It is debatable how much real impact narrative has on a club’s success or failure. For one thing, narrative is almost entirely reactive, responding and reshaping itself to actual events.
A good case in point here is the maelstrom of positivity that accompanied Jurgen Klopp’s arrival at Anfield last October. Here was an eminently likeable and quotable coach who had achieved great things in the Bundesliga for a club that shared similar attributes to the Merseysiders. It appeared to be the perfect fit and therefore the narrative was that together Klopp and Liverpool would become a force to be reckoned with.
Fast forward to the present and you will see very little mention of Liverpool being this season’s dark horses and the glowing write-ups in the press have become tempered with suspicion. The narrative has changed because the events have changed; namely an underwhelming transfer window and a fan base beginning to doubt their prematurely anointed king. The general consensus now on the state of Liverpool has returned to its default setting where – unless something sensationally decent occurs – they are just three games away from crisis.
How much does this affect the players? How much does this affect reality? As stated at the start it is debatable but there are examples to illustrate that narrative can directly dictate events. Take Leicester’s incredible title triumph where Ranieri’s man-management skills and squad togetherness can only take an (admittedly sizable) share of the credit. At times when the Foxes were expected to fall away, there is no question that Vardy and co were significantly bolstered by the fairy tale that grew around them courtesy of the media and beyond. It instilled belief. It strengthened the concept of destiny.
You may wonder why I am prattling on as if I’ve got leather patches on my jacket elbows about narrative. Stay with me because there is a pertinent reason and that reason is this weekend’s Manchester derby.
As a City supporter, I have experienced first-hand the dramatic shifting of power and status across the great rainy metropolis. For almost a lifetime beating United could compensate for all manner of institutionalised underachievement: they were the dominant neighbours and as such were viewed as the empire to our rebel alliance with victories celebrated as a rare slice of justice for the good guys.
To swing from that half-fallacy to hearing David Moyes wearily accepting a derby defeat and admit that United should ‘aspire’ to reach City’s level has been a surreal journey, to put it mildly.
Now we can argue until we are blue or red in the face over where the power lines currently lie but this article isn’t really about that. Can we all just agree on certain issues and move swiftly on?
United have the larger fanbase and global standing while their thirteen Premier League titles are irrefutable proof – not that proof is needed – that they have been the most successful British club of this generation.
City have enjoyed the best of it in recent seasons and have deservedly gone into every derby but one since 2012 as favourites.
This then has become a derby of equals with the days of David v Goliath long gone and following United’s lavish spending to reclaim a top four spot all talk of outlay placed solely into the hands of Twitter bores.
If the above can be consented to then we can transfer our attention to the really interesting aspect of Saturday’s clash: that these two hated rivals are currently on the same early chapter of the same book.
This is the 172nd Manchester derby, a wealth of drama and pride won and lost that spans 135 years, yet I would wager that never before have the two clubs gone into battle desperate to retain an identical narrative.
Last season both clubs endured a thoroughly torpid time with City experiencing a pronounced decline from their usual standards while United’s post-Ferguson slump became a meekly waved white flag of mediocrity. Each club was in drastic need of revival and it was clear the upgrades were not only required on the pitch. A new era was required in every sense.
Enter stage left Pep and Jose, the two most high-profile, box-office coaches around with a combined fourteen league titles accrued and philosophies so established they have been copied in dugouts from Bury to Buenos Aires.
You may have already heard about these appointments. Maybe in a small column hidden on page 28 of your local newspaper. Or maybe from absolutely everywhere.
What really intrigues though is the narrative that was so heavily invested in on each individual’s arrival.
Three games into the season and so far the masterplan for both is ripening to fruition. Three games, three wins, and their respective mandates for changes successfully implemented with an immediacy few could have predicted. United now look robust and reborn, their Alamo assault on Hull bringing to mind an entitlement from days gone by. City are revolutionised, with the emphasis on probing possession and a formation that forces opponents onto the back foot whether they like it or not.
The narratives for both are simple – United are back and City are back and a new dawn of excellence awaits each of them.
Yet there can ultimately be only one winner and while future derbies will have a much bigger say in who that is the importance of protecting and extending their buoyant new-found confidence this weekend cannot be understated. At Old Trafford and the Etihad, page one of an enthralling thriller has already been written. Derby success will laminate it.
Neither side want their entirely positive narrative to be amended to a work in progress. For the winner, it will be onwards and upwards.