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Keane's boot deal, Parlour's Indian curry and Overmars' goal tell tale of old rivalry

As Manchester City and Liverpool prepare for a crucial clash tomorrow, The42 looks back at the week Arsenal took the title from United in 1998.

A disgruntled Alex Ferguson.
A disgruntled Alex Ferguson.

ROY KEANE FLEW back to Dublin to promote a new range of Diadora boots.

It was Thursday, 12 March, 1998, and this was the last place in the world the Manchester United midfielder wanted to be.

Two days before Arsenal would come to Old Trafford for what turned out to be a decisive victory in a gruelling Premier League title race, Keane was not part of the final preparations.

The cruciate knee injury he suffered trying to tackle Alf-Inge Haaland away to Leeds United the previous September had ended his season – not that it would be the last time we’d hear of that incident.

“Things are going really well, it’s a bonus to be back training and playing five-a-sides. There is no physical contact, no one is allowed to kick me – but that’s always been the case,” Keane joked in an exclusive interview with the Irish Independent.

He was clad in a Diadora jumper on the front page of their sports section shoving a pair of boots down the lens of the camera.

“I’m tempted to go into the tackle now, very tempted,” he added. “But there’s no point jeopardising my career for the sake of trying to overdo things at this crucial stage. As hungry as I am to get back, I’m not going to do anything stupid because I have too much to lose.”

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-leeds-united-v-manchester-united Haaland taunts Keane on the ground. Source: EMPICS Sport

This was a pivotal stage of Keane’s career, that type of injury still jeopardising futures, and his absence was felt.

Arsenal arrived in Manchester in the middle of that March without losing in the league since the previous December.

United, on the other hand, had won just four of their previous 13 games in all competitions, which also included a 0-0 draw away to Monaco in the quarter final of the Champions League before crashing out 0-1 at home the following week.

“We always seem to win the games that count, when it was put up to us by Liverpool and Chelsea we got the wins that mattered,” Keane continued.

“We always seem to get the result when there are six-point games at stake. I favour us for a win against Arsenal, especially at Old Trafford.”

The week had started badly for Arsene Wenger, whose influence had ensured a title race in his first full season in charge at Highbury.

Jaap Stam, voted Dutch player of the year, was on the way out of PSV Eindhoven and the Gunners hoped he could replace skipper Tony Adams.

“If there is one player Dennis [Bergkamp] and I would choose to strengthen our side it would be Jaap,” Marc Overmars admitted in the build up.

We both know he would be a huge asset to this club. The entire Dutch defence relies on him. We’ve seen him handle so many top European strikers.”

Instead, PSV chairman Harry van Raay put it bluntly when it came to the rumoured £15 million asking price. “United are the only club in England that can afford him,” he said.

Different times.

The constant was Alex Ferguson, and as anticipation for the game intensified so too did his vaunted mind games.

They had got the better of Kevin Keegan previously, but Wenger was different.

“Shit or bust,” the Frenchman repeated in one of his media briefings that week, having been introduced to the phrase by some of the English tabloid journalists.

And that’s how it was for Arsenal. They arrived to Old Trafford trailing by nine points but with three games in hand.

Overmars would strike in the 79th minute to swing the pendulum of momentum their way, but Ferguson had begun to crank up the pressure.

“If we win, it will just about clinch the title for us. If they were to get a result it could mean we are be in for a cliff-hanger finish,” the Scot said.

“But if Arsenal lose they can pack their bags and forget the title for another season. It is a big, big game, no doubt, and if we win it, then I think it will just about clinch the title.”

soccer-uefa-cup-fourth-round-first-leg-arsenal-v-deportivo-la-coruna-arsenal-training Arsene Wenger watches Dennis Bergkamp train. Source: EMPICS Sport

The managers were two of the few not making a big deal of the kick-off time, moved to 11.15am on the Saturday to accommodate Sky Sports.

“Just as you wouldn’t expect Tiffany to look her most radiant behind the bar of the Queen Vic first thing in the morning, don’t expect a classic at Old Trafford,” one columnist, clearly a fan of Eastenders, wrote for an English red top.

It also led to the Daily Mirror getting the expert opinion of Professor Tom Reilly, head of the research institute for sports science at the Liverpool John Moores University, about how the “title decider could be handicapped by the crackpot early kick-off.”

The talk was of steak and pasta at 7.45am, but Reilly urged for caution. “In some cases, meal the night before may be more important than anything they consume three or four hours before kick-off.

“It’s important that players’ digestive systems can cope with change of eating patterns – and it’s crucial that they do not force feed themselves.

“If you force yourself to have a big plate of spaghetti or steak for breakfast you won’t be doing yourself any favours.”

Arsenal striker Ian Wright, who would miss the game due to injury, summed up his own feelings far more succinctly in his column with The Mirror on the morning of the game – another indication of how times have changed.

“Whoever is responsible for our game at Old Trafford kicking off at 11.15am, can I just point out that morning kick offs are a pain in the backside for everyone.

It says a lot about United’s professionalism that they have such a great record playing at these unholy hours. Mind you, if they played at 3am every week they would still beat everybody because they are so well drilled.”

Food – and reducing his alcohol intake – was also on Ray Parlour’s mind, although the Arsenal midfielder was at pains to point out in an exclusive interview with the Mirror on the morning of the game how he was a changed man.

Under a headline of ‘Growing Pains of Ray Parlour (aged 25 ¼ )’ the article began as follows: “By Arsenal’s raucous standards, Ray Parlour was only ever a trainee hell-raiser.”

The recently capped England B international, dubbed “the boy considered too daft and wild to really crack it” then went on to express his admiration for Adams and Paul Merson turning their lives around.

“I sat down last summer and said ‘time is running out, don’t have any regrets, don’t end up at 40 looking back at what you might have achieved at arsenal. Do it now’,” Parlour said.

“I love an Indian curry but I can’t have too many of them these days. It’s important I’m at my peak for the role I have to play, getting up and down the field.”

man-utd-v-arsenalgoal Marc Overmars scores the winner. Source: PA

He did it at Old Trafford, although it was Overmars who took the glory with a late winner.

“I cannot dent Arsenal their victory but circumstances were against us today,” Ferguson said. “At the end we did not have the strength to beat Arsenal. They took advantage of our weakness and deserve what they got.”

Wenger added: “This is a good morning, yes. I always had the feeling we were in control. I think they were playing for a draw and I don’t blame them. The team they put out gave us a chance to win the match.”

It’s just a snapshot of one pivotal week in the rivalry that shaped that era of the Premier League.

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