Milkgate: Dirty tunnel spat good for sanitised Manchester derby

A carton of milk being thrown at Jose Mourinho could be the spark needed for a Manchester derby that has been lacking subplots in recent years.

Growing up a blue in Salford, it wasn’t uncommon for my dad, with his Manchester City scarf tied around his wrist, to get regular kickings from red-clad lads. Years later, he would seek revenge with bimonthly pilgrimages to the bus stop which took Manchester United fans to Old Trafford, veering his car into the puddle that teasingly sat at its kerb. It always rains in Manchester.

It was a rivalry that transcended football. Your family was rich or poor; grammar-taught or secondary modern-fraught; spent Saturday afternoons down Maine Road or Old Trafford. Whether you were City or United defined you, and often marked the boundaries of Manchester and its surrounding area. Salford, Stretford, and Trafford were red; Stockport, Moss Side, and Didsbury were blue.

The animosity wasn’t absent from the pitch. In the 1970s, derbies were particularly bad-tempered, with United darling George Best breaking the leg of Glyn Pardoe in the early part of the decade. Dennis Law, who was an Old Trafford hero for much of his career, returned as a City player in 1974 and helped relegate his former club with a backheel. Just over a year later, City beat United 4-0 in a League Cup match, but it would be one of the sorriest episodes in the club’s history, as Colin Bell, the outfit’s best-ever player until David Silva arrived, effectively had his career ended by a crunching challenge just below the knee from Martin Buchan.

Soon, parity between the two teams would ebb away. City chairman Peter Swales’ obsessive and financially misguided pursuit to become the town’s standout club hamstrung the blue half for decades. Established international footballers made way for frail-looking “prospects” and, when the money ran out for these risky acquisitions, youth-team graduates were heavily relied upon.

Unfortunately for City, when it came to conducting business and spotting young talent, United was much better. Sir Alex Ferguson introduced the Class of ’92 and slotted foreign superstars into the lineup, while City ran through a stream of managers and, by 1998, was mid-table in the third tier. United won the treble at the end of the 1998-99 season; City needed two last-gasp goals, extra-time, and penalties to overhaul Gillingham in a playoff final.

When City ended its years of lower-level purgatory and re-entered the top flight in the new millennium, Roy Keane performed a tribute act to the 1970s. In what was believed to be an act of revenge after Alf-Inge Haaland chastised Keane for injuring himself when attempting to tackle him in 1997, the Irishman stomped on the newly appointed City captain’s knee in 2001. Haaland played 48 more minutes of competitive football before calling time on his career.

City had a knack for performing above expectations in derbies over the following decade, making it more of an on-pitch contest than it had been for some time. Controversy was rife as well, with Michael Ball stamping on Cristiano Ronaldo, and a war of words between City blockbuster buy Carlos Tevez and his former employer United, culminating in substitute Gary Neville showing the Argentinian his middle finger during a warm-up.

But the derby lost its subplots in recent times. Manuel Pellegrini was an unassuming character – a tribute regularly flown at the Etihad Stadium called him “This Charming Man” – and was unlikely to enter a war of words with David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. There hasn’t been a sending off since 2014, and Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho haven’t renewed their hostilities from when they managed either side of the Clasico divide.

That was until the Old Trafford tunnel descended into chaos after City’s 2-1 defeat of United on Sunday. The latest account from BBC Sport’s Simon Stone documented a few minutes which included a carton of milk flying in the direction of Mourinho, the United manager rowing with City goalkeeper Ederson in Portuguese, and Guardiola’s assistant, Mikel Arteta, nursing a cut head. The Telegraph’s James Ducker understands Romelu Lukaku “was a prominent figure in the confrontations.”

The melee apparently began when Mourinho went to complain about the noise in the away dressing room. If the milk hit its target rather than a member of his staff, it would’ve turned sour.

The Football Association contacted both Manchester clubs to “ask for their observations” on Monday, and even if they aren’t forthcoming, supporters will take sides and neutrals will forge opinions. Pizzagate rumbled on for 13 years until Cesc Fabregas admitted during an episode of Sky Sports’ “A League of Their Own” that he was the Arsenal player who slung a slice at Ferguson. The incident fuelled the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal, and, following the weekend’s semi-skimmed projectiles, there is now added intrigue and spice for when Manchester’s foes next lock horns in April.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)


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