In 13 years of verbal swipes, mind games, intense rivalry and the odd game of football between Arsenal and Manchester United, the ever-changing relationship between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger has proved a fascinating element in the landscape of the modern English game. Following a decade of bitter exchanges, however, nobody could have predicted the shift in attitude that has taken place in recent years. The seas are eerily calm, and the talk is of a newfound mutual respect. They parted company with cordial conversation and a handshake after United’s controversial 2-1 victory at Old Trafford last week and even Wenger’s accusations of “anti-football” appear to have been quietly swept under the carpet by the fiery Scot.
Both managers were in Nyon, Switzerland last week as part of UEFA’s elite club coaches’ forum, sharing wisdom on the major issues affecting the game. In the evenings Ferguson and Wenger were reportedly dining together, along with a host of other top managers, pondering the ins and outs of the ‘beautiful’ game over a bottle of Burgundy. At times, though, the relationship between Ferguson and Wenger seemed irreparably damaged. With such a bitter history, will the two be able to maintain this period of detente?
Wenger complains the fixture list is unfair and favours Manchester United:
“It’s wrong the league programme is extended so Manchester United can rest up and win everything.”
Ferguson responds by dismissing Wenger:
“He’s a novice - he should keep his opinions to Japanese football.”
Wenger refuses to shake hands with Ferguson an epic FA Cup semi-final. Ferguson says it is the biggest insult he has faced as a manager.
1999, 2002 –
Ferguson criticises Arsenal’s disciplinary record in the 1999 season. In 2002 he questions how Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira have managed to have their disciplinary hearings delayed.
“They wouldn’t have waited for three months if it was a United player... our disciplinary record is tremendous. I’m very proud of it.”
Wenger responds: “One thing I will say is that he doesn’t disturb my nights at all. We didn’t do anything.”
An Arsenal player, later revealed to be current captain Cesc Fabregas, throws a slice of Pizza at Ferguson after United end Arsenal’s 49 game unbeaten run with a 2-0 win at Old Trafford.
“Their behaviour was the worst thing I have seen in this sport. They got off scot-free.”
Wenger is called to the FA after labelling Ruud van Nistelrooy "a cheat."
Ferguson labels Wenger’s actions “unthinkable for a manager” and “a disgrace” after the Arsenal manger refuses to apologise for the Pizzagate incident, also adding that he expects nothing less from “that type of person.”
Wenger tells press that Ferguson should be charged with bringing the game into disrepute:
“Ferguson does what he wants and you (the press) are all down at his feet.”
He later adds that Ferguson has “lost all sense of reality.”
Wenger accuses Ferguson’s team of lacking stamina after his team score twice in the last ten minutes to win 2-1 at The Emirates.
Ferguson responds by labelling Wenger “petty” and says he is “talking nonsense”.
Wenger says he will “never speak about that man again.”
There are plenty of reasons for the recent bonhomie between the two managers, some more accurate than others. The arrival of Jose Mourinho in 2004, who riled Ferguson and Wenger in equal measure, certainly helped to relieve the media focus on their relationship. The theory that my enemy’s enemy is my friend rung truer than ever, as the self-styled "Special One" took the spotlight in the English press and made enemies of nearly every manager in the league.
Ferguson has also claimed that personalities in their respective squads over the years have contributed to the disputes off the field. The titanic battles between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira sparked controversy on the pitch which was inevitably reflected in the war of words between the managers in the press conferences thereafter. Nowadays there seem to be fewer dominant characters on either side and encounters between the two have been noticeably calmer.
The most significant factor, however, is almost certainly that Ferguson began to view Arsenal as less of a genuine threat to his team’s superiority, a reality that will have grated on Wenger.
It is no surprise; furthermore, that Liverpool’s emergence as a legitimate challenger to the Premier League crown has coincided with a furious row between Rafael Benitez and the United manager. It is human nature: hostility arises from intimidation, and in recent years, Arsenal have not intimidated their rivals in the north.
As the longest serving coaches in the Premier League, Ferguson and Wenger have seen it all; the euphoric highs and crushing lows of management at the top level. They are survivors. It is only natural; therefore, that they should harbour a grudging respect for one another, but this temporary easing of tensions is just that, temporary. Something so fragile is destined not to last.
With Patrice Evra seemingly on a one-man mission to reignite player tensions between the clubs, labelling last season’s Champions League semi-final “men against boys”, Ferguson and Wenger can expect the fiery battles of old to reappear in the coming years. If Arsenal mount a serious title challenge, do you really expect the pleasantries to continue? Mind games will resurface, respect will be lost and the two great managers will once again be sharing insults rather than red wine.