WHAT is left to say about 68-year-old Arsene Wenger that hasn’t already been said following the announcement that he is to leave Arsenal at the end of the season after almost 22 years in charge?
Apart from Sheffield United have had 14 managers and five acting managers during his reign. That and the Blades have more reason than most outside of The Emirates to put their respect on record for a remarkable Frenchman who changed the face of English football. His methods on and off the pitch forcing it to join the modern era.
But despite having a few touchline spats, he is also one of football's gentleman. A prime example when he diffused a heated situation with a spontaneous act of extraordinary sportsmanship after six minutes of mayhem at Highbury, Arsenal's famous old ground, during an FA Cup fifth round match between the Gunners and the Blades in February 1999.
United were in the Football League's Division One, the second tier in the Premier League era and renamed the Championship in 2004-05. The tie poised at 1-1 after Marcelo had cancelled out Patrick Vierra’s opener for Arsenal, was held up in the second half amid unprecedented scenes. United goalkeeper Alan Kelly had kicked the ball out of play in order for grounded teammate Lee Morris to receive treatment in the opposite area after Arsenal keeper David Seaman had signalled to Kelly.
To restart Gunner Ray Parlour threw the ball back towards United’s end for Kelly to deal with but Nigerian Kanu, making his debut, intercepted, squared the ball for Marc Overmars who with Kelly caught unawares and out of position, tapped in Arsenal’s ‘winner’.
Referee Peter Jones was besieged. Overmars received the full fury of Blades players for completing the unsporting act which went completely against the accepted practice. Five thousand travelling supporters, myself included, were enraged.
It was the first time I had heard the chant ‘same old Arsenal, always cheating’ and I have often wondered if it was that moment where it originated. At one point it appeared furious United manager Steve Bruce was going to lead his players off in protest with 13 minutes still remaining before order, albeit reluctantly, was eventually restored.
The final whistle was met by a barrage of jeers from Unitedites and embarrassment by some home supporters. Imagine then the astonishment when returning to my car I turned the radio on to discover that Wenger had approached Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein and requested that the tie should be replayed.
Dein, an FA councillor, agreed. A decision that was subsequently rubber-stamped by the FA. “We didn't mean to cheat,” said an apologetic Wenger. “Kanu did not know (what the custom in England was). We want to repair what happened.”
He added: “I offered the replay because it wasn’t right to win that way. It wasn’t the Arsenal way. We want to win all our games but nobody cheated on purpose.”
A demand by Bruce that the tie should be replayed at Bramall Lane as the score had been level before the incident, was rejected. “We want it here,” added Wenger. “We have a fair spirit but are not stupid.”
Once he had calmed down Bruce agreed. “We were 15 minutes from a replay. We deserve another crack. I could say it should be at Bramall Lane but I don't want to be greedy. My gut reaction at the end was that we had been robbed. It is hard enough for any team to go to Highbury and play a great club like this and survive. But we looked like doing it until that goal I will never forget as long as I live.”
Lost in the drama that day was the performance of 18-year-old Curtis Woodhouse for the Blades. The teenager who won four England Under-21 caps and later switched career to boxing, becoming British light-welterweight champion, was widely regarded as having produced a man-of-the-match performance against a throng of international stars.
In the replayed tie eight days later United lost 2-1. Irony would have it that Overmars scored first. Dennis Bergkamp added another before half time. Morris offered the Blades a flicker of hope four minutes from the end.
"Arsenal's gesture was first class but it would have been nice to have had them back at our place,” said Bruce. “In our heart of hearts we all know our chance went with that incident 10 days ago."
Wenger, meanwhile, criticised by some Arsenal fans for being naive, emerged with huge credit. ”It shows you can play fair and win,” he said. "It was important to restore the spirit of the game but also important to win. I knew that if we had lost some people would have said if you play fair you can't win. There was a lot of pressure on us.”
Which whatever side of the argument you stood for left no-one in any doubt. Wenger is a class act.
FOR THE RECORD –
FA Cup, fifth round (Highbury), Feb 13, 1999.
Arsenal: Seaman; Vivas, Grimandi, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Garde (Hughes, 42), Overmars; Bergkamp, Diawara (Kanu, 64). Unused subs: Anelka, Upson, Manninger.
Blades: Kelly; Derry, Holdsworth, Sandford, Quinn; Devlin (Twiss, 90), Stuart, Woodhouse, Hamilton; Morris (Ford, 76); Marcelo. Unused subs: Jacobson, O'Connor, Tracey.
Goals: Vieira (28) 1-0; Marcelo (48) 1-1; Overmars (77) 2-1. Att: 38,020.
Replayed tie (Highbury), Feb 23, 1999.
Arsenal: Seaman, Vivas, Bould, Adams, Winterburn, Parlour, Vieira, Hughes, Overmars (Garde, 74), Bergkamp (Diawara, 79), Anelka (Kanu, 70). Unused subs: Grimandi, Manninger.
Blades: Kelly, Derry, Holdsworth, Sandford, Quinn, Devlin (Twiss, 66), Stuart (Ford, 5), Woodhouse, Hamilton, Morris, Marcelo. Subs: Henry, Jacobsen, Tracey.
Goals: Overmars (15) 1-0; Bergkamp (37) 2-0; Morris (86) 2-1. Att: 37,161.