By the mid 90s, Arsenal’s Highbury clashes with Manchester United were taking on a distinctive flavour. For a period, publicity surrounding the game tended to revolve around Eric Cantona, whether he happened to be on the field or not. In 92-93, as the two teams battled out a 0-0 draw, the media seemed far more intrigued by the sight of United’s recently acquired Frenchman brooding under his eyebrows in the East Stand. During the following season’s match, as the two sides fought out a 2-2 draw, Cantona was sent off for a foul on Tony Adams – his second dismissal in a week.
The first clear indication that relations between the two clubs were turning frosty occurred in the February 97 Highbury clash when Ian Wright – who’d not scored against United – and Peter Schmeichel locked horns. In the fifth minute, both went in feet first for a fifty fifty ball, and the ball punctured. Late on in the game, with Arsenal 2-1 down, and the referee having already blown his whistle to indicate offside, Wright launched a two footed lunge on the Danish keeper which sent him spinning round in pain. Wright could so easily have been red carded. Instead, the referee waved the yellow in Wright’s direction, and the Arsenal striker became embroiled in an ugly altercation with United skipper Roy Keane. Arsenal lost the match, extinguishing any lingering hopes they had of landing the title in Wenger’s first season.
With Sky now hyping the match, and concluding that Arsenal were a potential threat to United’s crown in years to come, the personality clash between Wenger and Ferguson grew. “He (Wenger) should spend more time trying to control Ian Wright’s temper than talking about United,” claimed Ferguson after Wenger suggested that the fixture list could be tinkered with to suit Ferguson’s team. Steve Morrow recalls: “The clash between Wright and Schmeichel was the sequel to that between Winterburn and McClair. Both had really competitive streaks, with Scmeichel taking it as a personal affront if a striker scored against him, and Wright irritated that he couldn’t get one over on him.”
Fergie put a consoling arm around Ryan Giggs, before doing what he always does after he’s lost. He spat his chewing gum out in disgust onto our pitch. Our beautiful croquet lawn. I hope they bloody made him pick it up.
As the Gunners prepared to take on United in November 97, Ferguson’s side was still struggling to come to terms with the loss of Cantona, who’d retired during the close season. The striker signed to fill the void was Teddy Sheringham, who was about to become a figure of hate at Highbury. Arsenal fan Ian Jessop says: “Of all United’s players over the years who we’ve given stick to, it’s Sheringham we hated the most. Why? Well for a start the guy used to play for Tottenham, so straight away, he’ll always get the ‘Tottenham reject’ thing. Secondly, he went public and told as many people as cared to listen that ‘I hate the Arsenal.’ He actually said that! I know you want honesty, but after that, he was always going to get grief at Highbury. And secondly, the bastard always used to score against us. Spurs, United, Pompey….he was always bloody well there, a bit like Robbie Fowler used to be for Liverpool. And finally, and I suppose you’ll have to print this. He’s not a bad player, is he? You don’t give grief to really crap players, apart from Danny Mills, of course!”
As Arsenal took the field, they trailed United by four points. The media was in general agreement that United would win, and therefore open up a substantial lead in the Premiership race. With Petit and Bergkamp suspended, and Ian Wright’s form spluttering, the omens didn’t look good for Arsenal. Christopher Wreh, who later came on as a substitute, recalls: “We’d slipped a bit recently, and we knew the United match was the big one. It’s when you need your top players to perform. Despite all the new foreign players, there was still the English defence, who’d seen and done it all. You need that kind of experience going in to a game like that. We had to be at our best. What dumbfounded me was the atmosphere at the match. I’d been led to believe that Arsenal Spurs clashes were the games, but games against United were something else entirely. The United players ran towards the Clock End and prepared to warm up.
Even Paul Dermott, a Clock End regular for thirty years, was amazed by the vitriolic abuse handed out to United players: “It was the most ferocious I’d ever heard Highbury. Schmeichel led the United players over, and everyone in the Clock End, it seemed, booed him and made the wanker sign at him. Most of us were chanting ‘Peter Scmeichel is a wanker, is a wanker.’ Then, from over my shoulder, something was launched. It hit him on the shoulder and burst all over him. I later found out it was a bag of chips. Then, when the teams were announced, Sheringham’s name was mentioned. Right on cue, the entire ground was chanting ‘Oh, Teddy, Teddy. You went to Man United and you’re still a cunt.’ It must have gone on for about five minutes. The big screens also played their part, closing in on Fergie. Whoever was in charge knew what they were doing, because now he got the bird off the crowd. ‘Fuck off Fergie, fuck off Fergie…’ He quickly glanced at the screen, knew he’d been ‘had’ and looked dead straight ahead of him, tight lipped. I wouldn’t say it was big, or clever, for that matter, but it was an unforgettable atmosphere.”
"And finally, and I suppose you’ll have to print this. He’s not a bad player, is he? You don’t give grief to really crap players, apart from Danny Mills, of course!"
The Gunners tore into a sluggish United from the first minute. Two pile drivers from Patrick Vieira (he tore knee ligaments during the celebration) and Nicolas Anelka (his first Arsenal goal) put Arsenal into a 2-0 lead. “We started off like a tornado, and United didn’t know what had hit them,” recalls Christopher Wreh. “A lot of the foreign boys were looking at each other thinking ‘Welcome to English football,’ because the crowd, at that point was in total uproar. But you always know that a side like United will hit back at some point, and by half time they were level.” Somehow inevitably, it was Teddy Sheringham who’s brace of goals made it 2-2. After his second goal, he kissed his shirt, and ran towards the North Bank laughing. Four fans made complaints to stewards, and one supporter reported the matter to the police. North Banker Tom Lewis recalls: “Much as I disliked Sheringham, I can’t understand people who do that sort of thing. If you’re gonna call a guy ‘a cunt’ all match, he’s going to na-na in your face when he exacts revenge. I don’t know if it’s symptomatic of how things are going with the country’s blame culture, but fans who report players for making gestures should think a bit more carefully about what they have done to warrant a player behaving like that. I know that he got some verbal abuse from Arsenal fans in the streets because of the Spurs and United connection. I can’t understand the mentality of people who do that to players in the street. For the ninety minutes they’re on the pitch though, anything goes!”
The match reached its fulminating climax when David Platt headed in from a late corner. As the ex England captain wheeled away, he motioned for his team mates to follow, and they proceeded to pile on top of him in celebration. Platt, released by United as a youngster, was hardly a crowd favourite at Highbury due to his poor form, but on this occasion, he was the undisputed hero. There was still time for United to pour forward in search of a late equaliser, and for Christopher Wreh to miss, in his words, “…an absolute sitter. The ball came in late to me, and I knew I had a real chance to beat Schmeichel, and to make a real name for myself. But I flapped at the ball, and somehow dragged it wide when it looked easier to score. The crowd wasn’t too happy with me, but luckily the final whistle went soon afterward anyway. If we’d lost, we’d have been seven points behind United. As it was we only trailed them by a point. The confidence sides take from beating teams like United cannot be overestimated, although ironically, we didn’t really play consistently well until the New Year. But the win against United made all the difference at the end of the season. Games against them were turning into the proverbial six pointers.”
As the teams trooped off, Paul Dermott noticed that the screens once again zoomed in on Alex Ferguson. “The crowd started to give him grief again. He put a consoling arm around Ryan Giggs, before doing what he always does after he’s lost. He spat his chewing gum out in disgust onto our pitch. Our beautiful croquet lawn. I hope they bloody made him pick it up. Then, with a cursory glance back at the jubilant fans, he muttered something. I’m sure the phrase had the words ‘fucking’ and ‘wankers’ in it. Although there was no physical confrontation, the match showed that we had the team and the stomach to match United that season.”
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