Sitting in Executive Lounge 2 at Luton Airport last Tuesday, waiting to fly out for the Champions' League tie against Hamburg the following evening, Arsène Wenger was talking about Ashley Cole again. Or more specifically the allegations contained in the defender's autobiography.
"I have not read it, no," Wenger maintained, a smile on his face as he grew aware of the apparently unwitting adaptation of his mantra - "I did not see it" - which he used to utter whenever he was quizzed about a controversial incident involving his team.
It would indeed have been a surprise if the Arsenal manager had taken the time to read the extracts from the book - for which The Times paid £90,000 for the three-part serialisation rights - and not just because he has a clear disdain for footballers who write such works.
Wenger regards autobiographies, especially those "penned" (all are ghost-written by journalists of course) by 25-year-old men not even midway through their careers as bizarre, peculiar to Britain and, in many ways, disloyal - not least to the truth. He has shunned such projects himself, despite a clutch of highly lucrative offers, and reiterated his belief that books are for when careers are over.
Tellingly he added that one reason for that policy was that so others would not get hurt. "I think you have not to say things to disturb people," Wenger said. "And also not to lie." It was a chink of vulnerability in his attempts to keep a dignified distance from the saga and showed that he has been hurt by Cole's claims and by the whole transfer episode.
Arsenal have maintained their line of denying any wrongdoing - and wishing Cole well. He was, genuinely, popular inside the club. Privately they feel the same but added to it is undoubtedly a crushing sense of disappointment, hurt and, for some, anger. One Arsenal director - and not the vice-chairman David Dein, who has been at the heart of Cole's attacks - was asked his opinion. "Frankly he can go to hell," was his verdict on Cole.
Wenger, in particular, feels let down. He invested faith, time and belief in Cole, nurturing him through the ranks and genuinely wanted him to succeed Thierry Henry as club captain. He even briefly toyed with the idea of awarding Cole the armband instead of Henry. "One day he will see, maybe not this year but in 10 years, that Arsenal was not as bad for him," has been Wenger's measured response.
Wenger is also believed to be concerned that if Cole's claims are accepted, it may discourage other young English players from joining his club. Indeed he has grown acutely aware of the need to try to bring through more domestic talent into his first team, and that undoubtedly fuelled his interest in West Bromwich's Curtis Davies and, more recently, West Ham's Nigel Reo-Coker.
In fact one of the most remarkable aspects of Cole's book is that for all his apparent fury, he is unable or unwilling to blame Wenger. Directors, players, fans - even the fitness coach - are attacked. But not the manager.
Of course the Cole drama has been played out during a difficult start to the season for Arsenal. The failure to win any of their first three Premiership games has allowed the Cole book to be drawn into analysis of just where the club is heading. Former players, such as Paul Merson, have added to the criticism. He said bluntly: "My gut feeling is that this team is just not as good as some in the past." He may well be right. Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Jose Antonio Reyes and now Cole have all gone and are not easily replaced.
On the face of it, Arsenal had a successful transfer window with Tomas Rosicky, William Gallas and the on-loan Julio Baptista adding skill and power. It should also not be forgotten that Wenger did much of his future planning last January with the arrival of Theo Walcott, Emmanuel Adebayor and Abou Diaby. Arsenal still lack width, while Wenger, having vastly reduced the average age of his squad, is paying a price in the lack of nous.
If Arsenal lose to Manchester United tomorrow, they will be 13 points behind the leaders. It is a daunting thought, and will probably end any hope of winning the title. "But if we beat them it's seven points and a game in hand," Wenger said yesterday.
Wenger was also drawn into questions over whether or not Arsenal could be the subject of a takeover bid. Such talk appears to be highly speculative at present with the club releasing a definitive statement denying any knowledge but it allowed Wenger to formulate a "state of the nation" style summary.
"I'm happy with the owners we have because we are stable financially, if we were bankrupt, maybe," he said. "But we have made the miracle of being stable after building the stadium. Without being bankrupt. The club is doing well, with a promising team. We have just come out the Champions' League final, and [are] getting better after a stuttering start." Above all, he knows a few wins will shelve Cole's book - and talk of a crisis.
Cole shoulder: What Ashley said about...
Arsenal's team spirit: 'It's like I told Sol [Campbell] one day, I wouldn't go to war with these guys because they're not fighting for one another.'
Philippe Senderos: 'The man [Martin Keown] is a legend... But I was stunned when I saw him speaking to Philippe Senderos, advising him to get tough, do this and do that. And Senderos just looked at him, blew his cheeks and walked off. That showed disrespect.'
Cesc Fabregas: 'Cesc, he's no Patrick. It's like putting the gloves of a heavyweight champ on an unproven featherweight' and telling him to go out there and knock out the opposition.'
The young guns: 'I couldn't tell you a thing about Kolo [Touré], [Emmanuel] Eboué. [Jose Antonio] Reyes. Cesc Fabregas or Senderos. I don't know whether they have girlfriends, a family, what they do or where they go in their spare time.'
Communication: 'I remember feeling how fragmented we'd all become when Robin van Persie spoke up at training about Freddie Ljungberg. "He doesn't even talk to me. Why doesn't he talk to me?"'
David Dein: 'I couldn't hide my anger with Mr Dein. He wrecked my Highbury career.'
The board: 'I don't believe they gave a damn about keeping me.'
Thierry Henry: 'The club made Theirry feel wanted and not me. That's not sour grapes it's the sad truth.'Reuse content