Soccer's Kilkenny Cats

THE Kilkenny Cats, in Irish legend, loathed each other so much that in the end, they ate one another. There seems some kind of analogy here with the continuing feud between England's two most successful managers, Alex Ferguson of Manchester United and Arsene Wenger of Arsenal. Not that you would ever expect too such sharply contrasted figures to be soul mates.

Ferguson emerged from the Glasgow shipyards, as a committed Trade Union man, just as he was a committed, even abrasive, centre-forward with Rangers. His airs and graces are few; he has had spectacular success as manager of an Aberdeen team with which he triumphantly won the European Cup Winners Cup against Real Madrid and to a far greater degree of course with Manchester United: though he very nearly lost his job there early on.

Wenger, multi lingual, well educated, sophisticated, comes from what was essentially a lower middle class background, though you would hardly suspect that now. He was never much of a footballer but, in the Continental rather than the narrower British fashion - compare him with his compatriot Gerard Houllier, or Arrigo Sacchi - he has made light of scant playing experience.

Time and again, Ferguson, perhaps playing the mind game which worked so well when he was provoking Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United, has publicly criticised Wenger; who has simply and dismissively refused to rise to the bait. The first instance was a couple of seasons ago over the suggestion that the Premiership season be extended. Ferguson excoriated Wenger's stance, the implication being that the Frenchman was a presumptuous follower who had no right to impinge on the sacred practices of English football.

More recently, Ferguson, in common with another veteran English club manager, Bobby Robson, at Newcastle, has accused Arsenal of deliberately delaying the Football Association's disciplinary hearing on their star French striker, Theirry Henry, guilty of a shocking outburst at referee Graham Poll three months before the case was heard. Wenger brushed this off too, insisting that Arsenal had nothing to do with the postponement, but let us take a closer look at the affair, which tells us much about both men.

I was at that game, and thought Henry's behaviour indefensible, Wenger's attempt to do so deplorable. One also wondered why, when after such a contentious game, a 3-1 defeat for the Gunners, explosion was in their air, Wenger should choose to disappear so quickly down the tunnel to the dressing rooms, when his imposing presence might have defused the situation.

Be that as it may, Wenger's assertion that it was a case of "trial by television," that Henry never touched the referee, was evasive in the extreme. It was in fact the second time this season that Henry has lost his control with a referee, the first time being in Athens after the Gunners had played Panathinaikos in the European Cup. And while it is quite true to say that Henry never laid hands on Poll, it cynically begs the question of what might have happened had Henry not been restrained by police, team-mates and even Alan Shearer, the Newcastle centre-forward. In the event, Henry was given a three-match suspension, which, from any logical point of view, seemed inevitable.

Ferguson has also "accused" Wenger of being the only Premiership manager who will not have a drink with him after a game. Somewhat grandiosely, Wenger has responded that he will send Ferguson a bottle of whisky. To which Ferguson's defenders have responded that for all his humble origins, Ferguson is a connoisseur of wine. Trivial enough. It has also been alleged that Wenger has refused to shake hands with Ferguson after a game which United won. Crass, if true.

Ferguson has unquestionably had more success than Wenger, whose whole five-year spell at Highbury has been overshadowed by his team's dreadful disciplinary record. At no point does Wenger seem to have got on top of the problem, of which Henry's three match suspension was no more than the latest example. Sometimes his misguided attempts to defend his players border, on the risible, such as the time when he attempted to exculpate one of them on the grounds that though he may have appeared to try to kick and punch an opponent at the end of the game, he in fact failed to connect!

It is also incontestable that under Wenger, Arsenal's presence in Europe has been a series of embarrassing anticlimaxes. One defeat after another, when the team played home games at Wembley. Wretched defeats away from home, not only this season but in the recent past by such east European teams, hardly giants, as Shakhtor Donetsk and Spartak. And the 2-0 beating by Deportivo La Coruna at Highbury in March made nonsense of Wenger's smug assertion after a win at Aston Villa four days later that "the great thing when you follow Arsenal is you see great goals." Not that Ferguson's Euro record is impeccable.

What luck he had when United beat Bayern in the Barcelona Euro Final despite his absurd choice of Ryan Giggs on the right; and the fact that Bayern twice hit the woodwork! What folly caused him to sell Jaap Stam to Lazio and buy the ageing immobile Laurent Blanc to take his place: and to persist in Europe so long with just one striker? Some see Ferguson as a demi-god; others regard him as thin skinned (see his autobiography) and domineering. Take your choice. Meanwhile, the two Kilkenny Cats will continue to eye each other.