The Battle of the Buffet
On Monday night, Arsenal visit Old Trafford to take on a Manchester United side that are still unbeaten in the Premier League this season. Due to their unconvincing form, Sir Alex Ferguson's side have been dubbed 'The Crap Invincibles' in ironic homage to the Arsenal side that went the season unbeaten in 2003-04. However, six years ago, it was at Old Trafford that Arsenal's 49-game unbeaten run eventually came to an end in a poisonous game that became known as 'The Battle of the Buffet'.
Arsenal and Manchester United did not always settle their differences via the medium of food. In 1990, a more unforgiving era, boots and fists were the weapons of choice in a 21-man brawl - dubbed 'The Battle of Old Trafford' - that resulted in both clubs being deducted points by the Football Association. In the context of such a history of violence between two old foes, a mere abuse of catering facilities might seem trivial, farcical even.
But this was much more than just a storm in a soup bowl, or a pizza box. A 2-0 defeat on October 24, 2004, saw the Arsenal Invincibles surrender their proud record at the home of their great adversaries, and as melted cheese dripped from the face of Sir Alex Ferguson following a post-match food fight, Arsenal's veneer of impermeability also slipped away. This was the end of the brief reign of a truly great side that burned so, so brightly.
Surveying the depth of talent and strength of spirit within his squad during the 2002-03 season, Arsene Wenger first ventured the opinion that his side were capable of going an entire league season unbeaten - a feat that only Preston, in 1889, had achieved before. Doing so invited ridicule from the national press, but in the very next season, Arsenal did achieve immortality when winning 26 and drawing 12 of their 38 league games. It was a unique achievement in the modern era.
Arsenal also accomplished this feat in considerable style. With the deadly Thierry Henry at the peak of his powers, and ably supported by the refined, cerebral talents of Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp, the Gunners glided their way into the history books, and went on to surpass Nottingham Forest's 42-game unbeaten league record the following season when winning 4-1 away at Norwich on August 28, 2004. The great Brian Clough recognised the scale of the achievement, declaring, in his inimitable style that it was "nothing short of incredible". He added: "I'm loath to confess they could be as good as us. They are brilliant. It sticks in the craw a little bit because nobody likes Arsenal! Of course there's a Frenchman in charge, Wenger, and not many English people like Frenchmen."
Arsenal's next milestone was to bring up the unbeaten half-century, an honour usually reserved for practitioners of cricket, and fate decreed game 50 would come against a team that certainly subscribed to Clough's view of Arsenal's dubious popularity - Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. This would not be a celebratory occasion.
Though the passage of time - coupled with the rise of Chelsea and Arsenal's subsequent decline - has since withered the rivalry between Ferguson and Wenger, to the extent that they now exist in a state of tenuous mutual appreciation, it should not be forgotten that at this juncture of Premier League history, theirs was a rivalry infused by intense dislike.
From Ferguson welcoming Wenger's arrival in the Premier League by declaring that "he's a novice - he should keep his opinions to Japanese football" to Wenger's infamous dig that "everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home" after winning the title in 2002, this was a grudge borne of intense competition. Ferguson and Wenger were the dominant figures in Premier League football, and their combative teams needed little encouragement to foster the feud on the pitch.
Indeed, just 12 months prior to their meeting in October 2004, the two clubs were involved in one of the most shameful incidents seen in the Premier League, with Arsenal the guilty party. In game eight of Arsenal's run of 49, a failed penalty from Ruud van Nistelrooy in the dying minutes of a 0-0 draw attracted a petulant reaction from the Arsenal team. Martin Keown, eyes wide in manic delight, leapt on the United striker, who was also assailed by Lauren.
The Arsenal squad had been angered by Van Nistelrooy's role in Patrick Vieira's previous dismissal, and the Football Association hammered the club for their distasteful act of vengeance. Arsenal were fined £175,00 for failing to control their players, while Lauren was banned for four games, Keown three, and one each for Ray Parlour and Vieira. This was the toxic context in which the events of 2004 took place, and the issue was given prominent billing in the build-up to the game in October.
Questioned about Arsenal's behaviour the previous year, Ferguson insisted prior to the game: "They got away with murder. What the Arsenal players did was the worst I have witnessed in sport." Wenger rose to the bait, replying: "Maybe it would be better if you have put us up against a wall and shot us all. I hope that he will calm down."
Any hopes for peace in our time on the day of the game were seriously misguided. In a tense and venomous atmosphere, the game exploded on 73 minutes when Wayne Rooney, on his 19th birthday, spotted an extended leg from Sol Campbell and fell to the ground. Arsenal were incensed - replays showed there was little to no contact - but Van Nistelrooy was handed a chance at redemption, and he warmly accepted when slotting the ball past Jens Lehmann. In the dying seconds, Rooney - who famously launched himself into the public consciousness with a stunning goal for Everton against the Gunners in 2002 - confirmed his status as Arsenal's bête noire with the goal that finally killed off the club's unbeaten record.
Having been brought to their knees at the home of their great rivals, their unbeaten run reduced to rubble, Arsenal were not ready to go quietly. What followed next is the stuff of legend, and no little mystery. After the two sides trooped off the pitch, with a bitter Campbell refusing to shake Rooney's hand, trouble erupted in the tunnel. In scenes befitting a fractious childrens' party, a food fight erupted, and Ferguson was cast in the role of an exhausted parent, his club suit becoming collateral damage in a war waged by petulant pre-teens.
Eager reporters, revelling in the farcical nature of the confrontation, debated the nature of the food that soiled Ferguson's suit, the Daily Telegraph opting for tomato soup and the Daily Mirror placing itself firmly in the pea camp. Of even more intrigue was the identity of the player who, with unerring aim, hurled a slice of pizza that smacked Ferguson square in the face. His identity still remains secret, though fingers have been pointed at Cesc Fabregas - a 17-year-old non-playing substitute on the day, who would display a similarly precocious appreciation of space and trajectory when he began to assume control of the Arsenal midfield over the coming months and seasons.
Though Fabregas has never been formally identified, Ashley Cole artfully reduced the number of possible subjects in his spectacularly misguided autobiography, My Defence. In 2006, Cole wrote: "This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the mush. The slap echoed down the tunnel and everything stopped - the fighting, the yelling, everything. All eyes turned and all mouths gawped to see this pizza slip off that famous puce face and roll down his nice black suit. All I can say is that the culprit wasn't English or French, so that should narrow it down."
Though Wenger, typically, claimed "I haven't seen it" at the time, details of the fracas were also divulged by Ferguson in February 2005, as he embarked on a typically forthright dissection of his great rival. "In the tunnel Wenger was criticising my players, calling them cheats, so I told him to leave them alone and behave himself," Ferguson said. "He ran at me with hands raised saying, 'What do you want to do about it?' To not apologise for the behaviour of the players to another manager is unthinkable. It's a disgrace, but I don't expect Wenger to ever apologise - he's that type of person."
As well as turning his ire towards Ferguson in a wholly untypical way (and presumably with all the menace of a librarian reprimanding a noisy patron), Wenger had also levelled accusations at Van Nistelrooy that called into question the Dutch striker's professional attitude: "We know how Van Nistelrooy behaves. He can only cheat people - we know him very well." The match official would not escape his wrath either, as Wenger added: "[Mike] Riley decided the game, like we know he can do at Old Trafford. We were robbed. There was no contact at all for the penalty, even Rooney said so."
Wenger's outburst resulted in a verdict of improper conduct, while Van Nistelrooy pleaded guilty to "serious foul play" after video evidence emerged of a nasty foul on Ashley Cole. Punishment and blame was apportioned on both sides, and the fallout could have been more severe had the FA not ruled that a "dossier" of evidence submitted by United was inadmissible as it fell outside the governing body's 48-hour limit for reviewing incidents. It was believed United had detailed tackles from Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp that they felt were worthy of further scrutiny.
The intense rivalry was now simmering menacingly, and with a Carling Cup tie between the two clubs on the horizon on December 1, the FA sought to hold summit talks between both parties in order to end the feud. League Managers Association chief executive John Barnwell described the cup game as "a great opportunity to heal the wounds. If you don't face up to these issues then they can be allowed to fester". After David Dein sat down with his United counterpart David Gill at the end of October, the Arsenal vice-chairman insisted: "The clubs have spoken [again] at the highest level and agree the matter is now closed."
Arsenal lost 1-0 at Old Trafford in a battle of two reserve sides in the Carling Cup, but in the next proper meeting of the two teams, a league tie at Highbury on February 1, 2005, Dein's declaration that "the matter is now closed" was proved to be demonstrably false. Before the game had even kicked off, and in the tunnel again no less, Roy Keane went for Patrick Vieira after his long-time rival had attempted to intimidate Gary Neville, jabbing his finger menacingly at the Frenchman and declaring "I'll see you out there". In the fractious relationship between Vieira and Keane, Wenger and Ferguson, and Arsenal and Manchester United at that time, normal service had been resumed.
What happened next? Arsenal won the battle that season, defeating United in the FA Cup final, but lost the war. A great team died at Old Trafford, amid a hail of soup and pizza, as the psychological blow of surrendering their record to United lay heavy on an Arsenal side that would shed key performers in successive summers. While United claimed the league title in 2007, 2008 and 2009, Arsenal have not won a solitary trophy since that FA Cup, Vieira's last game for the club.