Remembering the first Battle of Old Trafford

It’s been 30 years and one week since the brawl to end them all.

With Arsenal 1-0 up in a heated league clash, things boiled over - Alan Smith recalls that moment, in the latest United Review...

“I’ll always remember the moment... the ball being played up to me, Gary Pallister coming over the top and winning the header – which he tended to do! – then Nigel Winterburn absolutely steaming into Denis Irwin with a reckless challenge, to say the least. Brian McClair reacted by kicking Nigel while he was still on the floor.

“Everyone piled in. I went over to try and calm things down a little bit, but I realised it was a hopeless case! I can remember seeing Michael Thomas and David Rocastle sprinting past me to get involved! After that, I spent most of the time viewing what was going on from a distance with David Seaman.

“It all got very heated. Anders [Limpar] mentioned in the changing room later that he drew blood by striking out at Brian McClair. He caught him behind the ear.

“The bad blood – maybe not between the clubs, but between Nigel and McClair – went back to an FA Cup game at Highbury a few seasons earlier [in 1988]. McClair stepped up to take a penalty, and Nigel had some choice words for him. Brian skied the penalty into the North Bank and we went on to win 2-1. The seed was sewn for what happened at Old Trafford two years later.

“Arsenal took what had happened at Old Trafford in 1990 very seriously and handed out two-week fines to a number of players – Nigel, Anders, David Rocastle and Paul Davis, as well as the manager [George Graham]. We had a meeting about the incident afterwards and George reminded us of our responsibilities to the club. We thought it was a bit harsh that we were docked two points by the FA while United were only docked one, but that deduction spurred us on and we went on to win the league by some distance.

“We won 1-0 at Old Trafford in the game in question with a goal from Anders that we were quite lucky to get... I say that having had quite a good view of the goal line as Les Sealey got his hands to the ball! [Referee Keith Hackett adjudged that the ball had crossed the line before Sealey palmed it clear.] Maybe that was one we got away with.

“Despite what happened, there were no grudges held between the two sets of players. It had just been a case of two ultra-competitive teams playing against each other and things getting out of hand in a split-second. When I saw the likes of Bryan Robson on England duty, we’d just have a bit of a laugh over what happened.

“We actually ended up playing United in a ‘farewell’ match for David O’Leary at the end of the 1992/93 season. One of the reasons that match came about I think is because George [Graham] and Sir Alex Ferguson were quite close. Sir Alex used to go to George for advice on certain things – it’s well documented that he went to George over the issue of what to ask for when negotiating a new contract.

“In the 30 years since that day, United-Arsenal has become one of the great rivalries in English football. There have been times when the rivalry has bubbled over since – like the Ruud van Nistelrooy penalty incident in 2003 – but it’s all par for course when you’ve got two massive clubs battling it out for the title.”

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