By Matt Dodd
Six goals, Keane and Viera’s scrap in the tunnel, Ronaldo’s double, and O’Shea’s beautiful lob – this one had it all.
It was nicknamed the ‘Battle of Highbury’ – reminiscent of the incredibly violent match between England and Italy in 1934 which was originally hailed with the same title.
This time around, the violence wasn’t quite as horrific, but nonetheless it had even more drama and more brilliance in free-flowing football.
The magnificent 4-2 victory was made even special for me, as it was just a few days before my 14th birthday, and, as a southern red, the bragging rights at school the next day were exceptional.
On the first of February 2005, something special was in the fog of the winter air as everyone entered the school gates. All the talk throughout the lessons, throughout lunchtime, and right up until ‘hometime’ was the big game.
And it was a big game. Despite being outnumbered by the Arsenal school kids, all day long I insisted that United would beat the Gunners and go on to win the league. Well, at least I was half right.
The hostility of the football debates was matched by the hostility in the Highbury tunnel minutes before kick off.
The two captains, Roy Keane and Patrick Viera, famously squared up before a ball had even been kicked. The Frenchman had apparently exclaimed that he wanted to break Gary Neville’s legs – and Keano, like every captain should, stuck up for his team-mate.
The two refused to call heads or tails for the toss, let alone shake hands, forcing referee Graham Poll to select one side of the coin for each of them. At this point, we knew we were in for a thriller.
After just eight minutes, it was the hosts who took the lead – and guess who? Yes, Patrick Viera.
I remember Gabriel Heinze failing to deal with the midfielder, who headed home from Thierry Henry’s corner.
But the anguish of that goal suddenly disappeared after just ten minutes. A truly outstanding one-touch exchange between Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs resulted in a stunning equaliser with an exquisite first-time volley from the Welshman.
But alas, the distress returned when Dennis Bergkamp put Arsenal back in front before half-time. The 15 minute interval was simply torture – I recall criticising Roy Carroll for the ball going in between his legs as I frantically discussed the first half with friends in text messages and phone calls.
It was also a first half, it mustn’t be forgotten, which was full of fierce tackles, fierce tempers and fierce rivlary. If I remember rightly, the second half calmed down somewhat, with the sensational United comeback allowed to steal the headlines.
It was an absolutely perfect start to the second half for Manchester United. Before the hour mark, the young 19-year-old winger Cristiano Ronaldo fired United into an incredible 3-2 lead with his two goals in the space of five minutes.
The equaliser, a brilliant left-footed finish from an acute angle, was met by a thumping punch in the air. Man United’s third goal, thanks to Giggy’s fabulous run and right-footed floating lob, (which, in truth, needn’t have been tapped in by Ronaldo, but who cares) had me jumping around, going absolutely crazy.
With 20 minutes to go, Mikael Silvestre was sent off for a headbutt on Freddie Ljungberg (against the club who he would go on to play for) and apparently protested his action with the excuse that “he p***ed me off so I butted him.”
With the score at 3-2, the dismissal of Silvestre sent my nerves into overdrive. Hanging on to a lead at Highbury with ten men is something your nails really do not deserve to suffer.
Thankfully, we defended expertly. And in the 90th minute, my birthday week had the perfect cherry on top – when John O’Shea somehow found acres of space on the edge of Arsenal’s box to stylishly lob the useless Manuel Almunia.
When Graham Poll blew the final whistle, I experienced a very unfamiliar feeling of anticipation: I could not wait to go to school the next day.
Register with the Stretford End Arising forum.