Adams' inspiration shows Wenger imprint

FA Cup final: Arsenal captain leads by example as infantrymen drive on to successful first phase of assault on empire of Sir Alex Ferguson
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The Independent Football

The ultimate mark of a great general will always be the education and the spirit of all of his troops, not just those with the plumes on their helmets. That, surely, was the basis of Arsène Wenger's deepest pride when, with cavalrymen like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp for one reason or another reluctant to leave the stables, the job of winning the FA Cup fell upon the Arsenal infantry.

Certainly it made the overjoyed Arsenal manager's victory embrace of his 35-year-old captain, Tony Adams, more than some routine piece of celebration.

In the trenches Adams, once again, had been the very heartbeat of his club, and all analysis of a win utterly vital to the psychology of an essentially underachieving team had to begin and end with the contribution of the big man.

The luridly streaked hair of the official man of the match, Fredrik Ljungberg, might not pass muster on most parade grounds – but his heart, his ingenuity and his finely judged strike beyond the Chelsea goalkeeper, Carlo Cudicini, formed a natural alliance with such yeomen as Adams and Arsenal's other goalscorer, Ray Parlour.

Together they gave Wenger that element without which all visits to the battleground are futile. They injected steel.

At the end of a final which never promised to fulfil its artistic potential, the competitive edge of the footsoldiers was just too much for Claudio Ranieri's improved but still fragile Chelsea – and the most compelling reason why Wenger can this week strike camp outside Old Trafford so confidently in his attempt to complete the second phase of the Double assault on the empire of Sir Alex Ferguson.

"At some point," said Wenger, "we had to ask ourselves if we could push a little harder in challenging Manchester United – and I'm pleased to see that this season it has happened. Again we worked hard, and deserved our rewards."

That was the understatement of a manager who has not always been at such peace with himself, who, indeed, at times, has felt it necessary to match Ferguson stridency for stridency. Now, though, for the moment at least, he could let the work of Parlour and Ljungberg, the scorers of brilliant goals, and Adams speak for itself. In his own ragingly committed way, Adams on this day was perhaps the supreme endorsement of Wenger's work.

Maybe only United's Roy Keane matches the explicit desire of Adams to finish on the winning side. That, of course, has always been a mark of the latter's game even at a time when his life was in such danger of being submerged by alcohol, and, as in all such cases, credit for his recovery from the ravages of addiction should go overwhelmingly to himself. But what is hard to overestimate is Wenger's influence on Adams the footballer.

There were times on Saturday – not least when Adams's early, sharply perceptive pass to Syvlain Wiltord set in motion Parlour's vital strike in the 70th minute – when it was almost impossible to link the big man with those old terrace taunts of "Donkey". He saw everything early, and truly. He ate up the ground, and never at the cost of defensive security, which was something which could not be said of his formidable opposite number, Marcel Desailly. Wenger's reputation is hugely based on his Svengali touch with such luminous performers as Henry and the sadly absent Robert Pires, but, in any final stock-taking, his impact on the playing life of Adams, and an entire Arsenal defensive unit previously prized exclusively for its potential to destroy, is entitled to a shelf of its own.

When he rode to victory in the World Cup of 1982 on the goals of Paolo Rossi, his coach, Enzo Bearzot, was said to have "released the caged bird of Italian football." Wenger did no less for the playing horizon of Adams. He could always run, he could tackle, he could defend every vulnerable position on the ground and in the air, but suddenly he could also pass the ball with an accomplishment that dazzled ertswhile critics.

Now the coach and the player will soon discuss the timing of Adams's Last Hurrah, which could well be Arsenal's final Premiership game against Everton. Wenger said: "Tony and I will sit down at the end of the season. It is his decision. He knows his body well. I'm always happy to have him around as a player. He's very good at lifting trophies."

Also, Wenger might have added, Adams has a knack of raising the collective consciousness of professional responsibilities. Such a need seemed nowhere more vital than in the play of Bergkamp, but if the Dutchman was a grave disappointment he was, not for the first time on a vital occasion, beyond inspiration. It is something, you have to suspect, that is outside of this marvellously gifted footballer's power to control. On Saturday his performance was insipid enough to remind you of his disappearing act against Brazil in the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup, a match that followed his scoring of the goal of the tournament. Before the Brazil game a Dutch journalist asked Johan Neeskens, one of the most remorseless competitors in the history of his nation's football, about the team's chances. "It depends," said Neeskens, "on whether Bergkamp plays." Had the startled journalist missed an injury scare? "No," said Neeskens, "Bergkamp will be on the field. But will he play? Your guess is as good as mine."

It is as though a match has to fall into the tempo Bergkamp has set for himself. If it does, the result can be sublime. If it doesn't, instead of sublime read zero. That was Wenger's experience until the 71st minute when, with his patience exhausted, he sent on Edu as Bergkamp's substitute. By then, Wenger's nerves had been settled a little by Parlour's strike, an advantage which was confirmed eight minutes later when the Brazilian's pass was first tenaciously, then beautifully exploited by Ljungberg. Henry's lack of impact offered a more tangible explanation. He was plainly some way from full fitness, a fact which Wenger did not concede until the relief of Ljungberg's strike, after which Kanu was brought on. The difference between Henry and Bergkamp was that one was off his game and the other was, as is periodically the case, off the planet.

Fortunately, Tony Adams was at the dead centre of his personal universe – the nitty-gritty of a game which just had to be won.