Humble pie not on Wenger’s menu
There are football upsets that end in acrimony as players trudge from the pitch complaining about the referee, the playing surface and the fact that the sun was in their eyes. While also going out of their way, at the same time, not to shake hands with their conquerors. That infuriates me.
And then there are upsets that end in one of the finest players the game has ever seen telling reporters that the atmosphere at Celtic Park on Wednesday evening was “a marvel and an example”. And Xavi, the captain of beaten Barcelona, was not alone in his praise of the Scottish champions. In the aftermath of defeat, Barcelona put out an official Tweet that read: ‘Congratulations to @celticfc for well-earned victory a day after their 125-year anniversary.’
Aside from the blue half of Glasgow, there aren’t many people that have a bad word to say where Celtic are concerned. And they are a player’s dream testimonial side because they always bring a huge following and there’s never any hint of trouble.
The same cannot be said for the players and fans of other sides, as we have seen all too recently. Whenever I am on the winning side against one of the biggest teams in world football, it is striking how little in the way of humility and grace is on offer as the final whistle blows. Arsenal, for my money, are the worst, epitomised by Arsene Wenger, who refused to have a drink with our manager afterwards – as is the custom in the Premier League. And not just the once, either.
But everyone and every team are different. I remember playing a leading continental side and being taught a lesson in how to play football. And each time we’d win the ball back, the dispossessed player taught us how to cheat – usually by rolling around holding his face.
Yet after the game, they could not have been more charming and friendly, with a lot of embracing and double-cheek kissing going on. Three of their players asked for my shirt and I had to ask “Paolo”, one of our foreign imports, to ask one of them why they were so desperate for my shirt, particularly as I was fairly certain that none of them had any idea who I was.
Paolo told me that, during the game, I had pulled off a step over followed by a back-heel that had put our striker clean through on goal. Apparently, this had impressed our opponents hugely.
And that’s the thing with football. It costs nothing to be gracious. There must be a reason why I remember that moment as vividly as any other in my career. In fact, it is one of the few shirts that I have kept hold of and every now and again I’ll wear it out and about.
There’s something not right about grown men wearing football shirts away from the stadium but I don’t really care because I feel very humble every time I put it on.
This is the main reason why I find it difficult to understand the hammering taken by Arsenal’s left back Andre Santos, after he asked Robin van Persie for his shirt as the pair were trudging from the Old Trafford turf.
For the record, shirt swapping at half time happens in every single Premier League game, but usually you inform the kit man to get him to trade your shirt with a specified player. He will then speak to his opposite number and the pair will do all the swapping at half time, and then once more after the match.
The reason for this is because, in modern football, every player gets two shirts; one for each half. So now there is double the opportunity to swap shirts with the player that you want. Sometimes the players will swap directly in the tunnel at half time, and again in the tunnel after the match. It is all very pre-planned, but with good cause.
There is a reason why players point to the tunnel when asked for their shirt. It stops the utter nonsense we have seen surrounding Santos in the media and on message boards up and down the country. Does anybody really think Andre Santos’ mind wasn’t on the game because he was too busy thinking, ‘I must get van Persie’s shirt’? Come on, please. He was just taken to the cleaners by an exceptional winger, that’s all.
Shirt swapping is a sign of the utmost respect amongst professionals, and on a personal level I am humbled each and every time a player asks for mine. Although it has been mentioned to me many times that the player probably just needed something to clean their car with.
Not that many years ago my agent approached Celtic about the possibility of signing me. I made it onto their list, but lost out to one of their preferred targets. It was a shame because I had always wanted to play for them, and at that time in my career it would have been a perfect move.
But I don’t hold grudges and I don’t throw my toys out the pram, the better man won and everybody shakes hands and moves on. After all, being humble in defeat is a most admired trait to have. Just look at Barcelona.