In years gone by, when Arsenal visited Old Trafford, there was a hatred in the air that wasn’t present for many games.
Of course the likes of Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester City have always been bigger rivals for Manchester United, but the competition between Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s meant a new rivalry was formed.
Ahead of kick-off, one of the things that really used to annoy me was the way the Arsenal players would go around shaking hands and hugging each other. Sometimes they would do a group huddle too.
I distinctly remember my dad nudging me with his elbow, looking in the direction of the embracing Arsenal players, and rolling his eyes. There was something so namby-pamby about the way they conducted themselves and I was relieved our players weren’t so self-indulgent.
Now, ahead of every match, United players do exactly the same. I watch them going from player to player, shaking each other’s hands, patting each other on the back, and it’s irritating.
I’m not one of these people who repeats the mantra of “the game is gone” when seeing players carry out their rehearsed celebrations with their teammates or post-match hand shakes. It never bothered me when Paul Ince and Ryan Giggs did it, in fact, I loved it. I cheered as loudly as anyone when Lee Sharpe carried out his Sharpey Shuffle, so if Paul Pogba wants to dab and dance about, all power to him.
But there is a softness that has crept in to the game, carrying out rituals for the sake of the cameras, that gets under my skin. The players have just spent hours together in the lead up to kick-off. They don’t need to go around hugging each other once one the pitch with the Sky Sports cameras rolling.
Regardless, what reminded me of how much this irritated me was Rio Ferdinand’s chat with Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell on The NFL Show, when reflecting on how footballers used to be.
Our former defender discussed how his great friendship with Frank Lampard disintegrated when they began playing for rival clubs.
Here were two players that had grown up together in West Ham’s youth team, who had played in the same England U-21 set up, roomed together, and were best mates.
Yet when Lampard was at Chelsea and Ferdinand was at United, two teams that were fighting it out against each other to win top honours, the pair stopped talking.
In his latest book, Ferdinand talked about how the rift had developed, but before it was published, did Lampard the courtesy of sending it to him first. Lampard text him back and told him that if he was to write a chapter on Ferdinand, it would have been “word for word exactly the same”.
Now, as retired players, they’ve rekindled their friendship, with Lampard celebrating Ferdinand’s birthday with him a few weeks ago. But Ferdinand claimed that their “obsession with winning” had meant their relationship had gone down the pan while they were playing.
“We didn’t hate each other but I didn’t want to give him anything that he could take back to Chelsea,” he told The NFL Show. “I didn’t like him anymore really because he was playing for Chelsea. He was getting his hands on a trophy that I wanted.”
Lampard beat Rio to the Premier League title in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Ferdinand got the upper hand in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013. Chelsea beat us in the 2007 FA Cup final, while we beat Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final.
The week after Moscow, the English players from both sides met up for international duty, and John Terry later reflected on this being the worst week of his life, having to sit down and eat with the likes of Ferdinand, Wes Brown and Owen Hargreaves, who had pipped Chelsea to the league title and European Cup earlier that month.
People may look at the breakdown of Lampard and Ferdinand’s relationship as something to be pitied. How sad that two grown men couldn’t put their football team aside for the sake of their mate. But I love it.
Sadly, this sort of story seems to be one of days gone by though. On United’s most recent visit to the Emirates, the players were seen embracing each other in the tunnel ahead of kick-off, having a chat with their opponents and cracking a joke.
“Oh this is a nonsense,” Phil Neville said, commentating on the game, clearly irritated. “Look at Wayne Rooney, there: old school, looking forward, not hugging and kissing. I think Monreal thinks he’s going to a christening and not a football match. I can’t imagine doing that to Martin Keown ten years ago in the tunnel at Highbury. It doesn’t matter if you know them. You see each other in the bar afterwards but before the game you need to concentrate.”
Keown shared Neville’s disdain. “This is what modern day players are like,” he added. “I hated it when French players were like this with one another.”
You’ll see players on derby day, about to face their fiercest rivals, and it’s all laughter and handshakes in the tunnel. The moment the whistle has blown at the end of the game, regardless of the score, you’ll see them covering their mouths so the cameras can’t pick up what they’re saying, as they laugh and joke with the opposition. I hate it.
How should footballers greet players of rival teams in the tunnel? Exactly as Gary Neville reacted to Peter Schmeichel in the 2002 derby.
Yet in the final year of his playing career, when he was 40, Schmeichel signed for rivals City. United were lined up in the tunnel at Maine Road when the goalkeeper lead his team out. He reached the front and tapped Neville on the shoulder. The United captain turned around and when he clocked it was Schmeichel, he withdrew his hand and walked to the other side of the tunnel.
They don’t make them like that anymore. Gutted.