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There are forgotten classics
There are forgotten classics
The Premier League is the richest league in the world but money cannot buy hate. English football is crying out for an immense, sprawling rivalry between two great teams. There have been some interesting conflicts in recent times but nothing close to the epic nine-year war between Arsenal and Manchester United from 1996 to 2005.
It’s the rift that keeps on giving. Five years after ITV’s memorable Keane & Vieira: Best of Enemies, Channel 5 is to broadcast a documentary on the broader rivalry between the sides, and especially the managers. Fergie v Wenger: The Feud (Monday 10pm) is an exhilarating hour of time travel that includes interviews with more than a dozen players, coaches and journalists – and a series of clips that instantly evoke the nuclear intensity of the time.
The rivalry ached with such importance, from the football field to the school playground, as to make a
pacifist throw the first punch. It included everything from allegations of racism by Ian Wright against Peter Schmeichel to a pizza fight. There was also the Battle of Old Trafford, when Arsenal’s players manhandled Ruud van Nistelrooy after the final whistle; Roy Keane literally offering Patrick Vieira outside during
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a legendary row in the Highbury tunnel; and Jaap Stam being restrained by half of Highbury as he rumbled towards Vieira with extreme prejudice. “It’s funny,” Paul Scholes says. “In team talks against Arsenal, the ball was rarely mentioned.”
That does not mean it
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was rarely used. The quality of football was through the roof, even if that is sometimes obscured by memories of the rucks and rows. There had
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never been such technical quality in English football, and the FA Cup semi-final replay of 1999, featured in depth in the programme, has an outstanding case for being the greatest game ever played in England.
There are forgotten classics too, such as a primal 1-1 draw at Old Trafford on
a filthy Wednesday night in 1999 and United’s 2-1 win at Highbury later that year, when both teams created an endless stream of chances in a first half that flowed like basketball.
Some of the matches will never be forgotten. Arsenal won the league at Old Trafford in 2002 (and, effectively, in 1998). United beat Arsenal 6-1 in 2001, when Arsčne Wenger went postal in the dressing room at half-time, and ended their 49-game unbeaten run in a bitterly controversial match in 2004 – a savage injustice from which Arsenal never truly recovered. “If you don’t feel pain when you’re being conned,” Sol Campbell says, “when are you gonna feel pain?”
There is nothing in the rules that says this is the way cricket must be presented, or that everyone will like it. The endless goodbye to Henry Blofeld, for example, was fair enough but I’ve also heard cricket-loving kids say the Blofeld tone is why lots of other kids their age think cricket is just for posh, entitled people. They cringe at the idea of introducing their football-loving schoolmates to the great summer sport only to find Blofeld on, flapping about cakes and pigeons and dear old things. You what, mate?
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