It is the 81st encounter between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Traffordon Sunday, but the first time in a generation that the guests are a threat.
‘This is how it feels to be City, this is how it feels to be small. This is how it feels when your team wins nothing at all.’ ‘City is their name, City is their name, 35 years and they’ve won f**k all, City is their name.’ Two chants previously serenaded with durable gusto at home and away by Manchester United supporters you won’t hear anymore because little City, typical Manchester City who contrived to cock-up any scenario, have won something recently.
Even when United were 3-0 down at Craven Cottage prior to Christmas almost two years ago, the away end was rocking to ‘This is how it feels’. Numb not from a freezing day in the capital but the pathetic performance on the pitch, part of me thought it obsessive when there are several strings to the Reds’ repertoire bow. But essentially it illustrated that, even though United were getting stuffed early in December, they were still infinitely better off than their recently anointed ‘noisy neighbours’.
Mark Hughes was sacked by City that day, which deflected (somewhat) the attention on a United side that played 3-5-2 at Fulham with only one defender in the three. It has been a recurring theme for decades that on a day, or a week, or in a month, City’s glory is diluted or United’s shortcomings are overawed by their city rivals. In 1968, City won the league yet United won the European Cup, in 1999 City’s remarkable comeback against Gillingham in the Division 2 Play-off final was lost in the week that United secured the Treble in Barcelona, and only in August the Citizens’ fantastic 5-1 victory at Tottenham was secondary to United’s 8 (EIGHT)-2 mauling of Arsenal a few hours later.
For the first time in my generation’s support however, City are a tangible threat with a superior squad than United’s and are above them – outright – in the league table. Although it is a predictable statement to make, Sir Alex Ferguson’s assertion that this is the biggest derby during his time at Old Trafford is a compliment to the league leaders and a fillip for them too. Hitherto 2008 they were a nonentity to United, who were more vexed by Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and even lowly Leeds United, whereas City just happened to inhabit, well, the same city.
During the club’s barren years the Blues would trump United with the local card; how Manchester is blue and that they remained earthy whereas United expanded into what is now a rather reprehensible brand, rather than remain a football club. Ironic then that City supporters have no such qualms about how they have reaped success in the last three years despite how eerily akin it is to the global popularising United have adopted. Whilst United actually fielded more local lads in their first-team than City did in their squad back in yesteryear.
United, clad in the Busby Babes’ 50s strip yet fraught with anxiety, were overwhelmed by the occasion and City took advantage of gutless stage-fright.
The anticipation for derby day has risen not since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover, but ever since the build-up to the September 2009 encounter. In the summer City had gone on an insatiable spending spree in the transfer window, but the spiciest element was their acquisition of Carlos Tévez, and therein followed that ‘Welcome to Manchester’ poster on Deansgate and Ferguson’s tetchiness at the Blues’ goading. ‘They’re a small club with a small mentality,’ he fumed, unable to mask his annoyance at a marketing stunt lapped up by all at Eastlands.
But to paraphrase Alan Partridge, needless to say, Fergie had the last laugh. United supporters had prepared their own retort to the Tévez billboard but most memorably, ‘Fergie Time’ was born when Michael Owen scored a 96th minute winner after City had equalised for the third time courtesy of Craig Bellamy in the 90th minute. Hughes was left so incensed on the touchline that he pressed his watch face so firmly he could have cracked it. Gary Neville meanwhile executed some interesting star jumps when ‘warming up’ in front of the away section.
Lamentably, I missed that derby by virtue of an almighty hangover. Pre-Freshers on a Saturday night consisted of excessive tequila shots that compelled me to drop a pint unprovoked and, to quote a mate, cling on to the walls like Spider-Man as I abandoned my pals unannounced to walk home. Putting the key in the lock and opening the door successfully was a five-minute assignment before I was sick all over myself in bed and the following morning the body was smarting so much that the ticket was passed on and even a trek to the pub was out of the question, so it was a tin of Rice Pudding and Sopcast. The clothes horse was kicked over upon Bellamy’s equaliser, the wardrobe battered after Owen’s winner.
Even the League Cup mattered when the two sides were drawn to face each other over the course of two tumultuous semi-final legs, with Wayne Rooney’s header in added time of the second leg sending United to Wembley – a stadium City supporters hadn’t visited in so many years that some thought the Twin Towers were still standing. Then in April, United did it again thanks to Paul Scholes nodding in a 1-0 winner in the 93rd minute to spark off unbridled joy in the visiting ranks in what was a dent in City’s Champions League qualification ambitions, subsequently unfulfilled that campaign.
Such moments go a long way to making amends for the February 2008 derby, for which I was present for. Four days after the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster came an abject denouement to an emotional week as City recorded their first win at Old Trafford since Denis had done it in 1974. A lone piper led out both sides playing ‘We’ll never die’ prior to a sobering minute’s silence observed impeccably despite some City supporters’ form for mocking the tragedy. Then United, clad in the Busby Babes’ 50s strip yet fraught with anxiety, were overwhelmed by the occasion and City took advantage of gutless stage-fright, with a Cristiano Ronaldo hissy fit the most memorable second-half flashpoint.
City deservedly savoured their day in the sun because it was a once in a blue moon victory at ‘The Swamp’ as yours truly, too close for comfort, endured their schadenfreude in the south stand having applauded their reflection of respect prior to kick-off. The possibility is not so rare anymore though. City were unlucky at Old Trafford in February and undone by a piece of extraordinary ingenuity by Rooney, and now Sunday is an opportunity to complete a longstanding trilogy, with a five-point gap the incentive to prove that City are far from small anymore.
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