When Arsenal made the trip up to Old Trafford on October 24th, 2004, they were riding a 49-game unbeaten run. If you’re unfamiliar with the Premier League, this was a big deal. No other team ever has put together an unbeaten season; the Gunners did so as champions. The team they replaced? Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, the 900-pound gorilla of English football, and Arsenal’s only real rival for dominance at the time. Out of the past nine seasons, United had six championships, Arsenal three. The other teams were on the outside looking in.
This was not a friendly rivalry. These teams hated each other, and they had the personnel to translate that hatred into pain. Games between United and Arsenal weren’t just battles between two of the top clubs in Europe, they were injected with thunder and blood, like playing a Classico entirely with Vikings (or Pepes). In Patrick Vieira alone these sides had enough midfield enforcement for the entire planet, and the rest of their squads were plenty capable of getting chippy as well.
So when United hosted Arsenal that day, everyone was prepared to watch an absolutely ferocious clash, despite the absence of Roy Keane through illness. They got that. But they also got something far more important: a food fight.
Pretty much everything went United’s way during the game itself. Ruud van Nistlerooy got away with a red-card tackle on Ashley Cole which saw him earn a retroactive ban, the whole side took turns to kick the absolute piss out of Jose Antonio Reyes, Wayne Rooney dived to win a penalty, and ultimately the visitors’ unbeaten streak ended with a 2-0 loss.
The real fireworks came afterwards. The Gunners were unhappy with referee Mike Riley’s performance — which, to be fair, was terrible, unhappy with United’s behaviour — which, to be fair, was just the sort of thing that happened in these games, and unhappy with the fact that their record-setting run was over just shy of a nice round number. As the players went down the tunnel together, a scuffle erupted. It wasn’t quite violence, but it wasn’t far off, and even Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was involved.
And then it happened.
The first indication that anything unusual had taken place was when Ferguson came out for his post-match interview in a change of clothes. Nobody seems to have asked him about it at the time, but rumours slowly emerged that the squabble between the teams had culminated with a pizza to the then-62-year-old’s face.
Years later, Ashley Cole would relate the Arsenal side of the story.
This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the mush. 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.
I thought Ferguson was going to explode but then he stormed off into the dressing room cursing and grunting, brushing the crumbs and stains off his collar. We all went back into the dressing room and fell about laughing. All I can say is that the culprit wasn’t English or French, so that should narrow it down.
Where did Arsenal get the pizza from? Each team was given a post-match buffet in their dressing room. All the culprit had to do was duck inside, grab a slice, step back out into the tunnel and let fly, and, as I believe Anton Chekhov once claimed, if you leave a pizza in a dressing room in Act One, it must be thrown at Sir Alex Ferguson by the end of Act Three. Which it was.
Pizza-gate, as it was then sometimes known (that moniker seems to have fallen by the wayside these days, and I can’t think why), was shrouded in mystery from the beginning. There were no cameras in the tunnel, and neither team was particularly forthcoming about events. In many ways, this made it even juicier. The rumour of pizza is frequently better than the reality of pizza, especially if you happen to be in England.
What nobody knew at the time was that this was the last significant episode in the Arsenal-United rivalry. Fellow London side Chelsea, runners up during the Invincibles season, would win the league at a canter that year, supplanting the Gunners in the two-way struggle for dominance of English football. Pizza-throwing might have been a good jape, but it marked the beginning of Arsenal’s descent into punchline. They’ve not come close to winning the league since.
In retrospect this should not have been much of a surprise. Pizzas to the face don’t happen in serious rivalries. A punch? Sure. I mean, that’s frowned upon, but violence is the sort of thing that happens when tensions boil over between evenly matched opponents who happen to hate one another. A food fight, however evokes a sort of post-seriousness, a marker that the whole affair is about to descend into the blissful surreality of farce. Pizza, I’ve found, is a foolproof antidote to tension.
There’s something a little bit magical in this being the beginning of the end of Arsenal as a serious force in English football. Over the next few years, their stars would drift away, either into retirement or lured to bigger clubs. Money poured into the game, elevating other teams and leaving them behind. Their run as one of the sport’s great teams ended not with a bang, but with a pizza.
Oh, and if you the glaring loose end tidied, it was Cesc Fàbregas. Thirteen years later, the World Cup winner finally admitted that he was the pizza-thrower.