Sam Wallace: Ferguson still the master of mind games

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The Independent Online

Even after more than 30 years in football management, Sir Alex Ferguson must have been surprised by how simple it was to accomplish. A provocative interview in The Independent, defeat for Arsenal at Bolton and suddenly the manager who has faced down Ferguson for more than seven years was in a serious state of disarray. Arsène Wenger has rarely looked so rattled as he did on Saturday.

Even after more than 30 years in football management, Sir Alex Ferguson must have been surprised by how simple it was to accomplish. A provocative interview in The Independent, defeat for Arsenal at Bolton and suddenly the manager who has faced down Ferguson for more than seven years was in a serious state of disarray. Arsène Wenger has rarely looked so rattled as he did on Saturday.

The psychological tricks that we like to call his "mind games" have become such a feature of Ferguson's season that now we half expect them any time after Christmas. This time, though, the Manchester United manager pulled out all the stops. Glenn Moore's interview with him in The Independent on Saturday was the most lurid, detailed account yet of the post-match food-throwing during Arsenal's visit to Old Trafford on 24 October. And the effect of those disclosures on Wenger will be a cause for celebration for Ferguson.

The remarkable conclusion we can take from a weekend of bitter exchanges between the two men is that yes, extraordinarily, Ferguson still has the power to make Wenger seethe despite plenty of evidence that the Frenchman had become immune to the barbs. After all, Wenger might have lost his temper at Old Trafford in October but in the ensuing weeks, the battle over what happened amid the flying soup and pizza was won comprehensively by Arsenal.

With Arsenal refusing to apologise, Ferguson must have wondered whether he would ever be able to redress what he saw as a gross miscarriage of justice in the narrow corridor outside the Old Trafford changing-rooms. Some of us had learned of, and written about, Wenger's fury after the game, but that contrasted with his benign public announcements that "nothing happened" and there was little momentum behind those stories. When Arsenal played at Manchester City in the Carling Cup the following week, someone pinned a note to their dressing-room requesting "no soup or pizza past this point". Wenger did not protest - he just laughed.

Ferguson had been reluctantly persuaded that a pact of silence agreed between United's chief executive David Gill and Arsenal's vice-chairman David Dein should be adhered to despite a suspicion that Highbury was leaking stories. On the day that Arsenal played City, Dein turned up on spec at Old Trafford to see Gill for a "peace summit". At one point that night it was even proposed that Dein give a press conference about that meeting at United's stadium.

Dein seized the initiative to cast himself as the peacemaker. Yet at the same time Wenger refused to consider any kind of apology. To anger Ferguson further, Ruud van Nistelrooy was given a three-match ban for his challenge on Ashley Cole and United were given little credit for the player's immediate apology.

Because of the bizarre, slapstick nature of the Arsenal food-throwing incident, it had taken over as the main focus of the night's action and United felt privately that there was little or no chance of an apology. Instead of Arsenal being condemned for their behaviour, the whole thing was being treated, as Wenger's grin that night at City suggested, like a joke.

United never actually sent that fabled "dossier" to the Football Association detailing tackles by Arsenal players they considered punishable. However, they did write to the governing body to ask for clarification on the definition of violent conduct. United did not ask for an inquiry into what took place in the tunnel, where a security guard was injured, but the pressure they applied did contribute to Wenger being fined for calling Van Nistelrooy a "cheat". There was still no apology from Arsenal.

In the context of Chelsea's title charge, and United and Arsenal's recent inconsistency, it all seemed to have been forgotten. Not by Ferguson. When he spoke to The Independent he picked precisely the right time to strike. With Arsenal struggling and in a goalkeeping crisis, he caught Wenger at a weak moment. "I'm not going to discuss that man," the Arsenal manager said on Saturday. And then, in the tradition of every football manager since the beginning of time, he let his tongue run away with him.

Chelsea are fast disappearing into the distance and it will take an effort of epic proportions to reel them in. Jose Mourinho's side have proved themselves to be a formidable football unit, but they will still be little more than a sideshow in the build-up to the game that will take place on 1 February between Arsenal and United at Highbury.

That night the dug-outs will house two figures who loom large in the British public's imagination but whose relationship with each other is non-existent. No bright young foreign manager or Russian billionaire can compete. As English football's Premiership stumbles towards its teenage years there is still only one relationship that really has the power to captivate, divide and then surprise us all over again: the mutual loathing shared by Ferguson and Wenger.

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