Football: Belligerent night at Old Trafford

Football: United and Arsenal meetings have an underlying mood of aggression that often escalates into violence
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The Independent Online
WHEN ALEX FERGUSON strayed into his private thoughts and "off the record" territory last month it was to Arsenal he headed. "Belligerent" was how he described last year's Double winners, a twin- edged accusation if ever there was one.

No team which contains the spiky talents of Roy Keane and Nicky Butt can be labelled supine so the Manchester United manager was also wandering among pots and kettles. Winners are belligerent and both Ferguson's team and Arsenal have their fair share of what are euphemistically called "winners".

Amid this smokescreen of accusation, Ferguson did put his finger on one fact. When United meet Arsenal there is an underlying mood of aggression and frequently it escalates into violence. If tonight's Premiership meeting at Old Trafford included a sending- off no one would be surprised.

The strange thing is the supporters of both clubs have reserved their utmost loathing for nearer targets, Liverpool and Tottenham. Meanwhile, the players and the managers have been training their sights on each other.

The managers clearly are not bosom buddies, an atmosphere that began when Arsene Wenger criticised Ferguson's perennial moan about fixture congestion in his first season at Highbury, but the players go back much further.

The teams have a history of antipathy. You could return to the Sixties and examine the seething bile that would erupt whenever Denis Law and Ian Ure laid eyes on each other (ironically they would later become team- mates at Old Trafford) but that is archeological. There are more pertinent and recent relics of rancour.

Only Tony Adams remains from the Arsenal team which surrendered a 17- game unbeaten run at Old Trafford in January 1987, a game in which David Rocastle was sent off and six players were booked - and those were times when cautions were not showered like confetti by referees.

The traditions have been taken up by their successors. In 1988 there were reports of a scuffle in the Highbury tunnel in the aftermath of an explosive FA Cup tie lost 2-1 by United after Brian McClair blazed a last- minute penalty into the North Bank.

Nigel Winterburn had angered the United players that night with over- the-top celebrations and it probably was not a coincidence that the Arsenal full-back was to the fore at the most notorious of incidents involving the clubs in October 1990.

A 21-man brawl broke out during the Gunners' 1-0 win at Old Trafford (only David Seaman failed to get involved) and as a consequence Arsenal were deducted two points and United one. Both clubs were also fined pounds 50,000 by the Football Association and warned about their future conduct.

Matters simmered rather than flared - although Eric Cantona was sent off on one controversial evening at Highbury - until three years ago when lingering hostility became embodied in Peter Schmeichel and Ian Wright. A late tackle by the striker angered the Dane, who was later accused of making racist comments by Wright.

Later in the season Wright made a two-footed tackle which Ferguson called "a disgrace" and the FA and the Professional Footballers' Association became involved. Even now Schmeichel will not talk about either incident although friends have let it be known he was very upset about the racism allegations.

Tensions heightened since last season when Arsenal beat United home and away en route to their first title since their point-penalised season of 1990-91 and were not soothed at Highbury in September when the latter produced their worst performance of the season, going down 3-0. Not for the first time the visitors ended with only 10 men, Butt being sent off.

Tonight's game is unlikely to be less aggressive because both clubs regard the other as the most likely to stop them winning the championship this season. "If you finish above Manchester United you will win the League," Tony Adams said last week, while Ferguson fears Arsenal if only because "they now know what it takes to win the title".

Ferguson's comments to the Sunday Times last month, for which he has since apologised, will have thrown a match into the acetylene. "I'll tell you what they do," he said, "and I've spoken to other managers about this and they all agree. When Arsenal are not doing well in a game they turn it into a battle to try to make the opposition lose concentration.

"They do that all the time. The number of fights involving Arsenal is more than Wimbledon in their heyday."

Ferguson said those comments were off the record although, pertinently, he did not deny making them, and in the unlikely event of Wenger needing to fire up his troops this evening then pinning the above to the dressing- room wall would be as good a way as any.

And if the game is won by a controversial goal this evening? Both managers will contact the FA and insist the game is replayed. And hell will start advertising skiing holidays.