Arsène Wenger isn’t prejudiced against English players, says Jon Spurling, but the exploits of Paul Merson, Francis Jeffers and Jermaine Pennant won’t have impressed him or anyone

Having been described in Le Monde as “une honte” and in Die Welt as “eine Schande”, Arsène Wenger appears to be “a disgrace” in every European language. Paul Merson’s comments, which first ap­peared in the Daily Mail, were quickly taken out of context by an assortment of newspapers around the continent. Le Monde excelled itself, suggesting that Merson had also labelled his former manager “une brome” (“a joke”). In fact, Merson had described the absence of any British players in Arsenal’s squad to face Crystal Palace as “a joke”, rather than directly name-calling Wenger. By selecting an all-foreign squad, the Arsenal manager left himself open to a raft of criticism. José Mourinho claimed that “the backbone of my Chelsea team will always be English”, ignoring the fact that only three of his regular starting XI (John Terry, Wayne Bridge and Frank Lampard) are British and that a spate of injuries could easily leave him in the same boat as Wenger. Mourinho added: “He [Wenger] is forgetting the influence which English players have had on Arsenal.” The opposite is true. Wenger is totally au fait with the legacy left by English players at Highbury, perhaps overly so.

When he took over as manager eight years ago, Wenger’s impressive counselling skills were needed to cajole Tony Adams into extending his playing career, to turn the fitful Ray Parlour into a consistent per­former and to consign tales of Butlins bust-ups and fire extinguisher japes to the past. Despite the defensive heroics of Dixon, Winterburn and Bould, Wen­ger fundamentally mistrusts English players – in terms of attitude and skill levels.

Over the past few years, the normally-ultra cautious Frenchman unexpectedly sung the praises of two of his young English talents. He probably regrets it now. Francis Jeffers’s arrival was designed – in Wenger’s words – to provide “a perfect complement to Thierry Henry’s skills”. The £7 million “fox in the box” proved an enormous let-down. Admittedly, injuries hampered him, but Arsenal’s continental stars were none too impressed with Jeffers’s often laid-back approach. Wenger was furious when he received news that Jeffers had celebrated his move to Highbury by getting paralytic in a nightclub. And what of Jer­maine Pennant – once described by Wenger as “the boy wonder”? Pennant’s recent conviction for driving drunk and uninsured while disqualified is an unhappy reminder of where the club was ten years ago. His Arsenal career seems to be over.

It was ironic that the Mail’s story was based on Merson’s views. Wenger’s exasperated predecessor Bruce Rioch referred to the “baggage” Merson carried as he underwent rehabilitation for gambling and drug addictions in the mid-1990s. In his first big decision at Highbury, Wenger opted to select the abstemious Dennis Bergkamp ahead of the Englishman who had spent the majority of his career squandering his talent. This is not to say that overseas stars haven’t caused him headaches – Nicolas Anelka springs to mind – but as Wenger once said: “Foreign players seem to have good lifestyle habits inborn. English players have to be taught. I don’t really know why.”

While the Mail’s back pages were full of stories flagging up fears about the numbers of foreigners in the Premiership, the front-page headline read Our NHS, Not The World Health Service, lending the Mail’s support to Michael Howard’s pledge to reclaim the NHS from “health tourists”. The similarity between the two lead stories is, of course, purely coincidental.

Newspapers such as the Mail – happy to publish stories on young British stars misbehaving in nightclubs and rowing with their managers – are the ultimate hypo­crites. Journalists are at least partly responsible for creating the stereotype of home players as loutish, empty-headed prima donnas. In the wake of the Arsenal v Manchester United clash, the Sun’s “Rooney dossier” gave readers the low-down on the torrent of abuse he directed at the referee throughout the game. A Mail exclusive last season gave Claude Makelele and Robert Pires the opportunity to speak lucidly about tactics and the influence of French players in England on the eve of a Chelsea v Arsenal clash. On the opposite side of the double-page spread, England hopeful James Beattie talked about his Scalextric habit and Kieron Dyer chattered excitedly about his diamond-encrusted watch. And yet Union Flag-waving hacks seem baffled as to why European coaches think that foreign players are a more cerebral breed.

The situation is unlikely to change. European coaches will continue to put their faith in more enlightened continental players and hacks will grind their axes and wave their passports in their weekly columns, to little avail.

From WSC 218 April 2005. What was happening this month

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