Gennaro Gattuso had been spoiling for a fight all night.
Peter Crouch was not built to react to the Milan midfielder’s late lunges and provocation, Rafael van de Vaart and Steven Pienaar too amiable or astonished to respond to his antics, the officials seemingly unwilling to properly clamp down.
However, in the Tottenham technical area stood a square-jawed, shaven-headed Scot, eyes burning, dentures grinding. Joe Jordan had spent nearly half a century in football refusing to take a backward step and he was not about to start now.
It is 12 years to the day since Tottenham enjoyed one of their finest European results by beating then Serie A leaders AC Milan in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie. All that most remember of the night, though, are the two clashes between a wild-eyed, tousle-haired 33-year-old and a bespectacled opposition coach on the cusp of his 60s.
Were it not for Gareth Bale singlehandedly destroying Inter Milan in the group stages, Gattuso v Jordan would probably be the defining image of the north London club’s superb debut Champions League campaign.
Goals and skill remain football’s chief draw, but there is an allure to an on-field scuffle, despite what pearl-clutching commentators may tell you as the scenes force you from your seat and draw you ever closer to your television screen.
What made the San Siro spat all the more mesmerising was the way it played out over the course of an engrossing 90 minutes and that it pitted the then poster boy for modern combative midfielders against a grizzled old pro who had once been the hardest man for Milan in an era full of them.
Sat in Sky’s studio in the San Siro on the night of the game, Graeme Souness, who knows a thing or two about getting stuck in on a football field, remarked that Gattuso had clearly “not done his homework” when he chose to take on Jordan.
Had he done, the Italian would have read about a man who grew up in a Lanarkshire pit village, learning to play on a local football field he called the Corn Patch. He would have learned of a player who was schooled by the likes of Billy Bremner and Norman Hunter in arguably the toughest changing room of them all at Leeds United in the 1970s. He may also have seen that in 2007, the Times named the Scot the 34th hardest man in football history.
A little closer to home for Gattuso, just two years prior to the game with Spurs, on the 110th anniversary of the formation of AC Milan, Jordan was named among the 110 most important players to appear for the club.
In truth, the Italian need only look at the images a quick Google search would offer; of the toothless grin Jordan earned by sticking his head in where it hurts during a goalmouth scramble in a reserve game early in his playing days. For much of his 11-year playing career in England, he was ‘Jaws’. In Italy, they called him ‘Lo Squalo’ (The Shark).
To hear Jordan describe the night he and Gattuso clashed, it would seem as though the Italian wasn’t thinking at all.
“Gattuso lost himself,” Jordan told Sky’s Goals on Sunday in 2016. “It was a big game, he was captain of his club, we won the game and he had problems with one or two of the players. He had a problem with the referee. He obviously had a problem with himself. He picked on an old man like me.”
The game began innocuously enough but became increasingly bad-tempered, with the home side angered at having to replace goalkeeper Christian Abbiati following a clash with Crouch in the box.
The size of the tie leant itself to commitment, with wet conditions making controlling tackles trickier. All it took was a few borderline challenges to go unchecked for grievances to fester and retribution to be sought. Gattuso was typically at the heart of it, but he was far from alone in a Milan midfield also containing former Arsenal player Mathieu Flamini.
It was the Frenchman who lit the touch-paper, almost removing Vedran Corluka’s right foot with a sliding two-footed challenge that he then celebrated with gusto to the home fans. Corluka would be carried off on a stretcher and later leave the ground on crutches.
It was after this that Gattuso and Jordan first came into each other’s orbit.
With play halted, the latter encroached on to the pitch and was met by the former, who shoved him off it with a hand to the throat. To his credit, Spurs boss Harry Redknapp attempted to intervene, but his appetite to get in the middle of the two enraged silverbacks was clearly minimal.
Gattuso, his head gone, was now a ticking bomb, throwing himself into tackles with wild abandon and responding to every perceived slight with ludicrous histrionics.
Finally, the referee acted, responding to a lunging, late boot on Pienaar by showing the Milan captain a yellow card – one that would keep him out of the return leg.
All it required now was a Spurs winner to cap Gattuso’s nightmare and Crouch duly delivered with 10 minutes to go, tapping in from close range after being set up by Aaron Lennon.
There was an inevitability of further fury after full-time, the lasting image of the night being that of a now shirtless Gattuso forehead to forehead with Jordan, who had, ominously, removed his glasses.
The Italian attempted to have the final say, nudging his head forward in a tame attempted headbutt, sparking a melee of players and staff that saw the main protagonists crowded out and held back from any further attempts at disgracing themselves.
Afterwards, Gattuso’s camp provided a further layer to events, suggesting Jordan had provided a running commentary of abuse throughout the night, setting a vocal trap into which their man naively fell.
Gattuso’s agent, Claudio Pasqualin, told reporters: “Jordan, after having continuously heckled him, insulted him with a truly low phrase.
“For one like Rino, who has a strong sense of his Italian identity, I think this is the most disgusting and unjustifiable of insults.”
To his credit, Gattuso has since been extremely regretful of his behaviour that night.
Speaking to Corriere della Sera in 2022, he said: “I made a mistake and I feel ashamed. It’s something I did and it was an unjustifiable error.
“I could say that these things happen on the pitch, but I am ashamed of it. I have a 14-year-old son. Do you think I am not ashamed every time he rightly asks me why I did it?”
There would be repercussions a decade on from that night in Milan, at least in Gattuso’s mind, with the Italian suggesting his battle with Jordan was a big factor in him not succeeding Jose Mourinho as Spurs boss in the club’s drawn-out search in the summer of 2021.
However, the hostile reaction of Tottenham fans to his potential appointment – news of which was met with a #NoToGattuso hashtag on social media – was possibly more to do with alleged historic racist and homophobic comments from the Italian, which he claims have been “misrepresented”.
Gattuso tried to make amends to Jordan directly, inviting him to be his guest in Milan in the months after the game in 2011. While, unable to take the player up on his offer, Jordan insists he has no issue with him or regrets over the night. Well, maybe apart from one…
“He did invite me across to the training ground and he wanted me to be his guest there,” he said. “This was maybe six months after it happened. But I never got the chance.
“What is in the past, is in the past. As far as I’m concerned it is forgotten, I don’t hold any grudges. It’s just a pity I wasn’t playing!”