For much of the first century of their existence, Arsenal and Manchester United might as well have existed on different planets. Because apart from the twice yearly occasions they passed into each other’s orbit and played each other in the football league – at first in the second division as Newton Heath and Royal/Woolwich Arsenal – they were never really rivals, and very rarely did transfer deals. Hence the roll call of players who have been transferred directly between the two clubs is a modest one, barely long enough to fill a squad list on the back of a programme.
Yet long before Robin van Persie became what may yet prove to be United’s greatest ever signing from North London, players made important moves in the same direction, and latterly, from north to south. More often than not, their transfers made their mark, if not always on the field. Yet all the while, somehow relations between the clubs have rarely been anything more than luke-warm, like that between two families from opposite sides of town who feel they have little in common and are happy to have as little to do with each other as possible.
Weighing in at 14st 4lbs despite being only 5ft 10ins, Caesar Jenkyns certainly made an impact when he became the first man to join Newton Heath from fellow second division outfit Woolwich Arsenal in May 1896.
Opposition players could surely testify to that. The tough-tackling 29-year-old half-back had a reputation, mainly earned during seven seasons at Small Heath in Birmingham during which he was sent off four times in an era when dismissals were very rare. He was finally packed off to London in April 1895 when he attempted to strangle a Derby County fan after being verbally abused for violent play. Then again, he was in a particularly bad mood, having scored an own goal in a 4-1 defeat.
He was equally combative off the field. One Sunday, after staking a quart of beer on a bicycle race and losing, he knocked his opponent off his bike and punched two bystanders. He was convicted of assault.
But like many other temperamental but talented stars that would succeed him, he was a fans’ favourite, and during his year as Arsenal captain he impressed enough to become the club’s first international player in March 1896. But only a few weeks after he was capped by Wales against Scotland, he was on the move again, this time to Newton Heath, where he was once again immediately installed as skipper.
He repaid this honour by helping the Heathens to second place in the lower division, (all be it with another sending off en route) and scored in a 2-0 home leg win in the club’s promotion play-off ‘test matches’ against Burnley. The other scorer that day was another Arsenal signing, Henry Boyd.
He too had been a star down in Plumstead, and it cost Heathens secretary Alf Albut a cool £45 to take him to Clayton in January 1897.
United fell at the final play-off hurdle that season, and Jenkyns moved back to the Midlands with Walsall the following November, before retiring to become (naturally) a policeman.
But Boyd really hit his stride in 1897-98, as he became the first NH player to score 20 goals in a season, netting 22 times in 30 games.
However, the men in green and yellow still couldn’t secure promotion, and Boyd seemed to be getting a little too big for his baggy shorts when he missed training during the 1898-99 season. After being suspended for a week, he went missing again, and was put on the transfer list, before returning to his native Scotland with Falkirk.
Over the next 60 years, there were no direct moves between the clubs. Nor were there any battles for silverware until after the second world war. As Matt Busby rebuilt the Reds he led United to the 1948 FA Cup and the 1952 League Championship, and the Gunners also topped the pile the following year, to add to their 1948 title and 1950 FA Cup triumph.
However, Arsenal faded as the Busby Babes rose and and so tragically fell, and by the time David Herd became the next man to transfer north, both teams were struggling in mid-table.
All the same, Arsenal’s top scorer for the past four seasons had a gripe that would become a familiar refrain: He felt they lacked ambition, and saw rosier prospects in M16. So it proved after his £35,000 move, as the Scottish international scored twice in the 1963 FA Cup Final. Two league titles followed as he notched a highly impressive 145 goals in 265 appearances that means he is still 13th on the club’s all-time goalscorers list.
After he was sold to Stoke in the summer of 1968, the two sides’ fortunes went in opposite directions once again, as the North Londoners won their first domestic double, but United sank into post-Busby mediocrity.
Ian Ure was the next Arsenal signing for United, in 1969, and Wilf McGuinness’s first, but the tenacious defender’s limited powers were fading by the time he moved. More was expected of his fellow Scot George Graham when, in December 1972, new reds boss Tommy Docherty signed the player he had previously managed at Chelsea. But ‘Stroller’, despite being made captain for the first half of 1973-74, became a terrace scapegoat for United’s dismal campaign, and found himself dropped by the Doc as he scrambled unsuccessfully to avoid the drop, before being offloaded the following term.
You may notice that the flow of transfers between the two clubs was distinctly one way up to this point. In fact it wasn’t until the 1970s that a United player was transferred to Highbury.
Goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer had spent six seasons as Alex Stepney’s understudy, and won a European Cup Winner’s medal on the bench in 1968. Yet he went on to make only 46 appearances, and a move to Arsenal in October 1973 worked out well when he succeeded Bob Wilson as first-choice stopper there, then moved on to Aston Villa where he won a league title in 1981 and another European Cup winner’s medal (despite playing only nine minutes of the 1982 Final before getting injured).
A more celebrated medal-winner from Wembley 1968 followed him when the reds were relegated in May 1974. Brian Kidd’s form was rekindled by the move, and he became Arsenal’s top scorer in 1974-75, and after two seasons he returned north with City. And somehow, he remains fondly regarded by all three clubs. That perhaps reflects the way in which these transfers were fairly straightforward.
Frank Stapleton changed all that. The Irishman had been given a trial at Old Trafford in 1972 but wasn’t taken on, and went on to star for Arsenal in the late 1970s, scoring in the Gunners’ 1979 FA Cup win over United.
However, within a couple of seasons he felt undervalued and undermotivated, and so began a saga that made Stapleton “the Robin van Persie of his day”, according to recollections he gave The Daily Mail last summer. He too quit North London because of the club’s apparent lack of ambition.
“Liam Brady had left the year before,” he said. “They tried to replace him but it was impossible. They should have looked after him and kept him at the club.
“There was this big hullabaloo when I left, but when Liam left it was OK because he went into Europe with Juventus, not another big team here.”
The transfer was made more acrimonious by the fact that the two clubs couldn’t agree a price. Arsenal wanted £2 million, but United were only offering £700,000. In the end a tribunal decided on a £900K fee in August 1981. Stapleton was duly branded a traitor by Gunners fans.
He went on to do United proud, and scored in the 1983 FA Cup Final, making him the first player to score for two different clubs in the Wembley showpiece.
Those frosty relations between the clubs didn’t thaw much in the years that followed, as it would take another tribunal in 1987 to finalise a £250,000 move for the Gunners’ pacey left-back Viv Anderson.
Like Stapleton, Anderson had had a trial with United as a
schoolboy but hadn’t been taken on. He was Alex Ferguson’s first signing as manager, and Fergie felt his teetotal lifestyle as well as his ability would be a good influence, given the well-documented drinking culture that pervaded the United dressing room at the time.
But these moves are rarely painless affairs, and that was the case when out-of-favour reds ‘keeper Jim Leighton went out on loan to Arsenal for two months at the end of their title-winning season in 1991. He never forgave Alex Ferguson for being frozen out of Old Trafford.
He may well have brushed shoulders in the dressing room with a youngster named Andy Cole, who, despite two substitute appearances for George Graham’s men in December 1990 and the Charity Shield the following season, was sold to Bristol City. The teenager soon began to make a name for himself as a prolific goalscorer, which earned him a move to Newcastle and then, of course, a £7million transfer to Old Trafford in January 1995.
You wonder if any Arsenal fans thought about what might have been when the winner went in at Old Trafford against Spurs in May 1999 to effectively deprive his old club of back-to-back titles.
The regrets weren’t so long-lasting when United lured promising England U17 international centre-half Matthew Wicks away from Arsenal’s youth system in 1995. Arsenal complained to the FA, but failed to get the player back. However, as it turned out he soon became homesick and returned to London anyway, and subsequently never made the Premier League grade.
After Arsene Wenger arrived and Arsenal began to challenge United’s dominance of the English game, the clubs’ rivalry really began to ignite. And perhaps unsurprisingly, there were no significant moves in either direction during the era of mutual enmity that reached its height with ‘pizzagate’. In fact, the only actual transfer before van Persie was Mikael Silvestre’s move in 2008. Even then, there was a touch of cloak and dagger about it all, as Wenger hijacked the defender’s proposed move to Mark Hughes’ Manchester City to join his Francophone dressing room. Unsurprisingly, fans never warmed to him during his two years in London.
And then there was Robin.
Arsenal’s era of consistently challenging United on the field may well be over for the time being, but something tells us that there will be more van Persies in the future, and that any transfer between these two Premier League giants will always ruffle a few feathers. And really, who would have it any other way?