Charting the Antagonistic Rivalry Between Arsenal and Manchester United
As Manchester United face Arsenal on Wednesday this week, and since, as a United fan, talking about the present is more than a tad uncomfortable, it seemed a good time to take a look back at the rivalry between United and Arsenal.
Although it is, of course, a fixture with a very long history, the antagonism really began in earnest at the beginning of the 1990s, just on the cusp of the dawning of a new era in English football...
'The Old Trafford Brawl'
The origins of the modern rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal can probably be traced back to October 20, 1990. Denis Irwin and Anders Limpar were involved in a challenge in United's half.
When Nigel Winterburn steamed in with a tackle that owed more of its origin to martial arts than the art of defending, it all kicked off.
This was not the handbags of the contemporary Premier League, this was the First Division of the Football League. A more full-throated affair, a time when men were men and full-backs were allowed one life-threatening challenge before a yellow card was even considered.
The fight was described as a "21-man brawl" in this piece by Michael Hart in the Evening Standard, although he also says that several of those men were involved mostly to try and simmer the whole thing down.
Arsenal ended up being fined £50,000 and docked two points, with United only being docked one. While the temptation exists to make a “Ferguson Association” joke at this point, these were before the days of United's league dominance, and Arsenal still won the league at a canter.
The Old Trafford brawl set the tone for the decade that followed, as the rivalry had an ever more significant impact on the trophy cabinets of both sides.
Ian Wright vs Peter Schmeichel
There was an incredibly ugly dimension to this rivalry. Peter Schmeichel appeared to be facing charges from the Crown Prosecution Service of racially abusing Ian Wright. These charges were subsequently dropped.
The incident is alleged to have taken place in November 1996, and was the back drop to a, literally, explosive 50-50 challenge between the two, three months later, which burst the ball they were competing over.
The two can be heard reminiscing about the challenge on this clip of an Absolute Radio interview Wright conducted with Schmeichel.
They first made their peace during the 2002 World Cup—in this interview with Four Four Two, Schmeichel remembers the moment of entente.
That the finest goalkeeper and the finest striker of the time had a fierce on-pitch rivalry was only fitting, but the rivalry tapped into more important matters than football.
Their post-career friendship seemed extremely unlikely at the time, but is part of a theme of reconciliation that runs throughout the rivalry between the two clubs.
'The Battle of Old Trafford'
The 0-0 draw, which saw Ruud van Nistelrooy miss a last-minute penalty during Arsenal's unbeaten league season of 2003/04, was a tumultuous affair.
Patrick Vieira was sent off for two bookable offences, and the two sides spent most of the 90 minutes kicking lumps out of one another.
It was the aftermath of the penalty miss which drew most attention, as van Nistelrooy was surrounded by Arsenal players, gloating over him as he jogged away from the box.
Redemption would follow, but in that moment it was clear that the upper hand in the back-and-forth battle for superiority between Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson lay with the Frenchman.
'The Battle of the Buffet:' Ruud's Redemtion
"The Battle of the Buffet," or "Pizzagate" to give it an even more ridiculous name, took place on the occasion of Ruud's redemption.
Played on Wayne Rooney's 19th birthday (a fact thrown in to make those of us in our late 30s feel old), the game saw Arsenal's 49-match winning streak coming to a spectacular end.
This game, and the return fixture at Highbury, were high points of a difficult period for Manchester United. They failed to win the league between 2003 and 2007, as first Arsenal went unbeaten and then Mourinho's astonishingly well-funded Chelsea side emerged to take the glory.
However, the clashes with Arsenal that season were highly memorable for United fans. Sir Alex's decision to play Phil Neville in central midfield in the absence of Roy Keane was a masterstroke, as Neville dominated Vieira and United controlled the game. The emerging talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney also made their presence felt.
Ruud van Nistelrooy opened the scoring and celebrated like a man exorcising demons (or at least the memory of Martin Keown being mean to him). Rooney scored on the 90th minute, and it is fair to say that according to reports, Arsenal's players did not take very kindly to not being able to unveil their "50 not out" t-shirts.
The 1990/91 versions of these two sides may have had something to say about the fact that matters were apparently settled by a food fight, but they were. For many years “who hit Fergie with the pizza” served as a footballing version of “who shot JR?”
I like to think that if Fabregas had joined United last summer, the players would have pelted him with pizza on his first day as part of his initiation.
'I'll See You out There:' Roy Keane vs Patrick Vieira
I have never been more convinced that the team I support would win a football match than I was as Sky Sports showed the footage of Roy Keane's verbal attack on Patrick Vieira ahead of United's 4-2 win at Highbury on February 2, 2005.
"I'll see you out there" is almost the only thing which Keane said that can be transcribed in a manner suitable for a family audience. The rest of his monologue was liberally sprinkled with profanity.
It was the iconic high point of a rivalry which dominated clashes between the two sides for the duration of Vieira's Arsenal career.
ITV4 recently dedicated an hour to a documentary exploring their fiercely competitive encounters and, again, subsequent friendship.
In the Highbury tunnel, Keane was annoyed with Vieira picking on Gary Neville, so the legend goes. Keane's response was to launch into a tirade which clearly shook Vieira. Comforted in the tunnel by Pascal Cygan and Dennis Bergkamp, Vieira did not hit his usual heights in that game.
Keane's righteous indignation carried over onto the pitch as United romped to a 4-2 victory. Keane saw Vieira out there, and United saw Arsenal off.
In this Independent article from 2009, it is noted that a warmth had developed between the two managers. Arsene Wenger had “joked” that it was because Sir Alex no longer considered Arsenal a threat, something which the Scot denied.
However, most observers agree that Wenger's jest had more than a little truth in it. Ferguson did not have to worry about Arsenal anymore, distracted as he was by battling Chelsea and Manchester City.
The two managers developed a friendlier tone, joining forces against the nouveau-riche neighbours that each of them now had to contend with.
Ultimately Ferguson was much more successful in navigating that process, and the era of "detente" coincided with United's most successful period in the Premier League.
Wenger was not able to adapt to the new landscape with anything like as much success, and so Sir Alex was able to sustain his benign attitude to the old rivals.
The signing of Robin van Persie was the height of the detente.
Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson spoke in person, as reported here in the Guardian as part of the transfer negotiations, something which would have seemed unimaginable if Ferguson had been, for example, trying to sign Thierry Henry in 2002.
Many United fans may have been a little bemused by just how bitter Arsenal fans' disappointment appeared. “Have they not noticed we're not really rivals any more?” was the general response from the United faithful.
Initially respectful of his old club, van Persie celebrated like he meant it when he scored against Arsenal at Old Trafford earlier this season. The abuse he had received from Arsenal fans may have played into that.
With Manchester United reduced to desperately trying to scrape fourth place, something which Arsenal fans have become very familiar with over recent seasons, the next few years might see the two clubs competing over similar territory again.
While a rivalry fuelled by Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira might be hard to match, today's players may find themselves with a battle or two of their own.
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