The Wenger volte-face

YOU could well understand Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's manager, a Frenchman after all, being thoroughly upset when Jose `The Mouth' Mourinho called him a voyeur. Though Mourinho tried to qualify this by talking about "someone who likes to watch other people. There are some guys who, when they are at home, have this big telescope to see what happens in other families. He must be one of them."

Though some doubt was cast on the seemingly polyglot Mourinho's linguistic abilities when he whimsically asked, "How do you call it in English? Voyeurs?" ENGLISH? Where was the man coming from?

Wenger, it is true, had somewhat unwisely twisted the lion's tail by reflecting, after Chelsea had been held to a draw at lowly Everton and been knocked out of the League Cup at home on penalties by modest Charlton, that the Blues' confidence might be waning. It never takes much to set Mourinho fulminating and it was predictable that he would respond. An infuriated Wenger announced that he was considering suing the Chelsea manager in court.

There is reason to think that his anger was exacerbated by bitter memories of the surreptitious, lying campaign waged against him soon after he had become the Arsenal manager, alleging paedophilia. There was never a grain of truth in such disgraceful allegations, but Wenger had to deal with them and they are not easily forgotten.

What did astonish me, and I was present, was his tirade, his diatribe, against the assembled journalists at the press conference that followed the Gunners' victory over Sparta Prague at Highbury in the European Champions League. He had dealt amicably enough, as well he might, with the match itself but when he was asked about his clash with Mourinho, he suddenly became incensed. He was, he said, sick of the way his words were being twisted, sick of the way journalists hid behind the headlines; asserting (not, surely, without reason) that they did not write the headlines themselves. Essentially, he seemed to resent the fact that he had been quoted as calling Mourinho stupid. Twice I asked him whether he thought he had been misquoted, but he didn't directly answer.

Yet when one looked at what he had actually said, it was very hard indeed to put any other construction on it than that he had indeed called Mourinho stupid. What he had said was, "I just think that when you give success to stupid people, it makes them more stupid sometimes." So who was successful, who was stupid? How could he be referring to anybody else but Mourinho? Yet he even threatened to "take action" against the press! And, surely, stupid was a very mild adjective to employ.

There was surely a hidden agenda here or in Freudian terms, a displacement. From one subject, that is to say, on to some other. With one or two exceptions, Wenger's dealings with the press over the years have been equable and civilized, even if he does tend to turn up very late for his press conferences at London Colney on Fridays, out at Arsenal's Hertfordshire training ground. I've long admired Wenger for the way that he never ducks post-match press conferences, however badly things may have gone for his team. By sharp contrast with the egregious Alex Ferguson of Manchester United — who arrogantly refuses to attend such conferences at all — and even with Mourinho who, when things have gone wrong, ducks the conference and instead sends his hapless assistant coach; the monkey, as they say, rather than the organ grinder.

There have been hiccoughs with Wenger. Notably last season, when he was infuriated by the behaviour of three Sunday tabloid newspapers who, he felt, had seriously distorted his words at a Friday conference. Asked what he and Arsenal might do about the Romanian striker Adrian Mutu, suspended by Chelsea for having used cocaine, he gave a non-committal answer. But those tabloids blew the story up into an item asserting that Wenger had said that when Mutu was free again, he would be prepared to sign him. The angry reaction was that reporters of all the three tabloids were banned from Arsenal's ensuing European game at Highbury. But, in addition, all Sunday papers, which included my own totally guiltless Sunday Times, were denied their usual special press conference at London Colney for the next two occasions. This seemed to me then, as indeed it does now, wholly excessive; a kind of collective punishment, which prevented one from doing one's job.

The present Wenger sharply contrasts with the cool, detached, sophisticated Wenger whom we once knew. The Wenger who, unlike the volatile Kevin Keegan when he was manager of Newcastle United, calmly refused to respond to the slings and arrows of outrageous Fergie, brushing him off with implicit disdain. When Manchester United were chasing Newcastle for the Championship, Ferguson embarked on a policy of provocation, and Keegan rose badly to the bait. The end of it was that Newcastle, at one point fully 12 points ahead, eventually lost the League to United.

Wenger, far better educated and infinitely more sophisticated than Ferguson, a scion of the Govan shipyards, never rose to the bait. To Fergie's fury, he also snubbed him after matches, when he did not turn up to share a bottle of wine. (Mourinho did, however, after Chelsea's defeat at Old Trafford.)

But a sea change took place in Wenger after last season's torrid defeat by United at Old Trafford in what would otherwise have been their 50th unbeaten match. There was good reason for Wenger to be outraged — the match was ineptly referred by Mike Riley, who allowed Gary Neville virtually to kick Arsenal's young Spanish attacker, Jose Antonio Reyes, out of the game. Riley also gave United an essential penalty when Wayne Rooney had palpably dived. To add to the furore, Arsenal players pelted Ferguson with soup and pizza afterwards, in the players' tunnel.

Wenger made no secret of his outrage, and brushed aside the disciplinary endeavours of the Football Association. He was clearly a changed man and, given the harsh constant pressures of running a top team for so many years, you can well understand and sympathise. It is all too clear how much he has aged in these eight years which, by and large, have been — Europe aside — so successful for him and his club. But to pock on the press, especially when for once they are quite innocent, is a dubious and potentially self-destructive way of responding to such pressures.