‘Anders Limpar punched me in the side of the head then ran away’: Brian McClair recalls the 20-man brawl between Manchester United and Arsenal in 1990
When Manchester United welcomed Arsenal to Old Trafford for a First Division fixture in October 1990, the FA took the unprecedented step of deducting league points from the two clubs after a huge brawl broke out in the second half.
Arsenal were docked two points, after being involved in a similar situation against Norwich City a year earlier, while United had one point taken off of them.
Brian McClair played for Manchester United that day, and recalls to FourFourTwo being in the thick of the action as players swarmed in on the incident. Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman remained the only player on the pitch not involved, though McClair reveals that isn’t strictly true.
“Sometimes players go into a red zone and do daft things. It was a bad tackle by Nigel [Winterburn] on Denis Irwin – he could have done far more damage than he did – and I went into the red zone.
“Nigel and I had history. It started when I missed a penalty at Highbury and Nigel was screaming in my face. Then there was a game where I was shaking him up and down and he was pretending to be knocked out. This time, because it was him, because it was a bad tackle, you do something and it ended up in… well, I only found out later that it was a 20-man brawl.
“I thought it was 21 until Clayton Blackmore said recently, ‘No, I didn’t get involved.’ I thought, ‘Oh, that’s good to know. Charming. That’s good of you…’”
Somehow, referee Keith Hackett only punished Limpar and Winterburn for their involvement with a yellow card, with all Manchester United players escaping a booking.
“Fergie used to tell us, ‘You should be happy that he’s playing, and he’s playing – if anything happens, he’ll be your shoulder’, and that was the case. It was the same for Arsenal: they were sticking up for their team-mate,” McClair says.
“I had never been sent off at any level, and I thought, ‘Well this is me now – I’m getting sent off. You can’t be doing that on a football pitch’. Then Keith Hackett comes over, books Nigel Winterburn, plays on. I thought, ‘That’s impossible…’
“Anders Limpar punched me in the side of the head from behind and then ran away like a schoolboy, so there could have been a few sent off – not just me. Subsequently there was a two-point deduction for Arsenal and one for United. Even then, the FA could have taken action. I don’t know how I got away with that; you’d get a fairly reasonable suspension for it now.”
Despite their two-point deduction, Arsenal went onto win the First Division title that season. Manchester United faced them at Highbury after they were already confirmed as champions, though McClair reveals some positives could be taken from the day.
“Not too long afterwards, we had the displeasure of visiting Highbury and giving them a guard of honour, as they’d won the league.
“I went up to Nigel and said, ‘We’ve got to call an end to this before somebody gets hurt.’ We shook hands and that was it. I don’t hold anything against him – he’s been on my podcast and he was good, although he seems to not remember as many things about it as I do.
“He said he hadn’t watched it since; I said, ‘Well let me tell you, Nigel: I kicked you twice, but I didn’t kick you hard enough…'”