Phil Neville has revealed how Manchester United drew inspiration ahead of the infamous ‘Battle of the Buffet’ in 2004 from the fact that Arsenal players had planned to wear shirts proclaiming ’50 not out’ underneath their jerseys.
The two sides were at the height of their famous rivalry at the time and this particular game had extra importance: an Arsenal win or draw would have extended their unbeaten run to 50 games – an English record.
Man United mercilessly kicked Arsenal players all evening, causing their influence in the game to dwindle, and took the lead through a controversial Ruud van Nistelrooy penalty – sweet redemption following his penalty miss in the same fixture last season – before Wayne Rooney put the game to bed, setting in motion mass brawl in the tunnel during which Cesc Fabregas threw a slice of pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson.
Discussing the game on a Channel 5 documentary about the rivalry between the clubs, Neville noted how the idea of Arsenal players printing shirts stating ’50 not out’ gave them all the motivation they needed.
“We were ready,” he said. “In a period of 12 months when they’d got the better of us this was our moment, Sir Alex knew it was our moment.”
“He’d placed every little bit of the last two weeks on this particular game, they are not coming to Old Trafford and they are not gonna do us.
“They had a young Spanish winger called Jose Antonio and we literally kicked him off, I think he got subbed off for all 60 minutes.
“Every time he got the ball, Gary smashed him. Next time he got the ball I smashed him, next time he got the ball Scholesy smashed him and after a bit I remember looking at him and thinking what am I doing, it’s football.”
Sir Alex Ferguson noted in his autobiography that this games marked a watershed moment in Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal career: the moment where the Frenchman and his team, a beacon of class and muscle in perfect tandem, finally boiled over the edge.
More suitably, in fact, they simply imploded. To come that close to writing your name in the history books in a truly unique way, only to then see that hope dashed in a haze of crunching tackles from the Neville brothers and questionable refereeing decisions, set in motion the Arsenal we see today – the side without cojones but plenty of people to blame for their misfortunes.