Hull and high water

It has been something of a habit of Arsenal’s leading managers to see no evil in their players’ offences and Arsene Wenger is no exception.

Hull and high water you might say. The reverberations from the recent Arsenal v Hull City fifth round FA Cup tie at The Emirates will take long to die away. Did Cesc Fabregas afterwards, in the tunnel, spit at the feet of Brian Horton, Hull City’s assistant manager? Was Arsenal’s belated winning goal offside? Did Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s manager, incite the referee, the ever-controversial Mike Riley, to book the Hull City goalkeeper, Boaz Myhill, for wast ing time, and thereby change the course of the game, as Hull’s disgusted manager, Phil Brown, asserted? And did Wenger, at the bitter end of the match, refuse to shake hands with him?

As one who was there, and who attended Phil Brown’s outraged Press Conference afterwards, all these are questions which intrigue me. First, Fabregas. Arguably, even at 20 years old, the Spaniard whom they grabbed from a furious Barcelona when he was only 16, and now the outstanding Arsenal player, in midfield, has something of a fiery past. If Horton, whom I know quite well, insists that Fabregas, injured and bouncing about passionately on the touchline throughout the game, did indeed spit at his feet, I think we have to accept that Fabregas did.

If one were to be thoroughly cynical, I suppose it could be said that this was something of a moral step forward for the Gunners, by comparison with what Fabregas’ powerful predecessor Patrick Vieira (whom he has so splendidly and unexpectedly replaced) did at West Ham a few years ago. Expelled from the field at West Ham, for neither the first nor the last time in his somewhat turbulent if impressive career, he spat in the face, not at the feet, of the West Ham United centre-back, “Razor” Ruddock.

Wenger, whose motto, one sometimes thinks, might have been that of an unusual half-back line, ‘The Three Wise Monkeys’, needless to say saw nothing of Fabregas’ supposed offence. Indeed, I am here quite convinced he did not. But it has been something of a habit of Arsenal’s leading managers to see no evil; so to the point that Wenger, in press conferences has been known to make a joke of it. George Graham, his Scottish predecessor, was wont to tell us, “I didn’t see it. I was just coming down (from the stand to the bench). I was just coming up.”

You might say that Fabregas had form of a sort, as indeed had the referee, Mike Riley. Not long ago, Arsenal, at Old Trafford, playing Manchester United, in what would have been their 49th League match without defeat, controversially crashed. In no small measure thanks to the refereeing of Mr. Riley. He gave United a penalty — one of no fewer than eight he has awarded them at Old Trafford, and a highly dubious one, since Wayne Rooney seemed palpably to have died. He failed to give any protection to Arsenal’s young Spanish left-winger, Jose Antonio Reyes, shamefully maltreated by the experienced United and England right-back, Phil Neville.

When the teams left the field, there was then too an incident in the tunnel, again purposely involving Fabregas. Someone had the extreme effrontery to throw piazzas over the revered and saintly Alex Ferguson, and that someone is now belatedly reported to have been none other than the then teenaged Cesc Fabregas. Which might prove, to the disrespectful, that Fabregas cannot be all bad.

Hull, finally promoted, and even then only via a Wembley play off, to the top division, after a century of striving, had in fact had the temerity of coming earlier to the Emirates Stadium and in the Premier League beating Arsenal 1-0 with a goal superbly swerved in by their Brazilian midfielder, Geovanni. In the Cup game he so very nearly did it again with another glorious swerving shot which this time however, produced an equally spectacular save from Arsenal’s reserve Polish ’keeper.

That would have made it 2-0 to Hull, the team having gone ahead with a diabolically deflected shot from the left by Nicky Barmby, the former England international, now playing for his local team after a long and productive career elsewhere; not least at Tottenham.

Arsenal however steadily dominated the second-half and the dazzling little Russian Andrei Arshavin, recently acquired, at high expense, from Zenith Leningrad, coolly set up the equaliser. If Gallas was offside when he scored the contentious winner, and he surely was, did it make any difference that the ball had deflected to him off ’keeper Myhill, as he tussled for it in the air, as Wenger thought?

It occurred to me that although Riley was beyond doubt officiating in good faith, somewhere deep in his unconscious, the bitter controversy of that Old Trafford game might have been haunting him. But then, that 49-match unbeaten run was surely flawed by Arsenal’s early season escape at Highbury from defeat by Portsmouth, when Robert Pires, their French winger blatantly dived to procure a non-existent equalising penalty.

What goes around comes around, you might say. But when I reminded Brown of Riley’s bad day at Old Trafford with its implicit possible consequences, he replied that he was manager of Hull City only and promptly left the press room. Embittered.