There was a time not too long ago when to be an Arsenal faithful meant that you hated Manchester United, and to be a Manchester United diehard meant that you detested Arsenal. This was the Premier League’s original and genuine rivalry, pure and fierce, natural and organic, unstained by history and untroubled by the proximity of arenas, a rivalry borne out of sheer competitiveness. It was part of the package that made Premier League weekends a blockbuster in India at the turn of the century, when European football was yet to entrench into the psyche and commercial spaces of the country. Without this rivalry, perhaps league football would have never dug its roots and spread its shadows in the country.
Peak United-Arsenal encounters were a multi-layered spectacle, a one-on-one bout that unfurled multiple dimensions and narratives. The storylines were so many that it matched El Clasico, a bust-up between two legendary managers, two visionaries who lifted the standards of Premier League football, one from the shipyards of Govan and the other from the vineyards of Alsace, one who had apprenticeship as a toolmaker at a factory in Hillington, and the other with a Masters degree in Economics. No managers have defined the Premier League as much as Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, the former farewelling his club in 2013 and latter five years later.
Benevolence marked their final years — praises and eulogies would be exchanged, but in the bitter heyday they would launch verbal salvos and avert each other’s gazes. Ferguson accused Wenger of confronting him with hands raised after Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Arsenal on October 24, 2005, the day the Gunners saw their 49-game unbeaten league run brought to an end. “It was an outrightly disgraceful behaviour,” Ferguson fumed. Wenger would retort: “Ferguson’s out of order. He has lost all sense of reality.”
Or just after Arsenal settled the 2001-02 deal beating United 1-0 at Old Trafford, Ferguson insisted that his side was still the better team. Wenger responded: “Everyone thinks he has the prettiest wife at home.”
Ferguson didn’t get the allusion and thought Wenger had slighted his wife. It fuelled their rivalry even more.
The players matched the managers’ verbal jousts with physical combativeness. To revisit those episodes would transport one back in time, to be gripped by wistful nostalgia, would make one feel younger and perhaps angrier, perhaps make one wonder how immature and insensitive one was in heady teenage or restless early adulthood.
Led by two of the fiercest characters on the field — football is too plastic and sanitised now to produce men of such indomitable personas — Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane, match-days were always heated affairs, replete with tunnel bust-ups, rough tackling, and invective-showers. “It’s just that they didn’t stab each other,” as Paul Scholes recollected. Not just Vieira and Keane, there was Ruud van Nistelrooy – a player about whom Vieira wrote in his autobiography, “Personally, I can’t stand the sight of van Nistelrooy. The man is a cheat and a coward” – and Martin Keown, Ashley Cole, Gary Neville, Ian Wright and Peter Schmeichel.
In the heat of the moment, pizzas and shoves flew, and it was, often, a gloriously bad-tempered rivalry.
Best against the best
It was once English football’s most important rivalry too —for it often decided the title, not just the result in isolation, but a defeat would dent the mood whereas a victory would fuel a title charge. Celebrations were manic, fans fought and brawled over bragging rights. But somewhere in the post-modern era of the Premier League, in its oligarchic days, the rivalry lost its relevance and primacy. It no longer featured the brightest managerial brains in the league, had no longer the toughest players in the competition, and hardly ever decided titles, rather faffing about in the middle reaches of the league.
Suddenly, there came a time when if you say that you are either a Manchester United or Arsenal tragic, it revealed your age and the era you grew up in. There came a time when supporters of both clubs empathised with each other, in their relatable fall from grace, in the collective frustration of their ordinariness. They would sit across the table, share a drink and reminisce about those days when they were monarchs of England football, and not count the titles and medals they had accumulated.
Then came a time of numb resignation to the reality the days of glory would never be recreated. Both stuttered and blundered, threw sporadic hints of revival, but every season ended with fans clutching to nostalgia and the glories of the past. There was no Ferguson or Wenger, Vieira or Keane. Perhaps there never would be as golden an era as their prime.
But 10 years after Ferguson’s last game and half as many years after Wenger bid farewell, there is finally a throwback Arsenal-United encounter on Sunday. The Gunners sitting comfortably at the helm, United pitted third and eight points adrift, meticulously gnawing away. The match might not decide the title, but could portend the league’s future. Perhaps not this season, but it seems not too distant a day when these two teams would be ferociously tussling for the title, when it could be an Arsenal-United duopoly again.
Mikel Arteta has carved a wonderfully choreographed and gifted young team – its average age is 24 – that could rule the league for several years. His counterpart Erik ten Hag has re-engineered a quick resurrection, instilled order and method into madness and chaos, the upgrade arriving faster than expected, and with more rebuilding planned, United could be a force in a season or two.
To draw other parallels, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are in deep mess; Liverpool in need of renewal; Manchester City not as invincible as they were in the last two seasons. It feels like the early aughts all over again.
Perhaps, as the wheels of destiny roll over, the time has come again for the most original rivalry of the Premier League era to revive, to not just roll in the grandeur and nostalgia of the past, but to dazzle in anticipation of the bright future their teams hold, and perhaps most refreshingly, to feel young again.