There is never a dull moment in Manchester football these days. If it is not seven-goal thrillers involving City or United, it is intrigue behind the scenes at Old Trafford. With all sides denying agreement was imminent on Sir Alex Ferguson's claim for a king's ransom for a horse from United's two major shareholders, John Magnier and J P McManus, the real drama, as last weekend, was confined to the pitch. United had to overcome the loss of Gary Neville to a red card to defeat City 4-2 at Old Trafford and reach the last eight of the FA Cup.
If a Manchester derby ever can idle along then this one did for half an hour or so as City's apparent mission to contain paid off until Paul Scholes pounced on hesitation to put United ahead. Then, as they say, it all went off - or at least Gary Neville did. Brought in to stiffen United's recently rocky rearguard (witness last weekend's 4-3 struggle past Everton), the full-back joined the waves of United attacks and scented a penalty when tackled by Michael Tarnat.
Few were impressed by his fall and even fewer by his subsequent head-butt on his former brother in the England international players' union, Steve McManaman, as tempers frayed. After separating various warring parties, the referee Jeff Winter gave Neville his cards, a yellow for the dive followed by a red for the butt. Ferguson, while not arguing with the dismissal, was disappointed that the referee had not intervened quicker. "He allowed the mêlée to develop," he said of Winter. "It was an absolutely ridiculous bit of refereeing." And he was unhappy with McManaman's involvement, saying the winger was aggressive in the build-up to England's international shop steward going strike.
It certainly was not the sort of head-to-head that would have attracted the statisticians' interest before kick-off. As City's manager, Kevin Keegan, said: "Neville is not that type of player but he did definitely moved his head. The referee did what he had to do." What Ferguson had to do was reorganise, but he resisted the temptation to introduce a susbtitute. A Butt for a butt, perhaps, but this, like much that has happened at Old Trafford lately, was no joking matter, no time for horseplay.
Phil Neville dropped back and United, eventually, surged forward with Cristiano Ronaldo setting up Van Nistelrooy before scoring himself and the Dutchman netting his second after Tarnat pulled one back. City were not finished but even Robbie Fowler catching United napping with a free-kick did not make it a happy birthday for Keegan. When Ferguson said: "We showed great determination in difficult circumstances," he could have been talking about all the recent strife around Old Trafford.
Swansea ran into trouble at Tranmere, where they had Alan Tate sent off as they lost 2-1, bringing an end to Third Division representation in the FA Cup for another year. Burnley lost to a the only goal at Millwall, who could have had a hatful. They had to settle for a celebratory strike from Danny Dicho, who has made his move from West Bromwich permanent. West Ham lived to fight another day by forcing a 0-0 draw at Fulham.
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