Martin Keown has reflected on previous clashes between Arsenal and Manchester United, two teams at the peak of their powers and going all out to win silverware.
Arsenal vs Manchester United was the Premier League’s fiercest rivalries in the late 90s and early 2000s and produced a number of heated moments on and off the pitch. One of those moments would come to be known as “pizza-gate“, as one of the Arsenal players threw a pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson. That played turned out to be Cesc Fabregas.
Fabregas claimed he saw Keown throwing punches in the tunnel after that game, but the former defender has corrected him. “Sorry Cesc, I wasn’t at Old Trafford when you flung the pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson… but I wish I had been!” Keown wrote in his column for the Daily Mail.
“Often memories of these titanic clashes merge into one. Maybe he assumed that because there was a melee I must have been there, but I had already left Arsenal for Leicester.” Keown went on to discuss the psychological advantage United had over the rest of the Premier League, and the ways they would pressure the referee.
“These were two teams at the peak of their powers. United won the Treble in 1999 but that year, head-to-head, I felt we were as good if not better than them.
“Where they had the edge was their ability to beat everyone else. Such was their psychological hold over the rest of the Premier League that to beat them you had to play them at their own game.
“I remember seeing Sir Alex give the referee the hairdryer treatment during United’s victory over us in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final. From then on, it was always in the back of my mind that I needed to intervene if I saw him go near the officials.
“United’s players also had a habit of crowding the referee and I wanted to make sure we matched their numbers.”
Sometimes, games between the two teams became near impossible for referees to control. A fracas in the 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in 2003, which famously saw Keown have a go at Ruud van Nistelrooy for allegedly diving to win a penalty, was one of the more memorable confrontations.
However, Keown has stressed that it was never personal, and there there was always a level of respect between the two teams. “In the 801 games I played for club and country I only saw punches thrown in the tunnel on two or three occasions — and one of them was during a game between Arsenal and United,” he added.
“But when I look back, there was always a level of respect between us. United beat us in the FA Cup semi-final in 2004, six months after I had clashed with Ruud van Nistelrooy at Old Trafford.
“I saw him in the tunnel before the game and told him that the incident had not been personal. I’d simply been caught up in the heat of a battle between two great adversaries.”
Arsenal welcome Manchester United to the Emirates Stadium at the start of December.