Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson (left) and rival manager, Arsene Wenger of Arsenal, January 2002.

Celebrating Arsene Wenger’s ‘prettiest wife’ jibe – & how it made Fergie explode

One way of improving anodyne press conferences would be to introduce a managerial weigh-in before matches.

Forget the impracticalities for a second and allow yourself to imagine the results. You’d have Thomas Tuchel fizzing around like he’d necked some Mentos and Coke or Sean Dyche sizing up his opponent with the confidence of Muhammed Ali facing Dot Cotton.

And that’s without mentioning Jose Mourinho and his below-the-belt tactics that’d make a Conservative politician blush. Sky Sports would pay a fortune to broadcast the footage.

But we’d sadly never see peak Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson redefining the word ‘box-office’ with their pettiness and absolute inability to admit defeat.

Their rivalry between 1996 and 2005 is well-documented and while Ferguson ultimately won the war, Wenger handsomely won plenty of battles – the biggest victory coming a week before Arsenal won the title at Old Trafford in 2002.

“What do you want me to say?” the Frenchman chuckled after hearing Ferguson claim United were the best side in England despite being 10 points behind the Gunners.

“Everyone thinks he has the prettiest wife at home.” Mic-drop.

Two hundred and ten miles away, Ferguson was incandescent at what he perceived as a dig at his wife, Cathy. The rest of the footballing world sniggered at Wenger’s impertinence and the line remains one of football’s ultimate put-downs.

By 2002, the rivalry had been bubbling away for some time. Wenger had only been in England for six months before securing a long-term lease in Ferguson’s subconscious.

After the Frenchman had questioned Ferguson’s influence over English football, the United boss erupted: “He has no experience of English football. He has come from Japan and now he is telling us how to organise our football.

“Unless you have been in the situation and had the experience, then he should keep his mouth shut – firmly shut.”

Round one to the purple-nosed one. Wenger replied by winning the double in 1998 and the rest of the country plumped up their cushions and reached for a bag of popcorn.

After an epic confrontation in 1999 which proved, if nothing else, that Ryan Giggs was the perfect face (or chest) of Carpet Warehouse, United won the next two league titles with ease and entered the 2001-02 season sitting snuggly on their perch.

Ferguson supplemented his championship winners with the signings of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastien Veron, which almost felt like bullying.

But United floundered in the defence of their title, with many observers blaming Ferguson’s decision to announce his retirement for removing the team’s focus.

And yet, despite an impressive post-Christmas recovery from their poor start, by March United found themselves being overtaken by an astonishing juggernaut of an Arsenal team.

Wenger’s men went undefeated after December 18, drawing just three times, and won their last 13 games despite Player of the Year Robert Pires succumbing to a cruciate injury in the run-in. 

Ferguson was helpless to stop Arsenal romping away with his trophy – but that didn’t stop him trying to destabilise Wenger.

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READ: A celebration of Alex Ferguson & Arsene Wenger’s ‘snood’ wars

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After a jibe at his refusal to share a glass of Pinot Noir after matches, which the Frenchman brushed aside imperiously – “Maybe next time I see him, I’ll buy him a bottle of whisky” – Ferguson reportedly submitted a bid for Patrick Vieira.

Wenger accused Ferguson of “not really respecting the rules” in approaching Vieira but otherwise didn’t take the bait.

In desperation, the United boss metamorphosed into a Master Troll after elimination from the Champions League semi-finals by Bayer Leverkusen.

“We’re as good as anyone,” said Ferguson. “We have played the best football in England, scored the most goals. From Christmas, we have been the best team in the country.”

If anyone was left in doubt about the dig’s intended target, Ferguson later clarified: “They [Arsenal] are scrappers who rely on belligerence. We are the better team.”

By now, the Arsenal boss had relaxed into his own skin. With a little smile playing across his lips, Wenger was capable of producing some terrific one-liners and delivered one of football’s ultimate slam-dunks as Arsenal homed in on the title.

And, upon being informed of Ferguson’s remarks, he allowed an incredulous laugh to pass his lips before delivering a line of tinder-dry brilliance.

For those with a smidgen of nuance, the Arsenal boss had simply observed that people aren’t always objective about something close to your heart.

He’d used the phrase before, referring to himself when asked whether Vieira was the best midfielder in the country. Of course he did, but then everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home.

Perhaps it was the patronising, infuriating, ruffling-of-the-hair nature of the remark that, when directed at Ferguson, transformed a philosophical point into an elite barb.

The Scot eventually regained his perspective and retracted his previous remarks, claiming his comments had been made “off the record”.

But the whole saga was the biggest endorsement for pre-match managerial weigh-ins imaginable.

When it came to peak Ferguson and Wenger, all bets would have been off. But the Arsenal man definitely won this particular bout.

By Michael Lee

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