition by shareholders this week.

His desire to give the boys of 2008 a second chance, given the weaknesses that sprang up like so many fissures after the disrupting injury of Eduardo da Silva, would have been questionable in any circumstances.

But then it became a matter for mockery when Flamini said he was going for the Italian money, when Hleb developed a similar desire and Adebayor reportedly was demanding a pay rise of more than 100 per cent – one that would take him into the bracket of men like Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres, finished articles and not works in progress that had begun to sag quite ominously.

Wenger wanted to make a perfect season – he wanted to confirm his belief that, with relatively modest outlay but long-term planning, voracious pursuit of young talent and the right dressing-room culture, his club could break a stereotype built on the fortune of a Roman Abramovich or the debt management of the Glazer family at Old Trafford.

Unfortunately, all he could deliver was three-quarters of a near perfect season and not a culturally solid dressing room but just another counting house.

Now he must sign at least two or three players who will possibly not meet his best aesthetic values but will supply a demand that became critical in the run-in to the finishing line: players of gristle and rough practical values, players ready to put their bodies into hazardous places, players not in love with the idea of their own beauty in a game which sometimes requires more than a little street fighting. They will not be pieces of a sublime jigsaw but the building blocks of survival around the top of a league which has never had fewer serious candidates for significant success.

There is no pleasure in saying such things, because it is another defeat for the ideals of those who go to football not out of utterly partisan commitment but an old yearning to see the game played with wit and grace and all those other qualities which give to the phrase "beautiful game" some real meaning.

Adebayor now apparently believes that he is worth £80,000 a week. His case might have been arguable if he had done what Drogba has for so long, and is doing so triumphantly now as he prepares to cash in on years not of promise but consistent achievement. Adebayor's position is more depressing than that of Flamini, because Wenger admits that the young Frenchman's contract situation was left unattended for too long in a game where agents insist you should always negotiate from a position of strength.

Adebayor is different. He was happy to sign a contract last year but now wants a reward for what he has only half-done. Yes, he has shown the ability to join the elite of world strikers, he has wonderful assets, a soaring, deadly quality in the air and deceptive skill on the ground. But when his club most needed them, they drifted away. You couldn't see them for all the ego cover.

His publicly expressed dispute with his team-mate Nicklas Bendtner was without class and struck exactly the wrong note when the team were supposed to be strong at the broken place of Eduardo's terrible injury. More than anything, Adebayor looks the ingrate now. Wenger invested much of his reputation backing him, asserting that he was ready to take his place among the most significant players in the game.

Towards the end of the season terrible stress showed on the face of Wenger. He looked like a man who was making possibly his last stand on behalf of the football values he had nourished for so long. There is, of course, another view and it is one that critics of a more practical turn of mind have not been slow to make.

For them it was the look of despair that comes to a beaten gambler when he knows the betting ticket in his pocket isn't worth a damn. One conclusion is that if Wenger tries again to remake his empire against a background of boardroom bickering, and fan unrest, he will do it with lowered sights and more care in covering his back. But then who can blame him?

Maybe just those who were most eager to embrace his dream – and, of course, their own.

Keegan should walk tall amid melodramatic plot twists at Newcastle's 'Theatre of Illusions'

In all the teeming angst of season's end, nothing has surely quite rivalled the fear that one screaming headline was true.

By way of advice to Kevin Keegan on how he should conduct himself after travelling to meet Newcastle's owner, Mike Ashley, and director of football, Dennis Wise, yesterday, it said "GROVEL".

This was a sickening prospect, whatever you thought of Newcastle's decision to journey back into the past and offer Keegan (right) the chance to recreate himself as the messiah of Tyneside – or the wisdom of Keegan's acceptance.

We are told that Keegan, who once had the nerve to walk out of Anfield at the peak of his fame as a star of Liverpool and England, can no longer afford a grand gesture after investing heavily in his Football Circus business in Scotland. He cannot tell the souvenir shirt-wearing, pint-wielding, populist owner and his crony Wise where precisely to stick the job that has already brought so much pain to football men of the quality of Sir Bobby Robson, Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit and Graeme Souness.

That is a quartet who would have taken lectures from the likes of Ashley and Wise about as equably as a cornered wolverine.

It is an assault on the spirit to which Keegan, for reasons of his own, might not be able to react in quite such an independent spirit. But grovel – and for what? For saying what is indisputably true. For saying that, beside the financial behemoths of Manchester United and Chelsea, Newcastle are doing under Ashley what they have been doing for as long as anyone can remember. They are peddling illusions.

The latest, and saddest, is that they have a scrap of respect for a man whose name they have used but whose meaning they still don't understand.

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