Satuday 29 August ~
Not so long ago the meeting of Manchester United and Arsenal would bring the blood of their managers, players and fans to boiling point. The intensity of the rivalry was typified by two combustible bosses and played out by fiery teams led by Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, men who revelled in spitting venom at each other. But as new, rich and free-spending heavyweights have broken the two clubs' stranglehold over the league's top positions, their once fraught rivalry has mellowed into a respectful appreciation.
Gone are the days when Sky Sports would place a camera in the tunnel before the game and wait for the taunts to fly. In perhaps their most famous exchange, Keane was physically restrained from reaching for Vieira by referee Graham Poll. The referee later admitted that he should have sent off the two players before the game had even begun. The furious Keane had to settle for warning Vieira that he would see him “out there on the pitch”.
In another piece of calculated rage, Keane picked on Vieira’s national allegiances before they marched on to the turf. Referring to the Arsenal captain’s charity work in his African birthplace, Keane asked: “If you love Senegal so much, why don’t you go play for them?” Vieira advised his rival that any man who walks out on his country in the World Cup should keep his mouth shut on such matters. It is difficult to imagine Michael Carrick or Cesc Fabregas leading such a spiteful charge, despite the latter's role in the more recent “Pizzagate” bust-up.
The rivalry between the clubs has moved on, leaving the old battleaxes to speak almost wistfully of the exchanges. A nostalgic Vieira remarked recently that he had “big respect” for Keane, claiming his old adversary was a fair player and the best he had competed with while playing in England. Since retiring Keane has been similarly gushing in his love for the Arsenal games of old.
While their captains have moved on and gained perspective on the rivalry, Arsène Wenger and Alex Ferguson have remained at the helm of their clubs and still managed to steer their relationship to gentler waters. The most battled of all battleaxes in Premier League football have become almost cosy in each other’s company. Ferguson, who once thought fit to call Wenger a “novice who should keep his opinion to Japanese football”, was full of praise and “mutual respect” for his counterpart in the wake of their meeting in the Champions League semi-finals last season.
The reality has dawned for Wenger and Ferguson that they share many more similarities than differences. As the two longest serving managers in the league they have built their clubs from top to bottom, forming them in their own image. Their sides now resemble each other more than their managers would ever have cared to admit. Ferguson and Wenger have both cultivated squads infused with youth, speed and passing skill. Wenger has followed Ferguson in overseeing a regeneration of his club's home in a bid to extend their revenue. And Ferguson has followed Wenger in his concentration on diet and scientific methods.
Perhaps the most telling similarity between the two managers is now emerging in the clubs’ balance sheets. As Michel Platini announced yesterday that Europe’s elite clubs have three years to live by their own financial means or risk expulsion from the Champions League, the pair can reflect with satisfaction on their prudent transfer dealings. While the Arsenal manager ran his team at a profit for some time, it seems Ferguson has taken Wenger’s lead in his most recent transfer business.
By eschewing his expensive targets and earning a profit of over £50 million this summer, Ferguson has joined his rival in preparing for Platini’s “financial fair play” campaign. As Ferguson seeks to manage a progressive football club that earns enough to compensate for the debts of the Glazer family, he knows where to look for inspiration.