BY MATTHEW CRIST
Much has been made of the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal over the past twenty years or so; spats involving the likes of Keane, Vieira, Ferguson and Wenger, missed penalties and even flying pizza.
However; to really understand this long-lasting loathing which dominated English football for much of the 1990s and 2000s, you have to go back to October 1990 and a game which is often referred to as the “First Battle of Old Trafford.”
In truth we should have seen it coming. In Alex Ferguson’s first match against Arsenal as United boss at Old Trafford back in January 1987 their 2–0 win had been all but overshadowed by a huge brawl involving both sets of players and even members of the coaching staff following David Rocastle’s sending off for a foul on Norman Whiteside and it wouldn’t be long before the feud flared-up once more.
That’s because the following season the two sides were drawn against each other in the FA Cup Fifth Round at Highbury in a game which would, in all honesty, signal the end of the season for whoever got knocked out despite the fact that there were still three months of the campaign remaining.
With Arsenal leading the game 2–1 in the dying minutes United were awarded a penalty that could have forced a replay and extended the club’s season for a few more days at least, only for Brian McClair to blast the spot-kick high into the North Bank; much to the joy of Nigel Winterburn, who took great pleasure in taunting the Scot before being dragged away by teammates.
If not yet fully ablaze the blue touch paper was now positively smouldering yet nobody could quite have predicted what was to follow in the autumn of 1990 when the two met on a grey day at Old Trafford in front of a then capacity crowd of over 47,000 for a game that, once again, could make or break either club’s season.
Arsenal came into the match with their eyes firmly focussed on a second First Division title in three seasons, having pipped Liverpool to the championship in epic circumstances back in May 1989, and saw their opportunity to become the dominant force in English football under former Gunner and ex-United player George Graham.
United, on the other hand, were showing few signs of becoming the powerhouse that we became accustomed to in the years that followed despite lifting the FA Cup the previous season after spending much of that campaign battling at the wrong end of the table.
Going into the encounter both clubs were in differing form. United were already some way off leaders Liverpool, whereas Arsenal were handily placed in second and primed to mount a challenge; what’s more, the bad feeling which had been bubbling between the two in recent seasons was still fresh in the memory of both supporters and players alike.
United started the brighter of the two sides, though it was the visitors who took the lead through Anders Limpar just before half time when Les Sealey couldn’t prevent the ball crossing the line from the tightest of angles.
And that was pretty much it when it comes to notable talking points, in terms of football anyway, as everything else which took place that day was eclipsed by an incident that would set the tone between the two sides for years to come.
That’s because in the 60th minute Nigel Winterburn lunged-in on United’s Denis Irwin and in a flash, Brian McClair was on hand to not only defend Irwin, but also dish out a little retribution for the Arsenal man’s exploits at Highbury two years before; kicking him several times while Irwin joined in like a kid in the playground who knew that the harder kid had his back.
To make things worse the self-styled “Governor” and wannabe hard-man Paul Ince soon joined the action, only to be projected into the advertising hoardings just as quickly like a wrestler exiting over the top rope at Wrestlemania before entering the ring once again looking for revenge.
In a flash all 11 United players and 10 Arsenal men were involved, some revelling in the push-and-shove while others looked to keep the peace, with only David Seaman failing to join in. A number of individuals from each team could, and probably should, have been sent off by referee Keith Hackett, who was helpless when it came to keeping the two warring factions apart.
While Irwin and McClair continued to kick-out at opponents at will Paul Ince dived on Limpar while Winterburn, Limpar and Paul Davis were the main instigators on the Arsenal side. and when referee Hackett finally restored order after almost a minute or so, unbelievably, he cautioned just two players – Winterburn and Limpar.
Speaking some years later McClair talked of his horror at seeing how he had reacted at the time. “I tangled with Nigel Winterburn, and all hell broke loose,” he said. “Within a few minutes the red mist had disappeared and I was looking round in disbelief. I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. The worst thing of all was watching myself on television behaving very badly.
“My perceptions had been so badly distorted by rage I hadn’t actually remembered what happened accurately. I was convinced that I’d only kicked Nigel once but that wasn’t the case at all. Archie Knox, the coach, could hardly contain his laughter when he watched it back with me.
“‘What the hell came over you?’ he managed to gasp out when not rendered speechless with laughter. I couldn’t tell him because I honestly didn’t know myself.”
Arsenal won the game 1-0 but that was largely irrelevant as in the days that followed the club knew they would bear the brunt of any FA punishment due to the fact that they had been involved in a similar incident against Norwich City barely a year before, with chairman Peter Hill-Wood acknowledging that the behaviour of his players at Old Trafford had been unacceptable.
In an unprecedented move, the board fined manager George Graham and five of Arsenal’s players – Winterburn, Davis, Limpar, David Rocastle and Michael Thomas – two weeks’ wages while United were not so quick to react, only dishing out fines to McClair, Irwin and Ince.
However, under huge pressure from UEFA, after the game had been broadcast to 67 countries around the world, the FA still weren’t satisfied and summoned Hackett and officials from Arsenal and United for a full hearing; announcing on November 12th that both clubs would receive a £50,000 fine with Arsenal deducted two points and United one.
If such punishment had been dished out today it would have undoubtedly been met with a string of legal challenges and counter-claims, but back in 1990 both teams took their punishment on the chin, and as it turned out it didn’t have a huge bearing on the outcome of the season.
Despite the fact that the deduction had initially meant Arsenal were some 8 points adrift of Liverpool, the Gunners would eventually chase down the champions and would be awarded the league title at Highbury before the last home game of the season – against of all teams Manchester United – who sportingly gave them a guard of honour.
As for United that season was seen as a turning point in the club’s fortunes, as they went on to lift the European Cup Winners’ Cup in Rotterdam that May, an achievement that is seen by many as the springboard for a quarter of a century of success that was about to follow.
By today’s standards the infamous brawl in 1990 doesn’t seem that bad considering, but at the time it was something of a national scandal, as well as being the spark that ignited a very long fuse which would smoulder for years.
And even now, despite the subsequent brawls and buffet battles which ensued during the respective reigns of Ferguson and Wenger, this encounter is still talked about by those who were there, as well as those who have only been told about the events of that infamous day.
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