When United host Chelsea this Sunday it will be a game between the two most successful clubs of the Premier League era, yet over the years it’s been more than just bunch of men kicking a ball, it is a tale of touchline spats, missed penalties, offside goals, bizarre refereeing decisions, tears, questionable free-kicks, even more questionable yellow cards, fights on the pitch, fights off the pitch, fights on the pitch with the ground staff, red cards and Jon Obi Mikel.
It was around 2004 that the real modern rivalry between Chelsea and United began and since then it’s been a battle of two opposing approaches to the game, one where faith in youth and an autocratic manager reigned, another where money and ruthlessness rule supreme, a game where no matter what the result, controversy is guaranteed.
Like most things in life it’s easy to lay the blame for the rivalry at Jose Mourinho’s door, after all he was the so-called Special One who annoyed Reds by running down the pitch at Old Trafford as Porto dumped United out of the Champions League so it was inevitable that ire would carry on once he joined Chelsea. If people think the sight of Jurgen Klopp celebrating an equaliser against the mighty West Bromwich Albion is annoying, seeing Mourinho head towards that corner flag was something else and he should be grateful we’re not all City fans.
In truth though the seeds of animosity between the two clubs were sown before Jose had even set foot near West London and in a true mark of just how money would play such a big role in the United/Chelsea power struggle, it was the move down the M6 of a former Umbro Executive from Stalybridge that started what can best be described as a form of mutual contempt.
Peter Kenyon’s decision to join Chelsea’s new Russian revolution would probably have gone unnoticed by most fans who, especially in the pre-Glazer days, paid scant attention to the shenanigans at boardroom level, were it not for the fact one of his first actions at Stamford Bridge was to bring Sir Alex Ferguson’s long-term target Arjen Robben to the club, under the noses of his former employers.
Chelsea’s spending was suddenly enabling them to trump the Reds in the transfer market, a similar situation to what had happened at Blackburn in the early 90s where Alan Shearer was happy to play in front of one of the league’s smallest crowds if it meant he had one of the league’s biggest bank balances, the type of thinking an old school football man like Ferguson never fully got his head round.
It’s with money talking and lots of it at their disposal, a brash, young, talented, manager not to mention the lure of London, where all the streets are paved with gold, every driveway has a Ferrari and you’ve a good chance of marrying an actual princess, that Chelsea began building a squad that would truly rival United for the next decade and beyond.
To add insult to injury Chelsea even managed to sign United’s own players before they’d kicked a ball for the Reds, the Jon Obi Mikel saga was like something from a really rubbish spy novel- or a comic book – a the story of alleged kidnappings, forced signatures and bizarre claims, with the Reds eventually getting around £14 million for the player whose sole action for the club was to pose in a United top.
From 2005 up until that dreadful moment in 2012 when the noisy neighbours gave Martin Tyler something so amazing to celebrate he’s not stopped celebrating since, United and Chelsea were the Premier League’s only title winners.
In many ways United versus Chelsea, with good odds available from virgin promos initially embodied a battle between the old and the new, the rich and the not quite as rich, the established order and the young, cheeky upstart with ‘new money’ who refuses to know his place but instead creates his own by knocking the others out of the way.
Ferguson and Mourinho may be bezzies now but in the mid-noughties you were more likely to see them exchanging insults than hugs and kisses, although much of the real rivalry between the two sides came on the pitch and much of it after Jose had abruptly left early in the 2007-08 season.
It’s not just in the league that this rivalry grew, with an FA Cup final clash in 2007, followed by THAT night in Moscow that we all remember so well, meaning there was a new added importance when the two sides met that edged towards defining history.
United and Chelsea’s rivalry was also unique in that it became an almost organic beast of its own, a perpetual motion of clashes, rows, fights, fines and the odd football match whereby when the managers were calm, the players would pick up the sword and begin the battle again, even the groundsmen got involved when it all looked in danger of petering out.
While the current games between the two sides stopped being title deciders around the same time the Useless One took over at Old Trafford, the feuding has continued with last season’s FA Cup game at Stamford Bridge seeing Mourinho sticking three hairy fingers up to his once adoring public to kindly remind them in between the chants of Judas that he remains the most successful manager in their club’s history.
Mourinho also managed to find time between arguing with his own players, former fans, former players and referees to fit in a bit of arguing with Antonio Conte, whispering in his opposite’s ear about respect, an argument he liked so much he decided to make it a perennial occasion, reminding everyone this season that his fellow coach was once suspended amidst match-fixing allegations – presumably, just in case we’d all forgotten.
When the players, fans, coaches and ground staff couldn’t muster the energy to ignite the flames of fury between the two sides, then the officials almost certainly could, whether it was awarding needless free-kicks, dishing out cards like a crack-addled croupier or completely abandoning the offside rule.
One official was always considered worse than most when it came to United v Chelsea games, a man who seemed so inept it was often like he’d learned the rules to association football by skim reading a pamphlet on the way to the ground, that man was Martin Atkinson, I don’t need to tell you who’ll be in charge this Sunday – with him in the middle and Jose and Antonio on the touchline – no matter what the result, expect fireworks, on and off the pitch.