James Lawton: Wenger's attitude confirms absence of football's moral leadership

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The Independent Online

Jamie Carragher had a little time to think about what he was doing, and what he did was cosmically stupid. But he did apologise, unreservedly, and unlike some members of the Arsenal team he was opposing he does not collect red cards as part of his professional routine.

This should perhaps be considered when the Football Association comes to review another disgraceful episode at Highbury. In the rush to condemn Carragher, and lump him among the growing number of professional footballers who seem determined to pack their game into a handcart and wheel it to hell, we should not forget that it was an Arsenal "fan" who first threw the missile, and about whom we wait, not very optimistically, for news of his arrest, charging, and permanent expulsion from football grounds.

That Carragher is due stiff punishment should go without saying, and this is a reaction which must surely be redoubled in all those of us who felt that the treatment of Eric Cantona after his gut-wrenching interface with a Crystal Palace yobbo a few years ago was intolerably lax. But, having said that, it is also true there is a chronic problem at Highbury and at least in one sense Carragher was drawn into it.

Why did an Arsenal fan throw a missile on to the field? It was presumably in response to the dismissal of Dennis Bergkamp, who had made a two-footed lunge at Carragher which would have been sickening enough had it come from some obscure, under-talented clogger rather than one of the most sublimely gifted footballers at work today. Not for the first time did the Dutchman betray both his own place in the game and his professional values.

For once, his manager, Arsène Wenger, did see the incident and indeed not only did he refrain from flying to Bergkamp's defence he said, through gritted teeth, that maybe the team's collective behaviour did need to improve. Bergkamp's red card was the 42nd administered to an Arsenal player during Wenger's regime, and the 10th this season. This is a record which would be deserving of blushes if owned by some scuffling survival-seekers at the wrong end of the Football League. That it is Arsenal, a team capable of playing with the beauty that Thierry Henry and Bergkamp brought to the winning goal, who have acquired such a shocking reputation only increases the sense that the game's biggest problem is a killing absence of moral leadership.

The crisis is only compounded by the fact that nowhere is this deficiency more apparent than in the managership of a man whose latest gift to the English game is the fabulous moulding of the artist-striker Henry.

Wenger was saying the other day that the "meanness" of Arsenal, the edge which so regularly leads to a referee dismissing one of their players – or two as was the case on Sunday – can be directly related to their success. Last season, when Arsenal's challenge to Manchester United was ultimately so feeble, yellow and red cards were significantly down. Now they are up again, Arsenal look good value to win the Premiership and FA Cup double at 8-1.

It is an argument unworthy of a man of high intelligence. It is a pandering to the forces of indiscipline. Today's refereeing regime makes impossible the existence of a "dirty team." Arsenal are not a dirty team. They are an irresponsible one. They regularly lose key players from vital games for offences which serve no other purpose than indicting the culprits as poor professionals.

What, really, did Bergkamp hope to achieve by flying at Carragher? Later he claimed that he had made no contact with his intended victim, as if that somehow removed the poisonous effect of what he did. He will automatically miss three games. More depressingly, he will have contributed again to the belief that more or less anything goes at Highbury.