They had the biggest rivalry in Premier League history, and when Sir Alex Ferguson’s grudge match with Arsene Wenger was at its most intense, insults, fists and even pizza were rife between Manchester United and Arsenal.
You would not have known to hear the two men speak so fondly of each other on Wednesday after they became the first managers to be inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame. Wenger described them as “two old boxers” and the comparison was apt.
But for a long time, it felt as though the warring chiefs at United and Arsenal would never cross paths. Ferguson admitted in recent years that the mutual antipathy had become toxic for a while.
The troubles began shortly after Wenger arrived in English football from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan with a reputation for being academic.
They say he’s a smart guy, right? speak five languages? I have a 15 year old boy from Ivory Coast who speaks five languages.
Sir Alex Ferguson (left) and Arsene Wenger (right) become the first managers to be inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame
The two former managers became friends after years of rivalry in the dugout
The Scotsman’s anger only grew when Wenger had the audacity to claim in the early days that United had received preferential treatment from the Premier League over the fixture schedule.
“He’s a rookie and should keep his views on Japanese football,” exclaimed the United boss.
But when Arsenal began to seriously challenge United’s dominance on the pitch, relations between the two managers and their teams deteriorated.
After Arsenal won the double in 2002, Wenger was asked about Ferguson’s claim that United were the best team in the country. ‘what do you want me to say?’ madly answered. “Everyone thinks he has the most beautiful wife in the house.”
Ferguson was furious and accused Wenger of lacking etiquette. He never came for a drink with the opposing coach after matches. He is the only manager in the Premier League who has not done so. It’s tradition here, and it would be nice for him to accept.
The duo shared many intense moments during their careers in the dugouts of their respective teams
Insults, punches and even pizza passed between Manchester United and Arsenal as the two were in charge
The drama around Ruud van Nistelrooy’s late missed penalty at Old Trafford saw Arsenal turn invincible in 2004 and step up the competition.
The corresponding match the following season signaled the lowest point as United’s victory ended Arsenal’s 49-match unbeaten run.
It exploded into a so-called buffet fight as players clashed in the tunnel and Cesc Fabregas’ pizza hurled at Ferguson was splattered. The Scotsman also accused Wenger of confronting him with his hands up, calling him a “disgrace” and demanding an apology.
The League Managers Association was forced to step in, and the chief executives of both clubs, David Gill and David Dean, were also forced to step in as peacemakers.
But Wenger had none of it. Ferguson is off duty. He’s lost all sense of reality. He goes out looking for a confrontation, and then asks the person he’s facing to apologize. He pushed the cork a bit this time and lost a lot of credibility by saying what he said.
The drama around Ruud van Nistelrooy’s late missed penalty at Old Trafford made Arsenal go invincible in 2004
Ferguson had previously criticized Wenger for refusing to take part in the ‘tradition’ of having a post-match drink with the opposing manager
However, Arsenal’s form dipped, and Ferguson’s anger abated with Chelsea emerging as United’s biggest rival.
In February 2005, captains Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira – the embodiment of their managers’ animosity on the pitch – were heading for the Highbury Tunnel.
But Ferguson’s anger abated as Arsenal became less dangerous and Chelsea emerged as Manchester United’s main rivals.
By the time Mike Dean was sacked from Old Trafford in 2009, the famous Gunners coach, the Frenchman standing with arms outstretched among the home fans because he didn’t know where to sit, was no longer in Ferguson’s goal.
Indeed, when Wenger returned to make his last appearance there as Arsenal manager five years ago, Ferguson greeted his old sparring partner with a warm hug and presented him with an engraved silver vase with a standing ovation.
There were only kind words on Wednesday when their Hall of Fame induction was announced.
In a Premier League interview, Ferguson credited the signing of ‘Messiah’ Eric Cantona with winning his maiden title in 1993 and taking Robin van Persie from Arsenal for a 13th Premier League title two decades later.
“I am really happy to be inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame,” he said. It is an honor to receive recognition like this.
However, it is not just about me as a person. It’s about working at Manchester United and the league we’ve had over many years, so I’m also proud of the club, the staff and the players.
Ferguson said it was United’s history and expectations that drove him to success
My job was to send the fans home happy. United’s history and my own expectations were the things that pushed me, and then I had to try to develop all my players with the same expectations and make sure we could go out and deliver on them.
Asked about the infamous “hair dryer” treatment he used to berate his stars, Ferguson added: “I might lose my temper if we lose. Do you know why? They forgot about expectation. When they didn’t live up to those expectations – they got it.”
Wenger was enlisted for this three title wins and overall contribution to the Premier League. He said: ‘We always wanted to give something special to the fans and when you have players who are capable of great things, the most important thing is perfection.
“I would like to be known as someone who loved Arsenal, who respected the club’s values and left it in a position where it can grow and become even bigger.”