• Premier League

Rewind: The Manchester United-Arsenal Battle of the Buffet

ESPN staff
October 24, 2014
Mike Riley tries to keep the peace as tempers rise between Manchester United and Arsenal © Getty Images

October 24, 2004, Old Trafford

It was never likely to spark wild celebrations at Arsenal but a decade ago to the day on Friday their reign as Premier League 'Invincibles' came to an end in a hail of fast food in the Old Trafford tunnel.

That ill-tempered defeat away to Manchester United was their first loss in a half-century of games and, as a side that had spent the previous 18 months lighting up English football, the reigning champions didn't go down without resistance. A fight materialised and, it later transpired, involved flying food.

So unusual was such a tale that it earned two names: the Battle of the Buffet and Pizzagate.

The spark for the food fight came from an incensed Arsene Wenger who, when the final whistle had sounded on the 2-0 loss, was reported to have called United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy a "cheat" after he made a heavy challenge on Arsenal's Ashley Cole, which went unseen by referee Mike Riley.

Van Nistelrooy, who was at the centre of another melee between the two sides 12 months earlier, told the tempestuous Sir Alex Ferguson what had happened and it was only a matter of time before matters came to a head. Equally enraged by Wenger's accusation, Fergie took it upon himself to defend his player's honour outside the dressing rooms.

That's when the pizza entered the fray.

Not without a hint of irony, just as Ferguson was warning Wenger that he should learn to control his players, a slice of the post-match delicacy reportedly to have hit the Scot slap in the face.

Debate raged over who threw the pizza - if, indeed, it was pizza at all; pea soup and sausage rolls were also suggested to be among the flying food. A young Cesc Fabregas was the prime suspect, but few spoke out on the topic, with the footballing omerta of 'I didn't see it' descending on the fracas.

Gradually though, through a trickle of autobiographies and interviews, a clearer picture has emerged. Ten years on, ESPN pieces together the story from the words of those involved:

Sir Alex Ferguson

Manchester United manager

On confronting Wenger and taking a pizza to the face:

Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates in the Old Trafford rain © Getty Images

"In the tunnel [Arsene] Wenger was criticising my players, calling them cheats, so I told him to leave them alone and behave himself.

"He ran at me with hands raised saying, 'What do you want to do about it?' To not apologise for the behaviour of the players to another manager is unthinkable.

"He was livid. His fists were clenched. I was in control, I knew it.

"The next thing I knew I had pizza all over me. They say it was Cesc Fabregas who threw the pizza at me but, to this day, I have no idea who the culprit is. The corridor outside the dressing-room turned into a rabble."

Taken from his book, Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography, first published last year

Arsene Wenger

Arsenal manager

On feeling robbed by a series of refereeing decisions:

Arsene Wenger heaped blame on referee Mike Riley © Getty Images

"[Mike] Riley decided the game, like we know he can do at Old Trafford. We were robbed.

"There was no contact at all for the penalty, even Rooney said so. It's very difficult to take to see how lightly the referee gives the penalty.

"We can only master our own performance and not the referee's performance. We got the usual penalty awarded against us when we come to Manchester United and they are in difficulty.

"It happened last season and it's happened again."

Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the match

On Rio Ferdinand causing the trouble:

"The pizzagate? I think it was a little unrest in the corridor after the 49th game, refereed by Mike Riley at the time, who is now responsible for the referees. I think on that day, he had not his best day and that brought a lot of frustration on.

"On that day, [Rio] Ferdinand should have been off after 20 minutes so I believe that is what created all the problems in the corridor. Yes, it was aggressive because to lose the way we lost after such a long undefeated run was not acceptable for me and that's why everybody was frustrated."

Speaking in 2013, after the publication of Ferguson's book

Ashley Cole

Arsenal left-back

On the sound made when a slice of pizza hits the face of British football's most succesful manager:

Ashley Cole went toe-to-toe with a young Cristiano Ronaldo © Getty Images

"By the time we were walking down that extendable plastic tunnel everyone was having a go at each other. There were shouts of 'you f****** cheats' and players were running into a jostling huddle where the narrow tunnel opens into a wider mouth.

"I was jammed in the middle. I heard the boss [Arsene Wenger] hammering Ferguson; incandescent French, verbally sparring with the bullish Scotsman.

"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."

Arsenal's starting XI that day: Lehmann, Lauren, Cole, Campbell, Toure, Vieira, Ljungberg, Edu, Reyes, Bergkamp, Henry (Subs: Taylor, Cygan, Pires, Fabregas, Van Persie)

Taken from his from his autobiography, My Defence, published in 2006

Martin Keown

Arsenal centre-back

On the accuracy of the thrower:

"Yeah, I was with the club then but I didn't travel with the team. You hear the stories, don't you?

"Whoever threw it had a very good technique, I can't say any more than that."

Speaking to the Independent in 2008. Keown later admitted in a 2011 phone-in on BBC Radio 5 Live that Fabregas threw the pizza.

Jose Antonio Reyes

Arsenal striker

On the fractious atmosphere inside Old Trafford as Arsenal's 49-game unbeaten run came to an end:

"In all my sporting life I have never received so many kicks as in Manchester. It was the hardest match I have played in England and the referee should have stopped the violence of the Manchester United players.

"I received more blows in that match than I have ever done in the Spanish League and I finished on the ground covered in bruises.

"The referee made so many mistakes and didn't perform well. The penalty should not have been given - but now we all know what a good actor Wayne Rooney is in the penalty area."

Speaking after the match - the loss would affect Reyes' form particuarly badly in the coming months

Roy Keane

Manchester United club captain

On missing the Battle of the Buffet because of an extreme detox plan:

Roy Keane missed the clash due to an extreme diet © Getty Images

"That summer, I'd gone to a detox clinic in Milan with Ryan Giggs. The regime was strict; you starved yourself for three or four days and they educated you about diet.

"I was going through my health freakish phase at the time. The dietitian decided I was eating too much red meat. I needed to cut back and eat more vegetables.

"I came home and went on the new diet, but typical me, the man of extremes, I went too far. My body fat went down to three or four percent. I went too skinny."

"A couple of days before we played Arsenal, I couldn't get out of bed. I had no strength.

"Mike Stone, the club doctor, did some blood tests. My iron levels were gone. I had no iron in my system. Mike told me I had to go back to eating red meat.

"I was gutted that I'd missed the game, and all the fighting that went on in the tunnel afterwards.

"There was pizza being flung around in the tunnel, but I wouldn't have eaten it. It wasn't healthy enough for me."

Taken from his latest autobiography, the Second Half

Gary Neville

Manchester United right-back

On Arsenal as bad losers and United's plans to launch a counter-attack:

Gary Neville and his brother Phil protest to Mike Riley © Getty Images
"The way they [Arsenal] reacted afterwards told you everything about their inability to see football as a battle of skill and courage.

"They had become become bad losers and they threw a really big tantrum, when pizza was lobbed from the away changing room, with one slice landing on our manager and splattering his jacket with tomato and pepperoni.

"Apparently it had all gone off in a hail of pizza and sausage rolls but I missed the fun as I had been out on the pitch celebrating.

"When I got to the dressing room, a few of our lads were arming themselves and planning to launch a raid back. The manager quickly put an end to it."

Writing for the Daily Mail in 2011

What happened next?

Arsenal's unbeaten run was ended in emphatic style, with club greats such as Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera humbled by a dogged United side.

Ferguson said Wenger - who won only one trophy, the 2005 FA Cup, after that match until his triumph in the 2014 competition - lost his way following the 'Battle of the Buffet'.

"The problems started when he lost a game with one of his good Arsenal sides," he wrote in his autobiography. "He found it hard to accept fault in his team and looked to blame the opponent."

He added: "It seemed to me that losing the game scrambled Arsene's brain."

Despite the fireworks at Old Trafford, the story of the 2004-5 season would eventually become one of new money. Chelsea, buoyed by the billions of Roman Abramovich and led by the insurgent Jose Mourinho, claimed their first title in 50 years by a comprehensive 13 points.

Tensions between Ferguson and Wenger eased during the final years of the former's Old Trafford reign, with the turning point coming in the 2009 Champions League semi-final, when Wenger invited Ferguson into the changing rooms to praise United for their win.

Relations between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arene Wenger would thaw in later years © Getty Images
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