Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Saturday July 5 2008
In conjunction with the legends series I'm currently running, I thought a shorter spin off was in order. Something a forum member said yesterday got me thinking, 'football would be a quiet place without hatred.' Too true, so from that food for thought I thought why not lunch out on some of the most unsavoury characters that have crossed is Gooners down the years? From Stapleton to Sheringham, through Anelka and Cashley, there are plenty that have felt the ire of acid tongued Gooners. Some players who have tried to leave a giant bitter turd on the Arsenal lawn have managed to embitter supporters (Stapleton, Sheringham), some have fought pitched battles with players (Dixon v Edinburgh, Dixon v Ginola, Keown v anyone within spitting distance of the Arsenal goal). And some characters have earned the chargrin of both (I would chance that if he weren't on the pitch, Fabregas would be the one in the stands handing out the fake Cashley banknotes).
The first player I will focus on who has bathed in the flames of our fury still looms large in the conscience, as he has befouled our recent history. With a rake of the studs and an agonised expression, Ruud van Nistelorooy is one of the bigger pantomime villains of our recent past. Ex club captain Patrick Vieira memorably scribed in his autobiography, 'everyone thinks he's a nice guy but he's a son of a bitch.' Not sure what Mrs. van Nistelorooy thought of that, but it had most Gooners chuckling. Arsenal's first dalliance with the equestrian one came in the summer of 1999. With Nicolas Anelka angling for a move, Wenger sought reinforcements. Before swinging by Turin to shop for a disenfranchised winger, Wenger actually flew to the small industrial town of Eindhoven in an attempt to persuade the two time Eridivisie golden boot winner to join Arsenal. van Nistelrooy was flattered but wanted one more year in the homely confines of the Netherlands before making his move. He was true to his word, moving to Manchester United in spite of a cruciate ligament injury. Arsenal bought Thierry Henry instead.
van Nistelrooy would light the blue touch paper and make enemies with Arsenal for the first time at the end of his first season. On May 8th 2002, Arsenal needed to avoid defeat at Old Trafford to be crowned Premieship champions. Amazingly, Ferguson left van Nistelrooy on the bench in favour of Diego Forlan. By the time Nistelrooy came on, it was too late and Arsenal were already in a one goal lead. With three minutes remaining, Freddie Ljungberg ran the ball forward into Manchester United's half, van Nistelrooy thrust his fist into Ljungberg's stomach. The replay revealed that referee Paul Durkin was staring at the incident square on. In the melee of Arsenal's title celebrations, the media and the referee were able to camougflage the incident. In December of that year, a sneaky handball by the Dutchman assisted United's first goal. Though Arsenal were that terrible that day that the incident has largely been rendered academic.
But in February 2003, Arsenal drew United at Old Trafford in the fifth round of the F.A. Cup. The gloves would come off. After fourty seconds, van Nistelrooy charged at Keown and raked a stud intentionally down from knee to shin. Ruud would later find out that fucking with Martin Keown is not a very good idea. It being the opening seconds of the match, the referee gave him a warning. van Nistelrooy ignored it and after four minutes, lunged into a knee high challenge on Lauren. A punch and two knee high challenges on Arsenal players and Nistelrooy had still to receive a single yellow card. It was getting frustrating. The bad blood between the clubs would continue to boil over in April 2003, when Solskjaer's histrionics cost Sol Campbell a Cup Final appearance (in the aftermarth of that match, Ole would play less than twenty times before being forced to retire). The ill feeling spilled over into the Community Shield of 2003, Djemba Djemba and Campbell swapped studs before Jeffers decked Phil Neville.
The powder keg was swelling and with the F.A. refusing to punish either party, a vigilante situation was brewing. In September 2003, Arsenal again travelled to Old Trafford. In the warm up, Lauren kneeled in the centre circle to tie his boot laces, van Nistelrooy ran past and pushed him over. Sky Sports, who owned 9.9% of United at the time, never replayed the incident. With nine minutes left, Vieira jumped with van Nistelrooy for a header, the Dutchman left his elbows out in too angular a fashion for Vieira's liking, as he lay on the ground, Vieira trailed out a leg towards Nistelrooy but quickly moved it before contact was made. Ruud hit the turf in mock agony and Vieira was given his marching orders. As he left the pitch, Vieira found an unlikely ally in Roy Keane, cameras pick up Vieira shouting, 'he fucking cheated!' as Keane ushered him towards the tunnel, Keane can be seen saying, 'I know, but just appeal.' Simmering tensions exploded when Forlan earned a dubious penalty in the last minute. As Steve Bennett pointed to the spot, Nistelrooy clenched a fist in Keown's face. Once again, Sky Sports were not forthcoming with the footage of that incident. Poetic justice intervened, as with the score at 0-0 in injury time, van Nistelrooy smashed his penalty onto the cross bar. Keown and Lauren, his past victims, could not resist the opportunity to remind him of the dramatic irony. The final whistle sounded and Keown took the opportunity to express his anger with an iconoclastic display of vein bulging, eye popping zeal. A 20 man brawl would again erupt at Old Trafford between the sides. No punches were thrown by either side, unlike a brawl that erupted between Fulham and Southampton one week earlier. But the media's moral disgust was as plaintitive and hypocritical as ever.
Some convenient injuries would keep van Nistelrooy out of the next couple of encounters, meaning he would he would have to wait a little while to hear the veritable jukebox of ditties the Gooners had aired in his honour. But he would cross us one last time. As Arsenal's 49 match unbeaten run came tumbling to an end with Wayne Rooney's clumsy balance, van Nistelrooy would execute another of his patented knee to ankle stud rakes, this time on Ashley Cole. The F.A. could ignore it no longer, and he was awarded a three match ban. van Nistelrooy would end up trying Ferguson's patience with his petulance and was sold to Real Madrid in 2006. Stories abound that Vieira and van Nistelrooy reignited their ignonimous feud in the tunnel following Holland's crushing Euro 2008 victory over France. Ruud should probably count himself fortunate that Martin Keown has retired.LD.
Date:Saturday July 5 2008
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