Despite the less then startling football served up over the last few months, yet again we’re nicely placed in the title race as the season ebbs towards its conclusion. Barring a couple of mid-noughties exceptions, it’s incredible to think this has been the case for the last two decades…and it doesn’t get old. Each title win carries a special significance: 1993 after a 26 year wait, the first double, the treble year, upsetting the odds to topple Abramovich/Mourinho in 2007, beating Liverpool in 2009, ‘19’ last season…the list goes on.
This year of course, it’s all about beating City. The very thought of going toe to toe with them still seems slightly surreal for this 1970’s child – 5-1 aside, I’ve spent pretty much my entire football watching life basking in the glory of our undisputed dominance over them. Throughout the nineties (in the years they’d remembered not to be relegated) derby games were fantastic. For the most part they couldn’t get near us – and even if they’d get close, we’d routinely pull something improbable out of the hat and break their stupid hearts in the process.
This marvellous state of affairs was best illustrated by the 3-2 win at Maine Road in November 1993 – easily one of the top three games I’ve ever attended. City were revelling in our Champions League exit at the hands of Galatasary a few days earlier, as evidenced by a plethora of Turkish Delights being flung over the Kippax divide. They raced into a 2-0 lead courtesy of a pair of Niall Quinn headers but United produced a Cantona inspired, 2nd half fightback and nicked it late on courtesy of Roy Keane’s winner. It was era defining stuff – each and every red in attendance floated out of the ground that night.
The dynamic shifted about 10 years ago. Possibly tired of doing the hapless loser thing indefinitely, City adopted a win-at-all-cost mentality and began to revel in the role of plucky underdog. Whereas previously we’d come to expect routine capitulation and surrender, from nowhere they appeared to sprout a pair of bollocks. Victories in the last derby at Maine Road and the first at Eastlands ended years of United superiority and the cue for mass Bertie celebrations.
In spite of their enduring shiteness, derbies had become evenly contested again – aided perhaps by a sense that some of our players’ efforts didn’t quite match the fervour of the blues’ revised approach to these fixtures. Put simply, our campaigns were 60+ game affairs focused on the ultimate goal of winning the league title and/or the European Cup. City meanwhile, were fixated purely on the parochial – their season was deemed a success purely on the basis of whether or not they’d managed to get a result against Man United.
It’s all changed now of course. Successive regimes (Forward with Franny, Bungling with Bernstein, Wobbling with Wardle, Shafted by Shinawatra) promised the earth but delivered nothing other than further entertainment for us amused bystanders. Whilst we still had Garry Cook as a rich source of old school Bertie buffoonery to enjoy, the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008 proved to be the real deal finance-wise, and things would never be the same again – half a billion pounds later, they finally had a trophy in their newly procured cabinet and the 34 YEARS ticker was reset.
If watching them win an FA Cup and gain CL qualification proved unpalatable enough, the thought of them winning the title is surely the ultimate nightmare scenario for any of us unfortunate enough to come into contact with City fans on a daily basis. After witnessing the delirious reaction to their new found wealth and ensuing transfer policy (throw money at anyone who’ll come and instantly proclaim them ‘legends’) – for 2 or 3 years now we’ve been subjected to ‘tick tock’ and ‘blue moon rising’ soundbites pretty much every time one of them opens their mouths.
It didn’t take a genius to deduce they’d be serious challengers this season, indeed I reached that conclusion myself in these pages back in September. Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs didn’t look anything like potential title winners, which only left City and us. As they smashed everyone in sight whilst we looked decidedly out of sorts and suffered injury after injury, prospects were looking pretty good for them prior to Christmas.
As a supporter, experience would have told me to keep quiet, acutely aware there was a long way to go and things can change very quickly. ‘Restraint’ isn’t a word in the Berties’ vocabulary of course. How did the City fans at my place of work greet the 6-1? Did they offer satisfied smiles and a few pisstaking comments? No chance. I walked into work on the Monday to be greeted by the sight of 4 grown men doing the Poznan. In true City fashion, the flags were up, replicas were on and one of them had brought in a cake. Yes, a cake.
Prior to winning the league in ’93, I don’t recall any United fan ever being daft enough to suggest ‘it’s in the bag’ – everything was kept as low key as possible. No one was bold enough to sing ‘We’re Gonna Win The League’ for fear of upsetting the footballing gods and cursing things. There was plenty of time for ballooning when the thing was actually won. We communicated in hushed tones and kept things on the down low – mainly for fear of looking and sounding like total twats should the unthinkable happen.
The transformation in Blues’ demeanour over the last few weeks has made for fantastic viewing. The late winner at Norwich seemed to plant the seeds of doubt and since then they’ve quickly descended into full-on wibble mode. Tears at Swansea, the Tevez SOS call, rowing on the pitch last week v’s Sunderland, Balotelli now an accepted liability as opposed to the trusted talisman…all tremendous stuff. I’m hesitant to use the word ‘meltdown’ as there are still some 7 games left at the time of writing, but fuck it…the wheels are buckling and we’ve not even reached Easter yet.
Whilst Mancini hasn’t quite reached a Dalglish state of dishevelment yet, he’s appeared more and more erratic of late. The two late goals against Sunderland should surely have been greeted as a positive? Normally, whatever his private thoughts might be, you’d expect to see a manager praise the character of his team in coming back from 3-1 down and take the opportunity to offer some sort of public rallying-call. Instead he’s there at the post-game presser with his chin on the floor, looking for all the world like a broken man. Fergie on the other hand, appears to be in cruise control. Brushing aside Vieira’s little outburst with a smile and acknowledging the travelling reds at Ewood Park with a double fist-clenched salute. Been there, seen it, done it, hasn’t he?
Consequently, there’s been very little excruciating ‘footy banter’ in our office over the last 3 weeks, texts from blue mates have ceased completely and the old bloke across the road disappears into his house rather than letting on and rushing over to tell me all about Super Mario’s latest pretend exploits. Here’s hoping we can finish the job as quickly and ruthlessly as possible so this remains the case well into the coming months. Plus, that guard-of-honour at their place sounds good…
Copyright Red News – April 2012