Arsenal v Man Utd: When Arsenal hated Ruud van Nistelrooy

By Amy LawrenceFootball writer
Martin Keown and Ruud van Nistelrooy
Moment of madness: Martin Keown clashes with Ruud van Nistelrooy
Arsenal v Manchester United
Venue: Emirates Stadium Date: Saturday 22 November, 17:30 GMT
Coverage: Live text commentary on BBC Sport website and app, highlights on MOTD Saturday night

The stark words hang in the air as Patrick Vieira reflects on one of the most tense moments of his Arsenal playing career, when he was sent off - deeply unjustly, he felt - following a skirmish with Ruud van Nistelrooy.

"At that moment, I hated him," confesses Vieira of the then Manchester United striker.

He is discussing, of course, the infamous Manchester United-Arsenal league match in 2003 which finished goalless but certainly did not lack incident and will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

His expression is bashful, as if he were aware of what a bizarrely severe impulse it is to vocalise more than a decade later, older and wiser and far from the heat of the moment.

Vieira is a genial, friendly man and now a key figure in Manchester City's coaching set-up. Van Nistelrooy, also said to be easy-going, has dabbled with coaching in the Netherlands since retiring from playing in 2012.

Yet embroiled in competition, the sparks of ill-will were easily ignited.

Battle of Old Trafford: How the drama unfolded
13 mins: Ryan Giggs free-kick hits outside of the post
21 mins: Roy Keane receives first of eight yellow cards shown in the game
77 mins: Patrick Vieira booked for foul on Quinton Fortune
80 mins: Vieira shown second yellow for kicking out at Ruud van Nistelrooy
81 mins: Van Nistelrooy also shown yellow card in angry scenes
91 mins: Van Nistelrooy misses injury-time penalty and is pounced upon by Arsenal players

There have been some pretty obvious personality clashes between Premier League footballers over the years. In the sense that football is only a microcosm of life, it shouldn't be so surprising to find people disagree, breed dislikes, and sometimes simply decide they can't stand one another.

Some of the cases have been particularly high profile, as when Luis Suarez was found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra during a stormy Liverpool-Manchester United match at Anfield in 2011.

Chelsea's John Terry and Wayne Bridge could not see eye-to-eye because of an entanglement in their personal lives that emerged in 2010, while in 2001, a long-running feud between Manchester rivals Roy Keane and Alf-Inge Haaland had a particularly vicious conclusion.

Sometimes an enmity develops that is purely about football - a clash of styles and ideology that means a player takes to the pitch very conscious he is coming up against an opponent of whom, to put it generously, he is not particularly fond. It infuses the game with an edge, an energy. Team-mates know about it. Fans can sense it.

Arsenal and Manchester United meet in the Premier League on Saturday and it speaks volumes for where the two teams are now - compared with a decade ago - that the levels of friction are minimal.

That era of rivalry between the two clubs was epitomised by their two charismatic warrior captains - Keane and Vieira. But when the two clubs locked horns in September 2003, the dynamic changed.

It became apparent that one player - Van Nistelrooy - managed to antagonise the entire Arsenal XI and they finally rounded on him in a scene that would not only become infamous but also cost Arsenal the Premier League's biggest ever fine for indiscipline, as well as a string of suspensions.

Roy Keane
Manchester United captain Roy Keane was the first man in the book - one of eight yellows in the match

It started with a penalty. Or rather, a missed penalty.

Van Nistelrooy's run-up was confident, the strike ferocious. Gunners keeper Jens Lehmann plunged to his left. The ball flashed to the goalkeeper's right. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is the noise the ball made as it hurtled against the frame of the goal. It was a percussive, explosive, smack. It was startling.

Despite the cacophony of gasps, wails and screeches that assailed him from all four sides, that clunk sticks in the mind of Lehmann to this day. "Of course you hear it," he says. "It is so close. In that moment the whole stadium is silent, for that split second."

The Dutchman's miss came at the end of a tense and febrile encounter. Martin Keown's emotions boiled over. He leapt, roaring, into Van Nistelrooy and clumped him on the back of the head - causing the United striker to visibly cower - a moment that has become one of the iconic images of that season, reflecting how profoundly this Arsenal team could not accept losing and how they felt driven to stick up for one another.

The line-ups: Old Trafford, September 2003
Manchester UnitedArsenal
Tim HowardJens Lehmann
Gary NevilleLauren
Rio FerdinandMartin Keown
Mikael SilvestreKolo Toure
John O'Shea (Diego Forlan, 76')Ashley Cole
Phil NevilleRay Parlour
Roy KeanePatrick Vieira
Quinton FortuneGilberto Silva
Cristiano RonaldoFreddie Ljungberg
Ryan GiggsDennis Bergkamp (Edu, 82')
Ruud van NistelrooyThierry Henry

Keown was still smarting from the fact that Vieira, Arsenal's captain and heartbeat, had been sent off in the 81st minute. Van Nistelrooy had been implicated in that incident, having jumped clumsily into Vieira, who kicked out in retaliation.

Although the Frenchman wasn't close to making contact - "there were metres and metres between my legs and his body," Vieira would later claim - Van Nistelrooy jerked back, as if recoiling from a jab, and gestured plaintively at the referee.

Vieira's smile was laced with heavy sarcasm as he was shown a red card. The incendiary device was duly planted.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Patrick Vieira
New signing Cristiano Ronaldo was in his first season at Manchester United

"It's tough, especially in a big moment like that," Vieira explains. "The game was crazy - especially going down to 10 men, and the penalty. You feel like you let the team down. You feel like if you lose it is going to be your fault.

"There are so many emotions going through your mind, and everything is negative. You feel really bad. I was thinking about what had happened and was hoping we would get the draw. But I was so mad about the red card."

Keown could not let it go. Van Nistelrooy had a reputation already among Arsenal's players, which only added to the knife-edge mood. Looking after Vieira was something he had taken on as his personal responsibility.

"I was Patrick Vieira's minder," explains Keown. "People used to target Patrick, and I vowed to be the person who gets there to get in between. Because we can't have this - we're not going to win anything unless we've got Patrick on the pitch.

Patrick Vieira
Patrick Vieira was show a red card for kicking out at Ruud van Nistelrooy in the 81st minute

"But this occasion, yet again, somebody had feigned injury from Patrick, and had gone over. It was that same character, too. I'd already had a few run-ins with him. Now he'd got my mate sent off."

Keown was not the only one to wade into the melee sparked by the final whistle. A gang of Arsenal's players bombarded Van Nistelrooy; hounded him as he stumbled off the pitch. Ray Parlour, Ashley Cole, even Lauren - gentle, unflappable Lauren - were afflicted by red mist.

He, too, lashed out at Van Nistelrooy. "I am very calm, I am very polite, a nice person in general, but I make my mistakes like everyone else," the Cameroonian now explains sheepishly.

"It's just when I go to the pitch I transform myself. I just want to win. Maybe that is why I reacted in that way. We are helping each other like a family. If I see my brother in difficulty I try to help him. Everyone was thinking the same way."

What was it about Van Nistelrooy that riled them so much?

He is, by all accounts, a likeable, positive man. He was a superb goalscorer. Yet he had a reputation among Arsenal's players as being, in the words of one, "sneaky".

Patrick Vieira and Ruud van Nistelrooy
Frenchman Vieira had words to say to Ruud van Nistelrooy before he left the pitch

They felt he had a tendency to dive, and to niggle them with off-the-ball digs that were cleverly timed to largely go unnoticed. He just wound them up. There was history going into the game and it did not take much for all that pent-up negativity to explode.

Oddly, one of the players who remained notably cool amid the inferno was Keane, Vieira's direct rival in that period, and a player who would later have no qualms about expressing how riled the London team generally made him feel.

"I had a lot of hatred for Arsenal," he says. "I can't think of any other word when I was getting ready to do battle with Arsenal. Hatred was the word. I don't remember liking anybody at Arsenal.

"I knew I had to be at my angriest against them. I didn't feel like that about any other team, but Arsenal brought out something different in me - I behaved myself that day and I regret it."

In the tunnel afterwards Vieira was still stewing. "I had a few more arguments with Van Nistelrooy again after taking a shower, in the tunnel. I was still really mad about it," he says.

Some years later Vieira was approached to take part in an advert for a beer company built around a collection of elite footballers.

During the negotiations, they felt obliged to broach a delicate subject. Would Vieira have a problem with the concept of a shot of him jumping for a ball with Van Nistelrooy?

Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo was in the thick of it but surprisingly, Keane was rather restrained

He was relaxed about it, so set off for Prague where the advert would be filmed. They were the only two footballers there that day. The pair shook hands and, during one of the breaks in filming, conversation turned to that momentous collision at Old Trafford in 2003.

"We talked and we laughed about it," recalls Vieira. At the end of the day, they hugged and went their separate ways.

The aftermath: what the managers said
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger: "Yes. I think Van Nistelrooy does not help himself frankly. He is a great player but his attitude... he is always looking to dive."He looks like a nice boy but on the pitch it is not always fair behaviour."If Patrick had to go off then Van Nistelrooy had to go off. Patrick is 100% sure Van Nistelrooy caught him."Patrick should not have reacted but you punish more the consequence than the source of the problem."
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson: "I can defend Ruud. I heard Arsene's comment about Ruud after the foul on Patrick. Vieira has reacted badly. Ruud has not dived."The referee had no option, no alternative."In a ferocious game, I think my players behaved properly."