In a three-part feature, we take a closer look at the modern-day rivalry with our North London adversaries...
When Alex Ferguson made the long journey south to take up his new post at Manchester United in November 1986, he would already have been aware of the long-standing rivalries enjoyed by his new club.
He will have looked at the fixture list and made a mental note of the Boxing Day fixture against champions Liverpool at Anfield, barely six weeks away. He'd have been glad of the breathing space before his first game against City – not due until March – and the home game with Howard Kendall’s newly formidable Everton at the end of February. But he had barely begun to warm the managerial hotseat when he found an unexpected new name joining the ranks of significant United adversaries.
As a meeting between two of the most famous and successful names of English football, Manchester United v Arsenal had always been a big game, but before Ferguson’s arrival there had only been flickers of real enmity. In October 1967 Denis Law and the Gunners’ Ian Ure were both sent off and banned for six weeks for fighting at Old Trafford, but it didn’t create lasting bad blood. The only time the clubs had properly fallen out was over United’s bid to buy Frank Stapleton in 1981, which went to a tribunal and resulted in the Highbury directors refusing to dine with their United counterparts before the two clubs’ next fixture. Arsenal’s first visit to OT during Ferguson’s reign, however, lit the blue touch paper to spark a rivalry that has smouldered and intermittently been ignited ever since.
On that day in January 1987, the Gunners were top of the league under new boss George Graham, and had gone 22 games unbeaten. United didn’t need much of an invitation to get stuck in. “It was one of those games when big Norman [Whiteside] did about 45 fouls and never got booked,” Sir Alex later recalled. “How he got away with it, I’ll never know.” Arsenal’s David Rocastle eventually retaliated and was sent off, and there were six other bookings. A year later, revenge was clearly on Arsenal minds at Highbury in the FA Cup fifth round. United, having been 2-0 down, had the chance to equalise from the spot, but Brian McClair blazed over and Arsenal full-back Nigel Winterburn followed Choccy back up the pitch to rub salt in the wounds.
It was plain there were still ‘issues’ at stake during a 1-0 win for Arsenal at our place in October 1990. Winterburn’s