The forgotten moment the Arsenal v Man Utd rivalry peaked & went full WWE extreme rules
It’s died down somewhat alongside the demise of each club in the last decade or so, but the Arsenal vs Manchester United rivalry was once one of the very best in football – for all the right and wrong reasons.
Football derbies and rivalries are usually born out of an unrelenting sense of tribalism and bragging rights, often leading to derbies between two clubs trying to share the same city or regional area.
That’s what set Arsenal and United apart from the rest, though. It was so deep that it went beyond territory or bragging rights; just two teams absolutely determined to prove that they were the very pinnacle of English football, and stopping at nothing to achieve it.
And we mean nothing. It’s like they were following an entirely different rulebook at times. Remove the football from the pitch and you’d be mistaken for thinking you were watching a blood feud culminating at WrestleMania.
Following the early years of the Premier League where Sir Alex Ferguson’s United had established their dominance in the 1990s, they were greeted with unwelcome opposition come the turn of the millennium.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal had kicked into gear and now looked like a side ready to disrupt the Red Devils’ reign of terror for good. The French manager announced himself in 1997-98 by denying United a third consecutive league title, and one that could’ve ultimately seen them win the division six times in a row should they have lifted it.
One title wasn’t enough for Wenger’s Gunners, though. In the 2000s, they pushed hard. They did everything they could to unsettle Ferguson’s side and built a team that pushed and pushed until the two tipped over the edge.
After United had won their third consecutive league title for the first time ever in 2000-01, their dominance over the league finally came to an end the following season. Wenger’s men would knock them off their perch once again, going to Old Trafford in the penultimate game of the season and beating United to clinch the title.
Now the Red Devils were pissed off. Arsenal had strolled into their backyard and whisked their title away from them, sticking up a middle finger on the way out. And we loved it.
After winning four in five during the second half of the 1990s, United would only lift the Premier League title twice in the first half of the 2000s, and after reclaiming the crown in 2003, would not get to hold it again until 2007.
We can recall countless moments between the two sides – Arsenal’s Old Trafford win in 2001, the Battle of Old Trafford in 2003, where Martin Keown was seemingly a whisker away from sinking a left hook into Ruud van Nistelrooy’s jaw, we could go on.
But we might’ve found the point where the fierce rivalry quietly peaked. The 2003 Community Shield, where the two sides faced off, but barely bothered to try and win the game legally.
Arsenal vs Manchester United, 2003 Community Shield.
No football, just crunching tackles and vibes. Box office.pic.twitter.com/ZJpxnX2wQO
— Planet Football (@planetfutebol) September 2, 2023
Absolute carnage. And we love it.
Vieira on his arse inside 30 seconds, right in front of the dugouts. Fizzer Neville out of the traps like a rabid wolverine. Booked.
Ashley Cole getting revenge a minute later, taking it out on Nicky Butt. Sends him flying. Booked. That’s it though, then, Cole-ey’s head had gone. He’s hot.
The game finally settles and for 20 minutes or so we get something more akin to a football match and less so a WWE first blood match. Until Cole goes in on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, misses the ball in a 50-50 and swings a nasty kick his way.
In today’s game, he’d have been watching the rest of the game from the dressing room. Not here though. Referee’s letting it breathe a bit. Absolutely brilliant.
Paul Scholes gets in on the act after that, getting revenge for Solskjaer with a textbook cruncher in the middle of the park. You get the theme here. More needle than a doctor’s office.
Two minutes of pure, unbridled chaos that you can often only find in some of football’s most fierce derbies around the world. And yet here Arsenal and United were, two clubs separated by 161 miles and with no reason to hate each other beyond wanting to be the best, trying to literally kill one another in what is considered by most a pre-season fixture.
It all boils over in the 74th minute, though, when Francis Jeffers is the man shown a red card for booting Phil Neville in the head, after over an hour of the two sides literally kicking lumps out of each other in between trying to score goals.
Think it’s all over? Of course it isn’t. You’d have thought a late red would’ve settled the game, but less than 10 minutes later, Eric Djemba-Djemba was throwing kung-fu kicks towards Sol Campbell, who seemingly responded with a subtle spinning back kick of his own.
United would win 4-3 on penalties, but realistically none of us were bothered. We’d just witnessed a visual phenomenon and the peak of an incredibly hostile rivalry.
You just had to be there.
By Mitch Wilks