Man Utd v Arsenal, 2004: Mike Riley & The 50th Game Conspiracy

It seems like a section of Arsenal fans (and many others, but I’ll stick with Arsenal here) are never more than a single slightly contentious incident away from a conspiracy theory these days. It appears to some of them that refs are constantly giving dodgy decisions against Arsenal, and if it’s not them it’s the FA charging Arsenal managers for kicking water bottles or other trivial misdemeanours when they never ever charge any other manager with anything. Ever.

Yes, there are decisions that go against Arsenal that should have gone the other way. There are also decisions in Arsenal’s favour that are wrong. It’s a fallacy to think that there are big decisions and small decisions in football, when in fact any decision – even a throw given to the wrong side – can lead to a goal a few seconds later. We only know with hindsight what’s a big decision. Even a wrongly-awarded penalty could be missed from the spot (though not against Arsenal for the last four or five years, see previous post).

When conspiracies come up, the general rule is that within 20 minutes or 10 tweets, whichever is the shorter, someone will mention the infamous “50th game” of 2004, the one at Old Trafford when Man Utd ended Arsenal’s record-breaking unbeaten run. This is held up as the ultimate proof that the FA, or referees, or Freemasons or SOMEONE is definitely fixing things against Arsenal.

We all know Wayne Rooney dived in that match to win the penalty that gave Utd the lead. That is not in dispute. We also know that some fouls on Arsenal players were not given, or if they were, were not deemed worthy of a card by Mike Riley. The only question some Arsenal fans seem to ask is whether Riley was incompetent or bent.

Here are some tweets on the subject from Arsenal fans:

  • “It’s hard to watch Mike Riley’s performance when we lost that 50th game up at Old Trafford and not come to the conclusion that the match was fixed. So many terrible decisions went against us that day”
  • “There were just too many incidents in that game to put it down to just poor officiating. Never seen anything like it before or since”
  • “I still think it stunk that day when we lost our unbeaten record. I’ve always thought there was something fishy about it and I always will do”
  • “I refuse to believe it was just down to some poor calls. Referee with his assistants all making poor calls in favour of one team only is just a bit too much for me”
  • “Half a dozen significant decisions and others that gave United an unfair advantage (eg not booking players when he should have)”
  • “It wasn’t just about Neville, it was a lot of booking or sending off offences. At least 5”
  • “Riley booked the Nevilles each after several bookable offences were overlooked, when it was immediately obvious what was going on”
  • “I think the league couldn’t have a team going 50 unbeaten because it looked terrible for the image of the “competitive” premier league so Riley was told to swallow his whistle and let United rough us up and make it more even”

The Premier League haven’t seemed too troubled by things like Man City walking to the title in 2018, or Man Utd winning eight of the first 11 titles from 1993, or Arsenal and Man U being the top two for several years in a row, so to decide no one must be allowed to go unbeaten for 50 games seems unlikely. Most of the others are either vague – “too many decisions”, “a lot of offences” – or don’t back up the numbers given – “half a dozen significant decisions”, “at least 5”. Okay, it’s Twitter so there’s a character limit but it’s easy to make vague claims. Let’s look at the evidence. You can watch the whole match on YouTube to refresh your memory if you need to, as I have.

Overall it was a fairly even game. Both teams were stacked with quality players, and cancelled each other out a bit as there were relatively few clear chances. Arsenal had Henry, Bergkamp and Vieira all playing, possibly the three best players ever to represent the club, plus top quality in almost every other position. Utd had Cristiano Ronaldo, Giggs, Van Nistelrooy, Rooney, Gary Neville, Scholes, Ferdinand – all top class. They also had Roy Carroll in goal, who was no Schmeichel. Unfortunately Carroll was barely tested. The result might have been different if Arsenal had got a few more attempts on goal, but Carroll was hardly troubled at all.

Conspiracy theories around this match normally include most of the following:

Rio Ferdinand should have been sent off for taking out Ljungberg, when he (Ferdinand) was the last defender

Yes, Rio should have been sent off. So why wasn’t he?
The speed of the attack meant that Riley was about 25 yards back from the incident, directly behind the players. Both players were moving fast and Rio barged into Ljungberg’s back on his left shoulder blade, knocking him flying. Rio also fell, possibly deliberately to cover up his foul.

As Rio was last man, Riley had a simple choice of a red card or no action – there was nothing in between that he could give, under the laws and directives in place at the time. He couldn’t give a free-kick and a yellow. If that option was open I believe he may well have taken it, but this incident occurred after about 18 minutes and no ref wants to produce a red card that early in a game if he can possibly help it.

So in my opinion Riley chose the easier option of no action. Maybe he genuinely thought the challenge was shoulder to shoulder, or at least there was enough doubt in his mind to wave play on. He had one chance to see two players collide when sprinting at full speed: could he be sure enough to send a player off? I don’t know.

Ferdinand actually came in from the side of Ljungberg, having started in a deeper position and moved across to intercept the Arsenal man’s run, but he waited until Freddie was just past him before making contact. Again I don’t know if this was all deliberate by Ferdinand, but it added to the impression of an accidental collision. A barge from the side would have knocked Ljungberg so far off his trajectory that Riley would probably have been forced into action. After the incident the TV pictures show the fourth official in discussion with Arsène about it, making hand gestures to signify the contact was shoulder to shoulder, which it wasn’t, but as I say that was difficult to see at full pace, especially from the touchline on halfway.

Maybe Riley bottled it. Maybe he was scared of Fergie. Maybe a million things. By the rules it was the wrong decision, but I can see why he made it. I believe most refs would have done the same. Weak refereeing perhaps, the wrong decision with the benefit of hindsight and replays, but not evidence of any conspiracy.

Antonio Reyes was repeatedly fouled by the Neville brothers and no action was taken against them

This is not quite true. A total of five fouls were called by Riley on Reyes, and two others should have been, so he was fouled seven times in total. Utd’s most fouled player was Gabriel Heinze, who was also fouled seven times and Utd were given seven free kicks.

However, Phil Neville has been quoted as saying, “We literally kicked him off the park. Every time he got the ball, Gary smashed him. Next time he got the ball I smashed him. Next time he got the ball Scholes smashed him.” I think Phil Neville is trying to make himself look a bit more important in this match than he actually was, because his words don’t stack up at all if you look at the evidence.

For a start, Paul Scholes didn’t foul Reyes at all in the whole match. Reyes played wide left and Scholes was in the middle, so they were rarely in the same area. Gary Neville fouled Reyes twice. The first time was after 23 minutes when he kicked Reyes in the leg and was given a long lecture by Riley. The second time he slid into Reyes from behind, taking his legs, but the players were moving in the same direction, it wasn’t dangerous and Reyes wasn’t hurt. Riley booked G Nev, much to the player’s apparent disgust. If this was Neville deliberately targeting Reyes and trying to put him out of the game, he wasn’t very good at it. Two fouls in the whole game and he got a booking.

Phil Neville made two fairly early challenges on Reyes in the eighth and 14th minutes, neither of which were given as fouls, though they should have been. More poor refereeing, but Riley I’m sure would claim he wanted the game to flow – on the second one Henry was almost through on goal before being bundled over in the area, also with no foul given (and Henry didn’t appear to expect one). Both these first two on Reyes were clumsy rather than dangerous, though Reyes did have a sore ankle after the second one and Gary Lewin came on to look at it. Maybe that alerted Riley to the fact that he should have given something, because the next time the two players clashed he booked P Neville. In between, P Nev had committed one other fairly innocuous foul on Bergkamp, who was unharmed.

By the time Gary Lewin came on to look at Reyes’s ankle he’d already had the ball ten times in the match, plus another couple of touches in attempted tackles or interceptions, with nobody ‘literally kicking him off the park’. Seven or eight of these were running with the ball, mostly against one or other of the Nevilles, who were both mainly playing on United’s right. So Phil Neville’s boasts look to me like vastly overstating his own role. It’s not as though Reyes was Arsenal’s main threat anyway, when you look at that incredible team.

For his booking, Phil Neville’s knee went into Reyes’ thigh, and again he needed treatment, but played on with no apparent ill-effects until being substituted on 70 minutes for Pires. Knowing Arsène’s methods, that substitution was planned that from before kick-off, and it didn’t appear to be related to anything else.

So five fouls in total on Reyes by the Nevilles, of which three were given and two bookings were handed out. Reyes can’t really be said to have been ‘kicked out of the game’, though some challenges did go unpunished. 

The other two fouls on Reyes were by Wayne Rooney. One was a fairly harmless shove in the back and the other was a late clumsy tackle that sent Reyes flying, though he was unhurt. Rooney was given a final warning by Riley for that. Rooney also fouled Ashley Cole early on, though it was Cole who came flying in to try and win the ball while Rooney was turning. Rooney’s only other foul in the game was a harmless push on Sol Campbell.

Heinze was fouled twice each by Ljungberg and Vieira – though one of Vieira’s was a bit 50/50 – and once each by Edu, Bergkamp and Henry. He got a knee in the head from Henry, but no one was booked for any of these fouls.

Both Nevilles booked; no one booked for fouling Heinze. None of this looks like a plot by Mike Riley or anyone else, and if there was rotational fouling surely Heinze would have as much or more to complain about than Reyes? If it was a deliberate attempt by Man Utd to target Reyes, it wasn’t a great one, though Phil Neville claims otherwise. The mistake was Riley not giving free kicks for the first two fouls. That may have calmed Neville junior down a bit.

Gary Neville spent years practising fouling Arsenal players

Ashley Cole was booked for nothing

The first incident of note in the whole game was Ashley Cole taking out Ronaldo on the touch line after a minute. It was a late challenge and could have resulted in injury to Ronaldo. Mike Riley warned Cole and told him to calm down. If it wasn’t the first minute it might well have been a booking.

Cole was then pulled up for a foul on G Neville, which I’d judge as 50/50, but if refs have to make a decision they tend to just give those to whichever team is in the least danger at that position on the pitch.

Cole was booked in the 34th minute for his third foul – an obvious and late kick on the back of Rooney’s leg after a failed tackle, nowhere near the ball and right in front of Riley. This decision was in no way contentious, and you’d have to be completely cock-eyed to think differently. No further fouls were given against Cole in the match, though one should have been, which I’ll come back to.

Van Nistelrooy raked Ashley Cole’s shin and got away with it right in front of the officials

It is true that the Ruud boy raked Cole’s shin, and from the replays it looked deliberate. So why didn’t Riley at least book Van Nistelrooy?

Like the Ferdinand/Ljungberg incident, the speed of play meant Riley was 25-30 yards away at the time, and Cole had his back to the ref. The raking also happened incredibly quickly – unless you know it’s about to happen it’s over before you even see it in real time. It only becomes obvious in slow-motion from a second angle. It would be very difficult for Riley to tell what had happened and that a bad foul had been committed. A few Arsenal players questioned the linesman while Cole was being treated, and the linesman certainly had a better chance of seeing it than the ref. But from the linesman’s angle (facing Cole directly) at full speed, when maybe he was concentrating on his main jobs of seeing who the ball last came off and whether anyone was offside, I can see why he missed it. He shouldn’t have missed it, but it’s feasible that he did. You may not believe me about the speed. All I can say is go and watch it again yourself.

However, it was a bad foul, and on replays it certainly looks deliberate. As it was missed at the time, the FA subsequently charged Van Nistelrooy with serious foul play and he was banned for three matches, which included a Manchester derby. I doubt Utd wanted their best striker banned to facilitate a plot against Arsenal. So again, the officials are definitely at fault for not spotting the foul, but that doesn’t make it a conspiracy.

Rooney was given a penalty for diving

Yes, Rooney dived, and clearly – from some angles and with the benefit of replays and hindsight – it was the wrong decision. But again, from where Riley was standing, and at the time for many in the crowd, it looked convincing. Rooney wasn’t the first or last to get away with it. You could rightly say that Riley shouldn’t be conned, but the main fault is with Rooney, who was prepared to cheat to win. From Riley’s position it looked genuine enough, and refs will never get everything right. The question is whether the decision they made is at least understandable. Unfortunately, without the benefit of a replay or a video referee, this was.

Seven minutes after the penalty was given, Cole chased Ronaldo into the Arsenal box, Ronaldo cleverly dragged the ball back as Cole slid in for a tackle and Cole took both the attacker’s legs without touching the ball. Cole jumped up and ran off with the ball leaving Ronaldo on the ground appealing. Once again it would have been difficult for Riley to see what had happened in real time, and at first sight it looks a good tackle. But replays showed Ronaldo dragged the ball away before the tackle landed. It’s quite understandable how Riley got this wrong, but if he was trying to arrange for Utd to win, he would surely – SURELY – have given them another penalty anyway. It was 1-0 until well into injury time and Arsenal were pressing for an equaliser all the way. To be clear: this was a legitimate penalty. If it’s a conspiracy, not giving legitimate penalties is not a very good way of guaranteeing the right result.

There were just too many fouls in the game

The average number of fouls in a Premier League game has dropped from about 30 in 2004 to about 22 now. This match saw 43 free-kicks given for fouls, which is a lot, but if the average is 30 there will always be instances of much higher and lower totals. The numbers were also fairly even between the sides – 23 by Arsenal and 20 by Man U. There were another 13 that could have been given, five against Arsenal and eight against Man U. These included the Ferdinand/Ljungberg and Van Nistelrooy/Cole incidents, and also Cole’s trip on Ronaldo. They don’t include a free-kick not being given for a very poor attempt at a penalty area dive by Kolo Toure a few minutes from the end. He should have been booked but wasn’t.

So yes, there were quite a lot of fouls but no one went off injured, no one broke a bone and no one could seriously claim it was the dirtiest game they’d ever seen. And if it was a conspiracy, wouldn’t the number of fouls not given be a lot higher and the number given a lot lower, particularly to Arsenal?


All fans of football clubs are biased in the sense of wanting their own team to win. But some are also biased in believing that their own team is hard done by, or conspired against and being cheated for various reasons. Selection bias makes them remember when their opponents get a favourable decision but not when their own team gets one; when an opponent gets away with a bad challenge or is awarded a dubious penalty, but not when it happens to their own team.

I want Arsenal to win every match, but that’s as far as my bias goes. I definitely wanted them to win at Old Trafford in 2004, and cement the dominance over Utd that had come with an unbeaten season. Were Arsenal cheated out of the win by a bent referee or by some wider conspiracy? No they weren’t. There were some things the ref missed (as in every game), but the main reason Arsenal lost was that Utd were desperate to win and were prepared to push the rules as far as they could to do it. Ryan Giggs has said: “Sir Alex stood before us that day and reminded us of our responsibilities as United players. ‘We are the kind of club that should be setting those sorts of records,’ he said. The message was clear.” Elsewhere Ferguson has been quoted as saying, “No other team tackles them, so make sure [Arsenal] know that today’s going to be hard, today’s going to be different.” Well he’s not going to say “Go out and enjoy yourselves”, is he? Arsenal were going to lose eventually and Man Utd at that time were well capable of beating anyone, especially when fired up to do it. The longest unbeaten runs in top flight English football, by Arsenal, Notts Forest, Chelsea, Leeds and Liverpool, were all ended by a close rival determined not to let them take any more of the limelight.

Bear in mind also that match-fixing in England tends to lead to very long bans from the game and in some cases jail sentences. I can’t honestly see Mike Riley risking his livelihood or a criminal record to stop Arsenal winning a single match, never mind Alex Ferguson being in on it. There was no conspiracy.

Now, about those ‘moon landings’…

Twitter: @P_h_i_1


10 thoughts on “Man Utd v Arsenal, 2004: Mike Riley & The 50th Game Conspiracy

  1. What a joke wenger is he is to blame for our shambolic transfer dealings his will he or wont he sign a new contract caused major problems within the club and team he has form for letting players go to who they want when they want he acts in the best interests of players who he favours and lets them go and keeps hold of dead wood i i dont think he is intelligent because the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and think it will change . No it doesn’t and he keeps on doing it look at the team of players he inherited and look at what he is leaving the next guy !!!!! We are in trouble and its for a while even when he goes he has left us in the s@&t thanks wenger
    80 million im wages ! He sold us a dream of compeating with the real big boys by moving stadiums and its been bullshit we were able to compete at highbury with the talent we had there amd now we are further away than at any time in the last 25 years what a legacy a concrete souless bowl filled with nouveux fans and a team with no pride all at top dollar its robbery and lies we cant all be wrong and i mean everyone except wenger his yes men and dick turpin and his highway men on the board all we are missing is Tony blair thanks wenger
    All the fans who travelled to the forest game should get all there money back travel tickets the lot
    That game was the final straw we need david dein back A true Arsenal fan and a man who could steer us back in the right direction as we are going the wrong way and its a long way back up

  2. When have fans ever been logical about their team? What I recall vividly, watching the game on tv, was a case of gbh committed by Gary Neville on Jose Reyes. Was I mistaken?

  3. Conspiracy theory nonetheless, it seems you are adhering to the poor referring standards or the game by simply saying ‘Mike Dean was 25 yards away’ so couldn’t see it. A multi-billion pound organisation should have referees capable of seeing fouls, dives, and ‘scrapes of the leg’ from all angles, including the assistants.

    It appears like you just watched the highlights because the referring was inconsistent, easily swayed by a screaming Gary Neville and damn right poor. How you can write an article dismissing any foul play is beyond me. Sure, this may be conspiracy, but for you to watch that game and call it ‘fair’ is ridiculous. Should you even be writing analysis?

    • What are you wittering about? May I suggest you read through comments before pressing submit, because that way you might not make quite so many mistakes.
      I won’t bother rebutting all your ridiculous accusations, but where did I say the game was ‘fair’?
      Should you even be writing comments?

  4. This stupid article is a classic example of English exceptionalism. 10 years before the “battle of the buffet” Marseille were found guilty of match fixing in the French league and only two years after the “battle of the buffet” Juventus were found guilty of match fixing in Italy. Why can it not happen in England too?

    For the record, I don’t believe in nonsense moon landing conspiracy theories; no country has ever faked a moon landing. Referees and football clubs have been found guilty of match fixing in the past so it is possible the disgraceful performance of Mike Riley was a due to corruption of some sort. Unless you’re one of those who think “it doesn’t happen in England”.

    On another note, if this had happened to Liverpool, no Scouser would be writing this article. The problem with Arsenal is we have rubbish “fans” like the individual writing this article who is more interested in trying to be clever with comparing a plausible accusation with silly conspiracy theories and criticizing other Arsenal fans rather than defending his club.

    • There has been match fixing in England many times, and if you read my post about English Football’s Longest Bans you’ll see I’m fully aware of it. There were bad refereeing decisions in this match (in favour of both teams, though obviously more in favour of Man Utd) and there may well have been bias, conscious or unconscious, but the match wasn’t fixed.

  5. Look at the amount of times in this article you’ve spoken about Mike Riley being in a poor position and bottling it. Are his assistants not available? Is the linesman not able to see the Ferdinand challenge? We saw Rob holding being sent off in the first 30 mins so we know players can be sent off early according to Mike Riley.

    Mike Riley was promoted to the head of the refs after performances like this. And now look at the state of refereeing in England. I wonder if a single English ref will go to the world cup

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