The Premier League needed a rivalry. Manchester United had dominated the early years of the upwardly mobile English top-flight, winning four of the first five seasons since its money-grabbing switch from the First Division in August 1992. Sure, Blackburn Rovers had won the 1994-95 installation thanks to Alan Shearer’s goals, but either side of that United rode roughshod over the rest of the league. Not even Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, later nicknamed the Entertainers for their free-flowing football in 1996-97, could compete with the relentless juggernaut that was Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils.
Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat of Manchester United in November 1997 served notice of the irresistible force coming to meet the immovable object head on. There have been higher-scoring, more controversial games between the sides in the intervening 25 years – one involving a perfectly thrown slice of pizza – but none have had the seesawing intensity and feeling of the beginning of something great.
Arsene Wenger had been the Gunners’ manager for little more than a year but there were already signs that the little-known Frenchman brought to Blighty from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan – and greeted with the infamous “Arsene who?” headline from London’s Evening Standard newspaper – was turning the North Londoners into United’s biggest rivals.
Messrs Wenger and Ferguson didn’t get on. Not even a little bit. In the second encounter between the rival managers in February 1997, tempers flared on and off the pitch after Gunners forward Ian Wright somehow avoided a red card for two-footed stamp on United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel in a spicy 2-1 win for Alex Ferguson’s reigning champions. Post-game, it emerged that a police investigation had been opened into allegations that Wright had been racially abused by the Danish keeper in the season’s first fixture the previous October. Schmeichel, who has always maintained his innocence, and Wright were eventually persuaded to call an uncomfortable truce, but the incident sparked managerial chirping which barely abated for the next 15 years.
“Maybe he should concentrate on Ian Wright’s tackles rather than Manchester United,” spat Fergie after Wenger had questioned the Scot’s request for help easing fixture congestion. “Arsene Wenger has been in Japan. He doesn’t know anything about English football and the demands of our game. Unless you have been in the situation and had the experience, then he should keep his mouth shut – firmly shut.” The Scot’s dismissive delivery of ‘Japan’ was borderline performance art.
Arsenal finished 1996-97 third, their best return in six seasons, which only served to heighten Ferguson’s ire towards his opposite number. The Scot always reserved his strongest invective for who he perceived his biggest threat. “He knew this was going to be his biggest challenge as Manchester United manager,” right-back Gary Neville later recalled. “It wasn’t one Churchill speech, it was chipping away every day, ‘Everyone loves Arsenal, look at the football they’re playing.’”
Wenger’s knowledge of European markets had already brought in Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and a teenage Nicolas Anelka and in the summer of 1997 also delivered Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Giles Grimandi. From early-morning matchday massages to recovery-boosting creatine on their corn flakes instead of milk the Wenger way began making waves. Even the Gunners’ infamous Tuesday Club drinking sessions among established English core of Tony Adams, David Seaman, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn shrank from view in Wenger’s first full season at the club.
United were nevertheless on top, and four points ahead of Arsenal, going into what proved to be that pivotal November 1997 fixture. The Gunners had just lost to lowly Derby and were missing the mercurial Bergkamp, out injured. Not that it mattered when 18-year-old Anelka scored his first Arsenal goal after seven minutes with a fierce low drive that caught out Schmeichel at his near post. Arsenal doubled their lead 20 minutes later. Vieira, another of Wenger’s budget buys from the continent, raced towards the right-hand edge of the area to meet a cleared Arsenal corner and wrapped his foot around a first-time shot of such ferocious swerve and power it left Schmeichel waving the ball into his top corner.
Engrained with an almost psychotic will to win from their manager, United fought back. Teddy Sheringham stole in between Arsenal centre-backs Adams and Grimandi to plant a header past Seaman for 2-1 after 33 minutes, then the same man equalised on the stroke of half-time with fizzing left-footed drive from Ryan Giggs deft flick.
That Sheringham was once the poster boy of Arsenal’s North London rivals Spurs only added to the intrigue – the England striker’s provocative badge-kissing antics whipped Highbury into a frenzy. Modern games between title-chasing sides are often sterile, insipid affairs in which both sides are desperate not to lose. Twenty-five years ago, third hosted first with the score 2-2 at the interval and both sides attacking as if their lives depended on it. This was fun.
So was the second half. Ian Wright terrorised the United backline, squaring for Christopher Wreh to poke a deflected shot at goal but Schmeichel wasn’t to be beaten. With seven minutes remaining, Arsenal finally had the winner their derring-do deserved. An outswinging corner from left-back Winterburn was met by a soaring David Platt header which sailed home. Arsenal were one point behind the defending champions.
“It was important for football that Utd didn’t run away with the title,” said a delighted Wenger, almost smiling. “A lot of managers will be cheering this result tonight,” agreed Fergsuon, then surprisingly admitted, “a one-horse race is not good for the game.”
Injuries meant Arsenal 12 were points adrift by February, but Marc Overmars’s solitary goal in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford in late March took the Gunners to withing six points of United, with three games in hand. “They’ll start dropping points towards the end of the season, there’s no question about that,” said Ferguson post-game, stirring the pot. “It’s inevitable”.
Fergie was right, too – the Gunners lost their last two league games of the season – but only after winning eight in a row to tie up the title with Adams’ ridiculous half-volley in a 4-0 gubbing of Everton. A fortnight later, the Gunners beat Newcastle in the FA Cup final to secure the Double. All the qualities that had set United apart – the refusal to acquiesce to defeat, the relentless pursuit of winning – Arsenal now also embodied, but the Londoners were just… sexier.
It inspired United to greater heights. “You could see Ferguson’s mind thinking, probably what we were thinking, ‘these lot are better than us, we’ve got to improve,’” United defender Neville later recalled. Before one fixture between the two sides the following season in 1998-99, the Red Devils’ boss was heard screaming about Vieira at the club’s Cliff training ground: “If he tries to f***ing bully you, he’ll f***ing enjoy it. Don’t even let him attempt to f***ing bully you. I don’t care if you do it verbally or physically, you just f***ing make sure you’re ready for him.”
United won the Treble that season, beating Arsenal in a memorable FA Cup semi-final as good as the competition has ever seen thanks to Ryan Giggs’ slaloming extra-time winner through half the Arsenal defence. The pair traded titles for the next four seasons, United emerging victorious in 1999-2000, 2000-01 and 2002-03, while Arsenal took the title in 2001-02 and 2003-04, finishing the latter campaign unbeaten in one of the greatest single seasons in 150 years of English football history. The closest they came to defeat that year? A missed Ruud van Nistelrooy penalty in the last minute of the feisty Battle of Old Trafford in September 2003. Arsenal defender Martin Keown jumped on the Dutchman’s back in celebration and, “I just gave it to him, like in the playground”.
Inevitably, it was United who ended Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten Premier League run 13 months later in October 2004, Van Nistelrooy this time converting a penalty in a 2-0 win. A post-match fight broke out in the Old Trafford tunnel, only stopping when a slice of pizza hit Ferguson in face. The Battle of the Buffet was born.
“The slap echoed down the tunnel and everything,” wrote Arsenal left-back Ashley Cole in his autobiography. “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.” Gunners midfielder Cesc Fabregas eventually admitted launching the cheesy projectile.
“It’s a disgrace but I don’t expect Wenger to ever apologise,” huffed Ferguson, showered and tracksuited, afterwards. “He’s that type of person. I will never answer any more questions about this man.”
With captains Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira nearly coming to blows in the Highbury tunnel in the next game – “I’ll see you out there,” screamed the former to the latter in front of the awaiting Sky Sports cameras – the blood-and-thunder rivalry continued until 2009. It took the managers to bury the hatchet – Wenger and Ferguson are now quite friendly – to ease tensions between the pair but in truth it was Arsenal’s fall from the top table that meant they were replaced by Chelsea as United’s biggest rival, before their own decline after Ferguson 2013 retirement.
From Arsenal’s title wins, to the Van Nistelrooy penalties, Keane and Vieira’s slanging matches and Pizzagate, these are iconic Premier League moments. Yet none are possible without that back-and-forth game in North London 25 years ago this month.