When the two clubs met in January there were murmurings that a United win could see them mount a Premier League title charge. A 3-2 loss put an end to those claims, although fans had momentarily been able to reignite similar passions to the two sides&apos infamous battles at the top of the Premier League table during the late 90s and early 2000s.
The battles of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, Ruud van Nistelrooy&aposs missed penalty, &aposPizzagate&apos and Arsene Wenger climbing up the Old Trafford stands are just some of the rivalry&aposs most iconic moments, but the bad blood between the two clubs started long before all of them. United welcomed Arsenal to M16 for a First Division fixture on October 20, 1990 – a day when it all kicked off on the pitch.
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Arsenal were flying high in the league and were in second place, six points behind table-toppers Liverpool. United, meanwhile, were five points behind the Gunners and in sixth in the table.
Just before half-time, Arsenal took the lead as Anders Limpar caught United &aposkeeper Les Sealey off-guard as he snuck a left-footed cross from the right wing into the bottom corner of the net, and only just over the line after the shot-stopper&aposs failed efforts to save it. But it was in the second half when the game would reach boiling point.
Brian McClair kicked out at Arsenal&aposs Nigel Winterburn after the Gunners defender lunged into a challenge on Denis Irwin – and all hell broke loose. Arsenal players quickly ran over to swarm the forward as Tony Adams tried in vain to hold his teammates back.
Almost all of the players on the pitch then became involved in the melee, although many were trying to break things up rather than throwing punches. That was not quite the case for match-winner Limpar, however, who managed to catch McClair in the immediate aftermath of the challenge.
Former striker McClair later told Red Army Bet: “The brawl started as it was a really bad challenge on Denis Irwin. In the heat of the moment, you dont really understand what youre doing, with so many people watching the game in the ground and on TV around the world.
“As with all these types of things, the referee gained control of the situation and calmed things down. I did however have to have stitches in my head and ear after being punched by Anders Limpar.
“Looking back Id have to say it was great having people in the team who had your back, but you could also say the same about the Arsenal players.”
He later told FourFourTwo: “Sometimes players go into a red zone and do daft things. It was a bad tackle by Nigel [Winterburn] on Denis Irwin he could have done far more damage than he did and I went into the red zone.
“Nigel and I had history. It started when I missed a penalty at Highbury and Nigel was screaming in my face. Then there was a game where I was shaking him up and down and he was pretending to be knocked out. This time, because it was him, because it was a bad tackle, you do something and it ended up in well, I only found out later that it was a 20-man brawl.
“I thought it was 21 until Clayton Blackmore said recently, &aposNo, I didnt get involved&apos. I thought, Oh, thats good to know. Charming. Thats good of you&apos.
“I had never been sent off at any level, and I thought, Well, this is me now Im getting sent off. You cant be doing that on a football pitch. Then Keith Hackett comes over, books Nigel Winterburn, plays on. I thought, &aposThats impossible&apos. Anders Limpar punched me in the side of the head from behind and then ran away like a schoolboy, so there could have been a few sent off not just me.
Subsequently there was a two-point deduction for Arsenal and one for United. Even then, the FA could have taken action. I dont know how I got away with that; youd get a fairly reasonable suspension for it now.”
Limpar also shared his thoughts on the incident. Speaking to Ladbrokes Fanzone he said: “I can honestly say I&aposm proud to have started that brawl.
“Because it really started that rivalry between Arsenal and Man United. But I&aposm not proud of what I did in that brawl; I&aposm not proud of hitting Brian McClair with my fist – I regret it so much because you just shouldn&apost do that.
“I&aposm honoured to have started the rivalry, I&aposm proud of that. But you should never throw fists on the football pitch; I&aposd rather have taken him out with my studs, or something like that. You should never, ever punch somebody in that environment. I&aposm ashamed of that.”
Limpar added: “It&aposs funny to watch back now all these years later, but it wasn&apost fun at the time. Not at all. They were hard guys, and fists were flying around. And then we had to go on and finish the game!
“You don&apost have brawls like that every day, but you had tackles like that every week, so we just tried to shake it off and carry on playing.”
Arsenal were later docked two points and United one for the brawl, with Limpar adding: “I got fined two weeks&apos wages for my part in it. The club made that decision, but the hardest part to take from all of it was losing those points because it made our job so much harder for the rest of the season.”
The FA fined both clubs 50,000 for bringing the game into disrepute while Arsenal also fined Paul Davis, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Limpar and Winterburn, as well as manager George Graham who was fined 9,000.
Steve Bruce later told The Daily Mail: “Theres no doubt that was the start of that great rivalry between the two teams. It was stoked later on by the rivalry between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger which took things to an even higher level.
“I quite enjoyed the scrap. Maybe people might say that kind of thing shouldnt happen and you have to be careful what you were doing, but we enjoyed it! I think it shows you care for what you are doing a little bit and the fans always love to see that kind of passion.
“Maybe it was a bit over the top but I certainly think it was the start of the rivalry. When everyone gets involved its usually handbags no one usually throws punches although there might have been a few that day!
“Looking back it got out of hand but its because the competition between both sets of players was so intense. We wanted to win so did they and it spilled over. Video footage was just coming in so there were more cameras around the ground than there had been before and you couldn&apost get away with anything.”
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