Any footballing rivalry is normally brewed on the grounds of local bragging rights, or other political / religious factors generating a raw emotional response on the ground. But this one was different from the norm, with factors like ego, hatred and sometimes, just the sheer footballing skills cultivating this battle for the yard.
The Premier League is the richest league in the world now, but money cannot always generate pure emotion, hatred. English football is crying out for an immense, sprawling rivalry between two great teams. There have been some interesting conflicts in recent times but nothing close to the epic nine-year war between Arsenal and Manchester United from 1996 to 2005. The intense and passionate rivalry was unparalleled in world football at the time as the two clubs went on to grab the seven Premier League titles between them from 1996-2004; Arsenal three and United six.
The rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United is a notable one in English football as both clubs are recognized for having great history and traditions. Although the two clubs have frequently been in the same division as each other since 1919, the rivalry was instigated in 1990, when a brawl resulted in both clubs having points deductions in the Football League First Division.
After a few tame years, the second act of this rivalry was sparked by Wenger’s arrival from Japan, and a new challenge from London to chip away at United’s dominance. Mischievous as it might be to suggest it, few of the players involved would have had it any other way. It was cocks of the north against southern not-so-softies, more often than not with trophies being tossed between the two of them during the epic 9 year period.
The rivalry ached with such importance, from the football field to the school playground, as to make a pacifist throw the first punch. It included everything from allegations of racism by Ian Wright against Peter Schmeichel to a pizza fight. There was also the Battle of Old Trafford, when Arsenal’s players manhandled Nistelrooy after the final whistle; Roy Keane literally offering Patrick Vieira outside during a legendary row in the Highbury tunnel; and Jaap Stam being restrained by half of Highbury as he rumbled towards Vieira. As Paul Scholes said, “In team talks against Arsenal, the ball was rarely mentioned.”
Some of the matches will never be forgotten. Arsenal won the league at Old Trafford in 2002 (and, effectively, in 1998). When United beat Arsenal 6-1 in 2001, and also when they ended their 49-game unbeaten run in a bitterly controversial match in 2004 – a savage injustice from which Arsenal never truly recovered. “If you don’t feel pain when you’re being conned,” Sol Campbell says, “when are you gonna feel pain?”
Make no mistake, the quality of football was also through the roof, even if that is sometimes obscured by memories of the rucks and rows. There had never been such technical quality in English football, and the FA Cup semi-final replay of 1999 has an outstanding case for being the greatest game ever played in England. There are forgotten classics too, such as a primal 1-1 draw at Old Trafford on a filthy Wednesday night in 1999 and United’s 2-1 win at Highbury later that year, when both teams created an endless stream of chances in a first half that flowed like basketball.
The extreme masculinity may offend some but those who prefer a bit of needle in their sport would have loved every match of this era. The war between Arsenal and United is seen as a symbol of a good old days, yet there is more to it than that. It was a finite window in a rapidly changing world where the values and intensity of Old Football met the skill and diversity of New Football to produce a biblical struggle. Old Football is gone, so it can never happen again.
In many ways, The Feud is a love letter to two men. Wenger 1.0, the imperturbable outsider who showed English football that their future is also driven by skills of foreign managers ; and especially Sir Alex Ferguson, the emphatic genius who outlasted Wenger to win multiple titles after Arsenal started to fade. He had a degree in people – “He’s the only person who understood me better than me,” Andy Cole says – and an addiction to competition. “The Gaffer loved a challenge,” says Steve McClaren, who was Ferguson’s assistant from 1999 to 2001. “He had to have somebody to fight. He had to have somebody to complain about. Arsenal. Arsenal. ARSENAL. WENGER!”
Such was the public appetite for their mutual sniping, people forget just how much antipathy there was between the two sets of players. There were some monumental losses of temper from both managers and a set of characters on both sides – winners bursting with personality – that any scriptwriter would kill for.
The rivalry has definitely cooled off a lot… With the resurgence of Chelsea and Man City, it’s not a yard of two big dogs now. Also, the players of that era on both sides get on well these days, the experience of sharing punditry studios helping them realise how much they have in common.
As Vieira concluded: “Manchester United are probably one of the teams against which I have experienced the most emotion. I felt hate towards them, but also love. Because without United my memories would not be as powerful.“