James Lawton: Wenger betrayed as the last bastion of sanity descends into temple of gloom

Team building has been pushed into the cupboard you may keep a chocolate teapot in

Tuesday 22 July 2008 00:00

Though it is 2000-odd years since the money dealers had their tables turned over in the temple, and only less than a month before the start of a new Premier League season, isn't it surely time for a similar gesture?

Another question: where to start? The recommendation here is the dressing room at The Emirates Stadium, which was recently occupied by Alexander Hleb and a fond belief that has turned out to be quite groundless.

It was expressed here less than a year ago in the theory that not only would Arsenal survive the departure of Thierry Henry they would be a better, more competitive team and indeed might well finish up with the title, a stirring testament to the vision and team-building faith of Arsène Wenger.

Whether they might have done it if a kind of collective palsy had not possessed the young and hitherto brilliant team after the sickening injury to Eduardo da Silva we will never know. One thing is certain, however. It is that they simply do not produce enough funny cigarettes to induce a similar prediction now.

If all of the top level of English football has turned into a counting house, and placed at the heart of the universe a bunch of agents who are utterly impervious to the effects of oil and food prices, there is surely nowhere more depressing to view the phenomenon than at the club which seemed to be a bastion against so much of the madness.

Nor can it be surprising that if Wenger is not throwing over the tables in the temples of the game, he is issuing a passionate broadside against the "destabilising" of players by major clubs like Real Madrid, and ironically, perhaps Manchester United in the case of Dimitar Berbatov.

Wenger can speak with the clearest of consciences. He can do it because his way of making football runs deeper and is infinitely more idealistic than the grab-all catching of talent which may or may not be legally available. It is seeing that talent early and nurturing it. It is about values which go beyond the outrageous piracy attempted by Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon and endorsed so shockingly by Fifa president Sepp Blatter in the case of the despicably self-orientated Cristiano Ronaldo.

Wenger didn't load up on signings before last season, he didn't stockpile squad players, and some said this was a serious mistake. What he did say was that he was happy with his resources and he would give all his players the chance to prove that they could do it. It was a gust of fresh air in the business of the strong accumulating power and ransacking the weak.

Now Wenger is entitled to speak with a strong sense of grievance. It was bad enough that Mathieu Flamini and Hleb took flight and Emmanuel Adebayor was almost salivating in his desire to join the exodus. We now have to stomach fresh treacherous mutterings from Hleb, who finally looked an authentically brilliant player under the guidance of Wenger after his journey from Belarus via Germany to north London.

He tells his new captive audience in Barcelona that his former team-mate Cesc Fabregas, the star of Spain's glorious European Championship win, will quite likely soon hop on to a plane and rejoin his old club. This comes just a matter of days after Hleb was branding Fabregas a "selfish" person, an interesting view from somebody who has developed a track record of disloyalty and ingratitude that might have been considered remarkable on the tilting deck of the Titanic.

We cannot be sure Arsenal are holed beneath the water-line but the latest defectors' bulletin has captain William Gallas also heading for Barcelona, another development which makes last summer's optimism on behalf of the Gunners seem like the babblings of a congenital optimist.

Gallas is not everybody's idea of a natural leader, that possibility dissolved on the day of Eduardo's disaster and the Frenchman's embarrassing parody of how a captain should behave, but he did wear the band, he is an excellent defender, and from where else would a manager expect a show of loyalty than from the man he lifted from the ranks after rescuing him from his vendetta at Stamford Bridge with Jose Mourinho?

Perhaps it is from the foremost of Wenger's protégés, his great creation, Fabregas. The young Spaniard has shown such competitive maturity and silky touch that he is surely a quintessential example of someone you might build a team around.

But what kind of concept has that become? It is one that implies the possibility of growth from one season to another, of favours granted and received, of some allegiance beyond the urge to grab at the first hint of a better deal. So it is a huge over-baked pie in the sky.

Consider, for example, some of yesterday's headlines on the utterly responsible football pages of The Independent. They proclaimed a football world where team building has been pushed into the cupboard where you might keep a chocolate teapot.

In no particular order, here is a sample, 'Ince set to pay £4m for Chile's 'Pineapple Head', 'Chimbonda keen to join Keane', 'Hleb claims Fabregas is destined to rejoin Barcelona', and, perhaps, most resonant of all, 'Makelele on way out as Drogba is left behind'. We know that Drogba, on balance, would prefer to be bolted into an upright position than linger at Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile, Frank Lampard, the kisser of the shirt, has a precise value for his loyalty: £150,000 a week.

No doubt the morality lecture by Wenger might as well have been spat into the wind at Royal Birkdale, but he is right to make his point. Turning over the tables would be an equally futile gesture. But it might just make the point that this is indeed a suitable time for rage.

Westwood's depressing failure is all of his own making

All year Lee Westwood, arguably Britain's most gifted golfer, had been making the right noises. All year he had been saying that it was time for him to deliver.

So why, after his gut-wrenchingly disappointing performance at Royal Birkdale, did he slip back so quickly into the old mode so familiar to followers of British sport?

Why did he blame it on the nuisance and the expectations created by the media?

He did it because it is the easiest of excuses. He did it because like so many of his compatriots, he has cocooned himself in a world, unlike the one that delivered Tiger Woods, for example, that has not grasped the point that the only valid expectations are the ones you set yourself.

Padraig Harrington won his second Open not because he learned to live with other people's expectations. He won because he demanded it of himself, because he wanted to get that feeling of being a champion again.

Nothing else mattered to him when he negotiated the wind and the rain of Royal Birkdale. The result was that he claimed the Claret Jug with greater style and conviction than he had been able to produce over the last, treacherous hole at Carnoustie last year.

This time he met all expectations, and everyone of them was set by himself.

Harmison criticisms reveal his unprofessional mindset

AS South Africa squeezed the life out of England at Headingley yesterday, you had to wonder whether that most basic of hopes in the wake of the 2005 Ashes victory would ever be fulfilled.

You remember the one? It was that some new standards of performance had been set and that maybe they might just be met with some consistency.

The trouble was, and remains so, that too many leading England cricketers seem to believe that they are answerable only to themselves. Such a mindset certainly can be the only explanation for Steve Harmison's extraordinary decision to criticise the England selectors for their choice of Australian-groomed Darren Pattinson.

It is true that Pattinson has not covered himself in glory, but there was a short brusque answer to the rhetorical question of the drastically underachieving Harmison.

He said: "If Pattinson is the next in line, there will be a lot of other bowlers out there thinking, 'What has he done that we haven't?'."

On what should be the faint chance that Harmison includes himself in that number, the answer is surely clear enough. Pattinson has shown a determination to give the best of himself. How long ago was it that Harmison could say that of himself while playing for his country?

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