Rebels for the Cause
In truth, this may have been one of the dullest fixtures I have seen in years. Arsenal were reeling from a 3-0 reverse to Inter Milan the pervious midweek, and Robert Pires was still very much in the thick of a diving storm the previous weekend against Portsmouth. (Alice banded Frenchman does it; it`s a "dive" cue national outcry. Rooney does it and "he went down a little easily.") Arsenal set up to be impervious to United`s attack, with Pires and Wiltord dropped to the bench in favour of Parlour and Ljungberg on the flanks. Sol Campbell was still absent owing to personal reasons. For eighty minutes the match was absolutely dire, Ashley Cole`s long strike whistled just wide and an in swinging Ryan Giggs free kick hit the Arsenal post, but both sides were cancelling one another out. Arsenal were happy with the point, with their status as league leaders protected.
On 81 minutes, the blue touch paper was well and truly lit. Ruud van Nistelrooy (who else?) wrestled Patrick Vieira to the floor. Vieira temporarily lingered his boot in mid air before withdrawing, aware that he had already been cautioned. This did not stop van Nistelrooy from springing backwards in mock agony. Steve Bennett took the bait and showed Vieira the second yellow card. At which point van Nistelrooy grinned provocatively at the Arsenal skipper, aware of his misdemeanour. Paddy took exception and had to be forcibly moved from the pitch by opposing skipper Roy Keane. If you review the footage, you can see Vieira screaming the words, "f*****g cheat" to which Keane responds with a revealing, "I know, but just appeal." It was all hands to the pump at this point for the Gunners, what had started as a cautious counter attacking approach, now became an all hands to the pump exercise in defensive resolution.
The Gunners looked like holding out with relative ease until the 92nd minute. Ronaldo`s right wing cross was missed by Diego Forlan, who decided the fling himself to the ground anyway with Martin Keown in close attendance. For the second time in ten minutes, Bennett was fooled by United`s histrionics and proved himself to be every second hand car salesman`s dream by pointing to the spot. At this point it`s important to distinguish that the pictures were broadcast by Sky Sports, who, at that point, owned a 9.9% stake in Manchester United. So what television viewers saw, and what those of us in the ground witnessed are slightly different. As the penalty was awarded, can Nistelrooy clenched a fist in celebration, about half a pace away from Martin Keown. This angered Jens Lehmann (oh, don`t look so shocked) who sought to confront van Nistelrooy, but his mission was impeded by a boot from Quinton Fortune. A melee erupted in the penalty area, with both sides engaging in a furious debate, which probably aided Arsenal as van Nistelrooy shaped up to strike the penalty. At this point, Jon already began to make for the exit as I shook my head indignantly. Never had Arsenal been cheated out of points so blatantly. Van Nistelrooy stepped up, my posture already sagged in resignation with Lehmann manoeuvring furiously up and down his goal line. He stepped up, smashing his kick towards the top corner, Lehmann dived the wrong way, but the ball rebounded off the underside of the bar and out.
The 3,000 ranked Gooners proceeded to release a mixture of relief, delight and bile towards a man whom the saints of poetic justice had seen fit to anoint right before our very eyes. Martin Keown was quick to return the Dutchman`s pre penalty pomposity with his own clench fisted salute. (I don`t blame him for that, but what followed was, while undeniably very, very funny, definitely superfluous). The final whistle sounded and things got nasty. Martin Keown, in what has become an iconoclastic image, leapt at van Nistelrooy`s back, mimicking the anger that the paying Arsenal public were feeling. (Given my facial expression and mannerisms at that moment, I should probably commend Keown for his restraint? Probably not). Ray Parlour and Lauren, both victims of some thuggish and unpunished van Nistelrooy assaults in the preceding twelve months, were quick to remind the equestrian one how fate had conspired to twist its unforgiving grip squarely on his ball sack. The United players were angered by Arsenal`s school bully demeanour and a bout of pushing and shoving broke out. (Despite what the Murdoch owned media will tell you, and remember Murdoch`s links with United at this point, nobody died. In fact, a blow was not landed in anger by either side). I decided this would be a good opportunity to show the world my quite, if I do say so myself, prophetic legend emblazoned onto the back of my yellow Arsenal shirt, 'ALWAYS OUTNUMBERED NEVER OUTGUNNED.` But the United fans outside were less appreciative and trouble ensued. With everything exploding in the final minutes of the match, tempers were frayed as pockets of violence broke out. The police cordoned Arsenal fans into their own little island between the metro station and the car park, occasionally a rogue United fan would break ranks, fists wind milling though the crowd as pockets of violence broke out around us. For my trouble, I got a kick in the shin and a coin narrowly missing my face (hitting my shoulder). At this point, footballers would do well to remember their responsibilities. So when Gary Neville chooses to antagonise Scousers in the last minute of matches, he would do well to remember the ramifications that can have for supporters who don`t go home in armoured vehicles.
Whilst the media reaction was typically hysterical, it is fair to say Arsenal did not cover themselves in glory after the final whistle, neither did United before it (Besides, doesn`t a 21 man argument take more than one team to instigate?). But people only look at half the picture (largely because that is all Sky provided), the catalogue of van Nistelrooy assaults on Arsenal players followed by the immense histrionics in this fixture had everybody connected with Arsenal incredibly riled. Some supporters and some players let themselves down (from both sides), but the ensuing media storm was laughable. Two weeks later, a mass brawl broke out at St. Mary`s Stadium between Southampton and West Bromwich Albion, in which fists were thrown in a slugfest that was rarely mentioned by the newspapers. The F.A. did everything they were told by Murdoch`s media, as United were inexplicably seen as the poor puppy eyed victims, five Arsenal players were hit with bans and Vieira was issued an extra match for "failing to leave the field promptly." (Has anybody seen this rule applied since? Seriously, I cannot think of one occasion). But the adversity simply redoubled Arsenal`s determination, and van Nistelrooy`s wayward kick was the closest Arsenal got to league defeat all season. Rebels for the cause and utterly invincible.LD.