You’re in the tunnel at Highbury.
You’re in the zone, ready for a massive match against Arsenal.
Suddenly, Roy Keane starts having a go at Patrick Vieira, before we’re even on the pitch.
In that one moment, you’re in complete shock. All sorts of things run through your head.
Is it going to kick off again, like at Old Trafford last year?
What’s the ref going to do?
Are they going to come to blows?
You’re on edge, getting ready to rumble or hold somebody back. In that moment you don’t know what’s going to happen. Everything’s on a knife edge.
If you’re going into a fight, without a doubt, you want to be on Roy Keane’s side. Then look at the other lads in the dressing room that night: Wazza, Wes, Rio, Heinze, Scholesy… we’ve got all those lads and more, and Sir Alex Ferguson behind us, so you look around and think to yourself:
Yeah, we’ll be alright.
At the time I was one of the youngsters in the team – I actually turned 21 that day – and it was a surreal incident to be a part of. In that moment I didn’t know how things were going to play out in the tunnel, but I just knew I was going to go out there on the pitch and validate Alex Ferguson’s decision to pick me. The fact that he’d not only picked me, but given me a hugely important role in the team, was absolutely massive for me.
I’d played at Highbury once before, in a 1-1 draw the previous season, 2003/04. I think I did well in that game, well enough to have caught Alex Ferguson’s eye, because when we played Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final a week later, I was still in the team. That’s when I was first given specific jobs to do within our approach. That was quite daunting as a young lad, but I was up for it. I had a combination of two jobs to do.
Firstly: get against Patrick Vieira.
Secondly: double up with Gary Neville. We didn’t want Ronaldo to defend too deep, because we felt he could really hurt them in attack. We didn’t want Ashley Cole to pin Ronaldo back into a right-back position. Arsenal’s attacks all came down the left. Henry would drift out wide, Pires would drift inside, Cole would start really high and bomb on, so as soon as they attacked down the left, I had to get over and help Gaz because we didn’t want Ronaldo to come too far back. That day it was Clichy, rather than Cole, but the plan was still the same.
Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t give out these specific roles on too many occasions; it was very rare that somebody would have real detailed roles in the games. Against the better opposition it did come into play a bit more, but it wasn’t an every week occurrence, so I knew how important it was. I was aware in no uncertain terms: this is your job. Like everything in your Man United career, you did it to please the Boss. That’s your job in the game, that’s what he feels like is going to help Manchester United win the game. People follow these instructions. He has an eye for opposition’s strengths and how to exploit their weaknesses by simple things like telling Ronaldo not to track back as far, having a five-man midfield and telling me to double-up with Gary Neville.
Ninety-nine percent of the time he’s right and that wins United the game.
Scholesy ends up scoring the winning goal, and it came 10 seconds after I managed to put pressure onto Vieira that resulted in a loose pass which went to Mikael Silvestre. Roy works it wide to Gary, Ronaldo is high up the pitch and pulling Clichy wide, leaving a gap for Gary to find Giggsy, who crosses for Scholesy to score the winner.
Sir Alex Ferguson is right, United win the game.
It’s one of those games that plays out the way the manager sees in his head, like a chess game. It worked perfectly and we won the semi-final, which was basically the final that year. Arsenal were well on their way to winning the league and we knew it was our best chance of winning silverware that season.
Personally, that performance was massive. Patrick Vieira is very difficult to play against. When you’re in possession, you know Vieira’s coming. He’s got presence. He’s one of those players that you can hear coming because he’s big, he’s powerful and you know he’s coming and his big legs can get to areas where other players can’t. You know your first touch has to be good and you’re going to have to move the ball very quickly.
He was the biggest, strongest physical presence in the Premier League at the time. He was six foot four, massive, and I wasn’t really the biggest built lad myself – especially at that time – but I didn’t think about my physicality too much. I’ve always been quite wiry, but I didn’t think the fact that I wasn’t ready physically was something that was going to hold me back. I think that after playing well against Vieira, it gives you a confidence boost, knowing that I could compete against such a great midfielder.
The Villa Park semi-final was the start of a number of games where I went up against him, including games between Scotland and France. When we beat them at the Parc de Prince in Paris in 2007, I pressed him, nicked the ball away and those big legs just scissored me and chopped me down. It wasn’t a horrific tackle, but it was one to bring somebody down and it ended up fracturing a bone just below my knee that resulted in four weeks on the sidelines.
For me, my role against Vieira wasn’t anything personal. He was a great player – it was probably a compliment from Alex Ferguson that he thought he was the man who made Arsenal tick. Given a specific job, I had loads of energy at the time and Alex Ferguson wanted to exploit that. He probably felt that’s what was needed against Arsenal.
It’s up to you to go out there and play well, though. There’s no point in him giving you a job and Vieira runs over the top of you or Henry drifts in onto Gary Neville and Ashley Cole overlaps and they’re winning the game comfortably. It was massive responsibility, but I loved it. Relished it. Coming off knowing that I’d done it, knowing how much your team-mates realised it as well… these are the unseen things. This is why I always played for the team. I’d be given a specific role, that was my job and I’d follow it through. I knew the rest of the lads knew I had that specific role and after the game when I’d followed it out, you could see that they thought: ‘We can trust Fletch’ or ‘Fletch is a team player.’
They didn’t all say it, of course. Some did, but you can feel it in the way they come up to, shake your hand, rub your head, pat your back. Alex Ferguson was the same. Sometimes you don’t need words, just these players’ actions towards you, and I felt that. For me, that was the ultimate. Getting a mark in the paper or being singled out in a report is nice, yeah, but it was never going to be as nice as Scholesy, Keaney, Giggsy, Gaz Nev, Alex Ferguson coming over, looking you in the eye, shaking your hand, patting your back and going ‘brilliant’. All the other stuff that goes on outside the club is irrelevant, because that’s how we worked.
The Villa Park semi was a massive turning point in my first season. I’d just started playing central midfield for the first team. For most of the season I’d been playing right wing, which was a position that was completely alien to me as I’d never played there before. The first time I was being asked to play there was in the Manchester United team. It was difficult because I was learning the position as I was going and everyone inside the club knew I was going to be a central midfielder, but probably those on the outside didn’t. They just saw this lad… when United have had Beckham, they’ve got Ronaldo and Solskjaer, all these wingers, but now they’ve got more of an industrious midfielder playing wide right. But it was needs-must. A number of injuries happened, things didn’t work out as planned and I was doing my job for the team.
So, I just did that, worked as hard as I could, made sure I was working hard for the team and I was relieved eventually to be getting games in midfield where I could show my true form and my true potential and what I was actually like as a player. To get good performances and big performances like that when you’re playing in central midfield, it’s another confidence booster that probably starts making people realise: ‘Ohhh, this is what he is. He’s not a right winger.’
I think there was also a bit of hurt for both clubs, the fact that the two big dogs were lagging behind Chelsea. There was the sense that this was usually the biggest game in English football, suddenly Chelsea were miles clear at the top of the Premier League, so who was going to be the team who comes out of this and goes on to challenge Chelsea again? So there was some hurt, a lot of animosity, but first and foremost we were going to Highbury to do a job.
I loved playing at Highbury. It probably plays a part in my thinking that I had good games there, but it had a real classiness and tightness about it. They had the old clock, the marble pillars, the entrance was really old fashioned. It was a nice stadium. The corners were open as well, so it didn’t create the bowl effect. It wasn’t a massive crowd, but it made for a nice, intimidating atmosphere. The away fans were right by the pitch too, so you can see them, hear individual shouts, feel part of things with them. It’s more personal that way. That night, you could feel that United were in town and it was a big game because of the history between the two teams.
There was clearly something in the air, because Arsenal started up in the tunnel after the warm-up!
I heard Gary Neville come into the dressing room, saying that a few of the Arsenal lads had just started on him in the tunnel.
“A few of the Arsenal lads have just grabbed me and pushed me in the tunnel.”
It sounded surreal because that doesn’t happen. It hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since. It was a unique situation.
Gaz didn’t seem too bothered by it, he just let out that laugh that he does.
But it was game time, so Roy did what he does.
I think it was kept among the players. He didn’t broadcast what he was about to do. It was just said to a few of the lads; it wasn’t as though Alex Ferguson had sat us down and spoke about it. Roy took it upon himself.
I’m the captain. Nobody does that to my players.
So we get into the tunnel…
…and it all kicks off.
“SEE YOU OUT THERE…”VIDEO
You saw the Arsenal players almost telling Vieira to leave it, not to get involved, whereas we didn’t need to do that with Roy. We knew Roy. We knew he’d be on it. We were backing Roy, but letting him do his thing. He’s our captain, our leader, he would always do what was in the best interests of the team. It wasn’t Roy going in on his own, trying to make himself look good, it was just Roy defending his team-mate. That brings out the best in him. We were ready to back him no matter what, and none of us would ever have held him back. No chance. We knew he would be cool, calm, collected. So in that moment, you’re not sure which way it’s going to go, but you know you’re on the right side, however things pan out.
When that moment passes and you’re getting ready to go out onto the pitch, you’re thinking:
We’re not losing this now. No way.
In the pre-match lineup, both teams shake hands. Gary gives Vieira’s hand a big squeeze. Brilliant. It’s that old one: the cameras are on, they can see everything and we’re not in the tunnel now. Plus he’s got Roy Keane as his captain, hasn’t he? Suddenly he’s ten men!
(Just kidding, Gaz.)
I didn’t do anything specific like that. I just shook everybody’s hand. I had my job to do for the rest of the game against Vieira, so I was pretty much in the zone. I always looked people in the eye and shook their hand. For me, it didn’t matter who I was up against. Nobody held any fear because nobody was better than the players I was facing every day in training. That’s the thing I always took confidence from.
You have your journeys when you come to United and start training with the first team.
First stage, you’re like:
Oh my God, these guys are too good.
Then you’re like:
I’ve got a lot to learn, a lot to improve.
So you accept that and then just start pitting yourself against them every day. There are days when you get terrorised, there are days when you learn and get closer, then there are days when you’re competing. You’re just with them then. I couldn’t ever claim to be of the level of Paul Scholes or Roy Keane because their level was so high, but that’s what I was up against. Those two, Michael Carrick, Nicky Butt… that was the level every day in training. That’s what you’re competing with. There are days when you get the better of them and you can see that they’ve known you’ve gotten the better of them as well. It was a constant battle and we were trying to impress Sir Alex Ferguson because you’re playing for your place in the team. That’s why our games on Fridays were sometimes so intense and so superior to the games on Saturdays. We never had to switch it on for a game. That was a big thing at United. There was never a case of taking it easy in training, then turning it on in the game. We just went into the games and did the exact same thing. It wasn’t a case of switching it on for the games because we were never switched off.
We trained at 100 miles per hour. We were at it. Your shins were cut, your ankles were cut pretty much every day in training. Scholesy, Keaney, Butty… we were all the same, and you got used to that being the norm. Nobody was rolling about or anything like that. You never wore shinpads in training and your ankles and shins were cut to bits. Everybody’s were. That’s the culture we were in. If the other lads were coming in and icing it, seeing the doctor every day, you’d start acting like that. Our environment was different. You never went to the physio unless your leg was hanging off.
I hadn’t realised until I saw the footage back, that I actually gave away the first foul of the game.
Eight seconds in.
For a foul on Vieira.
I just tried to set a tone early in the game.
What had happened in the tunnel had fired us up, even more so that we already were. We didn’t have to say anything to each other about it. We knew it was going out on television, and when you have a bit of action in the tunnel like that, psychologically it becomes massive to win that game. If we didn’t, we knew people would say ‘Vieira got to Keane,’ ’Vieira got to Man United’, ‘Arsenal’s plan worked.’
So you’re thinking:
No matter what, we’re not losing tonight.
Then Vieira scores straight away, and you’re thinking:
Ok, he’s up for it as well.
I know I said it was on me if he scored, by the way, but that was in open play. As a young lad, I wasn’t given the job of man-marking at corners. I got the space at the front post to attack. So when Vieira heads in from a corner, it wasn’t on me – I’ll have to have another look back to see who was supposed to be marking him!
Still, you’re walking back to the centre circle and you’re thinking:
We definitely can’t lose this now. Vieira’s done that in the tunnel and now he’s gone and scored the first goal.
They’re not winning the game like this.
He’s not scoring the goal that wins it.
Those were all the things going through my head, and I know for a fact that they were going through Roy’s head, Scholesy’s head, Giggsy’s head, Gaz’s head, Rio’s head… we all had that same mindset.
So, with both teams so fired up, it was a good job we had Graham Poll as referee. I liked Graham. I thought he was the best referee at the time. He understood the game and the magnitude of it. He was willing to let it be a game. He knew there was going to be tackles, going to be altercations, pushing, and I think he probably stretched the rules a little bit to allow it to be the game it was going to be. Otherwise he’d have stopped it every few seconds and it wouldn’t have been a spectacle at all. He was the right referee for that game at that time.
Robert Pires got booked for a kick-out at me, a bit of petulance, and Wazza – who was extremely fired up – came over, got involved and ended up having a bit of a talking-to from Graham. There was an article in one of the papers the next day about how many times Wazza swore, about kids watching the game and all that, but it was a common thing, you know? I don’t swear too much in day-to-day life but on the pitch I do swear a lot, so it becomes a thing. You’re just in the zone. It was the way we were in training every day as well. You might look at that and think: ‘That’s excessive’, but ask our fitness coach Tony Strudwick, who used to referee our training game; it was like that pretty much every day. This wasn’t us turning it on for a game, this was us pretty much how we were day in, day out: desperate to win, to be the best. We were going to argue and snarl at every decision.
So, when Giggsy equalises via a deflection, but Bergkamp then puts Arsenal 2-1 up before half-time, obviously we weren’t happy to be going in behind. The conversation in the dressing room very much echoed the mood at the start of the game.
We’re not coming here and losing.
It’s not an option.
There were words said about the goals we’d conceded – there always were – so we were told to nail that down. That kind of thing doesn’t happen again. Then, just keep playing because we can definitely hurt them. We knew it was always going to be a tough game against Arsenal, but at the same time we always knew we were capable of hurting them.
In the opening 15 minutes of the second half, we really hurt them.
At the time I felt like Roy, who was meant to be playing as the holding midfielder, realised there was a bit of space to work with, so he started driving forward with the ball and taking the game to Arsenal with those runs of his. For me it was just: ‘great, I’ll just come in around and let Roy drive forward’, so that was what I did.
Ronaldo equalised with a great finish, then scored again a few minutes later. Roy drove the team forward and played a great ball to Giggsy with the outside of his foot, curled it around the defender. I remember at the time thinking: ‘what a pass’, and then Giggsy’s delivery, well… right foot, goalkeeper rushing towards him, defenders around him, virtually on the byline, and he just drops it on the line for Ronny to prod it in. Classic Giggsy. Ridiculous.
His qualities in the final third in terms of picking passes were vastly underrated. People see him as this dribbling, flying winger, but Giggsy was the best assist passer of the ball around. Little dinks, giving the eyes to goalkeepers, Giggsy was brilliant at all that, so it didn’t surprise anybody in our dressing room, even with his right foot, that he pulled off an assist like that.
And Ronaldo… well, he was desperate to score, wasn’t he? If Giggsy’s cross had been heading in then I reckon Ronaldo would have put it in anyway. It felt like it was a big night for him in his career, scoring two in such a big game. There was always this question of whether he could turn his performances and his abilities into goals, and probably for him it was a big night. They were the kind of goals you see him score all the time now: running in from wide areas, getting into the box like a striker. That run has become synonymous with him now, going from a winger’s position to a centre-forward’s position. He gets two goals. Off the back of doing it against Arsenal he probably got great confidence from that night, as a young lad. You need games like that, big performances where things just click.
Shortly after we went 3-2 up, I went off. Looking back, reports from the time said I was injured, but I can’t remember whether I was or not. I might have been, but then maybe it was a tactical substitution to see the game out. Sheasy probably got given exactly the same role as me. I wasn’t one to overthink getting taken off by Sir Alex Ferguson.
The manager had more work to do when Mikael Silvestre was sent off shortly afterwards for headbutting Freddie Ljungberg. Now, Mikael was a very calm guy, but it was a fierce atmosphere and these things can happen in the heat of the moment. Also, I think Roy spoke to all the lads before the game about something which always wound him up:
All your mates out there playing for them, they’re not your mates tonight. Shake hands with them after the game but I don’t want to see you shaking hands with them before the game.
Mikael would have been up for the game anyway, but I’m sure that was especially so after Roy had spoken to everyone. There were a lot of French lads in the Arsenal team, so maybe Mikael was extra pumped up to make his point.
Either way, off goes Mikael, then Wes comes on for Ronaldo. We were under pressure but comfortable. Then, something happens that’s even more surprising than Mikael losing his head.
He goes through, not a great angle, but just chips it into the far corner with his left foot. Great goal. I’d never seen him do that before in training. Definitely the best game to save it for. Sheasy was good with his left foot. Playing so often at left-back meant that while it wasn’t his most natural foot, he was comfortable on his left side. All players can do certain aspects with their weaker foot, but Sheasy was higher up in that respect. Very capable with his left foot and the dink proved that.
As for why he did it… maybe he had seen Almunia come charging off his line for the second and third goals, maybe he saw him coming in the corner of his eye and it was pure instinct. Only he knows.
Same goes for his celebration. The shock of the whole thing just got to him and then he decides to celebrate. It’s a great moment. Everyone remembers the surprise on his face. I’ve no idea what was going through his head, other than total shock, but he was probably thinking things like:
What was I doing there in the first place?
Am I offside?
Does that count?
What’s just happened?
What’s happened is that Alex Ferguson got it right again. He takes me off at 3-2, brings on Sheasy and he scores the fourth! It was just a brilliant goal, a surreal celebration and the perfect way to end that game for us.
HIGHLIGHTS: ARSENAL 2 UNITED 4VIDEO
We had no interest in rubbing their faces in it because of what happened before the game, saying: ‘this is what you get’. None of that. We never over-celebrated trophies, never mind a one-off game at Arsenal. We never gloated. It was never our way to rub people’s faces in it. Other teams did that to us, but we never did that. We were very humble in that respect.
We’d done our job. We’ve shown we’re better on the night and we don’t have to say anything. We go back to the dressing room, we go on and move forward to the next game.
That’s all we need.