Over the past couple of seasons, much has been made of our battle with Liverpool for the League title. After the whole bus saga at Anfield, the media seemed determined to pit us both as rivals – even more so after last season, with the title race being decided on the final day. Everything became very intense, bitter and often very personal.
But for me, Liverpool have never been our rivals, and never will be. With this season finally being their year (and I’ve made my peace with that, I really have), there is one thing that City and Liverpool should be united in – enjoying the demise of their real rivals over at Old Trafford.
It was the 2-0 defeat to Burnley at their ground that made for a vintage night on social media. Many an ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ meme, along with transcripts of Rio’s ‘get the contract out’ impassioned rant and photos of Phil Jones doing the rounds, providing much amusement amongst City fans and beyond (can you imagine the pelters we would’ve took if social media existed in the 1990s). It may sound absurd, because that game came in-between United beating us at home this season twice, but at the moment, (in fact for the past couple of seasons), it feels like United’s crumbs of comfort have been coming from taking points off us in a season. How the mighty have fallen.
If you’re an old school blue, you’ll be oh so familiar with the history of it all. I’ll pick it up with my memories of the rivalry, at the beginning of it all for me – the 5-1 derby win. ‘The Maine Road Massacre’ as it’s fondly known. When City tore apart an Alex Ferguson side that included the most expensive English defender at the time, with City featuring players brought through the youth system, like Steve Redmond, Paul Lake and David White. That was back in 1989 – three years before the formation of the Premier League, a time that signalled an era of United dominance – and City’s decline.
My time at both high school and college coincided with this era of football. United were the Premier League poster boys: scoring goals for fun, terrorising defences, with some of the best players in the world playing at Old Trafford. Only Arsenal, Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers (once) could hold a torch to them. With Ferguson at the helm, they were a formidable force – they were winners, leaders and champions. If you think it’s painful just reading that, try living through it.
City, on the other hand, were on the slide. Manager Brian Horton came in and had some good ideas, along with some decent players. Paul Walsh, Peter Beagrie and Uwe Rosler were all Horton signings, and with them we played flashes of flair football – but also endured a 5-0 defeat at the hands of United. An Andrei Kanchelskis hat trick helped condemn us to an abysmal loss – with his celebrations still seared into my memory. The next day; going into school wearing my Umbro City coat, forced to face a barrage of torment and abuse from the United fans – none of which had ever stepped foot inside Old Trafford. It was Glory Glory all right – and the beginning of a truly rotten, miserable time to be a City fan.
It wasn’t long before Horton was sacked and the rot really set in. Alan Ball arrived and the only positive from his reign at the club was the signing of a certain Georgian midfielder, Georgi Kinkladze. Dancing through defences and scoring dazzling goals, Kinkladze was a truly magical talent, a lightning bolt in the storm that encircled him.
But even his genius couldn’t save City from relegation from the Premier League. As United were lifting another League trophy, the Blues dropped down into Division One – and the managerial merry-go-round started to spin. Asa Hartford, Steve Coppell (!), Phil Neal, Frank Clark, Joe Royle…during the 27 years Ferguson was in charge at United, City went through 18 different managers.
We were widely regarded as a comedy club: a football team whose club legend-turned-chairman Francis Lee had promised to one and all that City would be the ‘happiest club in the land’ after he took control from Peter Swales. Really, the damage had already been done during Swales’ tenure, but no irony was lost on the fact that Lee had made his fortune running a toilet roll manufacturing company, so really we should’ve seen it coming. It was all lies and empty promises that he couldn’t deliver.
The players weren’t good enough. The football was shambolic. Back then, it was take the rough with the rough, as it was all we ever knew. Typical City: disastrous, laughable, with our mis-matched Meccano stadium in the heart of what was then called Gunchester, Moss Side, with a substitutes bench that was basically a row of white plastic garden chairs. We’d make the journeys home and away with blind optimism – I don’t think it ever crossed our minds not to bother, because we’d just become accustomed, almost brainwashed, that this was City. Take it or leave it. What you see is what you get. Factions of fans did demonstrate against Lee and his regime – and rock bottom wasn’t far away.
As if the jibes, the digs and the mocking couldn’t get any worse – the unthinkable happened. Stoke City away. May 1998. Relegation to the third tier of English football. It was hard to take solace in Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal pipping United to the title when your own club were in such dire straits. It had gone beyond parody, beyond reprehension. At that point, it was soul-destroying. Heart-breaking. But the season ticket was a no brainer. At no point did it ever occur to us to stop. In fact, that season started with a packed Maine Road in the summer sun, beating Blackpool 3-0.
Us fans just took it in our stride. When Stockport County beat us 2-1 at home and a streaker ran on the pitch – it was all just Typical City. Week in, week out, we turned up, we asked the other stands in the stadium to give us a song and we got behind the team. My teenage years were spent following City during their decline – while over at Old Trafford the story couldn’t be more different.
May 1999. More contrasting fortunes. City won the Division Two play-off final against Gillingham after a penalty shoot-out. United won the treble – the Premier League, FA Cup and the Champions League. The achievements were poles apart – but celebrated just the same by both sets of fans. For us, it was the start of our resurgence. We’d managed to battle, fight and scrape our way out of oblivion – it was time to get back to the Premier League.
I don’t begrudge United their success during that time. But it definitely amplified and compounded our failures. Their fans were so accustomed to winning – that mentality was drummed into them through their consistency; for many, winning was to them what losing was to us. But with triumph came arrogance.
Many, if not all City fans, will be all too familiar with The Banner™ I’m referring to. The infamous ‘ticker’ banner. The one that displayed the amount of years that had passed since City had last won a trophy – 1976 to be precise. It took one individual to think of it, yet thousands to beg for it to come back after he’d removed it. That banner was the bane of my life. Their years of power - our years of frustration. Their egotism – our self-deprecating humour. That banner wasn’t humour, it wasn’t funny, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek. It was cruel. Malicious. Gloating at its worst. They draped it like a badge of honour, pride of place, in their stadium, while they lifted silverware and we watched our side slump to another defeat. It was an unnecessary evil at a time when the boat didn’t need any more rocking. It was rivalry – this was rivalry – but it cut so deep.
Our resurgence back to the Premier League, and the subsequent takeover by Sheikh Mansour, has seen City reach heights that I could’ve only dreamed of once upon a time. Beating United in the FA Cup semi final in 2011 to go on and win our first piece of silverware in 35 years paved the way for an avalanche of monumental successes at the Etihad Stadium. The Banner™, for so long a monkey on our backs, finally relinquished. The ‘not in my lifetime’ manager Ferguson, resigned to City beating United to the Premier League title in May 2012 after that goal by Sergio Aguero. The changing of the guard across the City: the Blues leading the trophy charge, with United left to fight it out to struggle to qualify for Europe every season. Their only merit
Not that finishing sixth every season is any disgrace. It’s not. That’s where my main problem lies. These United fans have been so spoilt by their own success for so many years, they’re judging themselves on their past successes instead of dealing with being a fan and just getting on with it. I’ve heard so many reds on phone-ins moaning and whinging about how low they feel as a fan following their team these days – and I find it beyond incredulous. You’d think they’d be struggling, with a relegation dogfight on their hands. But they’re not. When it didn’t cross our minds to renew during those torrid times, across the road they’re mostly not even bothering to show up to see their team play top six Premier League football these days.
Try being relegated. Humiliated. A low for a football club is not finishing sixth in the Premier League – they should know, they experienced relegation themselves back in 1974. That’s a low, a feeling I would never want to wish on any football fan. Relegation is such a demoralising experience – but then again, look at Bury. Imagine supporting them and going to Gigg Lane throughout your life, only for the club to not even exist anymore. I can’t begin to think about the emotions you would feel if that was your team.
Sometimes it can take looking at the bigger picture to appreciate what you’ve got. I’ve seen certain City fans spit their dummies out more than once this season, purely because we’ve enjoyed so much success recently, and this season admittedly hasn’t been to our own extraordinary standards. At the time of writing, City are second in the Premier League. We are still in the FA Cup, the Champions League and in the final of the Carabao Cup. So many fans of so many teams could only dream of their team being in that scenario. Yet a minority of blues don’t think it’s good enough. We all want to do the best we can and win trophies as often as we can, and it can be frustrating when you see your team underperforming, but nothing gives us the divine right to win everything all of the time – especially if we’ve just not been good/consistent enough.
I often struggle between the head vs heart tug-of-war that is ‘remember where you came from and what we’ve been through’ vs. you can only judge your team on the here and now. I can’t justify a 2-0 defeat at home to Wolves based on the fact that we used to lose to Stockport County at home 22 years ago. I can look at it in the context of the bigger picture and think well, it could be much worse. This season we’ve not been clinical enough, we’ve not been consistent enough and the defending has left a lot to be desired. When so many things are to blame, questions are rightfully asked. But I’m not going to stomp my feet and throw a strop just because the Premier League title isn’t heading to the Etihad stadium. I’m big enough to be able to admit when another football team deserves it more and Liverpool do this season – they’ve played some fantastic football (whether you want to lay the blame with VAR for helping them or not, but I think that’s more a reflection of you) and been consistent where we haven’t –who can really argue with that?
No team has been on the ‘journey’ that City have. Journey is normally a word that makes me cringe, but in the context of our history, it’s necessary. To have been in the Premier League, relegated multiple times, sink down to the third tier of football and to come back up again, only for the club to be taken over and win everything bar the Champions League, that’s some ride to have been on. We had a few more bumps along the way – think Stuart Pearce, David James upfront, Thaksin Shinawatra – and many say we won the football lottery. Maybe we did. But in anything in life, you need to speculate to accumulate. But the ride, the journey, makes every high that little bit sweeter. We could never be arrogant, we never should be, it shouldn’t be in the make-up of any City fan to demand success.
We’re right to want the best for our team, but I think our past failures make us realise our present faltering are mere blips in the road and not pitfalls. To stay grounded after the couple of seasons of football we’ve all been so lucky to enjoy, to exactly the way we should be. If I was at school now, I’d be skipping in the classroom. City fans have so many reasons to be grateful. There’s some irony in having not been able to enjoy our success: the media’s continued obsession with finding fault with City tries its best to drown out the cheers from our fans. Whether it be citing oil money, Arab regimes or counting how many empty seats we have at a fourth round FA Cup game, the tabloids, broadsheets and broadcasters seem determined to discredit City’s triumphs by all means necessary. We’re not the poster boys, the darlings, the fawned over. We’re an ‘average team with a small fan
base that were lucky enough to win the football lottery.’ They’ll never let you forget that.
I let out a wry smile in the fact that Typical City will never die. We played the worst United team we’ve seen in a long time this season and they beat us twice. They even beat us two seasons ago to delay our title win – and you witnessed just how much that meant to them that day. That used to be us – if we were lucky enough to be playing football in the same League as them. It used to make our season if we managed to take points off them, I don’t even mind admitting them. Because that’s a rivalry. But don’t even think about feeling for them now. Some might say their plight is the worst it’s been. Some will think it can get much worse. It did for us. Those were the darkest of days – but now the tables have turned and we just have to try and enjoy that for as long as it lasts. I might feel an ounce of sympathy for them, if they would’ve given us the same virtue way back then, but they didn’t. That’s a rivalry. That’s the way it goes.
You reap what you sow.