UTD Unscripted: The birth of a rivalry

Saturday 31 October 2020 08:00

I remember sitting in the stands and watching when Arsenal came to Old Trafford in 2004. They were on a 49-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, they were defending champions and the whole stadium was rocking that afternoon. I remember sitting there beforehand, thinking to myself: We’ve got to win this one, and we put in a great display and ended their run with a 2-0 win.

Arsenal weren’t happy with the penalty we got to open the scoring and the game started getting tetchy towards the end before finally spilling over in the tunnel afterwards. You hear about players throwing pizza at each other and, while that is obviously a bit petty, it made me think back to where the rivalry between United and Arsenal really began.

For a lot of people, that was the bust-up the two teams had at Old Trafford in 1990. There had been a little bit of previous going into that one – we’d won a feisty league game at our place a couple of years earlier, Choccy and Nigel Winterburn had a running battle at Highbury in the FA Cup the year after that and on the opening day of 1989/90, we’d hammered them 4-1 to get our season off to a great start.

When Arsenal arrived at Old Trafford in October 1990, there was already a little bit of spark in the fixture. We recognised that they were a very good team, one of the top teams around, with a back four as solid as there has ever been. George Graham built his teams that way and in this squad he had some fantastic players in his ranks. We were a really good side with some great players in our team, you could see what Sir Alex was building, and we always wanted to test ourselves against the top teams like Arsenal. Obviously we always wanted to win every fixture, but because Arsenal were a top team and there was already a bit of niggle between us, we went out for that game really fired up and focused on getting a good result.

We played well and controlled the game until Anders Limpar scored just after half-time. It was a strange goal, scored from near the corner flag, and Les Sealey maintained that he’d saved it from crossing the line. Looking back, it probably had crossed the line, but at the time it felt quite controversial and the atmosphere reflected that.

Then, on the hour, everything kicked off.
Lee Martin says

“There had been a bit of previous – Choccy and Nigel Winterburn had a running battle at Highbury... there was already a little bit of spark in the fixture.”

I was on the bench that day and I was actually out warming up on the touchline towards the Scoreboard End. Further down the line, nearer to the Stretford End, a couple of tackles went in, Denis Irwin came out with the ball from a scuffle with David Rocastle – God rest his soul – and Nigel Winterburn flew into a two-footed tackle on Denis that was just ridiculous, and that just ignited the spark!

There was kicking, punching, shoving, everything. At that time, you could put in hard tackles and we had players who were more than comfortable with that. So did Arsenal, and I’d guess that Winterburn wasn’t happy with whatever had gone on seconds earlier, so he’d come flying in to stick up for his team-mates.

The whole thing only lasted a few seconds, and I just stayed where I was, completely stunned – I think there was just me and David Seaman stood on watching at that end of the pitch! The managers both ran down and got involved in trying to calm the situation down, Les was holding Rocastle back, and it was just unbelievable. I saw a few scuffles in my time as a player, but nothing like that. It was way over the top, a total free-for-all and you actually felt sorry for the referee in the middle of it all. How do you control two teams at once?

Nowadays, four or five people would have been sent off for their part in what happened and the game would have been in jeopardy of being cancelled. The VAR would have loved it!
Of course, there was still a game that had to be played. There was half an hour left to play and my immediate thought was towards the manager. Don’t put me on yet! Leave it for 10 minutes until it calms down!

Now, Denis was a really tough lad who could look after himself, but you could see right away that he had been hurt by Winterburn’s tackle. He hobbled around for the next 10 minutes before the manager sent me on to replace him.

Running onto the pitch, you could feel just how feisty it was out there. It wasn’t a pleasant experience to be chasing the game in the last few minutes anyway, but you knew that if anything like a 50-50 arose, there was the potential for everything to go off once again. We pushed for an equaliser and we were all gutted when we couldn’t get one. Like I said, breaking down that Arsenal defence was not an easy task for any team and they held firm to get the points.

I don’t recall there being any sort of dressing room post-mortem after the game or any real mention of the scuffle. After any defeat, the manager would make you aware that he was disappointed, to put it nicely, and I don’t think that day was any different.

The reaction came over the following days as both clubs were deducted points, which was a killer. We lost one, Arsenal lost two, and having that hanging over us felt horrible. I think a fine would have been more appropriate. In the event, both clubs also fined the players who were most involved in what had gone on. Obviously they had to be seen to be taking a stance on that kind of behaviour, which was perfectly understandable, but in terms of seeing it from a player’s point of view, I thought it was brilliant. You knew from that point that if there were any issues on the field, those lads would stick up for you and for each other.

I already knew from past experience that if somebody was to tackle me and Robbo wasn't happy about the way it was done, then within two or three minutes they were gonna get it back with a two-footer off Robbo. That's how it worked. Now, we had seen that everybody would back each other. Incey would be there. Brucey would be there. Everyone would be there. In a way, I think the scuffle was great for our team spirit and helped us grow tighter as a group.

As fate would have it, we were drawn against Arsenal in the League Cup six weeks later. You can imagine how fired up we were for that one. 
Lee Martin says

“You could see right away that Denis had been hurt... There was half an hour left and my immediate thought was: Don’t put me on yet!”

I was in the travelling squad but not the matchday squad that night, so I was watching up in a box that Viv Anderson had at Highbury. We scored almost straight from kick-off and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Sharpey was on fire throughout the game. We were 3-0 up at half-time, it finished 6-2 and Sharpey ended the night with a hat-trick, and all of this was against an Arsenal team who never conceded goals and who eventually went on to win the championship. That win was definitely one to savour.

The rivalry calmed down a little bit for a few years, but as United began winning trophies and Arsene Wenger came over and made Arsenal our main competitors, things started cranking up again and culminated in that couple of years between 2003 and 2005 where there was a series of flashpoints that everybody always remembers.

Remembering the first Battle of Old Trafford


Former Gunner Alan Smith harks back to the infamous 1990 fight between the Reds and Arsenal, in United Review.

There was the time that Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a penalty in the last minute and four or five of Arsenal’s players were surrounding him and jostling him. You think: come on, behave yourselves lads. That miss allowed Arsenal to go on their long unbeaten run so, by the time they came back to Old Trafford the following season, they were aiming to bring up 50 straight games without defeat. They weren’t happy with the penalty award for our opening goal, which Ruud scored, then Wayne Rooney scored our second and it all kicked off in the tunnel afterwards. That happened again the following season with Keane and Vieira, and it’s all quite petty stuff, but that rivalry was such an enjoyable part of things.

Unique incidents like that make games mean more, they make them spicier for the fans and the players. Even before a ball has been kicked, you know there’s a chance of something happening, so you’re properly fired up beforehand. You anticipate it more. That was usually the case for us against Liverpool, but for years Arsenal belonged in that bracket too and it’s great for the game that those rivalries exist.

Things have calmed down a bit since Sir Alex and Arsene both retired, but there’s enough history in the fixture now that it still feels special. Every time we’re about to play Arsenal, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think back to where it all began.