Roy Keane vs Patrick Vieira: The bitter rivalry behind legendary tunnel fight

They were the beating hearts of England's two top teams for nearly a decade, but one defining moment sticks in the memory of football fans

Boxing had Ali and Frazier, Tennis had Borg and McEnroe and football had Keane and Vieira.

They have long since retired from playing, but Manchester United fans and Arsenal fans both lament the fact that they don't have players like Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira any more.

An emblematic duo, Keane and Vieira fought many battles on the fields of Highbury and Old Trafford, but their most unforgettable encounter actually came off the pitch.

Goal takes a look back at that incident and the legacy they have each left behind.

Keane vs Vieira: Highbury tunnel incident

Roy Keane Manchester United Patrick Vieira Arsenal 2005

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal became one of the defining features of the Premier League and two men personified the long-running battle.

They came up against each other plenty of times in many heated confrontations, but the most memorable clash between Keane and Vieira came on February 1, 2005 at Arsenal's former home Highbury.

Television cameras were perfectly placed to capture the moment, peering down the cramped Highbury tunnel as Keane took exception to something Vieira had said. The referee, Graham Poll, intervened to quell the disturbance, but Keane had not said his piece.

As Vieira is led away from the incident by team-mate Pascal Cygan and Dennis Bergkamp has a quiet word in his ear, the Irishman defiantly makes his way through the sea of bodies, while angrily berating the Arsenal captain. Shouting "we'll see out there!" at Vieira, Keane actually has to be restrained by Poll, who urges the United captain to calm down before taking to the pitch.

PS Roy Keane Gary Neville Highbury tunnel incident

It later emerged that Keane was incensed by the fact that Arsenal were, in his words "bullying" Gary Neville, something that Neville recently explained to Soccer AM.

"I could hear these footsteps behind me and Vieira shouting, 'Neville! Neville! You're not going to kick our players out on this pitch today,'" Neville recalled.

"Roy obviously turned back, heard him and started having a go at him. He (Vieira) sort of squirted his water bottle towards Roy, then all hell broke loose."

"I just felt they were bullying Gary," Keane later reflected in his book The Second Half. "I don't think it was intimidation; it was bullying."

He added: "I was there to do a job. 'Win the game - get in and get out'. But it was a bit like the build-up to a boxing match - the weigh-in, the press conferences - when people forget that there'll actually be a fight.

"I think football might lack that energy now, a bit; that tension. It was great. But years later people bring up the tunnel and they don't remember the match that came after it."

Arsenal 2-4 Man Utd: The match itself

Manchester United 4-2 Arsenal 2005

Arsenal 2-4 Manchester United (Premier League, Feb 1, 2005)

As Keane observed, when people recall the infamous tunnel incident, many of them don't actually remember the game itself. With tensions spilling over before a ball was even kicked, it was primed to be a classic in the long-running rivalry between the teams and, indeed, it certainly delivered. 

Just eight minutes had elapsed when Vieira headed Arsenal in front and it looked like it might just be the Gunners captain's day. United responded 10 minutes later with a deflected Ryan Giggs goal, but Arsenal re-claimed the lead before the break thanks to a thumping Bergkamp finish.

However, things swayed in the Red Devils' favour 10 minutes into the second half as a young Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice in quick succession to hand his side an unlikely lead.

Patrick Vieira Arsenal 2005

Ryan Giggs Cristiano Ronaldo Manchester United 2005

Alex Ferguson's men had propelled themselves into a good position but, with 20 minutes to go, they were reduced to 10 men after Mikael Silvestre was deemed to have butted heads with Freddie Ljungberg.

Despite that, they held on and the proverbial icing on the cake arrived in the final minute of the game as substitute John O'Shea produced a breathtaking chip to cap a sweeping counter-attack and make it 4-2 to the visitors.

Arsenal: Almunia; Lauren (Fabregas '83), Campbell (Hoyte '79), Cygan, Cole; Ljungberg, Flamini (Reyes '70), Vieira, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry.
Manchester United: Carroll; G. Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Fletcher (O'Shea '61), Keane, Scholes; Ronaldo (Brown '70), Giggs (Saha '77), Rooney.

Keane vs Vieira: The legacy  

Patrick Vieira Roy Keane 2011

Nowadays, Manchester United and Arsenal fans associate the rivalry between Keane and Vieira with success, given the trophies won by both teams during that era.

Both players have long been retired, but they remain intimately intertwined with football, pursuing careers in coaching and punditry. Their paths have even crossed on occasion.

When all was said and done, though, Keane narrowly edged Vieira when the pair faced off. They came up against each other 12 times in the Premier League, with Keane and Man United emerging victorious on four occasions, losing three times, and they could not be separated in five games.

Keane vs Vieira: Head-to-head:

Player P W D L Goals
Roy Keane 12 4 5 3 3
Patrick Vieira 12 3 5 4 1

*Premier League encounters only

As part of Alex Ferguson's all-conquering Manchester United teams, Keane won seven Premier League titles and four FA Cups. Vieira, in contrast, won three league titles and three FA Cups - the last of which, in 2005, came at the expense of Keane's United.

Keane and Vieira - Best of Enemies

In 2013, British television company ITV aired a documentary featuring the duo called 'Keane and Vieira - Best of Enemies'.

Produced by LoveSport and directed by Tim Mackenzie-Smith, the documentary sees Keane and Vieira come face-to-face in a unique retrospective examining their careers and rivalry.

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The pair show respect for one another as they discuss their perspectives from their times leading their clubs and, naturally, the Highbury tunnel incident comes up.

"Every time we played you thought: 'There’s going to be fireworks,’" Vieira recalls.

And indeed there were.

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