How Manchester United and City swapped roles in the derby day narrative

It is the afternoon of September 23rd 1989 and Manchester City winger David White has just looped a high, long cross plumb onto the forehead of Andy Hinchcliffe. The left-back meets the ball with such force he scores with what is essentially a diving header despite remaining upright until landing. Jim Leighton in nets knows he is beaten on impact and simply falls to his knees in lieu of attempting the spectacular.

A City side containing five home-grown kids had just gone 5-1 up against big spending Manchester United and Maine Road erupted in what can only be described as incredulous bedlam.

Nobody expected the blue half of Manchester to emerge victorious from this derby and only the clinically insane predicted such a walloping and perhaps that is hardly surprising given that the game’s time-stamp pre-empts the transformative effects of City’s takeover by nineteen full years. Some context however is required here.

A younger Sir Alex Ferguson

Back in 1989 United were anything but the trophy-gobbling dominant force they would soon become. The Premier League was still a pipedream of the elite and Sir Alex Ferguson was plainly Alex Ferguson, an under-fire manager who that summer had been furnished with £9m to overhaul a perfectly ordinary squad that had limped to 11th in two of his previous three years in England.

It was – at the time – a colossal outlay that represented a very expensive last roll of the dice and included a world record fee for a defender (Gary Pallister) and a domestic record fee for a central midfielder (Paul Ince). What is more, it was a risk that nearly didn’t come off with striker Mark Robins famously saving Fergie’s hide that January with a FA Cup goal that stopped the axe from falling.

That season United eventually finished a lowly 13th while City finished 14th. Only goal difference separated the pair.

Yet when Hinchcliffe’s thundering header rippled the net that autumn afternoon City supporters lost their senses in wild celebration of an unexpected underdog victory that was both meaningful and somehow moral. It was a temporary toppling of a giant and the event was considered so special it sustained Blues through the many dark days to come. Personally speaking it remains one of the top three footballing moments of my life.

The above is mentioned in detail to highlight what came next. Because if that was the extremity of the narrative that accompanied a derby of near equals just imagine what it was like consequently for City supporters when their hated foe got their act together and conquered the globe. From that year forward the respective trajectories of the Manchester clubs could not have contrasted more with United bossing the Premier League for two decades, winning two Champions Leagues and taking a seat at the establishment table, while City shot themselves in the foot more times than a man who had surgically replaced a hand with a gun and eternally pointed it downwards.

Maine Road in 1988

Throughout those polarising years reputations became entrenched. United were glory-hunting plastics who resided largely in Surrey. City were ‘Citeh’, a bitter tribe forever in the dumps; a relative pauper so down on their luck that United took great glee is taking faux-pity on them while only acknowledging Liverpool and Arsenal as rivals.

Subsequently derbies became less David vs Goliath and more akin to a farm-boy and his two droids taking on the Death Star. Only this was real life, not a box-office phenomenon.

There were still some memorable wins of course; four to be precise, spread across an eighteen year abyss but dwarfed by fifteen losses, some of which were comprehensive to say the least. Those rare victories were cherished, fabled: their importance exaggerated to the extent that some Blues insisted they’d be willing to endure relegation if it might bloody the nose of their neighbouring behemoth over the course of ninety minutes. I never went that far. But I came close.

“Not in my lifetime.” Those were the words spoken by Sir Alex Ferguson in September 2009 when a reporter had the temerity to ask if Manchester United would ever go into a derby as the underdogs. By now the landscape of Mancunian football was changing dramatically with a shifting of power deriving from Manchester City’s takeover by ADUG and a monumental investment in personnel. United meanwhile were merely ticking along nicely, though worries lingered about the imminent retirement of their greatest ever coach.

Michael Owen celebrates scoring in the Manchester derby

At first United held firm, prevailing through a League Cup semi-final across two legs and then there was that infamous 4-3 at Old Trafford with Michael Owen snatching a late, late winner. As satisfying as these moments must have been for United fans – and as heart-breaking as they were for Blues – they still felt like a last stand.

Manchester City have entered twelve from the last thirteen derbies as favourites, quite often firmly so. It’s a remarkable transfer of status that began with a FA Cup semi-final triumph at Wembley in 2011 then reached a solidifying stature through a 6-1 battering at Old Trafford that brought humiliation but sadly not humility to the Red tribe. In 2013, after another one-sided affair at Old Trafford, a manager of Manchester United – David Moyes – came out post-match and stated that his club ‘aspired’ to be at City’s level.

Moyes’ comment invoked widespread fury among the red fan-base due to its foregoing of pride but last year they similarly forgot themselves, celebrating a 3-2 comeback at the Etihad as if they’d won the league. In the new reality their win only postponed for seven days City actually winning the title.

On Twitter this past week I have seen United supporters talk of the levelling that comes from derby games. I have seen them admit to being underdogs and hoping for that underdog spirit to count.

These words took me right back, though not with much nostalgia. In any case, Ferguson’s 2009 prophecy has been firmly disproved as United travel to the Etihad Stadium this Sunday six places, nine points and 14 goals behind their bitter rivals after just eleven games.