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Arsenal left “upset” with “untouchable” Man Utd as frustration boiled over

It started with a missed penalty and ended with a slice of pizza – and epitomised arguably the most iconic rivalry in Premier League history.

When Ruud van Nistelrooy fired a penalty against the crossbar at Old Trafford on September 21, 2003, he was instantly met by a screaming Martin Keown and confronted by Arsenal stars.

”What Arsenal players did that day was the worst thing I’ve seen in this sport,” Sir Alex Ferguson later bit back, whilst captain Roy Keane regretted keeping his cool.

“I had a lot of hatred for Arsenal,” Keane said a few years ago. “I can’t think of any other word when I was getting ready to do battle with Arsenal. Hatred was the word.

“I don’t remember liking anybody at Arsenal. I knew I had to be at my angriest against them.

“I didn’t feel like that about any other team, but Arsenal brought out something different in me – I behaved myself that day and I regret it”.

Arsenal’s reaction to Van Nistelrooy’s missed penalty in 2003 ramped up the rivalry with Man Utd

The missed penalty ultimately went on to allow the Gunners to complete their historic Invincibles season.

Publicly, Ferguson remained unnerved by Arsenal’s growing dominance and insisted they posed no long-term threat.

”[We] are still the team every club wants to beat most of all – regardless of who is champions or unbeaten records,” he said.

“In that respect, our profile as the major club in the country is untouchable. That is obvious and will never change.”

But, by the time Arsenal next arrived at the Theatre of Dreams, they were still unbeaten.

49 games and counting, to be precise, heading to the home of their arch rivals on October 24, 2004 eyeing a historic half-century.

Wayne Rooney and Man Utd had no intention of letting Arsenal bring up their 50 game milestone at Old Trafford
Wayne Rooney and Man Utd had no intention of letting Arsenal bring up their 50 game milestone at Old Trafford

Typically, Manchester United had other ideas.

“All week Arsenal have been banging on about how great it will be to make it to 50 games unbeaten at Old Trafford,” Wayne Rooney later wrote in his autobiography.

“Big mistake. They fired us up. Fifty games unbeaten? No way. Not at our place.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Phil Neville who recalled in a recent documentary, who revealed they saw some Arsenal stars already jumping the gun.

Some members of the Arsenal team wore shirts donning the phrase ’50 not out’ under their jerseys, with the Neville brothers trying but failing to expose them by asking to swap shirts at full-time.

“We were ready,” Neville declared.

“In a period of 12 months when they’d got the better of us this was our moment, Sir Alex knew it was our moment.”

There were some changes from the ill-tempered affair 12 months earlier.

Roy Keane missed out whilst Spanish wonderkid Jose Antonio Reyes had burst onto the scene for the Gunners and found himself in the firing line.

“They had a young Spanish winger called Jose Antonio and we literally kicked him off,” Neville recalled. “I think he got subbed off for all 60 minutes.

Jose Antonio Reyes was on the receiving end of some tough tackles
Jose Antonio Reyes was on the receiving end of some tough tackles

“Every time he got the ball, Gary smashed him. Next time he got the ball I smashed him, next time he got the ball Scholesy smashed him and after a bit I remember looking at him and thinking what am I doing, it’s football.”

After a typically fierce battle, even without Keane in the middle of the park, it was ironically a penalty from Van Nistelrooy which opened the scoring.

But even that moment was shrouded in more controversy after Sol Campbell was adjudged to have brought down Rooney after minimal contact.

“You know Wayne dived for the penalty against Sol [Campbell],” Cesc Fabregas said last year when discussing the incident with Rio Ferdinand.

Van Nistelrooy scored from the penalty spot, unlike 12 months earlier
Van Nistelrooy scored from the penalty spot, unlike 12 months earlier

“So we felt [emotional]. The emotion was that we lost against a great team, which can happen, but we didn’t feel we should have lost. We didn’t think it was the right time to lose our Invincible run.”

When Rooney bagged deep into stoppage time, it killed the game off and sparked bedlam in the aftermath.

“We beat Arsenal to end their unbeaten run,” defender Mikel Silvestre recalled, speaking to FourFourTwo magazine last year. ”We were like, ‘There is no way that they are going to make it 50 at Old Trafford. No chance.’

“That was a huge motivation for us. The aftermath of that game was crazy, with pizza flying and everyone pushing and insulting each other in the tunnel.

“The stewards and security guards ended up having to separate everyone. It wasn’t a very good moment. You want to fight on the pitch, but in a football fight, not a fist fight! Sometimes, tempers go far beyond the football pitch.”

Van Nistelrooy's goal sparked bedlam at Old Trafford
Van Nistelrooy’s goal sparked bedlam at Old Trafford

Van Nistelrooy was confronted by Wenger on his way down the tunnel and reported the incident to his own manager.

With tensions already running high, Ferguson reacted and recalled the incident in his autobiography.

“My recollection of that fabled incident is that when Ruud van Nistelrooy came into the dressing room, he complained that Arsene Wenger had been giving him stick as he left the pitch,” he wrote.

“Right away I rushed out to say to Arsene: ‘You leave my players alone.’ He was incensed at losing the game. That was the reason for his combative behaviour.

“You should attend to your own players,’ I told him. He was livid. His fists were clenched. I was in control, I knew it.”

Then, out of nowhere, things took a bizarre turn.

“The next thing I knew I had pizza all over me,” Ferguson said.

Tensions boiled over and eventually spilled into the tunnel at Old Trafford
Tensions boiled over and eventually spilled into the tunnel at Old Trafford

Ashley Cole stated in his book that: “This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the mush.

“The slap echoed down the tunnel and everything stopped, the fighting, the yelling, everything. All eyes turned…to see this pizza slip off that famous puce face and roll down his nice black suit.”

Speaking to Mark Chapman in an interview for Esquire, Wenger said of the incident: “I was a specialist in not seeing things. I didn’t see it. I’ve been told who did it.”

“Unfortunately it landed on Alex, but it was bit Man United’s fault because they put the pizzas in our dressing room, so…”

Ferguson added: “They say it was Cesc Fabregas who threw the pizza at me but, to this day, I have no idea who the culprit was.”

When he crossed the divide by moving from Manchester United to Arsenal in 2008, Silvestre finally got to the bottom of what happened.

Mikael Silvestre was at the heart of the conflict but later crossed the divide to join Arsenal
Mikael Silvestre was at the heart of the conflict but later crossed the divide to join Arsenal

”When I moved to Arsenal in 2008, I said to Fabregas, ‘I knew it was you’, Silvestre recalled. “He admitted it.”

Several years later, Fabregas owned up publicly explained exactly what happened in one of the most infamous incidents of the Premier League era.

“The way it happened we felt a little cheated you know because we didn’t deserve to lose to that game we were upset and there was a little bit of a fight,” the former Arsenal and Chelsea midfielder told BEin Sports.

“When you have thirty players going into the dressing room, it’s a little bit tight there was a little pushing around and a small fight. Because I didn’t play I was one of the first players to go into the tunnel and I just saw a pizza because I was hungry.

“I started hearing shouts and I went out and saw Rio Ferdinand all the big boys Thierry, and Sol Campbell going together, getting into a fight.

“When you are young and I was a little like this, I just didn’t know what to do as I was so small and skinny and to be honest I didn’t aim at anyone, but Man United were on one side so I just did it because there was nothing I could do because the tunnel was full of big guys having an argument.”

“I found out later it touched Mr Ferguson and I apologised already publicly and I’ll do it again,” he said. “It wasn’t intentional it was a moment that just happens.

“I was young, I definitely wouldn’t use a pizza now, I would get straight in there now!”

Whilst he ended the day covered in pizza, it was Ferguson who had the last laugh – but a lasting divide was created that was not overcome for several years.

“Arsenal had been defending a 49-game unbeaten record and had been hoping to make it 50 on our turf. It seemed to me that losing the game scrambled Arsene’s brain,” Ferguson said.

“That day created a division between us, without doubt, and that rift extended to [assistant manager] Pat Rice, who stopped coming in for a drink after games.”

The clash formed a "divide" between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger
The clash formed a “divide” between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger

“The wound was not fully healed until the Champions League semi-final in 2009, when Arsene invited us into his room after the game and congratulated us.

“When we played them at Old Trafford a few weeks later, Arsene came in with Pat, just for a few minutes.”

With both men now happily retired and healing their rift, Wenger looks back and can see the funny side.

“In hindsight, now, today, it’s funny, it’s funny. I can understand completely that Ferguson was unhappy. But I think after, with the distance, he laughs about it as well.”




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