Wenger quick to adapt to the new mood

The crackdown: Arsenal find pragmatism pays in Palios' purge, while Ferguson and United may pay for their stand
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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson is not the kind of man, of course, who is known for responding in a fit of pique, but it is hugely tempting to suggest that the Manchester United manager's reaction to events this week should be explained by the fact that his club have been utterly wrong-footed. And not just by anyone, but by their most avid rivals.

Arsenal may not have pulled a flanker and copped "a deal" with the Football Association over punishments for their post-whistle Old Trafford scufflers, as Ferguson suspects ("disgraceful" and "unbelievable" was the Scot's pronouncement, having garnered his information from the newspapers he normally regards with healthy scepticism). But pragmatism, as many of us suspected when they pleaded guilty to all charges, has won Arsène Wenger's men the lowest sentences they were ever going to receive, given the constant repetition of prejudicial pre-trial TV evidence.

On Friday, having pronounced that his club may appeal against Thursday's verdicts "on principle", Wenger continued his protestations in suitably indignant and theatrical manner. "We have played 10 games and for five seconds we have not behaved as we should, and we have been punished," he said. "For people who like Arsenal it's too high; for some people, even hanging would not be enough. They think that you should hang us twice in Hyde Park in front of the whole country!"

Yet the reality is that behind that wounded visage is a man who can only be greatly relieved by the outcome of the Soho Square hearing, despite all the dire warnings of the draconian justice the FA chief executive, Mark "The Impaler" Palios, wanted his organisation's disciplinary committee to dispense.

It is true that four of the Arsenal personnel must serve an aggregate suspension of nine games, and that the club and players have been fined a total of £275,000, and it is difficult not to concur with the manager that the punishments were disproportionate to what, taken in isolation, were scarcely the most heinous of crimes.

Indeed, the FA could not have timed their own adjudication any worse if they had set out to do so, coming as it did on a day when Uefa delivered their verdict on England's Istanbul tunnel- muggers. The fact that the FA escaped with a fine equivalent to a couple of Chelsea season- tickets after an incident in which punches were thrown makes a mockery of Uefa's disciplinary code.

Yet, on reflection, Wenger will still feel that, given the commotion that followed September's Manchester United-Arsenal Premiership game, the punishments spare the manager and his men. Martin Keown (three games) makes only limited appearances these days, with Kolo Touré and Sol Campbell dominating that centre-back role; so, too, Ray Parlour (one game) in midfield. Patrick Vieira (one game) has been injured and may have been absent from that game anyway. Lauren (four games) is the only significant loss, and there is cover for him. It should also be stressed that the fixtures involved are not the most daunting.

Meanwhile, Ferguson awaits the fate of his own players, Ryan Giggs and Ronaldo, who sought personal hearings after being charged over their involvement in that fracas. Principled man though he is, the Scot must now regret that United failed to adopt a similarly practical stance over the Rio Ferdinand affair.

Maybe a swift acknowledgement of guilt, a statement of contrition from player and club (who may not have been on the charge sheet, but must be regarded as having a degree of culpability), would have resulted in leniency. We will never know. The suspicion now, though, is that his £30m centre-back, whose morose mien peers at us daily through the raindrops of his windscreen, may have to contemplate a three-month ban. Or in practical terms, in the region of a 23-game suspension.

The case of the Old Trafford One has become a cause célèbre; a defining moment in the sport's approach to drug-testing and, indeed, in the question of the FA's ability to assert itself and deal effectively with those who transgress the system. Its task gets ever more complicated. Yesterday, a tabloid newspaper revealed that it has passed on to UK Sport the names of five Premiership players, four of them past or present internationals, whom it claims have taken cocaine.

Crime and punishment, FA-style, was once a relatively straightforward affair; these days, it appears to take as long as it would to read every word of Dostoevsky's opus. It required well over five weeks for charges even to be brought against Ferdinand, though one would have to question whether there would have been that delay had Manchester United - with the honourable exception of Sir Bobby Charlton, apparently the only voice of reason within the club - and the players' union, the PFA, adopted a more reasonable stance from the start.

This week, the PFA's chief executive, Gordon Taylor, leapt feverishly on the FA's announcement that his member would be charged with "failure or refusal" to submit to a drug test like some would-be Perry Mason, claiming some kind of victory because the word "wilful" was not included, which was not only erroneous, but also a thoroughly inappropriate reaction.

Taylor's response has been disappointingly predictable all along since he was confronted with a case which transcends normal disciplinary issues. This is much more than about one individual and one club; this concerns the integrity of the sport. In contrast, Palios has impressed with his quiet determination that the ruling body should mete out tough justice, equitably and consistently.

It is quite possible that Ferdinand will persuade the committee that he was merely forgetful on that fateful day. Should he receive a lengthy ban, however, the reactions will be fascinating. Will England's best-paid wildcat strikers be threatening another demonstration of solidarity under the leadership of Brother Neville? What will be Ferguson's stance?

In the past, there have been some caustic observations about gentlemen and players, and the competence of the former sitting in judgement of the latter. What do the County Set, those representatives of the amateur game, understand about the professional version, their critics demand. It was never an argument, but here it simply is not relevant. Specifically because the committee is actually removed from any connection with Premiership football, Barry Bright, of the Kent FA, and two other county representatives, are eminently suited to accept the submissions of, no doubt, a plethora of lawyers, and adjudicate objectively.

To his credit, throughout it all, Ferdinand's form has not deserted him. Indeed, if anything it has been enhanced. As his manager said: "He's not enjoying it, obviously, but where he is coping is that he has managed to focus on the football games quite well, and I think that's important to him. His one saving grace is that he has got a football game to look forward to at the moment."

But for how much longer? Something tells you that, come decision day, Ferguson's demeanour will acquire a darkness unseen since David Beckham crossed him.

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