Before Pizzagate and Roy Keane’s tunnel clash with Patrick Vieira, the spiky rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal was created by a mass brawl at Old Trafford in 1990 that prompted the first and only ever points deduction for players’ bad behavior.
Former United captain Steve Bruce was among the 21 players involved in the stormy aftermath after Nigel Winterburn had flattened Denis Irwin with a retribution challenge.
And although Bruce doesn’t condone some of the behavior, he feels the modern game would welcome a bit more emotion on the pitch and along the touchline – as we saw when Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte clashed in the recent Chelsea-Spurs derby.
Steve Bruce reflected on the infamous brawl between Manchester United and Arsenal players at Old Trafford
‘There’s no doubt that was the start of that great rivalry between the two teams’ recalls Bruce about the 1990 “fight” which saw Arsenal docked two points and United one.
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 shouldn’t 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.
The brawl erupted following a Nigel Winterburn challenge on Dennis Irwin during a First Division game in 1990
‘Maybe it was a bit over the top but I certainly think it was the start of the rivalry. When everyone gets involved it’s usually handbags no one usually throws punches although there might have been a few that day!
‘Looking back it got out of hand but it’s because the competition between both sets of players was so intense. We wanted to win so they did 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’t get away with anything.’
Arsenal were leading 1-0 when Winterburn jumped into Irwin who had fired the ball at a prostate Arsenal player a few minutes before. Anders Limpar ran in to kick Irwin while he was on the floor while Brian McClair kicked Winterburn, who had also fallen over as he dived in.
Both teams were docked points by the FA for their involvement in the incident
It prompted chaotic scenes that commentator Martin Tyler described as a ‘free-for-all.’ Things were so bad at one stage that Ferguson and fiery Arsenal captain Tony Adams had to play the role of peacemakers. David Rocastle tried to throttle McClair, who also received a bloodied ear from a punch thrown by another player, and Paul Ince shoved Limpar over an advertising hoarding. Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman was the only player who stayed away from trouble.
With English football undergoing a hooliganism crisis on the terraces, The FA felt compelled to act against both sets of players and ruled on an unprecedented points deduction, although Arsenal still went on to win the league title.
Bruce also pinpoints that season as the true beginning of the Fergie glory years as they won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup against Barcelona the following May.
‘Arsenal were the team to be beaten along with Liverpool and things became even more heated when George Graham left and Arsene came,’ recalls the current West Brom manager.
Bruce later managed against Arsenal legend Arsene Wenger and said that he looked up to the Frenchman for his innovative approach to coaching
For a bona fide United legend, Bruce built strong links with Wenger once his own managerial career began.
‘Arsene was way ahead of his time with his thinking and methods,’ said Bruce. ‘Wow, how good he was. That Invincible team was some team – they were a hell of a side to knock off their perch.
‘For someone like me who had been at United, I had a good relationship with Arsene. When you are a young manager you look up to someone like that. I had a huge respect for what he’d done and achieved and he helped me in my early days in management.
He gave me three of his young players and said “these lads will be great for you” So I took Nicklas Bendtner, Fabrice Muamba, Seb Larsson.
‘They helped me get Birmingham promoted and for that I was always grateful for his help. If I ever needed anything, I’d pick up the phone to Arsene.’
The two clubs’ rivalry would reach boiling point during a period of shared dominance in the late 1990s and early 200s
The rivalry between United and Arsenal peaked in the 1990s and 2000s with Keane famously staring down Vieira in the tunnel at Highbury after the Arsenal captain had tried to pick on Gary Neville. Cesc Fabregas, still a young player, threw a pizza that hit Ferguson after one controversial match at Old Trafford.
Things have calmed down relatively in recent years with neither club considered title challengers although Arsenal are turning the corner with a 100 percent start to the season while United have three wins on the bounce under Erik ten Hag.
Ferguson is still a regular at Old Trafford and Bruce secretly thinks he’ll be yearning for more fireworks.
‘He had no problem with us fighting Arsenal that day I can assure you,’ he smiles. ‘He probably wanted to be in the middle of it. That was probably his one regret – that he wasn’t in the middle of it!
‘If a team-mate is in trouble, you should make sure you defend one another as a team. That was all to do with Fergie’s personality and probably George Graham too. Two fiercely competitive Scotsmen who wanted their teams to mirror them and that was pretty evident to see.’
We’ve seen that recently with Conte and Tuchel it’s great to watch it, of course it is. It makes the headlines for a start but I think people like to see that it means something to players and managers. You want the fire in the belly.’