In 2004, when Arsenal and Manchester United hated each other’s guts, some bright spark decided to throw a pizza in Sir Alex Ferguson’s face. Alexis James looks back on the incident in this week’s Stranger Things.
“Football is not a war”
Arsene Wenger’s words before Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford on 24th October 2004 was the Frenchman’s attempt to counter the frenzied tabloid build-up, with the red tops in a hyperbolic spin as they recalled the ‘Battle of Old Trafford’ 11 months earlier.
Back then, an Arsenal side renowned for their beauty instead showed their hidden menace, led by the fang-bearing Martin Keown as the Gunners revelled in Ruud van Nistelrooy’s last-minute penalty miss during a fiery 0-0 draw. Arsenal would go on to lift the title without suffering a single defeat that season.
Their formidable run had continued into the following campaign, meaning they arrived in Manchester on this occasion knowing that another undefeated 90 minutes would make it 50 not out. The champions once again led the Premier League, while Man Utd lagged way back 11 points adrift in seventh.
So while Wenger was doing his best to avoid another unseemly scrap, his opposition that day were planning exactly the opposite. As Gary Neville revealed in his autobiography: “They acted as though the rest of the world was meant to sit back and admire their beautiful football. Sorry, count me out. Some of us had a mission to stop them by all legitimate means.”
Ninety minutes, two goals, five yellow cards and several tempestuous flashpoints later, and Wenger would be arguing that there was very little legitimacy to what he had just witnessed. His Invincibles had lost their bulletproof coating in the last 17 minutes of the game, with a dubiously-awarded Van Nistelrooy penalty completing that circular narrative before Wayne Rooney rubbed salt in the wounds in stoppage time.
Wenger raged at what he deemed a red-card worthy challenge by Rio Ferdinand on Fredrik Ljungberg in the 19th minute, along with the controversial penalty and a tackle by Van Nistelrooy on Ashley Cole that would see the Dutchman retrospectively banned for three games despite going unpunished at the time.
Yet rather than direct his ire at referee Mike Riley, Wenger unloaded on the Dutch striker as the players made their way to the tunnel, beginning a sequence of events that concluded in what the press imaginatively titled ‘Pizzagate’.
Upon hearing of Wenger’s rant, Alex Ferguson confronted his opposite number. As he said in his book, “he was incensed at losing the game. That was the reason for his combative behaviour. ‘You should attend to your own players’, I told him. He was livid. His fists were clenched. I was in control, I knew it.”
As players, managers and coaching staff came together in an unseemly melee inside the tunnel, the scrap turned to slapstick as a food fight resembling a scene from Bugsy Malone ensued.
“This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the mush,” wrote Ashley Cole in his autobiography two years later. “The slap echoed down the tunnel and everything stopped – the fighting, the yelling, everything. All eyes turned and all mouths gawped to see this pizza slip off that famous puce face and roll down his nice black suit.”
Although the culprit has never admitted to it, a 17-year-old tinker by the name of Cesc Fabregas is thought to have been the man specialising in the little known art of dough-chucking. Naturally, the papers had their story and every pizza pun ever written would be committed to print over the next few weeks.
As for Arsenal, as well as losing their cool, and their unbeaten record, they would also lose a title they have yet to regain since.
But if Ferguson’s reaction upon being hit by a flying pepperoni was something of a surprise – as he headed to the dressing room to change into his tracksuit – possibly the most surprising (and disappointing) factor of this whole absurd affair is that not one of Sky Sports’ army of lenses was able to catch this comical farce on film.
Then again, should such coverage exist, who’s to say that Wenger’s eventual retirement won’t bring about its long overdue release…