The 2000s was an exhilarating time for English football, featuring plenty of famous clashes between Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea among others.
Cesc Fabregas recently lifted the lid on one of English football’s funniest chapters when the midfielder revealed he was indeed the culprit who threw a pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson following a particularly fiery encounter between Arsenal and Manchester United and Arsenal.
“All of a sudden, I heard noises [in the tunnel] and I thought what’s happening?” he told A League of their Own. “So I go out with my slice of pizza and I saw Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, Martin Keown. Everyone pushing each other.”
“I was like I want to get involved but I don’t know how to and I just threw it. Once I saw who it was hitting… well, I didn’t mean it. I apologise Sir Alex, I really didn’t mean to do that!”
So there’s only one place to start as we look back at some of the best feuds of the 2000s…
Fergie’s Man Utd v Wenger’s Arsenal
The rivalry softened towards the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford, perhaps because he came to see Arsene Wenger as less of a threat, but for years, this was a gloriously petty fued.
Ferguson’s welcome as Wenger arrived to supposedly usher in a revolution was, at best, tetchy: “They say he’s an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages? I’ve got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages.”
There was no love lost as the two giants consistently fought for the title. Arsenal stopped United winning three in a row in 1998, before United completed the Treble the following year, pipping Arsenal to the title and beating them in the FA Cup semi-final thanks to that Ryan Giggs goal.
Things really heated up after the millennium, with Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira’s regular scraps epitomising the rivalry. Keane scored twice at Highbury in 2000 when he and Vieira really got to grips with each other, literally, for the first time.
Then came Martin Keown and co’s baiting of Ruud van Nistelrooy when the United striker missed a last minute penalty at Old Trafford in 2003. Keown was lucky the Dutchman didn’t perform some rudimentary dentistry with his fist. The following year brought the Battle of the Buffet, only after United had kicked Arsenal – Jose Reyes in particular – off the park to halt the Gunners unbeaten run at 49.
Cesc Fabregas threw pizza but Keane had a different weapon in mind later that season in 2004-05, when he objected to Vieira trying to bully Gary Neville in the tight tunnel at Highbury.
“I had a lot of hatred for Arsenal.” Keane admitted in 2003, and the feeling was certainly mutual.
• • • •
England v Portugal
The antagonism between the two nations really only centres around two matches and two individuals: Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
The first feisty meeting came at Euro 2004 in the quarter-final. This was arguably England’s best team in years and the tournament represented an incredible opportunity to end 38 years of hurt. Especially with the 18-year-old Rooney flying, having scored four goals so far in the competition. “The hype surrounding Wayne Rooney is hotter than a Saharan bonfire that’s been doused in Hai Karate,” explained The Guardian in their minute-by-minute from Lisbon.
All was going swimmingly until the 25th minute. With England a goal up from the third minute courtesy of Michael Owen, Rooney limped to the sideline and removed his boot with what initially appeared to be a twisted ankle. After trying to play on, it became clear that the boy wonder had suffered a more serious ailment.
His tournament was over and a couple of hours later, so was England’s. After a thrilling 2-2 draw, David Beckham lost his footing while blazing his shootout spot-kick over the bar, before Darius Vassell’s effort was saved. Portugal keeper Ricardo shed his gloves and rattled home the winner.
Lisbon, though, was just a loosener for the Battle of Gelsenkirchen two years later. Rooney once again played a starring role, having fought so hard to recover from another broken foot in the lead up to the tournament. The Manchester United star departed the stage after just an hour, receiving his marching orders for treading on Ricardo Carvalho.
But the English public pinned this one of Ronaldo who, not unreasonably, ran to the referee demanding that his club team-mate be sent-off. If Ronaldo’s supposed act of treachery was not enough to get the England fans frothing at the mouth, his ‘job done’ wink towards bench certainly was.
Despite playing with 10 men, England should have won. “Had England played to anywhere near their potential, had they not lost Wayne Rooney to a red card after 61 minutes, they might have punished the outrageous profligacy of a Portugal team stripped not only of their influential playmakers Costinha and Deco, but a sense of decency and, more pertinently, any notion of adventure,” reported The Observer in gloriously catty fashion.
• • • •
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea v Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool
Mourinho and Wenger have never been best buds, but their squabbles have usually resulted in the the Portuguese’s sides getting the better of those led by the “specialist in failure”.
Benitez, though, got under Mourinho’s skin by beating him, not always by fair means, according to Mourinho. Rafa’s biggest triumphs came in the Champions League and the first was the most controversial.
The Reds and Blues fought out a goalless draw in the semi-final first leg at Stamford Bridge but the deadlock was broken after just four minutes at Anfield. Or was it? No one is quite sure, though Mourinho is adamant that Luis Garcia’s shot, after Petr Cech had clattered Milan Baros, had not crossed the line. “You can say the linesman’s scored. It was a goal coming from the moon or from the Anfield Road stands.”
The two managers were pitted against each other in the following year’s group stages. After a couple more 0-0 draws, Benitez bit: “To me, Arsenal play much better football. They win matches and are exciting to watch. Barcelona and Milan too. They create excitement so how can you say Chelsea are the best team in the world?”
Benitez’s Liverpool also knocked Mourinho’s side out of the FA Cup at the semi-final stage, when the two bosses refused to exchange even a handshake at the final whistle. “Did the best team win?“ Mourinho pondered. “I don’t think so. In a one-off game maybe they will surprise me and they can do it. In the Premiership the distance between the teams is 45 points over two seasons.”
Another semi-final followed a year later, again in the Champions League, but once more Benitez got the better of Mourinho, this time on penalties. Mourinho’s Chelsea exit did little to calm the tensions between the two managers, which errupted again when Benitez replaced his rival at Inter Milan.
“One thing is for certain. Benitez won’t do better than me,” said Mourinho, who was proved right. Benitez was axed less than a season into his San Siro reign, as he was at Real Madrid. Mrs Benitez tried to shift the blame. ”Real Madrid are the third of Jose Mourinho’s old teams Rafa has coached,” said Montserrat Seara. “We tidy up his messes!”
Mourinho wasn’t having that…
• • • •
Wayne Bridge v John Terry
This one really was personal. Bridge and Terry were team-mates for Chelsea and England through a glorious period that saw them win the Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup together.
But after Bridge had left Chelsea to join Manchester City in 2009, allegations surfaced over an affair between Bridge’s fiancee Vanessa Perroncel and Terry. Of course, the next game was Chelsea v City at Stamford Bridge.
It led to the most eagerly-awaited pre-match greeting since the Premier League introduced the token handshake. Terry offered a limp hand but he must surely have expected Bridge to leave it hanging there.
• • • •
• • • •
The ex-Chelsea left-back was then booed by the Stamford Bridge crowd, who expected God only knows what from their former player. The acrimony stirred Manchester City, who turned over Carlo Ancelotti’s side 4-2, with Craig Bellamy and Carlos Tevez particularly inspired.
“I know what JT is like, everybody in football knows what he is like. That’s off the field,” said Bellamy after the game and Bridge was grateful for his new team-mates’ support, even if he remains dismayed over the furore.
“The most disappointing aspect of it all is that I’m probably more famous for not shaking someone’s hand than I am for playing football,” he said earlier this year.
“I could not believe the atmosphere at the game that day and the reaction of my team-mates, in the build up to the match and during. I still don’t think anyone knows the full story but my team-mates that day were amazing. I felt like my team-mates wanted to win, for me. Players like Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy, who afterwards said some things I couldn’t believe.”
The scandal led to Bridge also retiring from international football. “I believe my position in the squad is now untenable and potentially divisive.”
• • • •
Roy Keane v Alf Inge Haaland
Keane was a central figure in the long-term rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal, but at least he and Vieira eventually admitted a grudging respect for each other. That cannot be said about Keane’s feud with Alf Inge Haaland.
It began in September 1997, shortly after Keane had been handed the United captaincy. The Red Devils were losing at Leeds when Keane, who said he had been baited all afternoon by Haaland, had a kick out at his Norwegian opponent. “I was trying to trip him up rather than kick him. I knew it probably meant a booking, but f**k it…” explained Keane in his autobiography.
But his studs got caught in the turf and it was the Irishman who fell to the floor. Haaland was unaware of how badly hurt Keane was and stood over his striken rival, accusing him of playacting to avoid a booking. Keane was to miss the rest of the season as United blew an 11-point lead to gift Arsenal the title.
Never one to let it lie, Keane waited almost three and a half years for his revenge. United were already champions in 2000-01 when Haaland arrived at Old Trafford with Manchester City. The visitors equalised late on through Paul Dickov and, by now, Keane wanted vengence.
“I’d waited long enough,” wrote Keane in his autobiography. “I f***ing hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that, you c***. And don’t ever stand over me again sneering about fake injuries. And tell your pal [David] Wetherall there’s some for him as well. I didn’t wait for Mr Elleray to show the red card. I turned and walked to the dressing room.”
• • • •
• • • •
Haaland’s team-mate Steve Howey admitted Keane’s savagery had stunned the City players. “We had some bad lads in our dressing room and we knew we’d protect our player if necessary, but when we saw it, even we were shocked,” the former defender told Sky Sports.
“The thing is we all knew it was coming. There was talk about it before the game.”
Haaland initially took it well. “It’s funny – since 1997 he’s never once looked me in the eye,” he said afterwards. “There are always hard fouls in a game like this, but that was well over the top. I won’t tell you what he said to me. Let’s just say it wasn’t very nice. I’m only glad my leg was off the ground, otherwise he would have done me a lot of damage. I must upgrade my insurance the next time we play Manchester United.”
There wasn’t to be a next time, though. Haaland had to retire after only four more appearances, all as substitute. After the publication of Keane’s book, Haaland and City considered suing the Manchester United skipper but it was the left knee, not the right that met Keane’s studs, which caused the midfielder’s premature retirement.
Was Keane repentant? “There are things I regret in my life and he’s not one of them,” he wrote in his second autobiography.