Imagine the scene, ten years ago this very day. Manchester United prepared to take on Arsenal; always a gigantic Premier League clash, this one was arguably the biggest of them all.
Years of competing against one another had generated a vitriol which existed between the two clubs – comparable, in a sense, to the lingering rivalry which exists between United and Liverpool. Had Arsenal not descended from their lofty perch so quickly then perhaps the coming years might have seen the rivalry become somewhere near as intense. It is no small statement to make and many of those who witnessed the turning point in the rivalry some 13 months previous will probably come to the same conclusion.
United dominated in the September 2003 clash – the Gunners surviving one penalty shout before suffering another that was awarded. Ruud van Nistelrooy stepped up, having already annoyed the visiting contingent by being the victim in one of Patrick Vieira’s sending off offences earlier on. With seconds remaining in the game, the Dutchman smashed the spot kick against the bar, resulting in a number of Arsenal players – most infamously Martin Keown – jumping and screaming in his face.
The game finished 0-0 – Arsenal benefitted from moments of absolute fortune such as this (and many dubious refereeing decisions along the way) to somehow limp to an unbeaten Premier League title which had still seemed destined to end up back at United until the FA gave Rio Ferdinand an unprecedented suspension for missing a routine, scheduled drugs test. United did however beat the self-proclaimed ‘Invincibles’ in the FA Cup Semi Final. The apparently unbeatable Gunners team also lost in both legs of the League Cup to the giants of Middlesbrough and were eliminated in the Champions League by English side Chelsea, making that a trio of domestic sides who enjoyed success over Wenger’s men.
A number of players from both sides were charged for their part in the post-match skirmish following the 0-0 and it was this and the honest-not-contrived-scheduling which meant that game 50 of Arsenal’s unbeaten run would take place at Old Trafford. Ironically enough, it was probably United fans who went into the game with a sense of injustice, feeling that there had been incredible leniency shown to Arsenal players when they should have faced heavier suspensions.
The anticipation beforehand was unbearable. United were in a definite state of transition, while Arsenal had almost bumbled their way into still being undefeated after referee Mark Halsey had inexplicably changed his mind about awarding a penalty against them in a game against Fulham four games earlier.
The ‘mind games’ started in earnest prior to the game. Sir Alex Ferguson described Arsenal as behaving in the ‘worst (manner) he had seen in sport’ after the 2003 game with Arsene Wenger contemptuously biting back ‘it would be better if you… shot us all’.
The match itself was ferocious, moreso than any of its predecessors. It didn’t earn its nickname ‘Battle of Old Trafford’ for nothing. United fought for every ball, not giving Arsenal an inch. The challenges were sometimes over-zealous (to be kind), the reactions petulant, though it has to be said Rio Ferdinand was fortunate to remain on the pitch for a last man foul on Freddie Ljungberg. The Swede’s position, being so far from goal, probably influenced the decision.
Nonetheless this served to incense Arsenal who were doing little of note at the right end, and they were livid when Wayne Rooney appeared to go down under Sol Campbell’s challenge.
‘Penalty’ said Andy Gray instantly in the Arsenal-sympathetic commentary gantry. Mike Riley concurred. It later transpired after a multitude of replays that the penalty award was generous (though even watching the replays during the game, Gray repeated his assertion he believed it was fair)- as generous, perhaps, as the decision to reverse one earned by Fulham. Ruud van Nistelrooy stepped up and this time made no mistake, keeping it simple, a calm kick which provoked an outpouring of jubilant emotion. Arsenal were never coming back into it now United knew they could kill them on the counter and the Reds did just that in the dying seconds, when Rooney finished off a devastating counter attack to seal the result.
It should have been more emphatic, but the officials were clearly concerned about what might happen afterwards and inexplicably refused to give a penalty when Ashley Cole took Ronaldo clean out in the box. It is humorous to find that the recollection of Arsenal fans the world over somehow neglects to include this remarkable piece of officiating.
United’s hard game plan had worked and meant that Arsenal players had to keep their shirts on – the club had planned a pre-emptive celebration shirt to mark the occasion. It was a sense of entitlement that they had demonstrated before and during the day, marking an unwelcome change from the hardworking and honest days of the likes of Dixon and Adams. Arsene Wenger was furious afterwards, saying “Riley decided the game, like we know he can do at Old Trafford. We were robbed. There was no contact at all for the penalty, even Rooney said so. We can only master our own performance and not the referee’s performance. We all know him (Van Nistelrooy), he can only cheat people who don’t know him.”
Ferguson – undoubtedly influenced by the victory – was able to contain himself a little better. “Maybe the media put more emphasis on the game than there really was but it was an important victory,” he told the BBC. “It’s a great boost – when you’re drawing too many games it’s important to get back on the winning trail. Hopefully it’s a turning point. If we work this hard and I can pick the same team consistently we’ll get results. I’ve not seen it (the penalty incident) but if you’re brought down in the penalty box, it’s a penalty kick – I think. The referee had an impossible job. It seemed like Patrick Vieira was in charge for much of the match, he was at the ref’s side so much.”
[su_box title=”The United Standard” style=”noise” box_color=”#d4120f” title_color=”#29322a”]Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ team failed to beat United in three competitive games in 2003/04. The league games were drawn and a Paul Scholes goal decided the FA Cup semi final[/su_box]
An emotional Wenger allegedly accosted van Nistelrooy in the tunnel, after which Ferguson claims to have confronted the Gunners’ boss and found his ‘fists were clenched’. Ashley Cole’s recollection of the event is far too eloquent for it to have come from his mouth. “By the time we were walking down the extendable plastic tunnel everyone was having a go at each other. There were shouts of ‘you cheats’ and players were running into a jostling huddle where the narrow tunnel opens into a wider mouth. I was jammed in the middle. I heard the boss hammering Ferguson; incandescent French, verbally sparring with the bullish Scotsman… This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the mush. The slap echoed down the tunnel and everything stopped – the fighting, the yelling, everything. All eyes turned and all mouths gawped to see this pizza slip off that famous puce face and roll down his nice black suit. I thought Ferguson was going to explode but then he stormed off into the dressing room cursing and grunting, brushing the crumbs and stains off his collar. We all went back into the dressing room and fell about laughing. All I can say is that the culprit wasn’t English or French, so that should narrow it down.”
The resentment lingered on into the consequent games against the teams that season – which will be covered in later ‘Retro Red’ features at the relevant time – and also for some years after, with Wenger refusing to meet with Ferguson for the customary post-match drink for four and a half years afterwards, despite him clearly being the aggressor after the final whistle.
Arsenal’s season fell away after that – they were defeated on a number of occasions. United’s wasn’t any better, as they finished third, behind their opponents, never quite reaching the levels they managed to find against their heated opponents.
It had been billed as ‘the match of the decade’ prior to the game and the BBC’s Derek ‘Robbo’ Robson opined “…if that was the Match of the Decade, then God help the six years to come”.
Funnily enough, 10 years on, supporters of both clubs probably yearn for the type of intensity their teams showed that day, regardless of result.
Highlights : Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal