Saturday 10 December 2016

Ryan Giggs: Clashes between Keane and Vieira sum up why United against Arsenal was always the ultimate grudge match

Ryan Giggs

Published 19/11/2016 | 02:30

Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira clash at Highbury in 1999 during one of their many battles. Photo credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport
Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira clash at Highbury in 1999 during one of their many battles. Photo credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport

Back in my teens, when you signed schoolboy forms at 16 at Old Trafford the reward from the club would be two tickets for the directors' box. That was how I came to have a very good view of that 21-man brawl between Manchester United and Arsenal players on October 20, 1990.

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It is still the only game in which top-flight teams have been docked points for player misconduct - two in the case of Arsenal, one for United - and watching it unfold on the day I can only say I was transfixed.

Was this professional football as it was going to be? Or did the two clubs share a rivalry so intense that at times it was very close to being out of control?

Maybe I got a little sense that day of what much of my professional life as a United footballer was destined to be - locked in battle with Arsenal.

Thirteen years later, as a senior player at United, I travelled down to London with a young team-mate for a Football Association disciplinary hearing, the only one in my entire career, after another ruck with Arsenal at Old Trafford. My companion that day was an 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, in his first season in English football, and bewildered by the whole experience.

We had both got involved in the aftermath of Patrick Vieira's sending-off in a game in October, that preceded Ruud van Nistelrooy's penalty miss and Martin Keown's reaction and then all hell breaking loose. Did I deserve my £7,500 FA fine? Look, I might have kicked someone, and that someone might have been the Arsenal full-back Lauren, but that was not what annoyed me about our day in London.

What upset me was the way they treated Cristiano. He could hardly speak a word of English and the whole thing was very confusing to him. I told the FA's barrister his treatment of Cristiano was over the top and too harsh and that was extremely damaging for a lad who had the potential to go on to be a star.

Neither of us got a suspension. They fined Cristiano £4,000 although I'm pretty sure to this day that he has no idea why.

Perhaps it was just a United-Arsenal thing, because of all the teams I came up against in my career there was a long time when that fixture, which will be played at Old Trafford today, was the one that could define the season and, more often than not, decide the title race.

In those days, Arsenal's key man was Vieira. He was the kind of player you would much rather have in your team than against you but unfortunately we did not have that luxury. He was a leader on the pitch and part of a very strong spine of the team.

After we ended their 49-game unbeaten run at Old Trafford in October 2004, there was that famous televised row in the tunnel between Vieira and Roy Keane before the game at Highbury the following February.

As I recall it, Vieira had called it on with Gary Neville and Vieira had actually run into our changing room before the match to find Gary. When I came in from the warm-up there was already a conversation about this going on between Gary, Sir Alex and a few of the players.

It was around this time that Keaney had got wind of it, and decided he was going to do something about it. Most of what he said was caught on camera as the two teams lined up. If you listen closely to Keaney, it is not like he is ranting. OK, he is pretty angry but he has also put some thought into what he is saying.

Roy was intrigued by the notion that Vieira had projected this image of himself which he did not agree with. I think at some point Roy was shouting at Vieira about why, if he was so dedicated to Senegal, did he choose to play for France. He might have been angry but he was also looking for Vieira's weaknesses, trying to push the buttons that would affect his performance.

Either way, the thing about Keaney was that he could have that kind of row before a game but it would not affect his performance a single bit. As for the rest of us, we were so fired up. You could feel the electricity in the tunnel. No one on our side could wait for the game to start.

That was a good night for me: two assists for Cristiano and a goal myself in a 4-2 win.

At the end of that 2004-2005 season we lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal on penalties, Vieira's last game for the club and his last action was taking the winning penalty. I still don't know how we didn't win that match.

By then we were getting on top of Arsenal and even though we did not bring the FA Cup home, the party afterwards, normally a miserable affair if you have lost, had a different atmosphere to what might have been expected.

I guess it was because although we had not won the FA Cup, we could see that better times were around the corner with Cristiano and also Wayne Rooney, who had just played his first season in the side. For Arsenal, it would be another nine years until they won their next trophy.

Arsenal have always had wonderful footballers, and they still do. Sir Alex would say to us: "The way to beat them is not to try to play them at their game. Play them at yours."

So we would hit them with pace and power. Many things have changed at Old Trafford over the years but, this lunchtime, that tactic is unlikely to change. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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