While it was in the September of 2008 that Sheikh Mansour took control of Manchester City Football Club, the 2008-09 campaign for the blues wasn’t the best on the pitch. In fact, it ended with the team outside all of the European places and had a Christmas Day in the relegation zone wedged into the middle of it. That was the last time that City met United just twice over the course of a season; every year since then, there has been more than the minimum two Manchester derbies.
Those two derbies of 2008-09 were bleak for City: Two defeats, no goals and barely a shot in either. There was so much between the two sides, you’d never have believed the gap had looked smaller the year earlier – when Sven’s side had twice beaten their local rivals. Fast forward to a new manager and throw in a few new players and progress had stalled somewhat.
But that’s when City got serious. In a manner, the club declared war on the team from across town. With a summer of additions – including the high profile signing of Carlos Tevez – the blues had suddenly gone from a team with no European football to one that was pushing to finish fourth in the Premier League. That transfer saga was the start of where the bad blood began to get worse between the two Manchester clubs. Previously, City’s mid-table woes and relegation battles had mattered little to United’s title challenges and European nights, and vice-versa. The sides met twice a year and battled it out, with the bragging rights at stake.
But that Tevez switch signalled the start of City’s rise; the now infamous poster being a cheap dig that got United’s back up and had those in charge of the reds foaming at the mouths. They were rattled. It added extra feeling to that first meeting between the two sides and it felt, for the first time in a long time, that City were somewhere near to pushing United all the way. It was the first step in the blues’ rise; they went in off the back of four wins. Of course, we all know how it ended: Michael Owen stole the points with a goal in added time to added time.
We might not have realised it at the time, but that game marked the beginning of a new era of Manchester derbies. This was no longer the haves against the have nots; this was the beginning of a fight for power. City were trying to wrestle it from United and it was no longer simply bragging rights at stake. This was league position and future success for City. For United, it was a battle to stay in poll position and to avoid being eclipsed by their nearest rivals.
Before that match in 2009-10, Sir Alex Ferguson uttered his famous “not in my lifetime” quote – in answer to the question of whether City would go into a derby match as favourites. Not only has he since been proven wrong on that front, as the blues have now gone into a derby with shorter odds than United, but he has himself passed comment on it, claiming the blues were where the money should be placed for last season’s FA Cup third round tie.
As much as us City fans don’t want it to be true, the fact of the matter is United aren’t going to just go away. They’ve had dominance over England for nigh on twenty years and, as is the case with any sort of evil, undemocratic Empire, the idea of giving up power isn’t one that is ever jumped at. The inconvenience of the matter is that, to become top dogs in this country, City are going to have to dismantle what United have built brick by brick. Mario Balotelli almost hit the nail on the head; he said ‘Why always me?’, when he should have asked ‘Why always them?’
Since the takeover and since City have been climbing the table in their quest for success, they have had to overcome United at every significant point. The coincidental and slightly queer fact that the reds have been constantly standing in the blues’ way for every little achievement is quite symbolic of the fight as a whole. They have what we want and we have to forcefully take it from them. To be a success, we have to stop them from stopping us.
Back in 2009-10, City had their best chance yet of picking up silverware and ending the barren spell, having just smashed three past Arsenal’s kids and made it to the semi-finals of the League Cup. Leaving the ground, fans were desperately trying to find out who the club had drawn. And then the news broke: Manchester United. To make matters worse, it was the most difficult draw, being the home leg first and the away leg second.
The reds, having played a weakened side all the way up to that point, signalled their intent to the competition and towards City. One could be forgiven for thinking United were more concerned from stopping the blues winning the cup than winning it themselves; the policy of playing fringe players stopped immediately when it became obvious City were serious about lifting the trophy that so many teams shun. United won that battle, but only just.
The progress for City took another dent later that season. The push for a Champions League place over Tottenham, Aston Villa and Liverpool appeared to be swinging into the blues’ favour, until one Manchester United rocked up at the City of Manchester Stadium. A last minute goal again won the game for the visitors, and that sparked a run of form that saw City lose out to Spurs in a penultimate match ‘playoff’. While City had clearly improved, they were still some way behind United.
Then came 2010-11. City managed to earn one more point in the Manchester derbies than the campaign previous, but that was a somewhat soul-destroying and wholly forgettable 0-0 draw at Eastlands. The undoubted highlight of which being the final whistle, when fans could finally go home and wonder how better they could have spent that ninety minutes. In fact, it’s the fixture in February that is more telling – City turned up at Old Trafford and were marginally the better side, a marked improvement on the year before. They only lost that game due to a freak, out-of-this-world, unbelievably good goal, that, on another day, would have landed somewhere on the M60.
But that wasn’t the half of it. With City looking to end a trophy drought of over three decades, it looked like the FA Cup was going well. The big sides were dropping out and the blues had been given favourable draws against lower league opposition and, on the one occasion they drew a Premier League side, it was at home. But then, just before the quarter final with Reading, the balls were pulled out of that strange bowl thing on ITV and, if they got through, City would be paired up with United. At Wembley. The reds were, once again, blocking the path of City’s progress.
This time, City came out on top – and deservedly so. Rooney was missing, as was Tevez, and both sides went toe-to-toe for the honour of being an FA Cup finalist. The banner at Old Trafford proudly displayed the years since the blues had won a major trophy (not that they care, obviously); it wasn’t officially sanctioned by the club, but clearly endorsed, as, had they wanted it gone, it could quite easily have been removed. Roberto Mancini had previously failed on his first attempt to fulfil his promise of tearing it down.
To do it, he was going to have to get the better of United. First it was the League Cup. And then the FA Cup. As we know now, he kept that promise. He went on to complete the cup run by seeing off Stoke in the final and lifting the trophy that May.
The next time the two sides would meet was the Community Shield: The opening game of the season; the curtain raiser. And, that August, nobody would have predicted just how significant the two teams that went head-to-head that match would be. It’s telling now that the showpiece for the English Premier League would be contested by the two teams vying to win it nine months on. City threw away a two-goal lead to lose that game and, from that point on, proceeded to smash records in the opening months of the season, as team after team were dispatched en route to October and a trip to Old Trafford.
A United win would see them leapfrog the blues into top spot. A City win would see them open up a five point gap at the table’s summit. It would turn out to be the blues’ biggest step yet in taking a wrecking ball to Sir Alex Palpatine’s Empire. Six huge hits were sustained that day and City inflicted United’s largest ever Premier League defeat at Old Trafford. Fans that had been arguing that the gap between the two clubs was getting shorter began to argue that it was actually getting wider: That blue had become more dominant than red.
Of course, that was too premature.
The FA Cup was next: The third round draw threw these teams together once again. But for an unjust red card, it could have been a different story; but a club mustn’t lament its bad luck. United made it into the pot for the fourth round, though City gave them a scare, with one man fewer for eighty of the ninety minutes and from three goals behind. That first cup might have gone in the trophy cabinet, but the second one after it was still not going to be an easy task.
But the season defining moment was still to come. Having spent many months of the season on the top of the league, City suddenly imploded. For a while, the blues had been five points ahead of the reds and with a better goal difference, but, with just six matches to play, it looked like they had mucked it up. After the first game in April – a defeat by a single goal at The Emirates – City trailed United by eight points. Worse, the goal difference advantage had gone too, as the blues found themselves two behind.
Once again, United appeared to have stood firm in City’s way.
But the blues hadn’t stored the wrecking ball away just yet. After the final whistle of City’s destruction of West Brom, the fans waited behind to hear confirmation that Wigan had given them a helping hand – United had lost. “Too little, too late,” was muttered by some. “You never know,” was the reply from others.
Indeed, the latter were right – City had their reprieve, in the shape of Everton. They fought back at Old Trafford to steal a point when all seemed lost, meaning City’s victory over Wolves later that Sunday afternoon left the blues three points behind. The next game was, of course, the Manchester derby. Win and City went back on top on goal difference. Draw and United would take a three point lead into the final two games. Defeat and it was all over, United would need a point to secure the league. It was do or die. All or nothing. Win or bust.
United, again, in City’s way of progress. While many of us had hoped that the title race would have been over well before this match, when the fixtures were announced it was always going to be inevitable that the final derby of the season would play a key role in the struggle for power.
United have stood in City’s way in everything they have tried to do since the takeover. If City were to knock United into second place in this country, then they would have to do it both literally and metaphorically. In the wartime metaphor, the battles had been tight and close, and, for three years, City have been gradually gaining ground, while United had stagnated. But in the literal world, the reds had stopped the blues on several occasions in the past. Kept them at arm’s length.
But United ran scared. They came for a point. They got nothing.
United stood in City’s way for Champions League qualification and that was eventually overcome. They stood in the way of a trophy to break the duck and that was eventually overcome. They stood in the way of league progress and that was eventually overcome.
To exorcise the ghosts of the past, the torment of United’s league titles compared to the blues’ exploration of England’s lower divisions, City need a sustained period of success. They need to be raking in the trophies one by one. Year after year.
But United won’t go away. It’s symbolic that City have had to beat them to move up every rung on the ladder of firsts. The Champions League is the next big step and one that could take a while to crack.
And it wouldn’t surprise me to see United in City’s way for that, too.