There have been many great sporting rivalries over the years. Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier, Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe, Sebastian Coe versus Steve Ovett and Nigel Benn versus Chris Eubank are just a few unforgettable rivalries. What they all had in common was they all had a real edge to them. They didn’t really like each other or get on and there was in each case a big contrast in both their styles and personalities. Added to that they were all at the top of their game with very little to choose between them. This is what captured the public’s imagination for them and made each occasion they clashed compulsive viewing.
The rivalry I’d like to talk about was possibly the greatest of them all. Arsenal versus Manchester United between 1996 and 2005. This rivalry had all the above ingredients but there were so many extra facets to the rivalry. It wasn’t just Arsene Wenger versus Alex Ferguson the two generals in this particular war. There were match-ups all over the pitch. Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane was just one of many. We were privileged to see two of the greatest sides in the history of English football coming along together at the same time, with both sides at the very peak of their powers, going head to head for the major trophies with neither side giving an inch.
First I’d like to briefly talk about the background to this particular rivalry. Arsenal were the first southern club to turn professional and also the first southern club to join the Football League. So there was always that little bit of edge and resentment between the clubs from the big industrial northern cities and Arsenal the upstarts from the big smoke. That grew as The Arsenal gradually became the dominant club in the country after they moved from Woolwich to Highbury. Herbert Chapman made Arsenal the best club in England and the most famous name in World football. Arsenal had the best team playing in the best stadium with the best facilities. This led to jealousy from other clubs and the press. Cries of “Lucky old Arsenal” were the order of the day. Even after Chapman’s untimely death halfway through the 1933-34 season he had laid strong foundations to carry on his legacy. Arsenal continued to win trophies and remained the number one club in the country even after the Second World War, right up until the mid 1950’s.
But then came the rise of the Busby Babes, a fantastic young side which played wonderful football and won in style both domestically and in Europe. They were pioneers who had to fight against the football authorities in England to get permission to play in the European Cup. Arsenal were their last domestic opponents on English soil in February 1958, a thrilling 5-4 victory to Manchester United, before, on a European excursion, the plane carrying the Babes back to England tragically crashed on take off at Munich and 23 people perished including eight of the Babes. Another two of the players were so severely injured that they never played again.
The Busby Babes were so young and hadn’t yet reached their peak. Their captain Duncan Edwards was rated by Bobby Charlton as the greatest player he’d ever played with and it would probably have been Duncan Edwards that lifted the World Cup in 1966 rather than Bobby Moore had Edwards lived. As tragic as it was there is no doubt that the Munich air disaster helped to make Manchester United the biggest club in the country. In the 1960’s Liverpool under Bill Shankly came to the fore and in time they pushed Arsenal down the pecking order to the third biggest club in England. But whenever they met, Manchester United were the biggest club in the North and The Arsenal were the biggest club in the South. So that ensured there was always an extra edge between the two clubs when they played each other.
Older Arsenal and United fans will remember Ian Ure and Denis Law getting their marching orders for fighting up at Old Trafford in 1967. Both receiving six week bans. Ure missed six games and Law missed seven. On top of that they each lost six weeks wages.
In 1983 there was more bad blood between the two clubs. In the League Cup Semi-Final 1st Leg at Highbury a bad tackle by Remi Moses on David O’Leary led to him being taken off injured and missing the next six weeks. When the clubs clashed again in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Villa Park Arsenal were 1-0 up through a Tony Woodcock goal, when Stewart Robson was taken off injured and the tide turned in United’s favour as they beat us 2-1 and knocked us out of both domestic cups at the Semi-Final stage. In the League game at Highbury a few weeks later tensions were high and the match became very physical with both sides putting it about. Arsenal wanted to avenge the two semi-Final defeats and won the game 3-0 but just before the end Peter Nicholas went down clutching his face and Remi Moses was sent off for an alleged head butt with United manager Ron Atkinson also getting sent to the stands. This led to Moses missing the FA Cup Final due to suspension.
1988 and a pulsating FA Cup fifth round tie at Highbury and Brian McClair had the chance to covert a late penalty to equalise. However McClair hit it high into the North Bank instead of the net and Nutty Nigel Winterburn immediately ran over to him and taunted him mercilessly about his miss.
In the 1990-91 season there was the brawl at Old Trafford in October 1990 when Nigel Winterburn launched into a tackle on Denis Irwin which triggered a melee involving 21 players which led to both clubs getting a £50,000 fine for bringing the game into disrepute. Both clubs also had points deducted for it (Arsenal 2 points & Man United 1 point) which hasn’t happened before or since.
It was a tall, thin bespectacled Frenchman arriving at Highbury as Arsenal’s new manager in September 1996, looking more like a geography teacher or a scientist than a football boss. However appearances can be deceiving and it wasn’t long before the rivalry between these two giant clubs was about to rise to a whole new level. Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United side had things their own way for too long. Having won the title in three of the last four seasons. Arsene Wenger was about to change all that by going toe to toe with the most successful manager the British game has ever seen.
Arsene Wenger missed the start of the 1996-97 season. But still managed to finish third. The previous season Newcastle had squandered a 12 point lead over Manchester United and Alex Ferguson psychologically destroyed Magpies manager Kevin Keegan who famously had a meltdown in a live post match interview. Alex Ferguson could see that Wenger was going to become a threat to United’s dominance and started to try and play his mind games with Wenger. But Wenger wasn’t going to end up like Keegan. Arsene was having none of it and gave as good as he got in the psychological war with Ferguson.
In Arsene’s first full season in charge there was a wonderful game in November 1997, as Arsenal defeated United 3-2 in a thrilling match at Highbury. Anelka and Vieira gave the Gunners a two nil lead before United pulled it back to two all, only for David Platt to head home a dramatic winner for the Gunners. Despite that, a poor run of form culminating in a 3-1 home defeat by Blackburn Rovers meant Arsenal had slipped to sixth in the table and their title challenge was slipping away. In fact one Northern bookmaker paid out on United winning the title two months before the season had finished. However far from being the end of Arsenal’s title challenge it was only the beginning. The players had a heart to heart, harsh words were exchanged and the team became galvanised. In a key fixture at Old Trafford Arsenal went there and turned them over in their own back yard 1-0 with a memorable goal from our Dutch flying machine Marc Overmars. Both the Arsenal players and fans started to really believe we could chase down United and topple them from their perch. It was one of ten successive wins as Arsenal surged to the title and followed that up by beating Newcastle United 2-0 at Wembley in the FA Cup Final, with goals from Overmars and Anelka to clinch the Double.A thrilling 3-2 victory for the Gunners in November 1997
Alex Ferguson and his players didn’t like it one bit. They’d become accustomed to winning and they were beginning to loath The Arsenal. 1998-99 was a very dramatic season indeed and United were determined to win the title back. There was absolutely nothing between the two sides who were head and shoulders above the rest of the teams. The matches between the two clubs became even more significant. Both clubs knew if they could get the better of their rivals that it would probably be the key to winning the title. I remember when mates of mine who supported other clubs used to ask me who we had at the weekend and if it was United they would invariably reply “I’ve got to watch that game. I can’t miss that” such was the interest. Both teams not only played stunning football, there was also the added ingredient of a probable major controversial incident both on or off the pitch as the animosity between the managers and players escalated.
Arsenal drew first blood that season in September 1998 by defeating United 3-0 at Highbury, with Adams, Anelka and debutant Freddie Ljungberg executing a delicate chip, scoring the goals. In the return fixture in February 1999 honours were even as Anelka scored for Arsenal in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.Freddie scores on his debut. A 3-0 win against United in September 1998
With Arsenal going for a Double Double and United aiming for a historic treble the stakes were high when the two teams clashed in an FA Cup Semi-Final replay at Villa Park, after the first game ended in a 0-0 draw. For me the replay was the finest FA Cup Semi-Final I’d ever seen. The game was all square with Beckham opening the scoring before Bergkamp equalised. United were down to ten men as Keane got his marching orders. Arsenal were then dramatically awarded a penalty in the last minute of the game. This was the pivotal moment of the season. If Dennis Bergkamp scores United’s treble dreams were in tatters. I am convinced that had Dennis scored Arsenal would have dealt United a massive psychological blow and had the impetus to go on and complete the Double Double. Agonisingly Schmeichel threw his huge frame to his left and saved the spot kick. The game moved into extra-time and Giggs scored that brilliant individual goal. It was devastating for Arsenal. United went on to win the FA Cup and despite Arsenal winning five of their last six league games, a 1-0 defeat at Elland Road did it for us, as United pipped us to the title by a single point and went on to complete the treble by beating Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final. Dennis Bergkamp never took another penalty again and I’ll never forget the arrogance of the United fans on winning the title chanting “We’ve won our trophy back”. Nicolas Anelka’s brothers also forced a move through taking him to Real Madrid to round off a miserable end to the season.
Wenger brought in Thierry Henry and Davor Suker. But It was some time before Arsenal recovered. United retained the title the following season. Arsenal finishing runners-up a distant 18 points behind them. The season again ended on a disappointing note when Arsenal lost the penalty shoot-out against Galatasaray in the UEFA Cup Final. Followed by Barcelona swooping for Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit.
United again held the upper hand in 2000-01 retaining the title for a third successive season with Arsenal finishing runners-up for a third season on the trot ten points behind United this time. We were also humiliated at Old Trafford getting hammered 6-1. On a happier occasion at Old Trafford Robert Pires, who’d been bought to replace Marc Overmars, scored against Tottenham in a 2-1 victory over them in the FA Cup Semi-Final. Arsenal faced Liverpool in the Final at Cardiff and the Gunners completely outplayed Liverpool, Freddie Ljungberg put us one up and it should have been more with some terrible decisions going against us. Liverpool fortuitously won the cup with two very late Michael Owen goals. So Arsenal were still firmly in the shadow of United and went a third season without silverware.
But the tide was going to turn back Arsenal’s way in 2001-02. It was going to be Arsenal’s turn to be the top dogs. Arsenal made a sensational summer signing bringing in Tottenham captain Sol Campbell on a free transfer. Richard Wright and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst were also added to an already formidable squad. Some of the old guard were still there such as David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Ray Parlour. When you look back through the names of the players we had that season it was an incredible array of talent and probably the strongest squad the club had ever assembled. United were going to have a real fight on their hands to stop this Arsenal squad from taking the title from them.
Arsenal hammered United 4-0 in the League Cup at Highbury on Guy Fawkes night, with a Sylvain Wiltord hat-trick and Kanu scoring the goals.
Three weeks later Arsenal beat United again at Highbury in the League this time 3-1, Freddie Ljundberg and Thierry Henry with a brace getting on the scoresheet. Arsenal won the 2002 FA Cup Final 2-0 against Chelsea, with two great goals from Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg. Four days later on the 8th May Arsenal travelled up to Old Trafford in a bid to win the title at the home of the Champions. United were very physical but a Sylvain Wiltord goal won us the game, the title and completed the Double. United ended up that season ten points behind the Gunners in 3rd place. Despite this Ferguson said this about Arsenal “They are scrapers who rely on belligerence. We are the better team”. To which Wenger retorted “Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home”. A remark that Ferguson took literally. He was fuming and it added to the animosity between the two clubs managers.
The following season Arsenal tasted defeat losing 2-0 at Old Trafford in December 2002. However Arsenal gained revenge in February when the two sides met again at Old Trafford in the 5th Round of the FA Cup. Arsenal knocked United out the cup 2-0, with Edu and Wiltord scoring for Arsenal. After the game in the dressing room an angry Alex Ferguson said to David Beckham “David what about that second goal? What were you doing? We told you about it before the game. The problem with you is, you don’t let anyone talk to you. You don’t listen”. Beckham swore at Ferguson in response and Ferguson moving towards Beckham kicked a discarded boot on the floor which flew across the dressing room cutting Beckham above his left eye. As Beckham wiped the blood away he went for Ferguson and had to be held back by his teammates.
The Gunners were on course to retain the title until it all fell apart in the run-in. Controversy reigned again when the sides clashed again at Highbury in April 2003. An Arsenal victory would take them six points clear of United. However a thrilling match ended all square at 2-2. Thierry Henry scored both Arsenal goals. United were delighted to take a point. However the real damage to Arsenal’s title defence was that captain Patrick Vieira limped off after half an hour with a recurrence of a knee injury and seven minutes from time Sol Campbell was adjudged to have deliberately elbowed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the face. Sol insists to this day he palmed him away. Arsenal appealed the decision but the four match ban stood which meant Sol missing the FA
Cup Final. Vieira didn’t play at all for the remainder of the season. Two matches cost Arsenal the title and allowed United to overhaul us. A 2-2 at Bolton Wanderers where the Gunners were 2 goals up before Sam Allardyce’s side started kicking lumps out the Arsenal players resulting in a 2-2 draw. Both Lauren and Ljungberg were taken off injured and missed The next game which Arsenal lost 3-2 at home to Leeds United. Those five precious points we dropped would have been enough to retain the title. Something the club hadn’t done since the 1930’s. In fact they would have equalled the three successive titles of 1932-33, 1933-34 and 1934-35. There was some consolidation as Robert Pires scored the winner in a 1-0 victory over Southampton under the closed roof at Cardiff in the 2003 FA Cup Final.
There was more controversy as the teams met up at Old Trafford in the Invincible season in September 2003. Ruud Van Nistlerooy appeared to jump into Vieira who reacted to the challenge by flicking his leg out at Van Nistlerooy and Vieira was sent off. In stoppage time United were awarded a penalty which Van Nistlerooy smacked against the bar. It was the closest Arsenal came to losing a league game that season. When the referee blew the full time whistle several Arsenal players led by Martin Keown converged on Van Nistlerooy and started to verbally berate him and jostle him. They were so irate at his part in getting their captain sent off. I know they went over the top with their reaction. However it was the enemy United and as an Arsenal fan I loved the way they stuck up for their captain that day. The aftermath of that was: Arsenal Football Club were fined £175,000 for failing to control their players and warned over their future conduct. Martin Keown received a three match ban and a £20,000 fine. Lauren received a four match ban and a £40,000 fine. Parlour received a one match ban and a £10,000 fine. Ashley Cole was warned about his future conduct and received a £10,000 fine and Patrick Vieira received a one match ban and a £20,000 fine.More trouble up at Old Trafford in September 2003 and Ruud Van Nistlerooy is at the centre of it!
Arsenal faced a tricky set of fixtures at the end of March and the beginning of April 2004. They had to play Chelsea in the Quarter-Finals of the Champions League and sandwiched between the two legs were two games against United. A home league match and an FA Cup Semi-Final at Villa Park. If Arsenal had faced two easier fixtures between the two Chelsea games we may well have won the Treble. We drew 1-1 with Chelsea in the Champions League Quarter-Final first leg at Stamford Bridge, with Robert Pires scoring for us. Drew the League game with United at Highbury 1-1, Thierry Henry scoring a cracker. For the Semi-Final Wenger choose to rest Henry, Reyes and Cole and we lost the game 1-0 through a Paul Scholes goal. In the last of those four tough run of fixtures in the second leg of the Champions League Quarter Final the Gunners were one up at half-time against Chelsea with a goal from Jose Antonio Reyes but in the last half an hour the Arsenal players tired badly and looked like they were running in treacle. Chelsea took advantage and scored twice to go through to the semi-final. I feel that draining set of fixtures in quick succession cost us dearly.
After going out of two competitions the pressure was on Arsenal. Would they slip again and let United snatch the title. They responded magnificently, particularly Thierry Henry. Arsenal were trailing at Highbury 2-1 to Liverpool at half-time and you could feel the anxiety amongst the Arsenal fans. However Henry was unplayable in the second half, he destroyed Liverpool and completed his hat-trick as well as setting up Robert Pires for the other goal in a 4-2 victory. Henry went one better against Leeds United at Highbury scoring four times. Arsenal sowed up the title at White Hart Lane with a 2-2 draw against Tottenham. The rest is history as The Arsenal remained unbeaten in their last four league games to become The Invincibles.
Although United won the FA Cup in 2004 comfortably dispatching Millwall 3-0. They hated Arsenal being in the ascendancy. Arsenal’s unbeaten run which started on 7th May 2003 continued right through into the 2004-05 season for 49 games till they met United at Old Trafford on 24th October 2004. United were desperate to beat The Arsenal and end the run and they didn’t care how they did it. The Neville brothers systematically kicked the living daylights out of Jose Antonio Reyes and what’s more, the referee Mike Riley allowed them get away with it. Rio Ferdinand could have gone when he brought down Freddie Ljungberg who would have been clean through and Ruud Van Nistlerooy could easily have been red carded for a high challenge on Ashley Cole. To top it all Wayne Rooney took a dive and the referee bought it and gave a penalty. Van Nistlerooy didn’t miss this time and United went on to win 2-0. All in all Mike Riley gave the worst refereeing performance I’d ever seen in my life. We knew the unbeaten run had to end sometime but to lose it against them of all teams and in that manner was a bitter pill to swallow. In the tunnel afterwards there was a lot of swearing, shoving and shouting when all of a sudden a slice of pizza came flying from the Arsenal dressing room and struck Alex Ferguson right in the mush! The culprit was a young Cesc Febragas who’s throwing was as precise as his passing! The press dubbed it “The battle of the buffet”.
More bad blood was to follow in the return League fixture at Highbury. This time it started in the tunnel before the teams had even come out onto the pitch! No surprise it involved those two great combative captains Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane. Vieira said to Gary Neville “Neville, you’re not going to kick our players out on this pitch today” Roy Keane heard this and started having a go at Vieira. He responded by squirting his bottle of drink at Keane. Then all hell broke loose. Patrick Vieira opened the scoring for Arsenal. Ryan Giggs equalised then Dennis Bergkamp put the Gunners 2-1 up at half-time. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a brace to put United 3-2 ahead before John O’Shea of all people made it 4-2. Oh and I almost forgot, Silvestre got a straight red for head butting Freddie Ljungberg!The famous clash in the tunnel at Highbury in February 2005
There was one more clash of the titans that season when Arsenal met Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup Final. For once it was a dour game between the two great rivals. However there was a dramatic end to it. The game finished 0-0 after extra time. The Gunners also ended up with ten men as Jose Antonio Reyes got sent off for a second bookable offence in extra time, becoming the first ever Arsenal player to be sent off in a major final. Paul Scholes was the only United player to miss a penalty and the Arsenal skipper Patrick Vieira calmly stepped up to fire home the winning penalty. Arsenal got their revenge. United had battered us and should have won but we dug in and rode our luck.Arsenal win the penalty shoot-out in the 2005 FA Cup Final in Cardiff
That was the last time Paddy Vieira ever kicked a ball for us and the rivalry was never really the same after that. Arsenal had to finance the new stadium and didn’t have the money to compete. Chelsea with Roman Abramovich spending money like a drunken sailor on shore leave won the title that season and became the new main rivals to United. But it was never as intense as the Arsenal versus Manchester United games. There wasn’t the same history. There wasn’t the mutual loathing from the managers. There wasn’t Vieira against Keane anymore. Although each had a different style of play both Arsenal and United played wonderful expansive attacking football. Both sides went all out for victory. Chelsea under Jose Mourinho were more calculating playing the percentage game. Preferring to sit back and let their opponents make a mistake. Most Chelsea versus United games were a crushing bore.
In the later years of Ferguson and Wenger they mellowed a lot towards each other. Mainly because Arsenal no longer posed the same threat towards United. Before Ferguson bowed out of football. The last threat to his empire came from right next door in the form of Manchester City. The new Arab owners were pouring money into City on a scale never seen before in the British game. When City signed Carlos Tevez from their neighbours United City erected a giant poster of Tevez saying “Welcome to Manchester”. Ferguson retaliated and tried his old mind games again calling them “The noisy neighbours”. However I think Ferguson left at the right time after winning the title in 2011-12. When Arsene Wenger was stepping down last season there was genuine warmth between the two great rivals when Alex Ferguson presented Arsene with a memento on the pitch at Old Trafford before the game. Even the Manchester United fans applauded him. Which was in stark contrast to when they used to abuse him.
I used to hate everything about Manchester United. I hated their manager, their players and their fans. Now when I look back to all those fantastic matches we had with them. I feel privileged to have seen those games with so many great players on both sides. Although I’d never go as far to saying they are a club I like, I respect them and realise their manager, players and fans just wanted to beat us as passionately as our manager, players and fans wanted to turn them over. These days Arsenal versus Manchester United is still a big fixture but it isn’t the spellbinding spectacle it once was. I really miss those days now when the giants of the North took on the giants of the South, when both teams were at their absolute zenith. In these days of an oil state funding a club it’s doubtful we’ll ever see their like again.
Once again thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it.