Frank Keating

The Alex-Arsène show

The Alex-Arsène show

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I fancy football’s most satisfying kick of the year has not been any particular jingo-jangle or hype-hype hooray on the pitch itself, but the cold-eyed gunslingers’ rivalry between two middle-aged obsessives — Sir Alex Ferguson and Monsieur Arsène Wenger, respectively the managers of Manchester United and Arsenal. As an irresistible sideshow it gets better and more compelling by the meeting as the two of them patrol the touchline almost shoulder to shoulder but each, to all intents, completely denying the existence of the other — the hot-blooded passionate Celt Ferguson, his lived-in mulberry cheeks rolling with rhythmic fierceness on his treble gob of Wrigleys, and the pallidly pent-up, wintry-faced Alsatian with the permanent pout which pretends to tame his torment and tensions. Both are unquestioned monarchs of the kingdoms they transformed. Ferguson, the older, has achieved by far the most, but Wenger, who seems even more undistractedly obsessive in ambition for his club, has time enough to plant his flag at the summit of the all-time pile of records.

Ferguson arrived in Manchester in the late 1980s (1,000 games ago last week) after acclaimed success with Aberdeen in his native Scotland. He had begun work as a teenager (and self-confessed union-organiser ‘commie’) in the Govan shipyards, from which he broke away to be a hard-nut pro centre-forward and scourge of both goalkeepers and referees. His best season was with Dunfermline: 46 goals in 52 matches. His mentor-heroes were two legendary guiding lights of Rangers, Bill Struth and Scot Symon. The former would, if he saw even an international player downtown on a Saturday night with his hands in his pockets, walk up to the fellow and, without warning, punch him viciously in the ribs before continuing, without a word, on his way. The latter, even more authoritarian, was once telephoned by a reporter friend who, inquiring by way of pleasant intro, ‘What’s the weather like in Glasgow?’ received a long silence before Symon offered: ‘No comment.’

Wenger had a differently difficult apprenticeship. A bistro owner’s shy and lonely son from a neat, trim village near Strasbourg, he apparently played a ganglingly unco-ordinated game in minor leagues before, as a self-taught coach, he began relentlessly to register an increasing log of senior club achievements, first in France and then Japan. When, out of the blue, he was appointed to ‘boring’ old Arsenal in 1996 the London Evening Standard’s banner headline despairingly pleaded ‘Arsène Who?’ and I remember thinking how typical it was of the irksomely tedious club to go for such a palely anon foreign fellow. Did Highbury only settle on him, we asked ourselves, for his quaintly apposite Christian name? One of Wenger’s French friends said at the time that at least Arsenal wouldn’t have to furnish the apartment they were buying their new manager: ‘He’ll only want one solitary kitchen chair, to sit at while watching videos of opponents’ matches; you see, Arsène watches videos all day and all night.’

Last week, when Ferguson passed his 1,000-game English milestone (only Brian Clough, 1,319, and Alec Stock, 1,321, are ahead), Wenger at least offered with gracious brevity, ‘It is a fantastic achievement.’ But I daresay ‘tight-lipped and ashen-faced’ described the giving of it. For his part, Ferguson has said, ‘People who tell me they know Wenger say he is a good man, but I doubt I’ll ever find out for myself. He pulls the shutters down and’ — conclusive Celtic nutshell — ‘he has never had a drink with me after a game.’