20th October 1990
Manchester United 0 – 1 Arsenal
0 – 1 Limpar (43)
It had been coming, no-one could question that. Even the main protagonists weren’t even a surprise. A brawl which momentarily undermined Arsenal’s title challenge but served a greater long-term purpose.
In the same way that Graeme Souness’ dismissal of Arsenal’s title chances in May 1989, the Football Association’s decision to deduct two points enabled George Graham to foster a siege mentality in his players; it was the world against Arsenal and the world never stood a chance.
Ill-feeling had been an undercurrent of this fixture for a number of years, mainly on the terraces but as Graham built his Arsenal team, it spilled on to the pitch. David Rocastle was sent off in a January 1987 league match but pertinently for this fixture, Brian McClair’s late penalty miss in the following season’s FA Cup had been met with guffaws and derision from the North Bank, echoed on the pitch by Nigel Winterburn as the pair resumed the final minutes of the match.
This match, as I recall, wasn’t particularly feisty. As was usual, there was a niggle or two but no single incident which had sparked a simmering undercurrent of violence. United were aggrieved at Limpar’s goal but as much through their own sloppiness as its’ contentious nature. Limpar received Davis’ corner and quickly turned it into a near-post shot. It was the sort of goal nobody likes to concede; it was a goal which should, the United players thought, never had stood.
Ferguson had the good grace afterwards to confirm there was no issue with referee Keith Hackett’s decision. Whether that was genuine or tempered by the knowledge that there was a real probability of serious trouble with the FA, we will never know. In reality, it was probably a mixture of both.
Inexplicably, only Arsenal players were cautioned. Winterburn, who committed the foul on Irwin which sparked the mêlée, and Limpar, for being shoved over the advertising hoardings by Brian McClair.
One can only assume that Keith Hackett felt the Swede made his exit, stage left, in too dramatic a fashion. Or it might have been the punch he threw, you never know. How McClair and Irwin weren’t cautioned is utterly unfathomable with a strong case for a straight red for both for kicking the prone Winterburn. It shows how much the game has changed that both sides finished with eleven men; utterly impossible to believe today.
Twenty-one of the twenty-two players were involved; only David Seaman didn’t rush to the scene, commenting years later that it was too far up the pitch for him to run to join in. Whilst, for the most part, there were peacemakers on both sides, some of the players were genuinely up for the fight, notably Thomas, Davis and Rocastle from Arsenal. More than anything, it underlined the togetherness in the squad that almost everyone was involved in one way or another.
It all rather distracted from a vital three points. Liverpool’s air of invincibility wasn’t quite shattered at Carrow Road but the procession suffered what would turn out to be a slow puncture as Norwich held them to a one-all draw. Having been on the cusp of opening a daunting gap, Liverpool found themselves only four points clear at the top and had yet to visit Highbury. Cracks appearing or complacency?
It wasn’t quite the Rumble In The Jungle but this one would run for some time yet. David Lacey got the ponitification started and others hitched their horses to that wagon, joining him for the rest of the week in lecturing us on what a jolly poor show this all was and how the two clubs had let English football down.
Steve Coppell, then manager of Crystal Palace, was more pragmatic. He thought that a title challenge would emerge from the fracas and he wasn’t wrong.
click on reports below to enlarge