As if being situated just a couple of miles apart and battling each other for the English Premier League title was not enough, now Manchester United and Manchester City have become embroiled in a heated dispute just a few weeks into the new season.
The subject of the public-relations fracas is an unusual one. Midfielder Owen Hargreaves is one of the more mild-mannered players in English soccer, but his critical comments about the medical treatment he received as a United player has sparked a wave of controversy and unrest.
Hargreaves is now a City asset, having signed as a free agent in the summer after being released by United, where injury restricted him to just 26 starts in four years following his acquisition from Bayern Munich for a transfer fee of $26 million.
The 30-year-old was once one of Europe’s highest-rated players but is now fighting to rebuild his career. He has complained that United’s medical staff treated him like a guinea pig by experimenting with different remedies for his injured knee and says they hindered his recovery by injecting him with cortisone.
“I had a bit of a tendon problem,” Hargreaves said after his first competitive performance for City, when he scored a goal in the club’s 2-0 Carling Cup victory over Birmingham on Wednesday. “I played and it got a little bit worse. We treated it and it got significantly worse after that, through the injection I had. After that my tendon was never the same.
“After the injections they said my tendon was good, but I felt like it was made out of glass. That obviously had a huge impact. That was surgery and that was 18 months gone. With my tendon injury, I’ve had to be a guinea pig for a lot of these treatments. They said that I wouldn’t have any side effects from the injections. That wasn’t the case, and if I had known, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Hargreaves looked impressive in his return to action, prompting thoughts that he may be able to find a way back into the England national team if his fitness remains strong. First though, there is this saga to negotiate. United, as usual, is unwilling to lie down quietly when it feels under attack.
The defending EPL champion came out firing. First, head coach Sir Alex Ferguson launched into a spirited defense of his medical staff.
“We are trying to analyze the stuff he has said, and there will be a statement later to address that,” Ferguson said in his weekly news conference. “As far as I am concerned, our medical staff is one of the main reasons why we have been so successful over the last few years.
“Do you think we would be successful if they were not 100 percent brilliant? Our doctor and his five [physiotherapists] are fantastic – that is my opinion and that is more important than what anyone else has to say about it.”
But United was not finished yet, issuing an official statement that took a further swipe at Hargreaves.
“Manchester United is disappointed with Owen’s remarks after the game on Wednesday,” the statement read. “The club gave him the best possible care for three years and is as disappointed as anyone that he was not able to play a part in the team’s success during that time. United does not acknowledge any validity in the comments Owen is alleged to have made.”
The dispute is sure to add spice to the battle at the top of the EPL. United currently leads the league on 15 points, having won each of its five games so far. City is two points back, with Chelsea the nearest contender on 10.
Hargreaves will not be considered for selection for City’s home clash with Everton this Saturday, as the club remains determined to bring him back slowly while monitoring his physical progress. However, if he gets strong enough to claim a regular starting place, it could create an extraordinary subplot for the two scheduled meetings between the Manchester clubs later in the campaign.