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By Graham Poll......referee.......

It was the 'unrefereeable' game — and both Manchester United and Arsenal wanted me to take charge.

Not for the first, or last, time I used some advice from my friend, the Italian referee Pierluigi Collina, who always refused to speak to coaches or players before a game because it might suggest a lack of confidence, a weakness.

When I pressed the bell for the teams to leave their dressing-rooms on February 1, 2005, neither team emerged; neither wanted to be first. Each wanted to leave the other standing about in the corridor. I pressed the bell a second time. Again nothing happened. Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson were keeping watch by their dressing-room doors, each waiting for the other to blink first in this stand-off.

I then decided on a personal approach. I walked to the Arsenal dressing-room. As I passed United's room, Sir Alex let me know in three chilling words what he expected of the game. He looked me in the eyes and said: 'Good luck tonight.'

I asked Arsene, politely, to let his team out and he did. I walked along the tunnel, next to Arsenal's Patrick Vieira and tried to lighten the atmosphere. I said to Patrick: 'Remember this fixture last year when we made Roy Keane laugh as we waited to go out on to the pitch?' Patrick replied: 'That will not happen tonight.' I asked Sir Alex to send out his team. He answered: 'Roy's not ready.' I said: 'OK. No problem. He can join us in a minute.'

So the Arsenal line of players and the four match officials made their way towards the end of the Highbury tunnel. I then heard raised voices further back in the tunnel. Patrick and Gary Neville were in each other's faces. Patrick was saying that he wanted to break the England defender's legs. At that moment, Roy arrived. He said: 'Pick on someone your own size.' Patrick said: 'I'll break your legs as well.' Roy replied: 'If you were that good, you'd be playing for Real Madrid.'

It was a clever riposte — Patrick had been courted by Real the previous summer.

I could have 'sent them off', some disciplinarians will tell you that is what I should have done. But I needed them on the pitch.

I knew if I could manage them during the game — and I felt sure I could — the two influential captains could help me control a volatile match.

So I split them up and we went out on to the Highbury pitch. When the time came for the toss of the coin they refused to shake hands and neither was willing to call 'heads' or 'tails' so I assigned the sides of the coin for them.

The testosterone was still coursing through the players' veins when they kicked off. Tackles went flying in. I awarded six free-kicks in the opening two minutes as I stuck to my game plan of keeping a lid on everything at the start.

Ashley Cole claimed an early penalty after going down with what looked to me like a comically unconvincing dive. I clamped down on anything looking like a foul and Roy came over and said: 'You're making it worse.' I replied: 'Give me two more minutes and the game's yours.' I hoped that my rigorous opening gambit would tell the players I was in charge and after that they would have confidence in me and not try to settle their own feuds.

And it worked. The 'unrefereeable' game was an absolute epic, with some magnificent, hightempo football.

I handed out six cautions and one red card to Mikael Silvestre for headbutting Freddie Ljungberg. As Silvestre left the field, Sir Alex, who had not seen the off-the-ball incident, asked him what had happened. Mikael replied: 'He pissed me off so I butted him.'

The other contentious issue was the outburst of profanities from Wayne Rooney. I can't remember precisely what caused it but someone worked out that he used the f-word 27 times, mostly at me.

It was, apparently, an impressive demonstration of rapid-fire swearing. Despite what so-called experts keep writing and broadcasting, using 'foul language' is no longer an offence, because people swear all the time.

In Rooney's case there were also other considerations. If I had sent him off, a volatile game might well have exploded. So I called Keane, Rooney's captain, over to us as a witness and told Rooney: 'There will be no more of this or else you will be sent off.

Whether Sir Alex reinforced my message at half-time, I do not know, but Rooney gave me no more trouble and kept his mouth more or less under control.

From my point of view, I had successfully man-managed him and had helped the game.

If I had let the game explode it could have done terrible damage to the image of football and the English Premiership.

Instead, we had a fixture which enhanced the reputation of both.
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