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

It seems like a section of Arsenal fans are never more than a single slightly contentious incident away from a conspiracy theory these days. If it’s not Mike Dean it’s Anthony Taylor giving penalties, and if it’s not a ref being dodgy it’s the FA charging Arsène Wenger when they never ever charge any other manager with anything. Ever.

Yes, there are decisions that have gone against Arsenal this season that should have gone the other way. There are also decisions in Arsenal’s favour that were 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). However, off the top of my head, things that pundits will say are big decisions in Arsenal’s favour this season include Mustafi scoring from an offside position against Spurs (ref: Mike Dean, by the way) and a rather soft last-minute penalty against Burnley that led to an Arsenal win. There are many more, but they’re not included in video compilations put together by conspiracy-loving fans of the club, because that doesn’t really fit the narrative.

And 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 recently:

  • “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 don’t seem too troubled by Man City walking to the title this year, 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 win 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 let’s look at the evidence.

You can watch the whole match on YouTube to refresh your memory if you need to.
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 at full pace and Rio barged into Ljungberg’s back on his left shoulder blade, knocking him flying. Rio also fell, deliberately or not.

As Rio was last man, Riley had a choice of a red card or no action. 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.

Maybe he 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.

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. Utd’s most fouled player was Gabriel Heinze, who was also fouled seven times and given seven free kicks.

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 anyway, 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.

Phil Neville made two challenges on Reyes in the eighth and 14th minutes, neither of which were given as fouls, though they should have been. Both were clumsy rather than dangerous, though Reyes did need treatment after the second one. 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. For the booking, 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, he’d planned that from before kick-off, and it didn’t appear to be related to anything else.

So five fouls on Reyes, by the Nevilles, three given and two bookings.

For the record Wayne Rooney also fouled Reyes twice. One was a fairly harmless shove in the back and the other was a late clumsy tackle that sent Reyes flying. Rooney was given a final warning by Riley for that. Rooney’s only other foul in the game was a 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. Even if it was a deliberate attempt by Man Utd to target Reyes, it was a pretty poor one.

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 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. 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. Maybe 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.

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.

Rooney was given a penalty for diving

Yes, Rooney dived, and clearly – from some angles and with 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 argue that Riley shouldn’t be conned, but the fault is with Rooney, who was prepared to cheat to win. From Riley’s position it looked genuine enough. We can’t expect referees to get everything right. The question is whether the decision they made is at least understandable. Unfortunately this was.

Seven minutes after the penalty was given, Cole chased Ronaldo back into the Arsenal box, Ronaldo cleverly dragged the ball back as Cole came 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. 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 (not that some Arsenal fans ever remember it or bring it up), but if he was trying to arrange for Utd to win, wouldn’t he 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. 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 they were fairly even – 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 that 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 to stop Arsenal winning a match, never mind Alex Ferguson being in on it. There was no conspiracy.

Now, about those ‘moon landings’…

Twitter: @AngryOfN5

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4 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
    P.s
    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?

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