Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the embryo of a body of contrition hovering over the Emirates stadium as it dawns on Arsenal folk that their self-canonised saints of football may also, from time to time, stray from the path of purity …
Cesc Fabregas is a magical footballer, a convincing contender for any choice of the Premier League’s finest. He is also, necessarily, strong, fast and committed.
So realistic supporters, whether they are Gooners or follow Sunderland or Chelsea, Wolves or Stoke or indeed anyone else, can sympathise with Fabregas when he tells his manager he hadn’t the slightest wish to injure Stephen Ward of Wolves. Yet it was challenge that some felt merited a card of a different colour than the yellow shown by Mark Halsey.
A red would have made Arsenal’s disciplinary record look ever so slightly like ours.
But it is a simple fact, difficult as some find it to grasp, that football reporters and fans are not always right when they claim a tackle was so dangerous or disgraceful that dismissal should have followed.
Lee Cattermole, correctly sent off twice this season and correctly criticised by Sunderland fans for his lack of discipline, now has only to look broadly in an opponent’s direction for some oaf like ‘appy ‘arry to say he almost broke the poor man’s leg.
Spurs players staged a mini-riot around Howard Webb, intent on having Cattermole dismissed after his tackle on Modric the other night. As DaveyB put it here after Redknapp had had his say: “Harry’s comments about it being a leg breaker are ridiculous. Any tackle can be a potential leg breaker … there was no malice in this challenge.”
Arsène Wenger has been loudly and consistently praised at Salut! Sunderland. I admire his eloquence, have no interest in his private life and like the way he wants his teams to play. I would sooner see the Gunners win the Premier League than any of the other obvious candidates. But when he suggests that Arsenal are systematic victims of thuggish cloggers, he is wrong.
Every player from Cattermole to Wilshere to Shawcross to Fabregas is capable of making a challenge that starts off as an honest tackle but, through misjudgement, causes or threatens injury.
The innocence of intention does not or should not spare the offender punishment, though it does deserve to be taken fully into account as mitigation.
Occasionally, a player deliberately sets out to wound. Roy Keane was even rash enough to admit publicly that he had done so; those occasions are surely rare.
It would be a welcome consequence of Arsenal’s chequered record, in terms of foul play and cards so far this season (and let us not forget the Gunners’ robust approach to Sunderland away), if the officials, players and supporters of that club were to acknowledge that they hold no monopoly on the Corinthian spirit and no exclusive right to a sense of victimhood.
Arsène, quoted after the match, hadn’t seen the Fabregas tackle. Et bien sûr, ça ne me choque pas.
But he did say:
“I think it was an accidental tackle. That’s what Cesc told me. He touched him, of course, but he wanted to play the ball.
He went to the dressing room and apologised to the player and it is all right … I have just apologised to (Wolves manager) Mick McCarthy if the player is injured … it doesn’t mean if you go to see how the player is, that you feel guilty.”
Words that could apply to most controversial incidents that leave players injured.
And who emerges with most credit from the episode? Our old friend Mick McCarthy, not for the first time a voice of reason and decency:
“Fabregas has gone for the ball. It is one of those when two blokes are running at full tilt and you slide in and he has got a cut on his leg. Fabregas has been in to apologise and Wardy has accepted it like a man. I said to Arsène I’ve no problem with the tackle and I really appreciate the apology from [him]. I wish everyone would stop whingeing about tackling and complaining and being desperate for me to say something like ‘it was a bad tackle’. It wasn’t a bad tackle. I’ve no problem with it at all. It happens. What I can’t do with is everyone bitching at my players and my team when we tackle.”
Maybe next time an Arsenal player falls in a sorry heap after a tussle for the ball, Gooners the world over – or at least Monty and Rupert, fondly remembered from last season’s tannoy message at the Emirates – will shake their heads sadly while saying: “Jolly bad luck though you have to admit it was hard but fair.”