Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Revisiting Pizzagate at Old Trafford

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Manchester United vs. Arsenal: Revisiting Pizzagate at Old Trafford
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In October 2004 Manchester United triumphed 2-0 over Arsenal to end their historic run of 49 games unbeaten, but the game will forever be known as "Pizzagate" after Sir Alex Ferguson finished the afternoon with his suit covered in pizza.

The tension had been simmering between these two sides since their last game at Old Trafford had ended in acrimony 13 months earlier.

It had finished goalless but only after Ruud van Nistelrooy, who had earlier been involved in the sending off of Patrick Vieira, had missed a penalty by crashing his shot against the underside of the cross bar in the very last minute.

As the final whistle blew seconds later, a group of Arsenal players goaded the Dutch striker and celebrated by pushing and shoving him.

Martin Keown leapt up behind Van Nistelrooy and purposefully knocked him in the back in what would become the enduring image of an ugly day.

The Football Association fined Arsenal £175,000 and suspended Keown, Lauren, Patrick Vieira and Ray Parlour for a collective nine games.

Arsenal had been inches from losing at Old Trafford but would go on complete the 2003-04 season unbeaten to claim the Premier League and the title of "The Invincibles."

At the start of the following season Arsenal set a new English record to overtake Nottingham Forest’s run of 42 league games unbeaten, and arrived at Old Trafford in October 2004 having increased this run to 49 games and needing to avoid defeat there to reach an unprecedented half century.

On the pitch, Arsenal, who started the game 11 points ahead of United, seemed content to hold on for a point, while a physical United side charged around trying to unsettle them.

As reported in The Guardian, the Arsenal winger Jose Antonio Reyes recalls, “In all my sporting life, I have never received so many kicks as I did in Manchester. It was the hardest match I have played.”

It was United’s right-back Gary Neville who applied many of those kicks, and as he recalls in his autobiography:

“Rough up the Invincibles and they’d act ads though it was an affront. They believed that their beautiful, intricate passing game deserved to be admired, not challenged. They had a superiority complex. Thierry Henry would look at you as if to say, ‘How dare you try to tackle me!’

“All week Arsenal have been banging on about how great it will be to make it to 50 games unbeaten at Old Trafford,” Wayne Rooney has recalled in his autobiography. “Big mistake. They fired us up. Fifty games unbeaten? No way. Not at our place.”

I was a part of a of 67,862 that day at Old Trafford and assumed it would end goalless again until the 72nd minute, when Rooney ghosted in to the penalty area, Sol Campbell hung out a leg in front of him and the United striker went over it to win a penalty.

Was it a dive? There was minimal contact, and Rooney clearly exaggerates his fall.

In an echo of the previous season Van Nistelrooy stepped up for a crucial penalty but this time calmly stroked it in.

To celebrate, the Dutchman dropped to his knees in front of the Stretford End and let out a cathartic scream to the sky. 

Afterward Arsenal desperately sought the goal that would preserve their unbeaten run, but in the final minute Rooney, on his 19th birthday, taps in an Alan Smith cross from cross range to score his first league goal for United to give them a cherished 2-0 win.

The action did not stop there though.

As Sir Alex Ferguson recalls in his recently published autobiography:

“Ruud van Nistelrooy came in to the dressing room and complained that Wenger had been giving him stick as he left the pitch. Right away I rushed out to say to Arsene: ‘You leave my players alone.’ He was incensed at losing the game. That was the reason for his combative behaviour.’You should attend to your own players’, I told him. He was livid. His fists were clenched. I was in control, I knew it.”

“Anyway, the next thing I knew I had pizza all over me…They say it was Cesc Fabregas who threw the pizza at me but to this day, I have no idea who the culprit was.”

“The corridor outside the dressing room turned in to a rabble. Arsenal had been defending a 49-game unbeaten record and were hoping to make it 50 on our turf. It seemed to me that losing the game scrambled Arsene’s brain.”

From the Arsenal camp, in his autobiography Ashley Cole recalls the flight of this pizza with a usually hidden sense of theatre:

“This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the mush. The slap echoed down the tunnel and everything stopped, the fighting, the yelling, everything. All eyes turned…to see this pizza slip off that famous puce face and roll down his nice black suit.”

At the end of the season this result did not prove crucial with Chelsea under the new stewardship of Jose Mourinho beating both United and Arsenal to the title.

Since that afternoon in October 2004 United have won five more Premier League titles, while Arsenal under Wenger have failed to win the title again. 

As Arsenal return to Old Trafford this weekend they know a win there against United would be a big step toward ending their barren run of nine years without the title. 

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