Arsene Wenger has opened up about his rivalry with Sir Alex Ferguson during the height of competition between Arsenal and Manchester United. The two managers were frequently trading barbs during the 17 years they spent as opponents in the Premier League and a new documentary sheds further light on the nature of their relationship.
Ferguson’s United were the dominant force in English football when Arsenal hired Wenger as manager in 1996.
Wenger arrived from Japanese side Nagoya Grampus and was not well known in England, but it was not long before he was ruffling feathers.
Arsenal won a Premier League and FA Cup double in 1997/98 and their success saw the rivalry with United pick up pace.
United hit back, winning a historic treble in their famous 1998/99 campaign, but despite their continued success, Ferguson knew Arsenal were a threat to his side.
“You’re always looking in the rear view mirror to see who’s coming up behind you, and when you see someone you accelerate,” Ferguson says in new film Arsene Wenger: Invincible.
The result was a bitter blow for Arsenal, who were at the time chasing a double, and a crucial step for United, who went on to claim the Premier League title and beat Bayern Munich with two injury-time goals in the Champions League final the following month.
Wenger and Ferguson stepped up their war of words in the press and on the touchline and the two big characters came to dominate the headlines.
“It became toxic for a while,” Ferguson admits, while Wenger outlines his stance on the United boss.
“Alex Ferguson was the dominant figure in English football. Everyone was scared of him, from the press to the referees,” he explains.
The most infamous of the clashes between Ferguson’s United and Wenger’s Arsenal came in September 2003 when the two sides met at Old Trafford.
Patrick Vieira was sent off for kicking out at Ruud van Nistelrooy, who later had the chance to win it – and end Arsenal’s pursuit of an unbeaten league campaign – with a late penalty.
Martin Keown’s foul on Diego Forlan gave Van Nistelrooy a penalty, but the Dutch striker smashed his effort into the crossbar.
The full-time whistle after the 0-0 draw saw wild, aggressive scenes as Arsenal’s players, led by Keown, celebrated in Van Nistelrooy’s face.
Wenger defended Keown in his post-match interview, but Arsenal were later fined £175,000 for failing to control their players.
“You know that if you go to Man United, you cannot lose if you want to win the Championship,” he says.
“I liked it because football was rougher. The challenges were tougher. It was a question of ‘it’s you or me’.
“I never forget the happiness of Man United when they beat us in that game. I threw up after I lost sometimes. It hurt so much. I’m a perfectionist and I’m very demanding with myself.”
Arsene Wenger: Invincible is in cinemas from November 11, and on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download from November 22.