Not since the days of Don Revie and Brian Clough had English football seen a managerial rivalry that came close to that between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. The only thing missing was them going toe to toe live on ITV’s regional news.
Four years into the Premier League era, Ferguson had seen off all challengers presented to him. After winning the title with Blackburn, Kenny Dalglish left his role, while Kevin Keegan was never quite able to topple United.
Arsenal, under Arsene Wenger, would change all that.
An ill-tempered affair at Highbury lit the touch paper, with Wenger later claiming United had received preferential treatment regarding the league programme. The Frenchman said: "It is wrong the league programme is extended so United can rest up and win everything."
Wenger had very quickly got under Ferguson’s skin, prompting a memorably dismissive retort from Ferguson, that his counterpart knew nothing about English football, and that he’s "come from Japan", delivered with more than a hint of condescension.
Ferguson had been so dismissive of Wenger purely because he recognised the threat posed. This wasn’t a Dalglish or a Keegan; Wenger was in it for the long haul.
Wenger certainly had a politeness upon his arrival in England. Martin Keown at the time said he was always smiling, so much so he was concerned that he was too nice to be a winner.
But under the surface, a spikiness towards Ferguson was there, which would forge the defining rivalry of the first decade of the Premier League.
In his autobiography, Wenger said: "The competition makes you hate the opponent. I think he certainly hated me and I hated him sometimes as well."
They’d gone from ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ to perhaps the best footballing side in the country, earning praise from all quarters – something else that got under Ferguson’s skin.
The Scot would repeatedly chip away at his players, reminding them of who the darlings of the country were, who everybody’s new favourite was, giving the fixtures between the two sides that little bit of added incentive.
Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and Remi Garde were joined by compatriots Emmanuel Petit and Gilles Grimandi in the summer of 1997, as Arsenal prepared for a title charge.
Wenger’s first full season saw them overhaul United with a remarkable run from the turn of the year; a 10-game winning run saw them win the league with two games to spare. Two weeks later, they’d head to Wembley and make it a league and cup double.
The 1998/99 season kicked off with a 3-0 win for the Gunners in the Charity Shield, with another 3-0 win coming at Highbury the following month.
Neither side had been at their best in the first half of the season, both trailing Aston Villa and Chelsea at the halfway stage.
But both would go on superb runs from Christmas to set up a grandstand finish for both the Premier League and FA Cup.
After a 0-0 draw at Villa Park in the FA Cup semi-final, the pair met there again three days later, playing out one of the greatest games in the competition’s history.
A red card, a disallowed goal, a missed penalty, and arguably the FA Cup’s greatest ever strike. Wenger however, was in no mood to celebrate the football on display at full-time, refusing to shake Ferguson’s hand.
United would pip Arsenal to the title, as well as winning the FA Cup to match their double from the previous season, before completing an unprecedented treble.
It led to a period of domestic dominance for United, with something of a gulf being established between the two sides as United won three consecutive titles.
As Arsenal transitioned into a new generation, they were ready to become a force once again.
Thierry Henry was now heading into his third season, and his 24 goals would fire the Gunners to the title – doing so at Old Trafford of all places, with Sylvain Wiltord scoring the game’s only goal. It would be Arsenal’s 12th straight win, which they’d extend to 13 on the final day of the season, having already wrapped up the FA Cup as Wenger completed a second double.
But it wasn’t the results on the pitch that reignited the rivalry; it was the words off it.
Wenger had declared there had been a shift in power, and he wanted his side succeed where they had failed in 1999, by defending their title.
Ferguson insisted his side were still the best in the land, sparking the jibe from Wenger that "everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home".
It was a remark which sparked sheer incandescence from Ferguson, feeling that Wenger had got personal by bringing family into matters. The quote was widely regarded as a figure of speech – which perhaps Ferguson was aware of himself, but he used the opportunity to ramp up the animosity.
Ferguson was critical of Wenger being the only manager in the Premier League who refused to share a post-match glass of wine with him.
Wenger had been very keen to stamp out the drinking culture at Arsenal upon his arrival. Perhaps this was little more than not wanting to seem hypocritical, perhaps it was not wanting to open up too much to other managers.
Wenger did open up to the French press, however, claiming that Ferguson’s "only weakness is that he thinks he doesn’t have one."
After what had become almost routine title wins, United had a fight on their hands once again. The rivalry became heated further as United were back on the march to reclaim their title the following season.
Though Arsenal would knock United out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford, it was the Red Devils who came out on top in the league in 2002/03.
And a rivalry which had threatened to spill over countless times, finally did in 2003.
The title had been shared between the two clubs for eight years with Arsenal making it nine in 2004, and the sheer intensity of having one consistent rival for the best part of a decade seemed to eventually take its toll.
For years Arsenal had – perhaps fairly – felt that United had received preferential treatment from referees in their fixtures, with that sense of injustice reaching the surface once more.
With Ruud van Nistelrooy and Vieira competing for an aerial ball, Vieira kicked out at Van Nistelrooy, who perhaps felt the Dutchman’s challenge was unnecessarily physical.
There was no contact made, but Van Nistelrooy was keen to show the intent was there, as the Frenchman was shown a second yellow card.
Sure enough, in the final minute of stoppage time, Van Nistelrooy would step up to take a penalty to win the game. Normally so ruthless from 12 yards, the Dutchman thundered his effort against the bar.
Keown, who’d conceded the penalty immediately ran over to Van Nistelrooy, screaming in his face, with a number of Arsenal players confronting the forward at the final whistle, resulting in six charges of improper conduct by the FA.
Keane, who was central to so many battles with Arsenal – particularly his opposite number Vieira – admitted that he hated Arsenal, and regretted behaving himself on that day, which would later be known as the ‘Battle of Old Trafford’.
Vieira claimed Van Nistelrooy had cheated, Wenger believed that Van Nistelrooy was “always provoking and diving”, and Ferguson expressed his disappointment with Wenger’s comments, saying his criticism was “terrible”.
It sparked the most intense 18-month period of the decade-long rivalry, and by this point, everybody was involved. Players, fans, captains, managers.
The repeat fixture the following season saw Arsenal return to Old Trafford as champions, now on a 49-game unbeaten run.
Before the match, Ferguson reflected on the previous season's events, claiming the Arsenal players had "got away with murder."
"He has a good sense of humour," Wenger replied. "Maybe it would be better if you have put us up against a wall and shot us all."
Referee Mike Riley had been contacted by Greater Manchester Police before the game to express the need for players on both sides to be on their best behaviour for fear of a repeat of last season’s scenes.
Wenger before the match felt the need to stress that "football is not a war", while Phil Neville later reflected it felt like you were indeed going to war. Gary Neville said in his autobiography: "They acted as though the rest of the world was meant to sit back and admire their beautiful football. Sorry, count me out. Some of us had a mission to stop them by all legitimate means."
By now, this was a United side in transition. A distant third the previous season, Ferguson’s men would come up short for two more years, as the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo found their feet at Old Trafford. They were already 11 points behind Arsenal when they met in October.
Arsenal had started the season superbly, still unbeaten, and United were flagging. Despite home advantage, United were only marginal favourites over the visitors. Well off the pace the previous season, the first two months did little to suggest a turnaround was on the cards.
And Wenger could smell blood.
This was his opportunity to deliver a record-extending milestone 50th game unbeaten, to build an even bigger lead over Ferguson, and perhaps prove that Ferguson was a spent force – as critics were beginning to suggest – and that after nearly 10 years in the job, Wenger and Arsenal were definitively the kings of England. After a decade of United, it was Arsenal’s turn to dominate.
Ferguson knew that this time, his opposite number had the superior players, so he made sure his side dragged the game into a physical battle. Arsenal wouldn’t be allowed to play the fancy football that had seen them complete an entire league season unbeaten, and if they wanted to leave Old Trafford with all three points, they’d have to earn them.
The decisive moment of the game came in the 73rd minute when Rooney won a penalty which – of all people – Van Nistelrooy converted, sparking utter jubilation from not just the fans, but the player himself, falling to his knees and letting out a scream of ecstasy and relief, vanquishing the demons of 12 months prior.
Celebrating his 19th birthday, Rooney would then put the cherry on top with a late clincher to put an end to Arsenal’s record-breaking unbeaten run.
Arsenal’s players were understandably furious; the chance to go 50 not out destroyed – in their opinion – by a poor refereeing display. And they had a point.
The man who scored the winner, Van Nistelrooy, was lucky not to be sent off for a knee-high challenge on Ashley Cole (he was subsequently banned for three matches for the tackle), Rio Ferdinand could have easily been dismissed for a professional foul with Freddie Ljungberg through on goal, while Gary and Phil Neville had to rein themselves in after bookings for repeated fouls on Jose Antonio Reyes, who was effectively kicked out of the game, and of course the vital penalty for Sol Campbell’s foul on Rooney, when replays showed no contact was made.
Inevitably, things spilled over in the tunnel, with another fracas breaking out, Ferguson and Wenger exchanging more words, pizza being thrown at the former. The previous season’s clash was known as the Battle of Old Trafford; this time was, of course, the Battle of the Buffet.
Ferguson in his autobiography made the claim that this defeat had “scrambled Arsene’s brain”. As harsh as that may sound, the defeat certainly had an impact on Arsenal. The invincible aura, and the tag itself, was gone. Before the defeat to United, Arsenal had picked up 25 points from their opening nine games, earning 58 from the remaining 29.
Ferguson later said Wenger never apologised for calling his players cheats, nor his team’s behaviour, saying “it's a disgrace, but I don't expect Wenger to ever apologise, he's that type of person,” with Wenger retorting that he would “never answer any questions any more about this man.”
Such was the bad feeling between the two, with relations now at an all-time low, that Wenger couldn’t even bring himself to use Ferguson’s name in press conferences.
While sports fans may be used to seeing prize fighters sell a bout, talking about the supposed disdain they have for their opponent, it’s often for show. None of this was for show, there was no fight to sell; the feeling was very real.
Remarkably, it was after this game where Ferguson claimed his relationship with Wenger soured – not anything in the previous 25 encounters between the two – and the pair hardly spoke for the next few years.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and a distinctive line can be drawn under the rivalry between these two clubs and managers for the reverse fixture that season. Although the FA Cup final at the end of the term would be the final time Keane and Vieira would face off in this fixture, their penultimate meeting had all the fireworks you could expect.
The limelight had been diverted away from the managers this time, and firmly towards the captains. Referee Graham Poll recalled the previous occasion he’d officiated a match between the two midfielders, and how the pair had managed to make Keane laugh in the tunnel before the game, challenging Vieira to see if they could do it again.
“Not tonight, Graham,” was Vieira’s terse response.
Vieira targeted Gary Neville before the teams had even made their way to the tunnel. Keane, getting wind of this, was ready to go for his opposite number, provoking the legendary “we’ll see you out there” tirade.
Vieira didn’t shake hands with most of the United line-up before the match, with the exception of Neville, who gave the firmest handshake of his life, and a wild, unblinking stare.
Seconds out, round one.
Who else but Vieira would score the opening goal for Arsenal, with Dennis Bergkamp giving Arsenal the lead again after a Ryan Giggs equaliser. Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice before John O’Shea sealed the win with the most audacious chip.
When enough time has passed, and both combatants are taken out of the heat of battle, they so often kiss and make up.
With the rise of Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez and others, as well as the decline of Arsenal as a threat, Ferguson actually anticipated their future amicability, saying: “We have loads of situations now where new managers come in and vanish after a couple of years. It's just the two of us and we'll probably ride out into the sunset together!”
Years later, when Arsenal were no longer on Manchester United’s level, the rivalry had mellowed to a point where Ferguson was actually defending Wenger.
Before the infamous 8-2 defeat of 2011, Ferguson did get one final swipe in, saying the six-year trophy drought at the Emirates would never be allowed at Old Trafford, but he did acknowledge the circumstances around Wenger’s job after the match, regarding the sales of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, as well as the litany of injuries, claiming Wenger would still be a big adversary.
But Wenger never was the same adversary. Ferguson retired from football two years later, with Wenger following five years later.
The quotes about each other are much friendlier than they were at the rivalry’s peak, with Wenger describing Ferguson as "an intelligent man" and that "we have a lot of respect for each other now."
Ferguson has been similarly amiable, describing Wenger as "without doubt, one of the greatest Premier League managers and I am proud to have been a rival, a colleague and a friend to such a great man."
While it would make for amusing and entertaining headlines to see them still going at it long after retirement, it’s almost a relief to see them bury the hatchet and even become friends.
But, boy, it was good while it lasted.