Arsenal's indiscipline

THERE'S temptation to say that Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger's favourite half back line would be The Three Wise Monkeys: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.


THERE'S temptation to say that Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger's favourite half back line would be The Three Wise Monkeys: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Time and time again he has tried to put as good a gloss as possible in his team's appalling disciplinary record, but now at the start of the new English season, the birds seem to have come ineluctably home to roost. In fact, before the official season even started.

Francis Jeffers (left) of Arsenal tussles with Phil Neville of Manchester United in full view of referee Steve Bennett who sent Jeffers off with a straight red card during the FA Community Shield match at the Millennium Stadium, in Cardiff, Wales. -- Pic. HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES-

For at Cardiff, in the Millennium Stadium, where that meaningless non-event, the Communist (formally the Charity) Shield, took place a week before the launch of the Premiership, Arsenal had one man sent off where it might well have been three, and that red card was no fewer than the 50th in the seven years of Arsene Wenger's managerial regime.

There was no way he could defend Francis Jeffers, who took a kick at the Manchester United defender, Phil Neville, except to say as a palliative that Jeffers was a nice lad really, while Jeffers himself apologised and said he could not understand what came over him. Perhaps, but one recalled that this over-priced attacker, bought from Everton for an excessive �9 million, last season gained a penalty in an important match at Highbury with the most blatant dive.

Of the other two Arsenal men who might and indeed should have been red carded, the England international centre back Sol Campbell got away, initially at least, with a deliberate kick from behind at Manchester United's Eric Djemba-Djemba, who admittedly had just painfully fouled him. And the left back Ashley Cole, another England international, was also lucky to stay on the field after a displeasing foul.

It was announced that the FA, looking at TV evidence, would investigate the offence by Campbell, which Wenger deplored. Just six days later, however, this time at Highbury in the opening League game against Everton, Campbell was indeed sent off, for chopping down the Danish international, Thomas Gravesen, as he raced through on goal. Of this, Wenger, once again telling us what a nice, kind, gentle chap his player was, really, observed, "This was unfortunate. He wanted to play the ball and was too late. It was not malicious." And Campbell's foul on Djemba Djemba in Cardiff? "Hype by the media."

Let us put aside the moral aspects of the case: the fact is that Arsenal had thus had 51 players sent off under Wenger's aegis. Looked at in the coldest practical way, such shocking indiscipline has cost the Gunners very dear indeed, with key players constantly being suspended, sometimes for weeks. Not least Patrick Vieira, perhaps the most important element in the side, who time and again has been shown the red card and thus ruled out of crucial games. On one occasion as he went off the field at West Ham, he actually spat at an opponent.

One remembers too the shame of Arsenal men's behaviour towards the end of an European Cup match which they lost at Wembley to Lens. Ray Parlour, their blond right winger, spitefully and deliberately kicked an opponent and was promptly sent off. Lee Dixon the right back then ran into the back of the Lens striker, Tony Vairelles, knocking him painfully flat. No action was taken against Dixon then, but suspension followed on television evidence; which admittedly has meant it's much more common to be suspended now than it was in pre-TV days.

Sol Campbell of Arsenal looks dejected after being sent off for his challenge on Thomas Gravesen during the FA Barclaycard Premiership match between Arsenal and Everton at Highbury. — Pic. BEN RADFORD/GETTY IMAGES-

Some years ago, Arsenal's Paul Davis, a clever black inside forward and usually the mildest of men, actually incurred a nine-match suspension for punching the then Southampton player, Glenn Cockerill, from behind and breaking his jaw.

You do wonder what Herbert Chapman, the true managerial architect of the Gunners' fortunes, the man who took them over in 1929 and in five years transformed them from a mediocre club — lucky to have been promoted to the First division after World War I, when they'd come only fifth in Division two pre-war — into a power that dominated European football.

In January 1933, Arsenal, at the peak of their powers, were sensationally knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round — the first in which the leading teams competed — by obscure little Walsall. One of the goals they conceded was a penalty, for a foul by the reserve left black, Tommy Black. Within days he had been transferred to Fulham. Had it been the famous defender for whom he was deputising, Eddie Hapgood, you do wonder whether Chapman would have been quite so precipitate, but the incident had its significance. Whether on moral or purely pragmatic grounds, you could never imagine Chapman taking the same detached and ultimately costly attitude as Wenger.

Thierry Henry, that superbly gifted and effective striker, is another who has had his turbulent moments with Arsenal. Not least in Athens, when he furiously castigated the referee after a match in Euro football, which his team had lost to Panathinaikos. And notoriously, more recently, when in the Premiership they went down surprisingly and somewhat controversially to Newcastle United. Again Henry confronted the referee, and this time had to be restrained by other players and even policemen. This meant Wenger could point out that Henry hadn't laid a finger on the official, but it was surely begging the question.

The somewhat baffling feature of the event was that when it happened, Wenger wasn't there; he had already taken off down the tunnel. You might have thought that knowing the volatile nature of his player and the frustrating way the game had gone, the disputable refereeing decisions, which had affected it, he might have thought it politic to be on hand to calm down a player he developed at Monaco and who has always greatly respected him.

Since the system of red and yellow cards was instituted, wrongly I still believe, around 1968, it has of course become much more common for a player to be expelled, not for a serious foul but for just a couple of quite minor ones, even for running the ball out of play and recovering it, or showing dissent. But when Parlour, Campbell or Jeffers takes a flying kick at an opponent, that has nothing to do with the accumulation of yellow cards. Such players see red in both senses of the word. And until Wenger comes to terms with a problem, which has lasted far too long, his team must suffer for it.