Last year having written a piece on Jose Reyes, a pal of mine was quick to pipe in and declare part of the reason Reyes didn’t succeed in England was because of the treatment he suffered at the hand of the Neville brothers Gary especially. He then went on to rip into Gary and as our argument progressed memories of the old rival between Man United and Arsenal came flooding back.
As a younger United fan and a Londoner, my hatred for Arsenal (yes hatred is a strong word but I mean it!) is intense, from their players to their fans there isn’t much I like about them and I always looked forward to our fiery encounters with them but in more recent times our games with them have lacked that spark.
These days as both managers have mellowed and new threats have emerged to shake the dominance the two clubs held over the Premier League, the rivalry has died down (although Patrice Evra did his best to bring it back by claiming it was like men against boys as United trounced Arsenal in the Champions League) but at its height every game was like going to war.
Although games between the two have always been competitive, the origins of the feud between the two can be said to stem from a clash that took place in 1987 after Brian McClair missed a dubiously awarded penalty and Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn felt the need to let him know how they felt. This was a precursor to the real fireworks in 1990 after Nigel Winterburn really got stuck in with a challenge on Denis Irwin. It sparked a 21 man brawl and saw United docked a point and Arsenal two.
Despite various smaller clashes since then, it was 13 years later that these scenes were replicated after Ruud Van Nistelrooy was a touch overzealous in an aerial challenge with Patrick Vieira. The French man took umbrage, kicking out at the striker leaving the ref no choice but to send Vieira off, who attempted to get at the player he felt had got him red carded. It kicked off a mini brawl but this was nothing compared to what would follow.
United were awarded a late penalty and Van Nistelrooy, who was normally deadly from the spot, missed the chance to stop the Invincibles before they were even formed as his penalty cannoned off the crossbar. Cue Martin Keown delivering a flying clothesline that would not have been out of place in WWF and for a couple of minutes the game descended into madness as the two teams again staged a battle on the turf of Old Trafford.
The ugly scenes saw Arsenal charged with failing to control their players while Patrick Vieira, Martin Keown, Ashley Cole, Lauren, Ray Parlour, Jens Lehmann, Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo all faced individual charges.
A year later the rivalry carried on as United ended Arsenal’s 49 game unbeaten run, the game saw flares all over the pitch with Van Nistelrooy clashing with Ashley Cole and the Nevilles (doing their best Phil and Grant impression) proceeding to assault Jose Reyes. But Arsenal really raged when Wayne Rooney was awarded a soft penalty. Van Nistelrooy exorcised his demons tucking away the spot kick as United went on to win the game 2-0. This was only the start of the drama as in the tunnel an unidentified Arsenal player reportedly threw soup over Sir Alex. The scuffle which carried on for a while also saw Arsenal’s equipment manager, Paul Johnson left with a bloody nose.
With Old Trafford fresh in mind, at Highbury later that season Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira confronted Gary Neville in the tunnel before the game warning him of what would happen if he decided to rough house Reyes during this game but Roy Keane was never one to sit by idly had his say and the game’s climate was set. The clash only served to fire up Keane as he was immense in United’s 4-2 victory.
The battles between the two clubs are encapsulated by the midfield battles of Keane and Vieira and were always a highlight of any football fan’s season. Amidst all the on-field fighting, there was also off field mind games and some wonderful footballing moments.
I would say the rivalry has simmered down to merely competition now but as shown in the game in the game at Old Trafford in 08/09 where Arsenal gave Evra ‘special treatment’ for his afore mentioned comments this ‘competition’ can flare up at any moment.
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