Battle Grounds: The history of Arsenal and United's emnity

As the two great rivals lock horns today, Mark Fleming recounts the stories of their many recent rumbles (both on and off the field) in the words of those throwing the punches...and the pizza
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The 21-man brawl

United 0 Arsenal 1, 20 October 1990

The game's great modern rivalry could be said to have kicked off in this ugly match at Old Trafford when tensions boiled over after Nigel Winterburn clattered into Denis Irwin.

Winterburn had taunted Brian McClair after he had missed a penalty at Highbury the previous season, but the United striker did not miss his kick this time as he, and Irwin, put the boot into the prone Arsenal man. A 21-man brawl ensued, punches were thrown, and a Football Association inquiry ended with Arsenal being docked two points, and United one. Arsenal went on to win the league, however, and a feud was born.

Nigel Winterburn: "I went in for a challenge on Denis Irwin and the United players decided it was payback time. I remember being on the ground and getting a few kicks in the back – I don't know how many – and then pretty much everyone piled in except the goalkeepers. It was all because of something I'd said to Brian McClair after he missed a penalty at Highbury. It was 20 years ago, I can't remember what I said, but I shouldn't have done it and it was one of those things you end up wishing you hadn't done. It probably caused a lot of the bad blood between the sides that has lasted for years but I was just competitive and desperate to win. Does it worry me? Not in the slightest. It was just one of those things that happened and is part of the history of the two clubs."

Brian McClair: "I tangled with Nigel Winterburn, and all hell broke loose. Within a few minutes the red mist had disappeared and I was looking round in disbelief. I couldn't believe what I'd just done. The worst thing of all was watching myself on television behaving very badly. My perceptions had been so badly distorted by rage I hadn't actually remembered what happened accurately. I was convinced that I'd only kicked Nigel once but that wasn't the case at all. Archie Knox, the coach, could hardly contain his laughter when he watched with me. "What the hell came over you?" he managed to gasp out when not rendered speechless with laughter. I couldn't tell him because I honestly didn't know myself."

(Odd Man Out: A Player's Diary)

Gary Pallister: "I was one of the guys trying to calm everyone down. We had some edgy players like Brucey and Sparky [Mark Hughes]."

David Rocastle: "It was our team-mate, our little blood brother, in trouble. They were kicking Nigel like a nightclub brawl. That's what got us upset. If it was just a bad tackle, you wouldn't go in like that, no chance. But when I saw them kicking Nigel I ran over thinking, 'You can't have this!' We went in there and we stuck up for each other. At Arsenal we never, ever started any brawls – we just finished them."

Wright and Schmeichel at war

Arsenal 1 United 2, 19 February 1997

Following Arsenal's title victory in 1991 their challenge to United's dominance went quiet until the Wenger era when the rivalry was reignited – this time by Ian Wright, the Arsenal striker, and United's goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel. Three months earlier, after United beat Arsenal 1-0 at Old Trafford, Wright had said Schmeichel had racially abused him, a claim that was later dismissed by the Football Association due to lack of evidence. At Highbury, Wright lunged two-footed at the United keeper, sparking chaos.

Peter Schmeichel: "Luckily his first foot struck the ball and [my] shin at the same time, taking some of the power out of the contact. While I buckled in pain, Wright left the scene of the crime without a word. I was amazed and disgusted. When the game was over I ran up to him and said: 'You tried to get me'. He just glowered and replied: 'Fuck off you Danish wanker'. Then came those words: 'How dare you call me a black bastard, you racist pig!' He went on and on and I was shaking with fury. I had never shouted racist remarks at him."

(Schmeichel: the autobiography)

Ian Wright: "There was a lot of bad blood. That's not my proudest moment. Peter did some stuff to me, the less said the better, but I didn't want to hurt Peter. Look at the replay – his leg is outstretched, I could have stamped on his knee. I wanted to make major contact with the football to show I could hurt him because I didn't like him at the time. Now we are good friends."

Overmars and the 12-point lead

United 0 Arsenal 1, 14 March 1998

Not a brilliant game (or a violent one), but one that had an enormous psychological effect in turning the title race in Arsenal's favour. Only a few weeks earlier United had been 12 points ahead, but Marc Overmars' goal with 11 minutes left, when he sprinted away and slipped the ball between Schmeichel's legs, put Arsenal six points behind with three games in hand. Arsenal won the title by a point in the end.

Tony Adams: "The result may have been 1-0 to the Arsenal again but this was not a result we ground out. We were well in control. I said to Arsène [Wenger] in the dressing room after the game the last time we won at Old Trafford we went on to win the league."


Marc Overmars: "That was the turning point for Arsenal. If we had lost that match it was over, and we went on to win every match after that to win the title. I remember every week they showed the goal, I will always remember it."

Sir Alex Ferguson: "Arsenal were unbeaten since mid-December and had more games left than we had, so if they beat us the winning of the title would be in their own hands for the first time. When they did we could not complain. They were the better team."

(Managing My Life: My Autobiography)

That Giggs goal

Arsenal 1 United 2, 14 April 1999

Goals from David Beckham and Dennis Bergkamp, and a red card for Roy Keane, set up a thrilling climax to the last ever FA Cup semi-final replay. Those at Villa Park thought it was over when Arsenal were awarded a late penalty but Peter Schmeichel dived to his left to keep out Bergkamp's kick. In extra-time Ryan Giggs (right) tore through the tiring Arsenal defence to score one of the most famous goals of all time and memorably celebrated by gleefully waving his shirt above his head. United went on to win their famous Treble.

Roy Keane: "Ryan Giggs's goal was amazing. In your very best performances you often find that extra bit of inspiration when you forget the tactics, the game plan, even forget what you're playing for and just play. The way you did when you were a kid on the streets when there was nothing at stake except, in some vague way, personal vindication. You summon up all you've ever learned about the game from somewhere deep inside and just play. Giggs dug deep to score that fantastic goal. This was a pivotal moment in our season."

(Keane: The Autobiography)

Wiltord wins the title

United 0 Arsenal 1, 8 May 2002

Four days earlier Arsenal had won the FA Cup, and they came to Old Trafford intent on sealing another Double. Sylvain Wiltord's 57th-minute goal decided it, taking the title from the champions on their own ground, and in the process denying United a fourth consecutive title win.

Lee Dixon: "We were staying in a hotel near Old Trafford and in the afternoon before the game Arsène Wenger took us for a walk. We went for quite a long time and ended up in this shopping arcade. This guy was cleaning windows and he dropped his sponge in disbelief at seeing us all there in our Arsenal tracksuits. Then he started off at the manager – 'What are you doing, walking around in my city like this, who do you think you are?' We were all pissing ourselves laughing behind him, and Arsène turned around and said 'I think we will go back now'. I only came on for the final six minutes, and genuinely didn't touch the ball."

Keown's crazy celebration

United 0 Arsenal 0, 21 September 2003

The match dubbed the "Battle of Old Trafford" is remembered for the amazing scenes that greeted Ruud van Nistelrooy's missed penalty in second-half stoppage time. Patrick Vieira had already been sent off, and when Van Nistelrooy's kick hit the bar, Arsenal players surrounded the Dutchman, led by Martin Keown who jumped up and down in celebration. Arsenal, and five of their players, were fined for their conduct, along with two United players. Arsenal went on to win the league and were unbeaten

Rio Ferdinand: "It was mayhem. We got a late penalty, which Ruud smashed against the bar, sparking mad celebrations by the Arsenal players, especially Martin Keown who jumped up and down around Ruud like a nutter. We went down the tunnel and there was a lot of shouting and swearing, pushing and shoving and various people accusing each other of this and that."

(Rio: My Story)

Martin Keown: "It was me feeling he had cheated which provoked that famous incident. It was the product of years of frustration playing against him. In my opinion he got Patrick Vieira sent off that day. He feigned injury again. I gave a late penalty away and then you're standing thinking you're going to be ridiculed for that so when he missed, it was a case of giving him both barrels. You can't regret moments like that but when I got home, my wife said to me 'You've really gone and done it now'. The only time I've seen him since was at the FA Cup final later that season. We shook hands, there was no animosity and we moved on."

Ferguson gets caught in Pizzagate

United 2 Arsenal 0, 24 October 2004

The long unbeaten run of Arsenal's 'Invincibles' in the league finally came to an end after 49 games at Old Trafford, with goals from Van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney. What happened next was even more memorable, however, as a row in the tunnel developed into a food fight and, in what became know as "Pizzagate", a slice of pizza struck Sir Alex Ferguson in the face, thrown by an Arsenal player whose identity remains a mystery.

Ashley Cole: "The more we shouted, the more threatening it became. This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the mush. The slap echoed down that tunnel and everything stopped. All eyes turned and all mouths gawped to see this pizza slip off that famous, puce face and roll back down his nice black suit. I've got a fair idea who launched it. All I'll say is that the culprit wasn't English or French so that should narrow it down."

(My Defence)

Rio Ferdinand: "I battled my way through the crowd and found myself right in the middle. Their full-back, Lauren, was at the front, giving it plenty. Apparently that's when some pizza and soup were thrown, but I swear I never saw it."

(Rio: My Story)

Sir Alex Ferguson: "In the tunnel he [Wenger] was publicly criticising my players, calling them cheats. I was told about this when they came into the dressing-room, so I went out into the tunnel and said to him: 'You get in there and behave yourself, leave my players alone'. He came sprinting towards me with his hands raised saying: 'What do you want to do about it?' He was standing right there. To not apologise for the behaviour of the players to another manager is unthinkable. It is a disgrace. But I don't expect Wenger to ever apologise."

Keane and Vieira's tunnel row

Arsenal 2 United 4, 1 February 2005

Patrick Vieira confronted Gary Neville in the tunnel before the game, then Roy Keane told him to pick on someone his own size, and asked if he loved Senegal so much, why did he play for France? This sparked shoving before Vieira was shepherded away. Arsenal led twice but United fought back despite having Mikaël Silvestre sent off for headbutting Freddie Ljungberg.

Patrick Vieira: "For someone who leaves his [Republic of Ireland] team in the World Cup, I think he should keep this kind of remark to himself. He does not know my background and I do not want him to make a comment like that because he is not in a good position to say something like that. He walked away from his national team when they really needed him."

Roy Keane: "Patrick Vieira is 6ft 4in, and he starts having a go at Gary Neville, so I said 'Come on have a go at me,' that's it."