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  1. The big boys stand up to the bullies Just recently I watched a chat between Gary Neville and Thierry Henry over the famous Ruud Van Nistelrooy penalty miss and the aftermath with especially Martin Keown getting in the Dutchman’s face, and Neville wondered why Arsenal were so fired up. Henry responded that United were very physical that day and all the time. The crucial thing about that game was that United failed to beat Arsenal at home allowing Arsenal to remain unbeaten for the season. Roy Keane loved winding Patrick Vieira up To put it into perspective, Man Utd were easily Arsenal’s biggest rivals at that time. If Arsenal didn’t win the league, Utd did, simple as that. From Arsene Wenger’s first full season in charge in 1997/98 when he won the double until the Invincible season in 2003/2004, that’s what happened, 8 seasons and 2 teams locked together. That never happened before in English football and probably won’t happen again. What that intense physical rivalry did, though, was create the phenomenon that is the Premier league. It certainly looked like hate The two biggest hatreds were Ferguson and Wenger, and Vieira and Keane where the battles seemed non stop. The media loved it, stoking it up at every opportunity. The Red cards, Yellow cards, the wild tackles, the screaming in faces, the insults, the intimidation even in the tunnels, and a pizza being thrown by little Cesc Fabregas. Of the 2 teams, though, only Roy Keane and Martin Keown could conjure up that eyes popping, veins protruding, pure anger of a face that would send the Incredible Hulk running for cover. It was a violent circus with both sides only caring about one thing, beating the other. Scream louder, Martin, he can't hear you So, I decided to take a look at all matches from the time of Wenger to the Invincible season up to losing that tag at, where else, Old Trafford, and instead look at the card count for each match and see who were the winners there. I decided one goal for a yellow and 3 for a red. Now I should emphasise that there was a very strong belief at the time that Ferguson intimidated officials so much that Utd got treated leniently. Certainly before I went into checking this I can say I felt Utd were the most physical of the two, but that could be my Arsenal bias. Key: I will put Arsenal first every time whether home or away. Every match is Premier league except where stated. Arsene kept the intensity high All the matches And so the first match was in November 1996 at Old Trafford. Utd won 1-0 but we won 5-1 on cards with no reds. 5-1 Then February 1997 at home 2-1 Utd, and their first double over us. But we got the double on cards at 4-2 with no reds. 4-2 Then Nov 1997 at home 3-2 to us but a draw on cards 2-2. 2-2 Then March 1998 away and we did the double with one nil to the Arsenal and 3-2 on cards. 3-2 1998 Charity Shield and we hammered them 3-0 but they beat us on cards. 2-3 1998 September at home we again won 3-0 but lost on cards as Roy Keane got yellow but Nicky Butt got the first red of the sequence to give them 4 to our 2. 2-4 February 1999 away and 1-1 and a draw on both cards and goals. 2-2 April 1999 away FA cup 0-0 but we get our first red with Nelson Vivas to give us 4-2. 4-2 April 1999 again in the return at home and they beat us 2-1 and the snarling Roy Keane captures his first red card to give them 2-6 on cards. 2-6 The Charity Shield in 1999 and we won 2-1 but they got 2-3 on cards. 2-3 Shortly after we played them at home and were beaten 2-1 but they managed 1-4 on cards. 1-4 January 2000 at Old Trafford and a tame 1-1 with a gentleman’s game of only one card for Gille Grimandi. 1-0 October 2000 at Highbury and one nil to the Arsenal but Man Utd beating us at cards 2-3. 2-3 February 2001 Old Trafford and a horror show at 6-1 Utd. No cards though. 0-0 November 2001 League cup home and revenge at 4-0 but poor John Halls came on as sub and got a red to give us a 5-1 on cards. 5-1 November 2001 home and 3-1 this time but they beat us 2-3 on cards. 2-3 May 2002 and we beat them 1-0 at Old Trafford to secure the title but they won 2-4 on cards. 2-4 December 2002 Old Trafford and 2-0 to the Mancs but 2-1 to us on cards. 2-1 February 2003 FA cup Old Trafford 2-0 to us but 1-3 on cards. 1-3 April 2003 Highbury 2-2 but 3-2 on cards as Sol Campbell got sent off. 3-2 Charity Shield 2003 1-1 but Francis Jeffers got sent off for us giving us 5-3 on cards. 5-3 Old Trafford September 2003 our Invincible year and a feisty 0-0 match saw Patrick Vieira get sent off to give us 5-4 on cards. 5-4 March 2004 Highbury sees a 1-1 draw for both goals and cards. 1-1 April 2004 Villa Park FA cup semi-final and 1-0 Utd but we won 4-1 on cards. 4-1 And I will finish the sequence on our next match against them as they beat us 2-0 at Old Trafford in October 2004 to end our unbeaten spell in a match where we won the cards at 3-2. 3-2 We were the real bullies? I stopped it there as our time as Manchester United’s biggest rival was over. We haven’t won the league since. The money boys took over. One surprising aspect in all this is how few red cards there were. 4 to us and 2 to them. Alex Ferguson always had the refs in his sights So 59 card goals to the Red Devils and us? The mighty Arsenal? 67 putting us clearly in the lead as the dirtiest team in the sequence. 26 matches and 126 card goals equals almost 5 cards per game. I think that emphasizes the physical aspects to the contests. It always draws in the fans. The Premier league became the world’s Premier league, thanks, in large part, to the emergence of Arsenal as Ferguson’s first strong challengers. The battles on and off pitch were mesmerizing viewing for the punters and nowhere else could match. It is still the most fearsome rivalry in Premier league and First division history. Keane and Vieira never really made up although, perhaps surprisingly, Wenger and Ferguson did. They were the best of their time and loved snarling at each other. Up for the fight But come on, how many neutrals would feel that Arsenal were the dirtiest team, really? I suspect not many. Alex Ferguson did have a fearsome cachet that worked in his team’s favour. Refs were intimidated and it was widely believed that the intimidation worked. Ferguson always believed that any margin that he could get in his favour, he would make sure they did. My card analysis seems to backup that belief but we do have to remember one thing, Arsenal were a big strong team at the time. We had height everywhere, and we were certainly bigger than Man Utd. Wenger moved to smaller, less physical players when this team ran its course as did football fashion. Roy Keane - the most frightening face in football I can’t truly say whether we deserved this title during this period as I doubt if there was a more physically intimidating player than Mister Keane in all of the Premier league history. But he kept himself on the pitch for this fixture only going once at 74 minutes all the way back in 1999. He was probably afraid that Arsenal would kick poor Utd to pieces without him. And Fabregas didn’t throw the pizza at him. The only thing I can truly say with certainty is that rivalry defined the Premier league, had an intensity that I doubt if we will ever see again, and brought us to where we are now in football.
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