Fergie v Wenger: A bitter feud that gripped the Premier League
The nine-year war between Arsenal and Manchester United defined a whole era
Arsene Wenger of Arsenal argues with Alex Ferguson of Manchester United during a clash in 2004. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images
The Premier League is the richest league in the world but money cannot buy hate. English football is crying out for an immense, sprawling rivalry between two great teams. There have been some interesting conflicts in recent times but nothing close to the epic nine-year war between Arsenal and Manchester United from 1996 to 2005.
It’s the rift that keeps on giving. Five years after ITV’s memorable Keane & Vieira: Best of Enemies, Channel 5 is to broadcast a documentary on the broader rivalry between the sides, and especially the managers. Fergie v Wenger: The Feud (Monday 10pm) is an exhilarating hour of time travel that includes interviews with more than a dozen players, coaches and journalists – and a series of clips that instantly evoke the nuclear intensity of the time.
The rivalry ached with such importance, from the football field to the school playground, as to make a pacifist throw the first punch. It included everything from allegations of racism by Ian Wright against Peter Schmeichel to a pizza fight. There was also the Battle of Old Trafford, when Arsenal’s players manhandled Ruud van Nistelrooy after the final whistle; Roy Keane literally offering Patrick Vieira outside during a legendary row in the Highbury tunnel; and Jaap Stam being restrained by half of Highbury as he rumbled towards Vieira with extreme prejudice. “It’s funny,” Paul Scholes says. “In team talks against Arsenal, the ball was rarely mentioned.”
That does not mean it was rarely used. The quality of football was through the roof, even if that is sometimes obscured by memories of the rucks and rows. There had never been such technical quality in English football, and the FA Cup semi-final replay of 1999, featured in depth in the programme, has an outstanding case for being the greatest game ever played in England.
There are forgotten classics too, such as a primal 1-1 draw at Old Trafford on a filthy Wednesday night in 1999 and United’s 2-1 win at Highbury later that year, when both teams created an endless stream of chances in a first half that flowed like basketball.
Some of the matches will never be forgotten. Arsenal won the league at Old Trafford in 2002 (and, effectively, in 1998). United beat Arsenal 6-1 in 2001, when Arsène Wenger went postal in the dressing room at half-time, and ended their 49-game unbeaten run in a bitterly controversial match in 2004 – a savage injustice from which Arsenal never truly recovered. “If you don’t feel pain when you’re being conned,” Sol Campbell says, “when are you gonna feel pain?”
Both teams frequently took the moral high ground, often at the same time. With United and Arsenal the only teams to win the league from 1996 to 2004, the rivalry had a chance to develop and intensify. There were some monumental losses of temper from both managers and a set of characters on both sides – winners bursting with personality – that any scriptwriter would kill for.
The Feud neatly conveys the mass of contradictions in a rivalry that simultaneously bred hate and respect (when United won that immense FA Cup semi-final in 1999, Lee Dixon and Tony Adams dragged themselves into the tunnel to shake the hand of all their opponents and wish them well in the final).
The players on both sides get on well these days, the experience of sharing punditry studios helping them realise how much they have in common. Yet this documentary dredges up plenty of competitive fire. Scholes, a superb Phil Neville and Martin Keown get in plenty of digs, and Keown is magnificently unrepentant about the incident with Van Nistelrooy.
The extreme masculinity may offend some but those who prefer a bit of needle in their sport will probably love every minute of a superb documentary. The war between Arsenal and United is seen as a symbol of a good old days, yet there is more to it than that. It was a finite window in a rapidly changing world where the values and intensity of Old Football met the skill and diversity of New Football to produce a biblical struggle. Old Football is gone, so it can never happen again.
In many ways, The Feud is a love letter to two men. Wenger 1.0, the imperturbable outsider who showed English football that the future is also a foreign country; and especially Alex Ferguson, the emphatic genius who outlasted Wenger to win multiple titles after Arsenal started to fade. He had a degree in people – “He’s the only person who understood me better than me,” Andy Cole says – and an addiction to competition. “The Gaffer loved a challenge,” says Steve McClaren, who was Ferguson’s assistant from 1999 to 2001. “He had to have somebody to fight. He had to have somebody to complain about. Arsenal. Arsenal. ARSENAL. WENGER!”
Each defined the other for a decade; it was the same with their teams. The signature achievements – United’s Treble and Arsenal’s Invincible season – were only possible because a Dutchman missed a last-minute penalty against them for their greatest rivals: Dennis Bergkamp in 1999 and Van Nistelrooy in 2003. It’s an apt reflection of a rivalry in which every achievement was heightened by the quality and hatred of the opponent. Without each other they would have won so much more – but the triumphs would not have been nearly as sweet.
Fergie v Wenger: The Feud, Monday 23 April, 10pm, Channel 5