An English (sorry, French) gentleman sets an example

I was at that famous match, you must know which one, where something happened that has not happened before in the past 140 years of English football. Arsenal-Sheffield Utd last Saturday, which Arsenal won 2-1, till Arsene Wenger agreed Arsenal had not played fair, so it is to be replayed.

I had arrived very early, by chance, not like me, as I believe punctuality is a vice. So I decided to walk round the ground, round the rectangle of streets that surrounds Highbury. Haven't done that for years, yet so little has changed. Walk around White Hart Lane and it's like a space station, with all the new stands, concrete giants, blotting out the sky. By comparison, Highbury is still in the 19th century, surrounded by terraced houses. But one thing has changed - the rise of the back-street entrepreneurs, many of them in the front rooms and gardens of little terraced houses, all selling Arsenal memorabilia.

It explained the recent survey in the magazine Four Four Two that put Spurs above Arsenal in the income stakes. Hard to believe, as Arsenal have done much better than Spurs these past few years and had bigger crowds. I now realise it must be because Spurs control more of their own merchandising outlets. At Arsenal, it's the geezers, not the club, flogging much of the junk.

I also did a walkabout because it was exciting, with so many Sheffield fans, in such good humour. Inside, they had taken over the whole of the Clock End. Not heard such away noises for years. Alas, they didn't have a good view of the incident, being at the wrong end. For those asleep that day, or on Mars, this is what happened. A Sheffield player was lying injured, so the Sheffield goalie kicked the ball out of play. When Ray Parlour took the throw for Arsenal, he threw it back towards the Sheffield goalie, to give it back to him, in the accepted manner, and therefore not gain any advantage. But an Arsenal player pounced upon it, passed to another Arsenal player, who scored, giving them a 2-1 lead, with only 15 minutes left.

Well, mon dew, quel drama. The whole Sheffield team went potty, as did their manager Steve Bruce. It took a while for the Sheffield fans to realise what had happened, but when they did, they went wild, trying to invade the pitch, fighting with officials.

For about eight minutes, it was chaos. Legally, it was a goal. There is nothing in the laws about such ungentlemanly conduct. When play resumed, the Sheffield fans were still furious. I heard shouts of "Fucking Arsenal, cheaters, scum, you are shit". All the usual stuff. But then they settled down into a dirge, a low but reverberating plainsong, which could be heard everywhere. "Shame on Arsenal, Shame on Arsenal, Shame on Arsenal". It was low key, understated, oblique, yet somehow eerie, creepy. I could sense it shaming the Arsenal fans beside me, and the players on the pitch. They knew they'd won by cheating. I think that chant had a lot to do with Wenger's decision to agree to a replay.

All week, there have been references to this long-standing "British tradition" of giving back the ball when such a thing happens. I'd like to see the evidence for this. My memory is that it came from Europe, from Italy first.

There are people in Europe, probably all round the world, who do think it is part of the English "fair play" tradition. And that's a laugh. The tradition in England is like anywhere else - you cheat as much as you can. The minute the ball goes into touch, you put your hand up to claim it, even though you know you put it out. Players dive, especially in the penalty area, hoping to con the ref. They push, pull, shove, kick, spit, abuse, intimidate. The only crime is to get caught.

English players are as bad as anyone else, though perhaps not as skilful or as subtle. Just like their football, in fact. Yet the myth persists that English players do practise fair play, because we gave the phrase to the world.

I was in Cameroon a few years ago. I went into a dressing room in a second division game and there on the wall was a notice: "Le fair play c'est le respect de l'adversaire." It was a printed poster, put up by the football association for "un sport sans violence et pour le fair play". Around the world, they know the concept of fair play is English. And think we are still the prime exponents. Some hope.

But we have accepted the unwritten principle of giving the ball back on such occasions. In fact, our players love doing it. The crowd always give them a good clap, for being so jolly sporting, and they glow in their own virtuousness.

So why did the Arsenal player not give it back? It was Nwankwo Kanu, who is a Nigerian. He'd not only just come on the pitch, but just arrived in England. He does know the tradition, but he hadn't realised what had happened. It was Marc Overmars who scored, and he should have been aware. We have to believe it was all a mistake. Arsenal would certainly not want to win by cheating, which was why Wenger offered a replay.

Would Alex Ferguson, say, have done the same? I'm not so sure. He might well have shrugged, said you have to obey the ref. Alan Hansen and others have said they think the result should have stood. A ref's authority has now been undermined. Where will it end? Will all "unfair decisions" now be challenged?

Wenger has been rightly praised, though I suppose when your team are the champions, you can afford to be magnanimous.

It remains to be seen what happens in the replay on Tuesday, but there is only one clear, outright winner. Step forward, Mr Wenger, a perfect example of the traditional sporting, fair-playing English gentleman. Sorry, French gentleman.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think