Ask most people under the age of 30 about the rivalry that exists between Manchester United and Arsenal and they will no doubt reel off a list of clashes and misdemeanours as long as your arm involving Messrs Ferguson, Wenger, Keane, Keown and Van Nistelrooy, not to mention the odd pizza or two.
But any tension that has existed between these two giants of the game during the last 20 years or so can probably be traced back to events that took place a few years earlier – particularly one fiercely contested afternoon at Old Trafford.
In the autumn of 1990 and Arsenal were aiming for a second First Division title in three season having beaten Liverpool to the championship in epic circumstances during the final moments of the 1988/89 season; and they were now looking to become the dominant force in the English game under former Gunner and ex-Red George Graham.
United, on the other hand, had won the FA Cup the previous season having spent much of that campaign avoiding relegation and were showing little sign of becoming the powerhouse that we would become accustomed to over the next 25 years or so.
So when the two met on a grey day at Old Trafford, a huge crowd (for the time) of 47,000 turned up for a game that could make or break either club’s season. But even back then relations between the two clubs were far from friendly as a number of recent, high profile, clashes were still fresh in the memory of supporters and players alike.
Three years previously – in Alex Ferguson’s first match against Arsenal at Old Trafford – United’s 2–0 win, which ended the visitors’ 22-match unbeaten run in all competitions, would be overshadowed by Arsenal’s David Rocastle’s sending off for a foul on Norman Whiteside; leading to a confrontation between almost all of his teammates and the entire United coaching staff.
If that wasn’t enough, the following season the two teams were drawn against each other in the FA Cup fifth round at Highbury in a game which would pretty much herald the end of the season for whoever got knocked out despite only being early March .
With two minutes left and Arsenal winning 2–1, United were awarded a penalty that could have forced a replay, but Brian McClair blazed the penalty over the crossbar and high into the North Bank, much to the joy of Nigel Winterburn, who taunted the Scot and had to be dragged away by teammates.
So it’s fair to say the two teams had something of a history up to this point, but nothing in comparison with what was about to take place. Going into the game both clubs were in differing league form. United had lost three games already and were some way off leaders Liverpool, whereas Arsenal were sitting pretty in second place and ready to mount a challenge.
In what would be described today as a “must win” game, United started the brighter, but it was the visitors who took the lead through Anders Limpar just before half time after the late Les Sealey failed to prevent the ball crossing the line from something of an impossible angle.
And that was pretty much it when it comes to notable talking points in terms of footballing action, as everything else that occurred that day was eclipsed by an incident that would set the tone between the two sides for much of the next two decades.
In the 60th minute the afore mentioned Nigel Winterburn made a lunging tackle on full-back Denis Irwin which could be described as high to say the least.
In a flash, Brian McClair was on hand to not only defend Irwin, but also dish out a little retribution for the Arsenal man’s testicle grabbing exploits some three years’ previously; kicking him several times on the ground while Irwin joined in like a kid in the playground who knew that the harder kid had his back.
The melee escalated at a rapid pace with self-styled “Governor” and hard-man Paul Ince being projected into the advertising hoardings like a wrestler exiting over the top rope at Wrestlemania before entering the ring once again and taking no prisoners.
All 11 United players and 10 Arsenal men soon became involved, with only David Seaman remaining routed to his line. As many as three players from each team could, and probably should, have been sent off by referee Keith Hackett, who simply couldn’t keep up with what was happening around him.
While Irwin and McClair continued to kick-out at opponents willy-nilly Paul Ince dived on Limpar while Winterburn, Limpar and Paul Davis were the main skirmishers on the Arsenal side. The fighting lasted almost 30 seconds and when referee Hackett finally restored order, unbelievably, he cautioned just two players – Winterburn and Limpar.
Speaking some years later McClair talked of his horror at seeing how he had reacted at the time. “I tangled with Nigel Winterburn, and all hell broke loose,” he said.
“Within a few minutes the red mist had disappeared and I was looking round in disbelief. I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. The worst thing of all was watching myself on television behaving very badly.
“My perceptions had been so badly distorted by rage I hadn’t actually remembered what happened accurately. I was convinced that I’d only kicked Nigel once but that wasn’t the case at all.
“Archie Knox, the coach, could hardly contain his laughter when he watched it back with me. ‘What the hell came over you?’ he managed to gasp out when not rendered speechless with laughter.
“I couldn’t tell him because I honestly didn’t know myself.”
For the record, Arsenal won the game 1-0 but in the days that followed Arsenal knew they would bear the brunt of any FA punishment because they had been involved in a similar incident against Norwich the previous season, which lead to Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood swiftly acknowledging that what had happened at Old Trafford was unacceptable.
And in an unprecedented move, the board fined the manager, George Graham, and five players – Winterburn, Davis, Limpar, David Rocastle and Michael Thomas – two weeks’ wages.
Those inside Old Trafford were not so quick to react and the only punishment they dished out were fines for McClair, Irwin and Ince.
However, the FA, under huge pressure from UEFA after the game had been broadcast to 67 countries around the world, weren’t satisfied and summoned Hackett and officials from Arsenal and United for a full hearing. And after three hours of deliberation on November 12th they announced £50,000 fines for both clubs with Arsenal docked two points and United one.
Had this happened today a string of legal challenges and counter challenges would have ensued, but back in 1990 both teams took their punishment on the chin, and as it turned out it didn’t have a huge bearing on the outcome of the season.
The deduction put Arsenal some 8 points behind Liverpool, but they would still chase down the men from Anfield – ironically being awarded the League Championship trophy against United on the last game of the season – who in return gave them a guard of honour.
As for United the season was seen very much as a turning point, as they went on to lift the European Cup Winners’ Cup in Rotterdam, an achievement that is seen by many as the springboard for a quarter of a century of domination that was about to follow.
By today’s standards the infamous brawl in 1990 doesn’t seem that bad, but at the time it was the spark that ignited a very long fuse which would smoulder for years, to the extent that even now this encounter is still talked about by those who were there, as well as those who have only been told about the events of that day.