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The Battle of Old Trafford: Man Utd & Arsenal’s fieriest ever matchup?

Arsenal welcome Manchester United to the Emirates this Sunday in a mouth-watering Premier League clash between old rivals. Here we take a look at some of the fiercest exchanges between the two clubs – the pinnacle of which could be considered to be ‘the battle of Old Trafford’.

One of the most famous clashes between the Gunners and the Red Devils took place during a Football First League Division match during the 1990/1991 season. Both teams had players fined, both by the FA as well as their respective clubs and were deducted league points.

Arsenal manager, George Graham, was also fined for the incident, later known as ‘the battle of Old Trafford’.

How did the battle commence?

Before we go into what happened on the day of the ‘battle’, we must first mention a couple of relevant incidents that took place before…

During the 1987/1988 season, Manchester United and Arsenal played two matches in which heated situations arose.

Rocastle vs Whiteside

Norman Whiteside David Rocastle
Norman Whiteside & David Rocastle. Image credits: SoccerBible / BBC

Firstly, during a league match, United’s Norman Whiteside suffered the wrath of a David Rocastle revenge tackle that saw the Arsenal man sent off. The tackle was in retaliation to Whiteside having gotten away with fouls on Arsenal players all game, without receiving a card for his actions.

Things really got heated when Rocastle was reproached by Alex Ferguson and his coaching staff on the touchline as he made his way to the dressing room. This caused a few temperatures to rise on both sides as players and staff argued over the actions of those involved.

Enter Nigel Winterburn…

The second incident of the 87/88 season is often given more credit for inciting ‘the battle of Old Trafford’ than the heated exchange between Rocastle and Fergie. This match was an FA Cup 5th round affair, played at HighburyArsenal’s home until May 2006.

The match, despite being as feisty as one can expect for a United vs Arsenal matchup of that era, went mostly without incident. It was during the final minutes of the game, as Arsenal led 2-1, that things got heated.

United are awarded a penalty very late in the game, which gives them the chance to force a replay of the fixture. Brian McClair, who had scored United’s earlier goal, steps up to do the business again for his club.

Tragically (for Man United fans), McClair skies his shot and all but guarantees Arsenal safe passage into the next round of the Cup.

Nigel Winterburn Brian McClair
Winterburn berates McClair after the United man misses a crucial last-minute penalty. Image credit: The Shropshire Star

As if missing wasn’t bad enough for McClair, Arsenal’s Nigel Winterburn then proceeded to follow the dejected United man all the way back up the pitch, goading him severely the entire way and sparking backlash from the Reds.

Winterburn’s barracking of McClair would later be attributed as one of the inciting factors of ‘the battle of Old Trafford’…

Let battle commence…

So, by the time United and Arsenal met for their now-infamous First Division League match, they already had a few heated clashes under their belts.

This 1990/1991 clash began as most between the two teams had in recent years – heavy challenges, great football, and a fierce disposition from both sides.

man united vs arsenal brawl
United vs Arsenal was fast becoming one of the most heated rivalries in the league. Image credit: The Mirror

Nearly a full hour went by without ‘serious’ incident, although with refereeing standards nowadays there may likely have been several more bookings than the single yellow card issued at that point by referee Keith Hackett.

Arsenal had scored just before the half-time break, with Anders Limpar putting the Gunners ahead. Incidentally, Limpar would also find himself at the centre of the controversy that was about to rear its head in this game.

Limpar was in a contest with United’s Denis Irwin for the ball, when his teammate, Nigel Winterburn (who had goaded McClair for his FA Cup penalty miss) joined the mix.

Winterburn’s tackle was a hard one and clearly deemed unfair by Manchester United. The nastiness of the challenge incited a 21-man brawl.

Every player on the pitch, with the exception of Arsenal goalkeeper, David Seaman, was involved in the brawl. Brian McClair, Denis Irwin and Paul Ince were at the heart of the melee, with Ince even pushing Limpar against the advertising boards during the scuffle.

Despite the dust-up lasting a mere 20 seconds, it was enough to shock a nation of football fans and rustle feathers within football associations.

Manchester United vs Arsenal 1990
The tackle that started it all.


Following the scuffle at the 60-minute mark, only two players were shown yellow cards by Keith Hackett. These were Arsenal men Anders Limpar and Nigel Winterburn.

After the match was over, however, wheels started turning within UEFA in regard to responding to the unbelievable in-match incident. It didn’t take long for UEFA to push the FA into fining both clubs £50,000 (roughly £145,000 in today’s economy), as well as deducting points from both teams’ league scores.

Manchester United

Immediately following ‘the battle of Old Trafford’, an extremely displeased Sir Alex Ferguson orders his team to meet at their training ground to review footage of the incident. Irwin, McClair, and Ince were fined as a result of Fergie’s review.

United had a point deducted from their league campaign on top of their £50,000 fine from the FA.

Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United
Image credit: Manchester Evening News


Arsenal fined 4 of their involved players, as well as their manager, George Graham.

Winterburn, Limpar, Rocastle, and Thomas were the players who joined their manager in being given stern disciplinary action following a review of the match footage.

Arsenal chairman, Peter Hill-Wood said of his decision “Twice in two years is too often. The name of Arsenal has been sullied and that is why I have taken this action”.

Peter Hill-Wood Arsenal
Arsenal’s chairman at the time of ‘the battle of Old Trafford’, Peter Hill-Wood. Image credit:

Arsenal were deducted 2 points from their league score, as opposed to the single point taken from Manchester United. This was on account of the fact that their squad had been involved in a similar brawl with Norwich in 1989, for which they had received a £20,000 fine but were deducted no points.

Despite losing 2 points late into the season, the Gunners went on to become League Champions, as well as England’s first representatives at a European Cup, following the lifting of the ban set after the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985.

A rivalry is born…

‘The battle of Old Trafford’ remains to this day the only instance in English Football League history in which a team has been docked points for a player’s misconduct.

This incident, as well as the ones that proceeded it in the 1987/1988 season, are largely acknowledged as the beginning of the fierce rivalry between Arsenal and United throughout the 90s and early 2000s.

Nigel Winterburn himself said of ‘the battle of Old Trafford’ – “It probably caused a lot of the bad blood between the sides that lasted for years but I was just competitive and desperate to win. Does it worry me? Not in the slightest. It was just one of those things that happened and is part of the history of the two clubs”

Other notable clashes…

As mentioned above, the events at Old Trafford on that fateful matchday seemingly sparked a furious competition between Manchester United and Arsenal. Here are a few incidents that followed ‘the battle of Old Trafford’…

2003/2004 – Van Nistelrooy vs Keown & Vieira

A matchup between the two sides at Old Trafford during a Premier League match in the 2003/2004 season is considered to be ‘the battle of Old Trafford 2’.

There were two notable incidents in the game.

The first begins with a leaping aerial challenge from Ruud van Nistelrooy on Patrick Vieira, which leaves him almost riding on the Frenchman’s back. We are 80 minutes into the game and the scores are level at 0-0.

As van Nistelrooy realises his mistake and tries to evade stepping on Vieira, the Arsenal captain lashes a kick out at the Dutchman. The referee sees this and shows Vieira his second yellow card of the game.

By this point, however, a shoving contest has begun, not unlike the scenes seen in that fateful 1990 clash.

The situation is bought to a close as Vieira is ushered away to the dressing room and play continues.

The second catalyst in this now-infamous matchup came again partially from United’s Dutch forward. This time though, he was not the first offender in the incident.

Van Nistelrooy steps up to take a penalty in the final minute of the game, which would earn United the 3 points almost certainly. The Dutchman strikes the crossbar and is denied the goal.

The whistle blows less than a minute after van Nistelrooy’s miss and, almost immediately, Arsenal’s Martin Keown begins to push the striker and berate him about the miss, in a display that is remarkably similar to Winterburn / McClair incident back in 1988!

Keown was not alone in his actions, with more of his Arsenal teammates surrounding the United forward before his team could intervene.

Keown’s reactions spark a brawl among players, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs (amongst others) expressed their displeasure at the London side’s barracking.

2003/2004 Take two: The Battle of the Buffet

Later on in the 2003/2004 season, in October, United once again met Arsenal. This game would later garner the title ‘the battle of the buffet’ – here’s why…

Arsenal had shown more promise during the opening of this matchup, yet despite this Manchester United went on to end their 49-game win streak with a 2-0 victory.

First to score was Ruud van Nistelrooy, who converted a spot-kick to redeem himself of his miss earlier in the season from the same position. Wayne Rooney gave United a second goal to secure victory.

Van Nistelrooy was once again at the heart of an Arsenal vs Man Utd controversy with a horror challenge on Ashley Cole. The Dutchman went in studs up in a 50/50 tackle on Cole.

van nistelrooy ashley cole tackle
Nistelrooy’s nasty tackle on Ashley Cole. Image credit: Daily Mail

What should have been an automatic red card was given nothing more than a free-kick, infuriating the traveling Gunners fans and squad alike. Alongside this, Rio Ferdinand had also gotten away with going in the referee’s book after performing a professional foul on Freddie Ljungberg.

The title ‘the battle of the buffet’ stems from a confrontation in the tunnel after the match, thought to be provoked by van Nistelrooy’s horrendous tackle. It is alleged that Arsen Wenger called the Dutchman a ‘cheat’ as players once again started up a brawl.

Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas threw a pizza slice at United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s face, which garnered the title ‘battle of the buffet’.

cesc fabregas
Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas threw pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson during the tunnel confrontation. Image credit: ESPN

2005: Roy Keane vs Patrick Vieira

One of the most famous rivalries in Premier League history: Roy Keane vs Patrick Vieira has given us countless hours of entertainment.

One of their most famous clashes came in 2005 at Highbury, when United’s Irish hardman famously warned “I’ll see you out there” to Arsenal’s French captain.

Keane alleges that his words were a result of him catching Vieira trying to intimidate Gary Neville in the tunnel before the match. Keane had told Vieira to ‘try and do that to me instead’ and, infuriated by the Frenchman’s actions towards his teammate, followed him to usher that famous warning.

Both league-topping Gunners and 4th-place Red Devils have been in good form in recent matches, meaning that we will hopefully see some of the old flare back in an Arsenal vs Manchester United matchup!

Kick-off will be at 16:30 local time at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday the 22nd of January.