James Lawton: Arsenal's old sins tarnish would-be legends' aura

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The Independent Football

The whining of Arsenal is not a surprise - heaven knows, they have a track record - but it is no less disappointing for that.

The whining of Arsenal is not a surprise - heaven knows, they have a track record - but it is no less disappointing for that. It crushes the idea that along with the brilliance that went into the run of 49 unbeaten Premiership games there was genuine growth, not just as accomplished footballers but wholly formed men of the world.

Men, that is, who know that some days they are going to get an inadequate referee, and that when you lash out at the sins of your opponents it is always as well to remember your own crimes.

We had none of that at Old Trafford on Sunday; no grace, no manly shrugs of the shoulders that would have represented acceptance of the old truth that defeat is the impostor always waiting in ambush for the greatest of teams. What we had was a gorging banquet of self-pity. We had Arsène Wenger, the brilliantly innovative, endlessly sophisticated coach who had done so well to keep his head from being washed away by oceans of praise, lashing out that his team had been cheated.

It was the old Wenger casting the first stone, talking about cheating as though his own Robert Pires had not defined the dark art last season when he so disgracefully connived a penalty against Portsmouth, an outrage which preserved an unbeaten record that would eventually be so celebrated by every genuine football lover in the land. Who forgets that at the time Pires's offence provoked from Wenger not a murmur of displeasure, still less shame?

There is no doubt that the referee Mike Riley put in a quite appalling performance on Sunday. He should have given Rio Ferdinand a red card in the first half for his blatant, last-man foul on Freddie Ljungberg, he was inexcusably complacent when both Gary Neville and Ashley Cole tackled unscrupulously beyond the law in the early going, and he missed the brutal fouling of Cole by Ruud van Nistelrooy.

However, when he signalled a penalty after Sol Campbell had stuck out his left leg in panic when Wayne Rooney whirled on him in the penalty area, it was surely the least of his sins. Even after several television re-runs, some of the most experienced football men in the land were unconvinced that Riley was in error.

Campbell was, of course, outraged to the point of later rejecting the proffered handshake of his young England team-mate; he was no less indignant, indeed, than when he insisted that he had not elbowed United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 18 months ago.

No matter that the television evidence was emphatic, Campbell insisted that not only was he was innocent, he was victim of an FA conspiracy. There was some reason to hope that such paranoia had been put on one side after last season's rancid behaviour at Old Trafford, when Wenger and his players were finally obliged, by their own boardroom, to face up to the consequences of their lack of discipline. FA punishment, as Sir Alex Ferguson raged, was mild indeed, but it did come after the Highbury board had gone public with its belief that a line had to be drawn.

This appeared to have happened as Arsenal blossomed on the field in direct proportion to the improvement in their discipline. As Arsenal fused into new levels of unity on the field, there was a distinct sense of growing maturity off it. Not only did Cole improve as a player, there was a dwindling expectation that he would produce some gut-churning piece of gamesmanship after receiving a tackle. He admitted publicly to some of his own excesses.

For a little while it seemed likely that Arsenal had indeed moved on to new level, that the legacy of Martin Keown, the arch culprit in last season's tawdry mob scene was at an end. No one, for example, would ever again fake injury as outrageously as he did when provoking the dismissal of Lazio's Francesco Totti in a European game just a month before the Campbell-Solskjaer incident. This, everyone at Highbury should appreciate, is not ancient history. It is part of the culture of the club that, before Sunday regression, we had been encouraged to believe had been expunged, as it was to a large degree at Old Trafford when Ferguson finally saw that it was damaging the progress of his team.

There is no doubt Arsenal had grievances at Old Trafford. But enough to justify the on-field squabbling, the pointed fingers, the overweening reproach and a suggestion that Ferguson had soup thrown over his shirt by an Arsenal player? Given their own failings, you wouldn't have thought so.

Patrick Vieira was aghast when he was booked. It was no doubt an affront to his attempts to referee the game, but it was surely consistent with some of the savagery of his own tackling.

The truth was that Arsenal came for a draw, which, given the level of some of their previous performances this season, admittedly against lesser opposition, was something of a failure of nerve. Maybe it was this that most gnawed at Arsenal in the bitter aftermath of their lost record. There was too the additional aggravation that since their emergence as England's unbeatable team and, in the belief of some dubious historians, the greatest club side in the history of the national game, their League and Cup record against their most bitter rivals was the desperate one of played four, won none, drawn two, lost two.

This was by no means a pathway to unique glory, and nor was Sunday's performance. United doubtlessly benefited from incompetent refereeing. But they were also helped by their superior will. This was the prime fuel for behaviour from Arsenal unworthy of aspiring football legends.