IT was once the biggest show in town. It was a game that dominated newspaper column inches for an entire week – sometimes longer – during the build-up and, after all the hype, it rarely disappointed.

It was a fixture for the ages, one that told a story of two teams’ dominance of English football and their managers’ and players’ seething disdain for each other. It was a 21-game series that brought us some of the modern era’s most memorable moments spanning Pizzagate and the Battle of the Buffet, Bootgate – the time Sir Alex Ferguson lashed a boot in the direction of David Beckham and left him requiring stitches – the Battle of Old Trafford when Martin Keown’s baiting of Ruud Van Nistelrooy launched a thousand t-shirts, the hostile confrontations between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, Ryan Giggs’ FA Cup solo goal and the revelation that he had cultivated an Axminster rug on his chest.

For years, the 2-2 draw between Arsenal and United at Old Trafford boasted the largest television audience to ever watch a game in Britain. Back in April 2003, 3.4m people tuned in to Sky Sports to watch what had been billed as a title decider with Sir Alex Ferguson’s United three points ahead of Arsene Wenger’s Gunners. The draw suited the former, it was they who went on to lift the title that season – just the latest triumph in a tit-for-tat war that ran from 1998 to 2004, when the pair split seven titles between them, United winning four to Arsenal’s three.

And then, at some point, the match lost its lustre. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea muscled into the conversation armed with Russian funny money, then came Manchester City. The relevance of the United-Arsenal fixture’s appearance on the calendar diminished each year that the Londoners’ financial commitment to their gleaming new Etihad Stadium bit harder.

These days, the satellite broadcaster still shows reruns of the encounter. It serves as a totemic reminder of a time when United, Arsenal and Sky seemed inextricably linked. Tomorrow’s match at Old Trafford will still take pride of place on the fixture scheduler’s calendar but the spectacle on offer will fall well short of the kind of fare that once left fans across Britain enraptured. The main headline is that this will be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 100th game in charge of United. There will, no doubt, be some half-hearted references to past glories, too.

The lack of fanfare is partly a consequence of circumstance – the absence of supporters from grounds in particular – but is also an indication of where these respective clubs sit in the pecking order of English football. They have finished as runners-up in recent seasons – United in 17/18 and Arsenal in 15/16 – but trailed Manchester City and Leicester by 19 and 10 points respectively.

That in itself is no great surprise: back then they were propped up by autocratic rulers. When they eventually left, their departures allowed for the primacy of the business executive to exert ultimate authority over the direction of the club.

And so, decisions for the good of the bank balance have superseded those required for need on the pitch. United are now on to their fourth manager in Solskjaer since Ferguson retired. Arsenal appointed their second last year in Mikel Arteta following Wenger’s waygoing. Both former players of the clubs, they understand what this fixture once meant.

The greater disparity between then and now is at United. They have yet to win at home in the Premier League this season, a state of affairs that would have been unthinkable under Ferguson. There have been some woeful results already this season, notably against Tottenham and Crystal Palace.

Against RB Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League the Norwegian has shown that he can be pragmatic in a tactical sense. United used to play an unmistakable 4-4-2 with a counter-attacking style, nowadays it is hard to know what they are going to employ.

And as Solskjaer previewed tomorrow’s game, there was little attempt to secure a psychological edge.

“Arsenal is always going to be difficult because they are a very good team with a good manager,” the United manager said. “When I played it was between us both to win the league, so that was a fierce rivalry. There were all sorts of old stories.

“There’s still the rivalry, the history, but now we don’t think about them as our rivals. We just need to put points on the board.”

Just another game.

Inadvertent though it may have been, it was a damning critique of how far both clubs have fallen.