It’s interesting look back from this distance. At the time, public reaction was such that it is surprising that the ninety minutes at Old Trafford was completed. UEFA and the Football Association had passed informal judgement on the events, igniting the mood around the fixture and generally keeping the media occupied for a short while. It was only a matter of time before the Thatcher government which cared little or nothing for the sport, took aim and gave their views, along with the great and good who owed their political masters the prestige of their own positions although in fairness to Peter Yarranton, he made no attempt to hide his dismay at McClair and Irwin, citing the cowardly kicking of a prostrate opponent.
The main culprits were about to enter centre stage. Inexplicably beyond a complete loss of control, referee Keith Hackett had only cautioned Winterburn and Limpar (fine number one) for their part in what was now termed ‘The Old Trafford Brawl’; both Arsenal and Manchester United were determined to take sterner action over the incident.
Unsurprisingly, Arsenal were slower than United to act in the PR stakes. The Mancunians announced that Dennis Irwin and Brian McClair had been fined, estimated to be a week’s wages. That they had escaped bookings probably helped United’s cause in ensuring that Arsenal were perceived as the main cause.
If you watch the footage, it’s patently obvious that the two United players were the antagonists. Keith Hackett missed it and set the agenda in doing so.
Graham Kelly’s headmasterly response, hoping that the club’s viewed the incident as seriously as the Football Association, seemed to be prompting Arsenal to take action as well.
So they did. Quite a lot of it as well.
It’s not hard to understand the club’s position but I’m not sure they were as cynical as I think. No surprise that players were fined. Limpar and Winterburn (fine number two) were out of pocket again, with Paul Davis, Mickey Thomas and David Rocastle also singled out. It’s noticeable that the negative aspects of the incident were consistently reported but very little ‘praise’ was handed out to the likes of Tony Adams who was in the thick of it all on peacemaking duties. If he can’t get another football job, I’m sure the UN will look favourably on him.
Graham was quick to point to the team ethic and the speed with which all the XI on the field at the time – bar David Seaman – assembled for whatever role they chose in the brawl, was very noticeable. That togetherness would yet serve the players well.
Was it a symbolic gesture or a more cynical ploy by the board to try and head off the Football Association’s apparent determination to dock points? Certainly when Peter Hill-Wood spoke of Arsenal’s good name being sullied, it is impossible to imagine that this was his over-riding concern.
However, like the rest of the board, he had been around football for long enough to know an incident such as Old Trafford is usually yesterday’s chip paper and would have been were it not a repeat of the match against Norwich the previous year.
That weighed heavily on their mind and certainly ensured that the matter couldn’t be swept under the carpet. The media wasted little time in drawing other incidents into the story. Players surrounding match officials, even Paul Davis breaking Glenn Cockerill’s jaw surfaced. It was all about image.
Arsenal’s actions raised the bar for other clubs who would subsequently prove to be the best limbo dancers in the world. I can’t immediately think of a comparable fine – plenty of incidents involving the players but none where the manager’s were publicly held accountable for them.
Alex Ferguson was quick out of the blocks to criticise Arsenal, a club who had unsuccessfully tried to woo him when Don Howe was replaced. United, he claimed, had kept everything quiet, dealing with matters internally.
It was, he argued, a “disgusting act” by Arsenal. They had humiliated the players, the manager and their families in front of the world.
Ferguson wasn’t daft, he knew that Arsenal were trying to avoid the ultimate sanction from the footballing authorities and rather than being supportive of Graham, his was trying to keep the matter in the public eye and the aura of bad publicity around the club. Poorly disciplined on and off the pitch, it would seem to the outsider.
The late Howard Kendall’s view seems more genuine, highlighting the no-win situation managers found themselves in with the authorities bound to punish any attempt to get onto the pitch to calm matters? Or at least, to the lay man that’s how it appeared.
In the end, the fine stood. Within a week, Graham had announced he was not appealing against the fine. Eddie Plumley, of the grandly-named Football League Executive Staffs Association said, “He accepts he is responsible to the Board for discipline and that their action is not unreasonable.”
This on the day when Paul Ince became the third United player fined for his part in incident. As it was reported (without any sense of irony or sarcasm), “…running twenty-five yards across the pitch to shove Anders Limpar into advertising hoardings…[United’s Board] regard Arsenal as the instigators.”
Steve Curry, writing a Daily Express leader column – later confirmed in Perry Groves book – suggested that Graham instigated the strategy. Knowing that a points deduction was a very real possibility, it seems entirely plausible to think he devised it as a means of staving off anything which hampered Arsenal’s title bid.
If that was the case, it was an expensive and miserable failure.