<p><em>"I had a lot of hatred for Arsenal. They were our big rivals. In the week before that game, my body would be aching as it knew what was coming. I was going to suffer. This was war."</em></p>
Roy Keane’s abrasive words are a timely reminder of just how deeply the animosity resonated between the managers and players of Manchester United and Arsenal amid a glorious decade of Premier League football that saw the duo dominate the chase for domestic honours.
For nine years between 1996 and 2004, the ultimate prize in English football was shared between Alex Ferguson’s United and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, with the teams sharing five FA Cups between them during that same period.
This was a battle of serial winners that appeared to lift in intensity with each passing season, as the venomous animosity between the managers escalated the tension ahead of games that became as much a battle of wills as they did sporting contests.
Scores were settled in infamous clashes featuring some of the modern game’s true warriors, with the duels between United skipper Keane and his Arsenal counterpart Patrick Vieira etched into Premier League folklore as some of the greatest.
Who can forget Ryan Giggs’s FA Cup semi-final winner that sent United on their way to a historic treble in 1999 or Sylvain Wiltord famous winner that won Arsenal the title at Old Trafford in 2002.
There was Ruud van Nistelrooy infamous clash with Arsenal’s Martin Keown in 2003, the tunnel brawl between the two sides that is famous for Ashley Cole throwing pizza that landed on Ferguson and that is before the great goals and iconic flashpoints are thrown under the spotlight in a rivalry that helped to turn the Premier League into the global phenomenon it is today.
“This was more than just a football match, it meant much more than that,” reflects Vieira’s old midfield sparring partner Emmanuel Petit, as he sat down for an exclusive interview with the Sunday World.
“My first experience of what this match meant was in 1998, in a game that I always remember as being the most significant in my time at Arsenal,” says Petit.
“We had come out of the Christmas period a long way behind United with a lot of games in hand because of difficult circumstances and we needed to have a lot of wins before we went into this game at Old Trafford with a chance to catch them.
"By the time we got there, we were in a position where we could see them in front of us. We knew that if we win that game, the title would be in our hands and Marc Overmars scored the goal that changed everything for us as we won 1-0.
"We had to keep winning after that match to get the title, but the momentum had changed and everything felt like it was going in our favour. We also won the FA Cup final that season and Arsene Wenger had announced his arrival in English football."
The game Petit referred to halted United’s dominance of the English game and sparked a feud that was to simmer and boil over in the years that followed. Wenger’s first Premier League and FA Cup double inspired United to push for more the following season, with Teddy Sheringham’s reflections of the never-to-be-forgotten FA Cup semi-final replay at Old Trafford stirring the emotions for United fans.
"I could sense the change of mood around the club in the build-up to the games against Arsenal,” Sheringham said.
"I came into this rivalry when it was well underway, but as a former Tottenham player, their fans already hated me so it was easy to fit right in!
"My first game against them after I joined United in 1997 went great for me personally as I scored two goals, but they got a late winner and a defeat against them felt very different for the United players.
"You could see the manager in the dressing room after that game at Highbury. It hurt him and the attitude at that club was to fight back, which is what we did when we won the treble the next year, with Giggsy scoring his famous goal in the semi-final.
"That game defined the Treble winning season. We rode our luck, found a way to win and that was the story through to the end. Arsenal must have wondered how they ended that season with nothing. It summed it all up. This was a rivalry with a bit more to it as well. It went deep for the two managers and a lot of the players. We knew what was at stake and no-one wanted to give ground. That’s what made it so special."
Premier League seasons were defined by the outcome of the battle between the “big two”, with Petit suggesting the make-up of the players involved in those battles added to the drama.
"I look at the players I played with in my career and wow, they were amazing, but there were also so many fighters on the pitch," added the Paddy Power ambassador. "We are talking about guys who would give everything to win and you see less of these players now.
"These were big men on the pitch. Peter Schmeichel, Martin Keown, Patrick (Vieira), Roy Keane... you can continue this list. These are guys who never wanted to lose.
"I don’t see these fighters any more. Now, all we hear is guys talking about trying to win the Ballon d’Or or taking selfies to put on social media.
"Can you imagine if Roy Keane was in your dressing room and he saw you taking a selfie to put on your Instagram account?
"Maybe you would not leave that dressing room with your phone still working! This is not the kind of thing that motivated us in that time.
"You win a trophy, then you look for the next one. This was the attitude of Wenger and Ferguson and they didn’t let their players get distracted by things that don’t matter. It explains why Arsenal’s rivalry with United was not all about egos, but great players and great managers."
Liverpool’s battle to oust Manchester City from the top of the Premier League perch has the potential to challenge the United’s showdowns with Arsenal, but the current duel will only reach those levels if it ensures over the course of a full decade.
Much of the old spark will be missing when United and Arsenal’s Class of 2019 lock horns at Old Trafford tomorrow night, with the two foes not currently title contenders after several years of decline.
Yet when the book is written chronicling the greatest moments in the opening 100 years of the Premier League, United’s showdowns with Arsenal at the turn of the century will feature heavily.
Raw, emotive, passionate and featuring some of the best players to have graced the fields of the English game, this was a rivalry of the like we make never see again.
Emmanuel Petit spoke to the Sunday World in association with Paddy Power.