Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira were the best of enemies and their rivalry defined both the Premier League and Manchester United vs Arsenal… from THAT tunnel bust-up to squaring up on the pitch at Highbury, we haven’t seen anything like it since
- Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira clashed several times on and off the pitch
- The midfielders were captains of two of the best sides in English football history
- Their rivalry shaped the intense battle between Manchester United and Arsenal
Every sport’s got one. In tennis it was Borg v McEnroe and in the world of boxing it was Ali against Frazier.
In football, for a time, there was nothing quite as intense as Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira.
You can forget about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as the biggest rivalry in football. Sure they’re the best two players in the world, with a competitive streak that has taken both to the summit.
Roy Keane (left) and Patrick Vieira (right) boasted one of the most intense on-pitch rivalries
But in terms of sheer animosity, spectacle and downright theatre, there were few better sights than Keane and Vieira going at it, hammer and tongs.
Manchester United and Arsenal defined the Premier League. Keane and Vieira embodied that rivalry.
One was captain of the Treble winners, the other was captain of the Invincibles.
They met 19 times in nine years as United and Arsenal shared the Premier League trophy between them from 1996 to 2004.
In the 2013 documentary, ‘Keane and Vieira: Best of Enemies’, Keane described his relationship with Arsenal, simply, as hatred.
He called Vieira ‘tough’, who in turn called Keane ‘a leader, a winner. My favourite enemy, I loved every aspect of his game.’
The mutual respect between the two is obvious as they sit across from each other, regale about the old days and bemoan the modern game.
That wasn’t always the case. As opposite numbers in midfield and captains of the best two teams in England they went to war when they locked horns on the pitch.
The two captains pursued each other relentlessly on the pitch and knew they were in ‘wars’
Both captains enjoyed huge success and their rivalry epitomised the two clubs’ long rivalry
The pair hold a mutual respect having since worked together in a media-based capacity
Keane at Man United
Premier League x 7
FA Cup x 4
Champions League x 1
Intercontinental Cup x 1
Vieira at Arsenal
Premier League x 3
FA Cup x 3
Quite often that antipathy spilled over, a natural consequence of the heated, intense rivalry between the two teams.
In 1999, Arsenal and United were the two biggest teams in the land by a country mile. The Gunners had been double winners 12 months previously, and United were now Treble winners.
Only one point separated them in the final standings of 1998-99, and only a Ryan Giggs solo wonder goal settled a titanic FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park that April. Those were the fine margins between United’s Treble, and a trophyless campaign for Arsenal.
Locked at 1-1 in the final five minutes of an early-season clash at Highbury, Vieira and Keane tussled for a loose ball and both left one in on the other – with interest.
Such were the pressure levels that the match boiled over six minutes from the end, as Keane and Patrick Vieira clashed, prompting a face-off between the two sides which the referee did well to defuse.
Vieira dispossessed David Beckham and then the 50-50 challenge saw Keane win the ball and hook into the Arsenal box.
Vieira felt that Keane’s biggest weakness was that he could prove ‘reckless’ on occasion
For Keane (right), he felt Vieira’s biggest weakness was that he simply was not as tough as him
But an onrushing Vieira was unwilling to concede position as he charged into his adversary. A kick-out later and the two were ready to come to blows after Vieira swung at Keane and the United midfielder grabbed his rival’s neck.
Had the referee not caught it in the corner of his eye, a 22-man brawl could have broken out. This was not uncommon when Keane and Vieira locked horns, admittedly.
Jaap Stam charged over as support for Keane and before you know it, the Dutchman was nose-to-nose with Vieira following some choice words.
In the documentary, Vieira is asked if he ever felt intimidated by Keane, to which he said, ‘no, he excites me’. It was a hatred and a rivalry the two leaders came to relish.
They both possessed an insatiable appetite to defeat the other.
Speaking on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football ahead of another clash between both sides last year, Keane admitted that the games back in his day were always wars and that Vieira was indeed one of his toughest opponents.
‘I always felt I was going to war with these boys anyway so I’d be feeling the aches and pains before the match, I wouldn’t mind afterwards, but that’s what you play the game for.
A defining moment for the pair came in 2005 in the tunnel of Arsenal’s old Highbury stadium
Referee Graham Poll tried to diffuse the situation before kick-off as an argument broke out
MATCH FACTS FROM HIGHBURY 2005
Arsenal: Almunia; Lauren (Fabregas 83), Campbell (Hoyte 79), Cygan, Cole; Ljungberg, Flamini (Reyes 70), Vieira, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry.
Goals: Vieira (8), Bergkamp (36)
Booked: Pires, Reyes
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Manchester United: Carroll; G. Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Fletcher (O’Shea 61), Keane, Scholes; Ronaldo (Brown 70), Giggs (Saha 77), Rooney.
Goals: Cole OG (18), Ronaldo (54, 58), O’Shea (88)
Booked: Heinze, Ronaldo, Giggs, Rooney
Sent off: Silvestre
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson
‘Patrick would have been (my toughest opponent) at the time. As I said Patrick would challenge you in different ways, he could get around the pitch, he was good with the ball, he was strong, he had a goal in him.
‘I knew I would have to be at my very very best to be on top of Patrick.’
For all the grappling in the middle of the park, the late tackles, the choice words exchanged, no moment encapsulated Keane and Vieira’s rivalry quite like the infamous tunnel spat at Highbury in 2005.
The tunnel at the old Highbury was a tight squeeze at the best of times but when players and teams hated each other as much as Arsenal and United did, fireworks were inevitable – it was just about who would land the first blow.
With players shoulder-to-shoulder, a confrontation breaks out at the back and referee Graham Poll attempts to navigate through the bodies to break it up, as Pascal Cygan guides Vieira away to the front of the tunnel.
Mikael Silvestre, who was in the United team that day, shed light on how the Arsenal captain got under Keane’s skin before the game had even kicked off.
‘It’s a small tunnel,’ he said. ‘So players are almost like shoulder against shoulder. And I think Patrick went past Gary (Neville), and he said, “You stop talking. You have a big mouth when you are with your team. So I want to take you on one v one. Outside. Me and you”.
‘So Roy Keane, as a good captain, defended Gary. He said, “You want to take on my player? Take it up to me.” There was also some French vocabulary within the conversation as well…’
The two players possessed a warrior-like mentality and felt they needed to defend team-mates
A lot more than what has been quoted above was said as Keane was not done. He knocked everyone else out of the way to get to Vieira, pointing angrily in his face.
‘We’ll see you out there, we’ll see you out there,’ Keane says. ‘Every week. Shut your mouth off. Every week you. Making it out like you’re a nice guy. He started it and needs to shut his f****** mouth up.’
‘I just felt they were bullying Gary,’ Keane later surmised in his book The Second Half. ‘I don’t think it was intimidation; it was bullying.’
‘I was there to do a job. Win the game – get in and get out. But it was a bit like the build-up to a boxing match – the weigh-in, the press conferences – when people forget that there’ll actually be a fight.’
The match had been lit for both sides and while the tunnel incident is the defining moment of the day, the game itself is often forgotten despite Keane’s United going on to win 4-2.
Vieira headed Arsenal in front before an Ashley Cole own goal pegged them back. Dennis Bergkamp restored the hosts’ lead and that was when the switch flicked in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
There has not been a player rivalry since in the Premier League that bettered Keane and Vieira
A brace from Cristiano Ronaldo and a late goal from John O’Shea sealed a famous win over the enemy for Keane and Co. He said he would see to them ‘out there’ and he did.
‘I started it, I was cool, I was really calm, I was smiling at him and then he lost it,’ Vieira said in the documentary.
Vieira admitted he started it with a smirk on his face. There was no smirk on the face of either player as tensions bounced off the walls of the tunnel.
And it has gone on to be a microcosm of their relationship since. It has stood the test of time.
Quite frankly, it is the type of relationship that has not been bettered since. For as much as some players actively dislike others, no one can put forward a convincing case that it is more potent, more personal or more important than Keane v Vieira.
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