The Battle of Old Trafford

(Posted on 21/09/17)

From tunnel tantrums to penalty mishaps Manchester United and Arsenal at a time was the most highly charged and bloodthirsty fixture in Premier League football.

Before the hype of social media, astronomical spending and player power, only two sides ruled the roost when it came to Premier League titles and all out dominance of English football, they either came from Highbury or Old Trafford.

200 miles separates Arsenal and the Manchester United, but when it came to their rivalry very few things separated the two colossal sides. Manchester United were a side with huge European pedigree, Champions League winners in 1999 and had dominated English football winning trebles and dominating the 1990’s, taking the reins from Liverpool.

Arsenal, who have never won the top European prize still had some real fire power, going 49 games unbeaten in the Premier League and becoming the ‘invincibles’ in the process.

But reputations clashed coming in the form of personnel. Mangers and players alike had a very strong dislike for each other, and unlike football today they showed it. For 17 years Sir Alex Ferguson battled with Arsene Wenger before Ferguson retired from football management in 2013. Their war of words wouldn’t end when it came to kick-off with their players carrying on the heated battle that unfolded over 90 minutes.

Never has this all been more evident that a period between 2003 and 2006. Perhaps the bloodbath years, the likes of Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy loved a bit of controversy with Patrick Vieira and Martin Keown amongst others.

On this day in 2003, things went from heated to as hot as the very core of hell itself, with both sides meeting in a crucial league game at Old Trafford. A month into what would be the most amazing journey for the Gunners where they would go unbeaten throughout the campaign, they came so close to it being wiped out and history changed forever.

The feisty face-off saw Arsenal down to 10-men after Patrick Viera kicked out at van Nistelrooy leading to a few crunching tackles in a game that went on to be known as the ‘battle of Old Trafford’. In the dying seconds controversy played it’s part, with Keown brining down Diego Forlan in the box and van Nistelrooy was given the chance at 0-0 to win it with a penalty in stoppage time.

The Dutchman stepped up, smashed it against the bar and Keown came from behind him to celebrate in his face, the final whistle blew and the Arsenal players surrounded him to gloat, a poor piece of unsportsmanlike behaviour which caused outrage in the days and weeks following. It was another let-off for the Gunners who came close to losing the week previous, with Thierry Henry slotting home an equalising penalty in a 1-1 draw at home to Portsmouth, where Robert Pires took a dive for the spot-kick to be given. In the return fixture, United and Arsenal drew meaning the Red Devils and strangely enough Pompey were the only two sides they failed to beat.

The next season the Arsenal went to Old Trafford seeking their 50th game unbeaten, but this time van Nisterlooy and co would have their revenge. Sol Campbell brought down Wayne Rooney and the Dutch forward slotted home the penalty, leading to one of the most passionate celebrations in Premier League history. Rooney added a second, the streak was lost.

But for many, it was at Highbury that goes down as the most heated game between the two sides, so ferocious that before they stepped on to the famous old pitch they were fighting. Viera said something to Gary Neville in the tunnel and Keane came blasting in, re-igniting the flames that those two were so famous for. It appeared it worked in United’s favour, running out 2-4 winners against an Arsenal team who Neville believes ‘lost the game in the tunnel’.

Nowadays, the games are nowhere near as controversial or in all honesty, entertaining. With Sir Alex Ferguson retired and Arsenal nowhere near the side they were in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the flames have been somewhat put out. The move from Highbury to the Emirates has hindered the atmosphere and now without those brutal characters and personal rivalries the game has been more about fancy football that hard tackles and pride.

We miss the rivalry of old, and with United distracted by city rivals Manchester City who have launched themselves on to the map in terms of world football, and Arsenal rivals Tottenham Hotsper challenging on the pitch with the Gunners, it appears never again will be quite have the same thing.

 

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