Countdown to the FA Cup Final: Epic rivalry reaches its final phase

For nearly 10 years sir alex ferguson and arsene wenger have dominated english football, but the first meeting in a cup final comes as their supremecy has become a thing of the past
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The Independent Online

In what seems like another age, that lost time when Sir Alex Ferguson could still bring himself to speak about Arsène Wenger with empathy and respect, the Manchester United manager considered a comment from his counterpart and said something unusual. He said he agreed. And that day [it was actually just 23 October, 2004 ] is duly marked in English football history as the last known moment that there was consensus among two of its most prominent and complicated characters.

Countdown to the FA Cup Final: Epic rivalry reaches its final phase

In what seems like another age, that lost time when Sir Alex Ferguson could still bring himself to speak about Arsène Wenger with empathy and respect, the Manchester United manager considered a comment from his counterpart and said something unusual. He said he agreed. And that day [it was actually just 23 October, 2004 ] is duly marked in English football history as the last known moment that there was consensus among two of its most prominent and complicated characters.

The remark was in relation to a minor point Wenger had made earlier in the week about both managers taking responsibility for the build-up to that match at Old Trafford which was already very tense. "It's interesting that he spoke about responsibility during the week, I have always felt that responsibility," Ferguson said at the time. He added that the two spoke occasionally at Uefa coaching conferences and for a moment you could imagine that scene. Wenger stooping down to listen, Ferguson thinking, as they spoke, that actually they might have quite a bit in common.

At that press conference at Carrington seven months ago that was what it seemed Ferguson was saying. That for all their confrontations they were football men who shared a trade and many of the same values, who laboured under a pressure to succeed that for most of us will always be unknowable. Then the following night in a corridor off the main tunnel at Old Trafford their relationship passed the point of no return in a profession that has a greater scope for forgiveness than any other.

They will not talk about each other any more but it remains a personal conviction that, despite their history, they were cordial in private right up to that night and since then, with Arsenal's failure to make any meaningful apology, for the food-throwing in particular, Ferguson has given up on Wenger. He cannot stand the man.

All that should have made Saturday's FA Cup final another compelling instalment in mutual loathing except that suddenly the terms of their engagement have shifted. These two are no longer deciding the supremacy of English football and that will change everything.

The personal rivalry of Ferguson and Wenger has crackled for eight long years, and it finally ignited on the night of 24 October, but that kind of intensity cannot be sustained for ever, especially if the terms upon which it is founded have changed fundamentally. Beating the other no longer guarantees the Premiership title. To earn that they now have to beat Jose Mourinho, and the campaign against his Chelsea team has absorbed Wenger and Ferguson more than each other in recent months.

Wenger's most acerbic comments lately have been reserved for Chelsea's conduct over the alleged tapping-up of Ashley Cole. And if Arsenal think they have been poorly treated by the new Premiership champions then it is instructive to listen to Manchester United officials talk about the transfer saga of John Obi Mikel from the Norwegian club Lyn Olso. Privately, they believe the 18-year-old Nigerian prodigy has been stolen from them by Chelsea with tactics that, even by the grim standards of the international transfer market, have turned the stomachs of some Old Trafford veterans who thought they had seen it all.

For the next few years, maybe until the end of their careers, we will have to view the relationship of Wenger and Ferguson on revised terms - in a landscape changed by Mourinho - although on Saturday, perhaps for the last time, it will seem like the old days. Ferguson, reddened in the face, in shirtsleeves and tie like a merry uncle at the end of a family wedding. And Wenger with the strained visage of a man who has returned to work after illness a day too early. Probably the only two men in the whole country who can shake hands without looking one other in the eye.

At stake tomorrow is a trophy the present-day value of which both managers just have to be polite about, but in terms of their careers it feels like a crucial point. At 63, Ferguson has outlasted the Martin Edwards and Peter Kenyon regimes at United but has probably never faced one as potentially volatile as that now being established by Malcolm Glazer. At 55, Wenger is already a year older than Ferguson was when Arsenal appointed the Frenchman in September 1996 and must now consider whether his legacy at the club will be more than the three Premiership titles he has failed to defend.

For these two, in Chelsea's long shadow, it is as much about what can be salvaged as what can be won. Under a different set of rules from those Wenger discovered when he arrived seven years ago, it is difficult to gauge who looks best-placed to survive. On recent form, and a Premiership finish that is six points better off, Arsenal are undoubtedly stronger. Like United they have a process of renewal to complete and while their younger generation is no more talented than Old Trafford's there is a sense that Wenger has a surer eye for the less obvious, less expensive young players on the world market.

For Ferguson there is the reassurance of two Premiership victories over Arsenal this year, the scope and significance of which cannot be underestimated. In October and February, United trumped what Wenger would have us believe is the most priceless aspect of his team: their spirit and resilience. They were United victories that made all those Arsenal's pre-match love-ins - clasped hands and embraces all round - look like they hid a collective uncertainty.

And beyond football, their lives diverge more than ever. Thirty-one years into his glittering management career and Ferguson is at ease in British public life, he is a trenchant believer in a tradition of respect for seniority and accomplishments and he knows what should be afforded to him as well as any successful man. His appearance with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the build-up to this month's general election was Ferguson comfortably taking his position in the British establishment and assuming serious responsibilities and duties far beyond just professional football.

Which is, of course, what Wenger is often criticised for not doing, for an indifference towards developing his brilliance as a football manager beyond the parameters of his job. But he also has qualities that Ferguson lacks. As the United manager gets older and more embattled he is less likely to involve himself in situations - mostly post-match press conferences - where he feels his hard-won status is not fully deferred to. The Ferguson of old would have bowled into those encounters and conquered by force, but now there seems a readiness - maybe age, maybe he is tired of having to lose his temper - to simply avoid battles with those he considers impertinent or just plain wrong.

Contrast that with Wenger who, everyone knows, happily answers the kind of questions that would have Ferguson overturning tables. Not only that but he seems to have a tolerance for the most inane requests. At every home match at Highbury, his first job is to conduct a pre-match interview that is beamed on to the stadium's screens and ends with him announcing the day's winning prize draw numbers. It is a tradition that never fails to strike you with its absurdity but it says something about the serenity of the Wenger ego that he will still accede to do it in the last hour before a match.

Wenger's occasional fury at Ferguson grips us because we are not sure from where it rises in the temperament of this otherwise immovable man. Ferguson's outbursts at Wenger are the forest fires of a slow-burning blaze that smoulders away every day and is just as compelling to behold. It is a mutual antipathy that has defined much of the last few years of their professional lives, but Ferguson and Wenger have both faced much more damaging enemies in their career.

Every student of Ferguson's life knows that he will never forgive the late Willie Allison, a public relations officer at Rangers, who conducted a smear campaign against the the then young striker because he had married a Catholic. It ended his Ibrox career and when Allison told him he was dying of cancer Ferguson felt sufficiently embittered, even decades later, to admit that he did not feel "a crumb of pity".

Similarly, Wenger will never meet a more dastardly opponent than the corrupt former Marseilles president Bernard Tapie, who was reported to have bribed members of the young manager's Monaco team to throw games.

Their own rivalry has been a fortunate coincidence: a clash of personality, values and, most of all, of the two great clubs they manage. Beyond Saturday there is a new opponent waiting, or, more specifically, there is Mourinho. Wenger clearly already dislikes the young Portuguese coach for his role in the Cole affair, while Ferguson says he actually gets on quite well with the newcomer. There has to be a good chance that this is one subject that Ferguson eventually sees his way to agreeing upon with Wenger.

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