James Lawton: Bitter backdrop on night of lost innocence

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The Independent Football

In this stadium where great crowds used to flock to see football greatness in the making, when Sir Matt Busby was assembling his brilliant, doomed Babes, you had to be a hopeless romantic last night to believe there was even a whiff of such sentiment in a sell-out crowd.

In this stadium where great crowds used to flock to see football greatness in the making, when Sir Matt Busby was assembling his brilliant, doomed Babes, you had to be a hopeless romantic last night to believe there was even a whiff of such sentiment in a sell-out crowd.

Any such notion was systematically stripped away by the tone of that crowd, one for whom the whole point of the evening seemed to be compressed into a scene ugly enough to take its place seamlessly in the unremitting bitterness that has developed between the great clubs of Manchester United and Arsenal.

Mercifully, both teams stepped back from the worst implications of a blood-chilling moment, but if the game never lost itself to the kind of ugliness that has come to mark the meetings of the top players of these teams, the atmosphere was no more uplifting than an uneasy stand-off in a back alley.

The eruption came early in the second half and what was so shocking was not so much the fact that Arsenal's superbly gifted 21-year-old Dutch striker Robin Van Persie attempted to elbow and scythe down Manchester United's Kieran Richardson, but the instantly raw emotion he provoked both on the field and in the terraces.

It was confirmation that if you had come along to celebrate new tides of innocent football grace you had picked the wrong place and maybe the wrong century.

Within seconds both players were surrounded and the stadium seethed. The referee, Mark Halsey, elected not to send off Van Persie for his initial aggression or Richardson for his retaliation. Yellow cards were administered. A white flag would have been as appropriate. When will someone of power say we have gone too far along the road of football anarchy? When we will see an authentically powerful reaction to Rooney running wild in a foreign stadium, Vieira cheating in full view of the nation, and a blind eye to outrages like the throwing of pizza by a young footballer at the head of one of the most powerful men in the game.

Fifty years on from the birth of the Babes, the scent of United's League Cup quarter-final win was not of blossoming talent - though heaven knows there was enough of it around - but the acrid one of a graceless, bitter rivalry.

That was the real scandal of what has happened between the most successful English clubs of the last decade Arsenal fielded an international youth brigade of dazzling potential. Manchester United showed their economic power by fielding eight full internationals, including World Cup winner Kleberson on a list of signings costing more than £18m.

It should have been a delicate, thrilling balance but after David Bellion, one of those expensive signings fighting to prove his worth at Old Trafford, was allowed to score of a goal of bewildering ease after just 20 seconds, we had none of the expected brilliance.

In its place was a hard and bitter edge from young players who should have been exploring the scale of their talent rather than the level of a bitter inheritance.

What was need more than anything was a gesture of conciliation, a touch of leadership from the men who shape and influence every corner of Old Trafford and Highbury. We didn't get much of that from Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger.

From Ferguson we had a little more stirring of the more acid juices. The day after announcing that Chelsea were now his great concern - Chelsea, the late, money-drenched intruders into a battle which had for so been superb - he said that football could rely on Manchester United to set the best example. They were winners of the Fair Play League. They had real discipline and, here was the real cutting stroke, they knew how to lose.

That was perhaps less than statesmanlike. It was no guaranteed to soothe any troubled waters. At the end Wenger offered to shake hands and Ferguson took it and held for, as someone observed, perhaps a nanosecond. It was the best that the two most successful men in English football could do. It was, you had to believe, not nearly enough.

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