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The end of the Premier League’s greatest rivalry: Roy Keane and the Highbury Tunnel Incident

Arsenal 2-4 Manchester United, in their last meeting at Highbury, but it wasn’t the pitch that proved to be Keane’s stage...

MUTV chose Arsenal 2-4 Manchester United from 2005 as their free “match rewind” on Thursday, which got me thinking about that match. What everyone mostly remembers from that clash isn’t a particular goal or player performance. More often than not, it’s the brief but brilliant tussle in the Highbury tunnel between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira — the two captains as synonymous with the United-Arsenal rivalry as the clubs themselves. It didn’t get too ugly, and certainly isn’t the nastiest encounter between the two, but it is a fitting end to the rivalry as it was in the early 2000s. For Roy Keane especially, it’s a last glimpse of a maverick against his most hated foe before his career at United came to a dramatic end.

The legend of Roy Keane has many chapters, and not all of them are as graceful as Turin, but it isn’t just the glory that drives the fascination with the Irishman. He was a warrior; controversial at times, who drove himself and his team in a way that you don’t see much anymore. And even in the years where he was declining as a player, he was a force to be reckoned with.

This poem by Musa Okwongo brilliantly captures what it is about Roy Keane that is so irresistible, and what you see in his fiery performance in the tunnel at Highbury and throughout his career.

The scene: Highbury. February 1, 2005.

Both Manchester United and Arsenal are chasing down José Mourinho’s Chelsea, but the bad blood from nearly a decade of challenging each other for everything in England still boiled over when these two modern rivals met.

During the pre-match warm-ups Patrick Vieira decided to have a go at Gary Neville, who gained notoriety for his rough defending of Jose Antonio Reyes in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford earlier in the season (which famously ended Arsenal’s “invincible” run). Neville went into the dressing room going on about the incident, and Keane — who according to Neville sat silently listening — decided to confront Vieira in the tunnel before the walkout. The result was a highly publicized incident which saw Vieira being pulled away, followed by a furious Keane.

Before anyone had even taken the pitch, the battle had started. Part of the mythos around Keane is his combative nature, and it’s on full display here: Getting in Patrick Vieira’s face in defense of Neville (a teammate who most have admitted is a bit annoying at times), because that is Keane’s teammate, and Keane was the manager on the pitch for Sir Alex Ferguson. Whether or not it was the right thing to do, it was the Roy Keane thing to do.

In the actual match, Keane wasn’t spectacular, and it was Vieira who got on the scoresheet and got to celebrate over his personal rival, but it was United who won the day. Keane wasn’t the player he used to be by then, but he still had a good football brain on him. United in general were in a bit of an identity crisis, but in this game Keane and his men were up for the job of beating an Arsenal team on the brink of collapse themselves. Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo gave United the 3 goals that it would take to beat the Gunners, and a young John O’Shea provided a fantastic chip for the 4th and clinching goal.

There was a nastiness in this game between Arsenal and Manchester United for all to see that just isn’t there anymore. To be fair, it’s the sort of nastiness that you don’t always want to see in football, but in this case perhaps it harkens back to an era of success that both sets of fans yearn for.

What was a fun win for United proved to not matter too much for either team, as both failed to catch Chelsea — a signal of the start of dramatic changes in the identity of both teams.

Arsenal were a very good team, and Patrick Vieira was a very good midfielder, but it’s known now that this was the beginning of the end. The Gunners would win the FA Cup that year, and Thierry Henry would drag them to the Champions League final the next season, but to this day they’ve yet to replicate the heights of that early noughties team.

For United, Keane would leave just a year later after a nasty fall out with Sir Alex. Unlike Arsenal, the Reds followed their period of transition with the emergence of a new team, and a return to the summit of club football. But there is still a unique and intense rivalry from those years that has yet to be eclipsed in English football. This game is perhaps the final chapter of that period, more in character than the unspectacular FA Cup Final a few months later, and an entertaining end for Vieira and Keane, the Premier League’s greatest midfield rivalry.

Neil Brennan’s Roy Keane Versus podcast series starts off with a conversation on this very game. I cannot recommend his series enough, and it explores Keane’s career better than this article ever could.