Chelsea v Manchester United Rivalry & History

Manchester United v Chelsea

Manchester United and Chelsea have been two of the most successful English Clubs of the modern era. In the last twenty years alone, these two sides have shared 14 Premier League titles, 3 Champions Leagues, 9 F.A. Cups and 8 League Cups.

As a result, there have been many a season recently that have seen Manchester United and Chelsea go toe to toe for major silverware, including numerous finals.

When you add characters such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry into the mix, there tends to be plenty to keep the back pages busy when these two square up.

Map of Manchester United & Chelsea Stadiums

Map of Manchester United & Chelsea Stadiums

About the Manchester United & Chelsea Rivalry

Red and Blue Boxing Gloves Clashing

Manchester United and Chelsea don’t have much of a typical reason to be considered rivals, given that the two clubs are based about one hundred and sixty-three miles from each other, as the crow flies. There’s not the geographical need for animosity in the same way as there is between Manchester United and Manchester City or Chelsea and Arsenal, then. Admittedly, plenty of football fans like to joke that most United fans are from London, but that’s more about winding United fans up than it is any sort of reality and is certainly not a basis for any kind of serious rivalry.

Of course, it’s not just geography that can be a reason for two teams to have a bitter dislike of each other. In Glasgow, the physical proximity of Rangers and Celtic is almost secondary to political, religious and social differences in the two Old Firm sides. Liverpool and Manchester City aren’t keen on each other because the two sides have stopped the other from winning trophies in the modern era. That latter reason is also a big part of what has created a rivalry between Manchester United and Chelsea, given that the two teams have been competing for the top honours in the latter stage of the Premier League era. Is that the only reason why there’s a perceived rivalry between the two, or is there more to it? Let’s find out.

Both Teams Have Enjoyed Huge Success

Football with Premier League Trophy Shadow

The main reason for there to be any sort of rivalry between Chelsea and Manchester United is that both teams have enjoyed success on the pitch. Whilst Manchester United’s success is clearly fair superior to Chelsea’s, given that they’re one of the most successful clubs in the country, it’s the fact that they’ve both lifted trophies in the modern era that sets them apart from most other sides and puts them at loggerheads with each other. After all, between when the Premier League launched in 1992 and 2018, just six different clubs saw the title end up in their trophy cabinet, with Manchester United and Chelsea being two of them.

Of the two clubs, Manchester United were the more successful even before the start of the Premier League era, having won the First Division title seven times in comparison to Chelsea’s once. Add to that seven FA Cups versus one and one each of the League Cup and European Cup versus Chelsea’s one League Cup and no European Cup and you can see why the Red Devils never really considered the Blues to be on their radar for most of the two clubs’ existences. All of that changed, however, with the 2003 arrival of Roman Abramovich and the finances that he brought with him.

The Russian billionaire bought Chelsea from Ken Bates for £140 million, immediately setting about spending more than £100 million on players in order to challenge the established order at the top of the Premier League. Given that Manchester United were very much at the top of that order, it’s no surprise that a rivalry began not long after. Claudio Ranieri failed to deliver silverware to Stamford Bridge during the first year of the new Abramovich era, resulting in the Italian being shown the exit door and Portuguese manager José Mourinho arriving in his place. Having just won the Champions League with Porto, his stock was high and he invested even more money in strengthening his squad and taking the fight to Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.

Ferguson Needed A Rival

Sir Alex Ferguson at Champions League Press Conference

Sir Alex Ferguson by melis,

When Alex Ferguson was appointed as Manchester United manager in 1986, he vowed that he would make it his mission to knock Liverpool ‘off their f******* perch’. He struggled to establish himself in the early years at Old Trafford, with many believing that he was likely to get the sack if the Red Devils lost in the FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace in 1990. Instead, United won the replay 1-0 and Ferguson was given a stay of execution. It would turn out to be an inspired decision, with Ferguson going on to become one of the most successful managers ever, including leading the club to its first top-flight title since 1967 when they won the Premier League in 1993.

His desire to lead Manchester United to more success than Liverpool enjoyed proved to be the catalyst for Ferguson’s success, but it was a series of rivals from various other Premier League clubs that kept him going through his twenty-seven years of management. The first such rival was one that had been the driving force behind so much of Liverpool’s success in the 1980s, Kenny Dalglish. Having left the Merseyside club in the wake of the Hillsborough Disaster, Dalglish returned to management with Blackburn Rovers and was backed by the millions of the club’s steel baron owner Jack Walker.

The presence of his fellow Scot at Blackburn Rovers spurred Ferguson on and, having spent millions redressing the weaknesses in his squad, United won their first title in twenty-six years in 1993. They defended the title in 1994 but missed out the following year when Dalglish got the better of him and took the Premier League to Ewood Park. The success of the North Lancashire club was short-lived, but another manager was about the arrive on the scene to keep Ferguson’s competitive fire burning. Arsenal announced the unheralded arrival of Arsene Wenger as the club’s manager in 1996 at a time when the Red Devils were virtually untouchable at the top of the league.

Titles in 1996 and 1997 meant that Ferguson’s side had won four out of the first five Premier Leagues, making it all the more impressive that Arsenal were able to beat them to the punch in 1998, just two years after the Frenchman had been appointed. United responded by winning the next three league titles, only for the Gunners to win the Premier League in 2002. United won it in 2003 and then Arsenal made through the 2003-2004 campaign without losing a single game. Never had it been more apparent that Alex Ferguson was a manager who thrived when under pressure and responded well to a threat from an outside party. Just as well, because Chelsea were about to appoint someone who specialised in getting under people’s skin.

The Arrival of José Mourinho

José Mourinho arrived at Stamford Bridge as the king of Europe, having guided his Porto side to a 3-0 victory over Monaco in the Champions League final in 2004. He announced himself to be ‘The Special One’ and went about spending huge amounts in the transfer market in order to assemble a team that he thought would be able to do battle with Manchester United and Arsenal. Given that Chelsea had finished second to the Gunners in the previous season, it was no surprise that this expensively assembled team were able to win the Premier League title at the end of the 2004-2005 season, though it was still slightly surprising just how comprehensive their win was. They lifted the trophy having amassed ninety-five points, the most by a team since the formation of the new top-flight thirteen years before.

The tectonic plates of football had shifted and Alex Ferguson knew that he would have to do something special to prevent Mourinho from beginning a dynasty of his own at Stamford Bridge. They tried to keep up with them the following season, but Chelsea still ended up breaking the ninety point barrier at the same time that United racked up the same number of points as they’d managed the year before, eighty-three. Ferguson was determined to stop Mourinho from equalling his own record of three successive titles, something he became the first manage to achieve when United won back-to-back titles between 1999 and 2001. As a result, the two clubs battled it out for the season and the Manchester side was able to reclaim the title for the first time in four years with a six point margin.

Though Mourinho departed Chelsea after a poor start to the 2007-2008 season, the London club had been established as the side most likely to challenge Manchester United’s superiority at the top of the table. Indeed, Ferguson won another three successive titles between 2007 and 2009, only to miss out on a fourth thanks to the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti as manager at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea beat United to the title in 2010 by a single point, proving the fact that they were indeed the Manchester club’s chief rivals. That was until Manchester City finally began to see the benefit of the oil money provided to them by the 2008 takeover of the club by Sheikh Mansour, though Chelsea would go on to win the title again under Mourinho in 2015, two years after the retirement of Ferguson.

Peter Kenyon, Jon Obi Mikel and the Champions League Final

Jon Obi Mikel Playing for Chelsea
Warren Fish, Wikimedia Commons

Whilst on-the-pitch matters will always be the main reason for any serious sort of rivalry as far as supporters are concerned, there was some boardroom wrangling that would cause a disagreement between the two clubs at a higher level. Peter Kenyon was a lifelong Manchester United fan and so was in dreamland when he was appointed as the club’s Deputy Chief Executive in 1997. He became the Chief Executive when Martin Edwards departed three years later, persuading Alex Ferguson to change his mind about retiring in 2002. After the arrival of Roman Abramovich in 2003, however, Kenyon switched loyalties and moved to Stamford Bridge to take over as Chief Executive there.

When Kenyon arrived at Chelsea he made clear that his loyalties now lay in London, declaring that the club would be ‘the biggest in the world by 2016’. Though that never quite happened, it certainly riled up his former employers. If that hadn’t annoyed Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United hierarchy enough, worse was to come in 2005 when Jon Obi Mikel changed his mind about signing for the Red Devils. Despite putting his signature on the paperwork to head to Old Trafford and being seen at a press conference with a United shirt with his name and number on the back, Mikel backed out of the deal and signed for Chelsea instead. Ferguson cried corruption, United tried to explore the possibility of legal proceedings but the Nigerian ended up in the blue of Chelsea rather than the red of Manchester United.

So it was that when the two teams faced each other in the final of the Champions League in 2008 Jon Obi Mikel was sat with the Chelsea team and not Alex Ferguson’s side. In the end he was an unused substitute, despite the game going all the way to extra-time and penalties. Perhaps Avram Grant would have played him if he was given his time again, seeing as United went on to beat Chelsea on penalties in the final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Regardless, it was another chapter in the ever-developing rivalry between two of the most successful sides in the Premier League era; a rivalry that was about to be given a fresh and unexpected twist.

Ferdinand v Terry

John Terry and Rio Ferdinand were considered to be two of the best English centre-backs playing football in the 2000s. The former was the captain of Chelsea, whilst the latter held the same position for Manchester United. The two were also the centre-back pairing for England in major international tournaments, which continued to be the case until accusations emerged that Terry had racially abused a Queens Park Rangers player during a Premier League match. The thing that added spice to proceedings was the player that Terry was alleged to have abused: Rio Ferdinand’s brother Anton.

Video footage captured John Terry referring to Anton Ferdinand in a derogatory manor, resulting in the Chelsea captain being placed under police investigation. In December of 2011 the Crown Prosecution Service charged him with using racist language, though he was acquitted of the charge in July of 2012. He was later banned for four games and fined £220,000 by the Football Association, having also retired from international football after declaring that his position was ‘untenable’. It made sense that he would feel that he wouldn’t be able to play for the national side again, given that irreparable damage was done to his relationship with his England centre-back partner Rio Ferdinand.

Other Incidents

Red Card Being Shown in Football Stadium

There are numerous other incidents that have occurred over the years to lead Chelsea and Manchester United to have a mutual dislike of each other, such as when Mark Clattenburg refereed a match between the two clubs in October of 2012. Chelsea’s players complained that the referee had used inappropriate language towards their players including racial slurs aimed at Jon Obi Mikel. The match, which was being played at Stamford Bridge, saw both Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres sent off, with United winning the game 3-2 thanks to an offside goal. Chelsea were further infuriated when the Football Association found that Clattenburg had done nothing wrong during the game.

Another, rather more childish, altercation occurred in 2008 when Manchester United lost 2-1 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and went out for their warm-down after the match. Football Association rules stated that players shouldn’t use the penalty areas for any warm-down exercises, which Manchester United’s players ignored. They were told in rather brusque terms by Chelsea’s groundsman Sam Bethell that they shouldn’t be doing it and it resulted in a heated exchange between the parties. This culminated in Patrice Evra, the Manchester United defender, pushed the groundsman in the chest and hit him on the side of the head before running back to confront him again after the incident had calmed down.

Though they’re both only small incidents, it goes to show the level of animosity that has grown between the two sides in the years since the Abramovich takeover of Chelsea and the increasing success of the Londoners in relation to the Manchester-based club. It is very much a modern rivalry, given that they two sides rarely played in matches of any note against each other prior to the Russian billionaire's arrival in England.