Keane v Vieira: The great rivalry
On the anniversary of one of their most famous clashes - the infamous Highbury tunnel epsiode in February 2005 - we take a look back at the Premier League's defining individual rivalry: Roy Keane v Patrick Vieira...
In September 2006, looking ahead to Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson allowed his focus, invariably set purely on the future, a cursory flicker to past events. “Roy Keane against Patrick Vieira was an incredible competition between two titans of the game,” commented the Scot, surveying the legacy of a nine-year rivalry which had come to a close in 2005. “It was a great competition for years. I used to enjoy it and I think both players enjoyed it too.”
Of the nine seasons that the Irishman’s and the Frenchman’s Premier League careers aligned, eight ended with one of the pair clutching the Premier League title. Only the emergence of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea ended that run in 2004/05, Vieira’s last campaign at Highbury and Keane’s penultimate at Old Trafford, but, while it lasted, the pair’s running battle was a microcosm of the tit-for-tat battle between United and Arsenal: compelling, brutal, skilful and glorious.
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A Premier League champion in two of his first three seasons at Old Trafford, Keane was preparing for his fourth term with the Reds when, on 10 August 1996, Arsenal announced the capture of Vieira from AC Milan. The French midfielder arrived without repute but ended his first season in England as a household name, nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award, while Keane was in the running for the senior award. There was only one direct head-to-head between the two, in United’s swashbuckling 2-1 win at Highbury in February 1997, an evening when both men were flanked by unexpected central midfield partners: David Beckham alongside Keane, Dennis Bergkamp next to Vieira.
The Frenchman made a strong start, as Guardian scribe David Lacey noted: ‘Keane and Beckham took a while to establish parity with Bergkamp and Vieira but once this had been achieved, United tore at Arsenal’s defence ferociously.’ Keane ended the campaign clutching his third title winner’s medal but, with Arsenal clearly in the ascendancy following the mid-season appointment of Arsene Wenger, it was clear a new challenge loomed.
The Gunners strode to a league and FA Cup Double in 1997/98, exploiting a leg-weary, injury-depleted United side for whom Keane missed nine months of the season with cruciate ligament damage. Vieira was central to Wenger’s success, pairing devastatingly with compatriot Emmanuel Petit as the French axis became renowned as the league’s top midfield pairing. So, when Keane returned at the start of 1998/99, two early-season meetings with the Gunners left no room for feeling his way back into action. Following a Community Shield chasing at Wembley, the Reds’ September trip to Highbury quickly looked like a key barometer of the season’s ambitions.
‘The Vieira-Keane clash in midfield offers the biggest powder keg to hit London since Guy Fawkes,’ Mirror journalist David Anderson gleefully wrote in advance, and there was a clear winner again as Vieira took the Man of the Match award in a 3-0 home win. After Nicky Butt was dismissed for halting Vieira’s goalward charge, Keane was booked for forcibly insisting that the Frenchman had dived. And when Keane later barged over Marc Overmars and saw Vieira encouraging referee Graham Barber to mete out censure, Keane shared his thoughts with his French opponent from a sub-millimetric distance.
So, when the sides reconvened at Old Trafford later in the season, and Arsenal moved ahead against the run of play, tempers quickly flared. Keane tugged Vieira’s shirt and kicked out at the Frenchman, who turned and swung a punch which missed its target, as did the Irishman’s counter-blow, and both parties were booked before Andy Cole went on to grab a crucial Premier League point for the hosts.
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FIGHTING FOR HONOURS
Less than two months later, Keane and Vieira reconvened in the FA Cup as United chased the Treble and Arsenal sought to defend the Double. Beforehand, the Gunners talisman admitted: “I like to play against Roy Keane. He is a great competitor. Like me, he wants to win and we have had some good battles. But always, after the game, he will come and shake my hand. I like that, I respect that. He is one of the best midfield players I have come across and possibly the hardest I have played against.” Though unfortunate to have a goal ruled out for a phantom offside, Keane took the upper hand as the sides played out a compelling goalless draw, and he maintained that advantage in absentia three days later as United edged the legendary Villa Park replay.
It saw the United skipper pick up two bookings, for fouls on Bergkamp and Overmars, but it was Vieira whose lapse of judgement proved costliest, as his loose pass assisted Ryan Giggs’s sensational solo winner, allowing the Reds to march on to Wembley. Amidst the bigger picture of both sides’ relentless march for silverware, the Keane-Vieira subplot proved consuming, with Richard Williams of The Independent writing: ‘Keane’s bone-shuddering battles with Vieira have been something extraordinary to behold – and the best possible advertisement for maintaining a degree of physical contact in football.’
With Vieira in vengeful mood and Keane in his turf-pounding pomp, the post-Villa Park meetings were always going to make mandatory viewing, and so it proved in August 1999 as Ferguson’s champions came from behind to win at Highbury. Freddie Ljungberg put the hosts ahead at the break, but after the restart Keane cranked his already impressive performance levels up to 11, yielding two priceless goals and one very public, very literal head-to-head with Vieira.
United’s no.16 reacted with a kick after his Arsenal counterpart had charged into him, prompting the defining image of the rivalry: the pair together, again with foreheads pressed, neither giving an inch. Referee Graham Poll drew praise for refusing to caution either player, while United’s assistant manager Steve McClaren also downplayed the spat. “No-one wants to win more than Vieira and Roy,” he shrugged.
The title pendulum continued to swing between Old Trafford and Highbury, with United retaining it in 1999/2000 and 2000/01, Arsenal regaining it in 2001/02, United likewise in 2002/03, and Arsenal going unbeaten for the season to take it once more in 2003/04. Through it all, the ferocity of the Keane-Vieira meetings remained high but never spilled over. A foul from one on the other was seldom met with anything beyond bruised acceptance.
When Vieira was dismissed during 2003’s goalless draw at Old Trafford, it was Keane who intervened to calm the Frenchman and stop his attempts to reach Ruud van Nistelrooy. The Dutchman’s injury-time penalty miss allowed the Gunners to go unbeaten throughout the league season so, by the time United arrived at Highbury later that term, Arsenal’s title triumph was virtually assured. Less the competitive edge, Vieira cajoled Keane in the tunnel beforehand, prompting a begrudging grin from the Irishman. It was Keane who laughed last the following month, however, when he rolled back the years with a dominant display as United reached the FA Cup final at the expense of Vieira’s champions-elect.
Keane and Vieira's tunnel incident at Highbury
On 1 February 2005, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira had their famous run-in in the Highbury tunnel...
THE LAST DANCE(S)
Just when it seemed that the enmity had evolved into a healthy mutual respect with well-defined boundaries, 2004/05 came along. Through illness, the United skipper sat out his side’s 2-0 home win, which preceded unsightly scenes post-match as Arsenal players, incensed at the controversial end of their 49-game unbeaten league run, found some solace in flinging post-match pizza. Despite the absence of Keane and Vieira some six weeks later, two much-changed teams once again clashed as the Reds won 1-0 in the League Cup.
Thus, when the sides reconvened for the Premier League return at Highbury two months on, all parties were suitably amped up in advance. As referee Graham Poll would later recall of the pre-match chat for that February 2005 visit to Highbury: “I’d just reminded Vieira that the last time we’d been together with Roy Keane the previous season, we’d made Roy laugh in the tunnel. So, I said, ‘let’s see if we can do that again tonight.’ And he [Vieira] just went: ‘Not tonight, Graham.’” Vieira’s focus manifested in warning Gary Neville beforehand that he was in trouble. For Keane, that meant pre-match revenge.
The culmination, of course, was the infamous tunnel exchange between the pair which ended on Keane’s warning: “We’ll see you out there.” Though Vieira quickly opened the scoring with his second career goal against the Reds, Keane ended the evening victorious, playing peerlessly as United came back to win 4-2. When fate flung the two sides together again in that season’s FA Cup final, the pre-match debate centred almost entirely on the midfield battle. “United and Arsenal have been the two most consistent teams in England over the past decade because they’ve got Keane and Vieira,” noted Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard. “They haven’t just been the top two midfielders in England, they have probably been the best two in the world.”
In Cardiff, a dominant United display inexplicably failed to yield a single goal and the Gunners triumphed 5-4 in a shoot-out in which both Keane and Vieira scored. The latter’s conversion turned out to be the final kick of his Arsenal career, with a move to Juventus soon completed. There was a quickfire reunion on the international stage which followed the same thread, with Ireland skipper Keane named Man of the Match as Vieira’s France nabbed a 1-0 win in Dublin, levelling the pair’s head-to-head at seven wins apiece and six draws.
LOOKING BACK TOGETHER
The relationship between Keane and Vieira began to thaw – somewhat incongruously – when the pair were enlisted as Euro 2012 pundits on ITV and, during a pre-match stroll in Warsaw, the former bought the latter an ice cream. The following year, they had reunited once again for a documentary about their battles, entitled: Keane & Vieira - Best of Enemies.
During filming, the Irishman conceded: “The biggest compliment I can give Patrick is that I always knew I had to be at my very, very, very best against him.” The Frenchman, meanwhile, admitted: “He is my favourite enemy. I loved every aspect of his game.” As he returns to Old Trafford today for the first time as a manager, the current Crystal Palace boss may well be met by jeers.
Beneath that veneer, however, lies unshakeable respect for the worthiest of foes, and one half of one of the most entertaining, compelling rivalries to punctuate Manchester United’s history.
This feature was originally published in United Review, the club's official matchday programme.