THAT PARAGON of virtue Vinne Jones once famously discombobulated the Liverpool team in the tunnel before a game by offering to rip off Kenny Dalglish's ear and spit in the hole (in fact I have it on good authority that that's a cleaned-up version of what he said).

And just as sumo bouts are often over before they've begun, all but decided during the pre-match eyeballing that can take several minutes, sometimes you get the feeling that a football match was won and lost before the players even took to the pitch.

Hindsight is indulgent, of course, but is it fanciful to suggest that the foundations for Manchester United's thunderous victory over Arsenal on Tuesday were laid in Highbury's tunnel of brotherly love? Close scrutiny of the Sky TV footage suggests just that.

All we saw was the afters, unfortunately, but Vieira is supposed to have said something to the effect of, "Zut alors, mon petit diable rouge, are you going to kick us all over le parc again ce soir?" Fairly innocuous, possibly even said in good humour, but it was all the excuse Roy Keane needed to wade in and commence hostilities there and then.

All we could make out at first were muffled shouts and a shadowy melee at the tunnel entrance. It all sounded like handbags. Then they began to walk down the tunnel towards the camera, under the pitchside canopy. Vieira was first, ushered out by Pascal Cygan and given a pep-talk by Dennis Bergkamp. The Frenchman was doing his best to appear impassive, but to me he looked rattled.

As he strode out, there was a Cork brogue in the throng behind, snapping, "See you out there! See you out there! See you out there!" like a volley of firecrackers. Next came a jabbing finger punctuating the invitations to step outside.

It was the lovable Irishman, naturellement, and as the referee Graham Poll stood in front of him, you could hear him talking about the Frenchman "shouting his fucking mouth off". He also seemed to shout at Vieira, "you're a very nice man!" Which was either sarcasm on Keane's part or a mishearing on mine.

As Poll looked up into his eyes and read the riot act, Keane gathered himself and stared into the distance, over Poll's head. The ref concluded his dressing-down, clearly seeking Keane's agreement that the matter was closed. Keane didn't nod. Instead, he raised one eyebrow and inclined his head slightly. He looked like a cross between Yul Brynner in The King and I and a young Mike Tyson in The Bum of the Month and I.

He walked forward and drew level with the Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, who sneaked a sideways look at him and wished he hadn't. He looked away, chewing his lip. Oh, to be in Benidorm, he seemed to be thinking.

As the two teams finally began to file out, the Arsenal players - apart from Thierry Henry, who was grinning in disbelief at the back of Keane's head - were stony-faced. The United players weren't. Gary Neville was grinning. Mikael Silvestre was grinning. Ryan Giggs was grinning. Job done, they seemed to be thinking.

There was much about United in Hallowed Be Thy Game: Is Football The New Religion? (Channel 4, Sunday). The Christian presenter, Mark Dowd, said he prayed when they were 1-0 down in injury time against Bayern Munich in 1999. He asked the club's chaplain, Reverend John Boyers, if God might have intervened at that point.

"You'll have to ask God that question," the Rev sensibly responded.

Another chaplain, Everton's, spoke about the first league game against Liverpool following the Hillsborough disaster. A friend, another priest, who had also been heavily involved in the city's healing process, turned to him and said, "Isn't it great to be back to normal? It's great to be able to hate them again."