Man United set to say goodbye to longtime rival and worthy adversary Arsene Wenger
Ayia Napa, Cyprus, October 2002. Manchester United are to play Israeli side Maccabi Haifa in the Champions League, a game switched to the island because of the political situation in Israel. Few travelling fans complained and many booked hotels on the tourist resort of Ayia Napa, still basking in the autumnal Mediterranean sunshine.
On the main strip where dozens of bars attract thousands of young holidaying northern Europeans, an argument has broken out among a group of United fans.
"I really, really hate Wenger," fumed John, a well-known London Red. Arsenal were the Premier League champions and their manager Arsene Wenger had got so deep under John's skin that he poured out obscenities about the Frenchman rather than enjoying the sun, sea and football.
Wenger wasn't popular with most United fans. He was seen as ungracious and supercilious, but to be wasting time arguing over him was a compliment of sorts, since the Frenchman's chief crime was leading a football team to the title at the expense of Manchester United, who'd won the previous three. John had no reason to worry about Manchester City or Chelsea in 2002, since City weren't a Premier League team and Chelsea finished behind both Manchester United and Leeds United.
Arsenal and United were the top dogs in England, their rivalry an epic one between 1996-2004. The pair finished first and second in five of six seasons between 1998-2003 with United's Ruud van Nistelrooy and Arsenal's Thierry Henry the best two strikers in the league.
United fans may have considered Liverpool bigger rivals, but when I interviewed captain Roy Keane before the 2004-05 season, he begged to differ: "People mentioned the Chelseas, Liverpools and Newcastles pre-season but we have to be realistic. For me Arsenal are our biggest rivals. They have been our biggest challengers in the last 11 or 12 years. I know games against Liverpool, City and Leeds mean a lot to the fans and I can understand that, but Arsenal are our biggest challengers." Keane would never have dismissed Arsenal with the flippant "Lads, it's Arsenal" as he did about their neighbours Tottenham. Arsenal were too good for that.
Wenger was the main reason why, but if United fans had any begrudging respect for Wenger, they didn't show it. On the contrary, during a 2004 FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park against Arsenal, thousands of United fans sang such a vile song about Wenger that Sir Alex Ferguson stepped in and requested that they stop. Underdogs United won that game, stopping from Arsenal winning a double.
Wenger's record and longevity is only second to Ferguson's in modern British football, but Arsenal suffered more than any other club from the hundreds of millions poured into Chelsea and Manchester City. Wenger, like Ferguson, had his idea of what the transfer market was worth. A problem was that neither of them controlled the market and the influx of new money into it. The values they held about a player having to want to play for their club were being eroded by players wanting to play wherever the money was best.
Arsenal began to slide. They've not won the league since 2004 and the gripes of their fans about their manager have been aired frequently. Ferguson left football five years ago, the rivalry now but a memory, yet for all the feuds with Wenger, Ferguson's first words about him in his 1999 autobiography were to praise him for "deserving immense credit for integrating his English and foreign players into such a cohesive, powerful and highly motivated unit".
By the time of his second autobiography in 2013, there was an entire chapter entitled "Competing with Wenger". Again, Ferguson praises Wenger, conceding that he was "a completely different animal" on a match day. Like himself. "If we shared one characteristic it was an absolute hatred of losing," said Ferguson, who infamously accidentally kicked a boot into the face of David Beckham after losing a 2003 FA Cup tie at home to Arsenal.
Wenger would hardly have been delighted after his side's 49-match unbeaten league run came to an end at Old Trafford following a ferocious encounter in 2004. At least five United players were lucky to stay on the pitch that day following a ruthlessly aggressive approach to defend Arsenal. It worked and Arsenal long maintained that United benefitted from referee's decisions.
"Over my time in these game, I think we got the better decisions by the referees," said Phil Neville on The Feud: Ferguson vs Wenger, a documentary broadcast on Monday in the UK. "It was a big bugbear for the Arsenal players and Wenger, the way that referees favoured us. We were experienced, we knew how to play the referees, we knew what to say to them and the right time to put pressure on them. It's something they were learning, but we were probably the masters at it. Players crossed lines that they shouldn't have done -- and that came from the managers."
By the end of Ferguson's time, he and Wenger were on good terms. "We had survived together and respected each other's efforts to play good football. But we had conflicts down the years."
Didn't they just? Ferguson didn't like Wenger commenting on United's players, from Paul Scholes to the Nevilles (Phil and Gary), who he accused of "deliberately kicking" Jose Antonio Reyes in Old Trafford's infamous "Battle of the Buffet" match.
He hated Wenger's opinion on anything which he felt could adversely affect and influence Manchester United. And he thought him a hypocrite since the behaviour of Arsenal's players was hardly exemplary. Witness Martin Keown embarrassing himself by monstering Van Nistelrooy after missing a penalty.
The pair drove each other on incessantly and made each other better. Wenger was a threat to Ferguson, United's players didn't like Arsenal's players and vice versa. There were numerous incidents along the way to inflame the rivalry, from a pizza disgracefully thrown at Ferguson in the Old Trafford tunnel to epic battles and fights on the pitch.
As a United supporter, I feel privileged to have seen the great games between Ferguson's United and Wenger's Arsenal. The 1999 FA Cup semi-finals are two of the best games in the history of both clubs -- many players will say the best. They'll also say that Arsenal were the best team they played against.
Wenger has had applause from United fans before, as when he showed a rare moment of humour at Old Trafford in 2009 when sent to the stand after kicking a water bottle after an Arsenal goal was declared offside. Except Wenger had no reason to know the layout of Old Trafford's main stand and stood above the old tunnel, confused, with his arms outstretched. One of the United fans offered Wenger his glasses.
United fans will likely applaud Wenger after his final game as Arsenal boss at Old Trafford this Sunday -- and he'll deserve it. As for the London Red John, he can rest easy now that Wenger is leaving Arsenal, though he'll still have memories of when "The Professor" was such a thorn in United's side.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.