Manchester City put Manchester United in rearview mirror on derby day
In the latest edition of ESPN FC's derbies series, which features eyewitness insights into some of the biggest rivalries in world football, Iain Macintosh tells the story of when City met United in Manchester in November.
MANCHESTER, England -- With smiles streaked across their faces, Manchester City supporters pour out of the Etihad Stadium and across the car park. They stride away down the Ashton New Road toward the city centre, a long carriageway flanked on one side by rows of semi-detached houses, the other by a large Mercedes dealership.
There are scattered shouts of triumph, a few hugs as friends reconvene before they make off to celebrate the three points in the pub, but everywhere you sense that the jubilation is measured. Their 1-0 victory over United in November in the Premier League was a job done, not a job well done -- and everyone knows it.
Manchester United should have been crushed long before half-time. For that, most fans agree, referee Michael Oliver is to blame. "Three penalties we should have had!" exclaims one supporter. "Three! And they could have had two sent off and all."
"They worried me a bit at the end," says another of United. "Have you seen [Wayne] Rooney do anything like that recently? That run?"
ESPN FC'S DERBY SERIES
- River Plate vs. Boca Juniors, by Sam Kelly
- Man City vs. Man United, by Iain Macintosh
- Celtic vs. Rangers, by Chris Jones
- Benfica vs. Sporting, by Lee Roden
- Everton vs. Liverpool, by Jeff Carlisle
- Olympiakos vs. Panathinaikos, by Michael Yokhin
- Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke, by Uli Hesse
- Red Star vs. Partizan, by Andy Mitten
- Steaua vs. Dinamo, by Nick Ames
- Roma vs. Lazio, by Paolo Bandini
Mostly though, there's good humour and satisfaction as the light blue horde stride off under gloomy skies. It's been a tough week for City, what with the defeat at Upton Park and the humiliation of a League Cup exit at home to Newcastle. But there's nothing like a victory over the neighbours to chase the clouds away. Somewhere behind us, an isolated chant of "The city is ours" goes up.
Then it begins. An angry voice among the cheerfulness. Accusations of something; something unclear.
"You, you f---ing ...!" comes the voice again, the most vicious invective you can imagine, from a young man in a tan jacket. "The city's yours, is it?"
Almost as one, the crowd go quiet. Footsteps quicken, eyes are aimed steadfastly at the ground.
"Thought you were supposed to be at home" snarls the voice again and a fist is raised to the sky. "You-ni-TED! You-ni-TED!" All around us, far behind us and away in front of us, outflanking us and in among us, the chant goes up. "You-ni-TED! You-ni-TED! You-ni-TED!" Dozens of fists punch the air in perfect rhythm.
Suddenly, the city centre feels an awfully long way away.
Welcome to the Manchester derby.
FOUR HOURS EARLIER, the mood was so much brighter. So too was the weather. It was a bright November afternoon, a final flourish of a long summer before the onset of a winter that, particularly in Manchester, comes in more shades of grey than even E.L. James could possibly imagine.
City supporters wandered about in their short-sleeved replica shirts, coats tossed over their shoulders, ambling around the wide expanses outside the Etihad Stadium. There are traders scattered around selling half-and-half scarves, one side red and one side blue. It seems an odd product to sell, given that this is one of the more intense local rivalries in English football.
"Do you sell many of these?" I ask one man, his arm laden with blue and red knitwear.
"Fans hate 'em," he says, looking at his shoes. "It's for the tourists. They love 'em. Fans, though ... nah, they hate 'em."
Elsewhere, a host of shiny, hygienic kiosks offer a range of food that actually looks like it won't kill you. Pulled pork, steak burgers, sausages that appear continental and trustworthy.
MAN CITY VS. MAN UNITED
- Ernest Mangnall is the only person to manage both clubs (joined United 1903, left for City 1912-1924)
- Of the 168 matches played, United have won 69, City 49.
- Ryan Giggs of Man United has played in the most derbies (36)
- Wayne Rooney of United, with 11 goals, is the leading scorer in the derby. Joe Hayes and Francis Lee (10) are City's top scorers.
And it's very popular, too. Once, even a game as important as this, would have been serviced by no more than a convoy of tatty burger vans, but it's not only the playing staff that have been transformed by modernity.
I approach one City fan, a festively plump man in his 50s with a box of chips in his hand, but it doesn't go well.
"Have you got a minute to talk about the derby?" I ask him pleasantly. He stares at me, then down at his food, then back up at me.
"Chips," he says, finally.
"I beg your pardon?"
"CHIPS!" he shouts and then walks away. I've never respected anyone more.
Generalisations can be unwise but in my experience, Manchester -- certainly in comparison with nearby Liverpool -- has always seemed a cynical sort of city to the outsider. Sentiment doesn't run high here, and there is an endearing refusal to be easily impressed, perfectly encapsulated by the reaction of the crowd to an ill-advised warm-up act: a pair of human beatboxers on a makeshift stage in the car park.
After a two-minute burst of their trade, a noise that sounds like two small boys recreating a raid on a machine-gun nest that culminates with a particularly unfortunate gastric expulsion, there is a silence for applause. That silence stretches out for what feels like an eternity without even a single clap. There are nearly 1,000 people scattered around within earshot and they all stare at the stage with looks of utter contempt. On my internal top 10 of favourite cities, Manchester rises like the marker on a well-struck "Test Your Strength" machine.
Not all City fans are this cynical. Paul Kidd, a regular since the 1970s, didn't see the human beatboxers, but he's so cheerful you get the impression he'd have been the only one to clap. I ask him whether this is a bitter derby, intense and nasty.
"No!" he says, laughing. "The derby game isn't bitter, it's a fantastic game. Look at the weather today, if we can't play football on a day like this. ... It'll be a great game."
"The tide is turning now," he adds. "City are winning titles and City are getting to the finals. I don't know whether the United fans can quite grasp that, I don't think they know what to think because it's unheard of. And they can't even use the money thing on us now because of all the money they've just spent. They've had to do what we did, they've had to start paying over the odds just like we did when we was trying to generate a side."
Bob Howison, also a long-standing City fan, starts with the same noble intentions, but as we speak, something inside him seems to snap.
"Derbies are always different," he says, smiling. "It doesn't matter how either team is doing, it's all about passion. There's huge rivalry between us, and that will go on forever. Do I hate them? Well ... hate is a strong word. The problem is that ... they're so damn sanctimonious, they think they have a divine right to everything, they're worse than religious maniacs. Who do they think they are?"
That's a question easy to answer: United think they are the biggest side in Manchester. They have good reason to; not only do they have 20 league titles to City's four, but they have three European Cups compared to City's recurring failure in the Champions League.
THE CITY-UNITED RIVALRY stretches back over a century. Almost 120 years to the day before this encounter, the two sides met in the league for the first time. United, known then as Newton Heath, won 5-2 with four goals from a chap called Dick Smith. The match was played at City's home ground of Hyde Road on a pitch flanked by a railway line. According to some accounts, train drivers would deliberately go past the ground slowly to watch as much of the action as they could.
Like most rivalries in England at the time, it was a benign affair with supporters happily watching both teams, City one week and United the next. It was only later that the tensions began to rise.
Quite why this is the case, not only in Manchester but across Great Britain, is worthy of a feature in itself. Popular theories point to a widespread disenfranchisement of the working class, a breakdown of the traditionally intractable structures of society and the subsequent rise of something altogether more tribal. Whatever it was, by the time of their meeting in December 1970, the atmosphere was very different.
George Best, a man hardly known for having a nasty side, leapt in for a ball he had mis-controlled and snapped Glyn Pardoe's leg in two places.
The City defender was rushed to hospital, where doctors fought not just to save his career, but to save the leg itself. The referee didn't even stop the game until the players alerted him to the incident. Best was booked. These days, he'd have been sent off without a second thought.
In 1974, there was more drama after a scuffle between City's Mike Doyle and United's Lou Macari. Having been chopped down by Doyle, Macari sprang up and threw the ball in his face. Referee Clive Thomas sent them both off.
Unfortunately, neither player would leave the pitch, forcing Thomas to suspend the game and take both teams down the tunnel. Only when Thomas had visited both dressing rooms with two police officers at his side did the players accept their fate.
Six weeks later, the unthinkable happened. United, champions of Europe just six years previously, were relegated. Beaten at home by City, the winning goal came from one of their discarded heroes, the legendary Denis Law. The Scotsman's cheeky back-heel did not directly relegate his former club -- results elsewhere had already made sure of that -- but it signalled one of a string of pitch invasions that brought the game to a premature end. As for Law, he looked crestfallen by what he had done. He was substituted and retired after that summer's World Cup.
United returned to the top flight at the first attempt and won the FA Cup in 1977, then considered an achievement almost on a par with winning the league. The fact that it denied Liverpool an unprecedented treble was an added bonus. But then-manager Tommy Docherty lost his job when it was revealed he was having an affair with the physio's wife. Replacement Dave Sexton's four-year reign brought no trophies, Ron Atkinson won two FA Cups but fell short in the league,and then Alex Ferguson took over in 1986.
City, meanwhile, played entertaining football in the 1970s, winning a League Cup in 1976 and finishing second in the league in 1977. But they were relegated in 1983 and again in 1987. When they returned in 1989, United had been spending hard and had high hopes. Against all odds and expectation, City crushed them 5-1,and after the game, United's 2.3 million-pound signing Gary Pallister was met by four burly and profoundly unimpressed United fans at the dressing room door.
"They told me I wasn't fit to wear a United shirt," he wrote in his autobiography. "It was quite frightening."
City wouldn't have a day like that for many more years (22, to be precise). Two fifth-place finishes under Peter Reid came in 1991 and 1992, but he was sacked four games into the 1993-94 season and the club went into freefall. They were almost relegated in 1995 under Brian Horton; they finished the job in 1996 under Alan Ball. Steve Coppell came and went in just over a month, Frank Clark thrashed around helplessly, and by the time Joe Royle arrived in February 1998, City were on their way down to the third flight.
In 1999, while United celebrated the treble they had denied Liverpool in 1977, City were celebrating a penalty shootout playoff victory over Gillingham. City eventually returned to the top flight in 2000, slipped straight back down again and then reappeared in 2002, where they have stayed ever since. For City fans, the rivalry was as important as ever. United supporters were more concerned with the likes of Liverpool and their real rivals of the period, Arsenal.
It wasn't until 2008 that they began to trade blows with United on what seemed like a level playing field. The arrival of the Abu Dhabi United Group swelled City's coffers beyond the wildest dreams of the supporters. Progress was slow initially, but the rampant spending made City's progress inevitable.
SIR ALEX FERGUSON referred to City as noisy neighbours, but it was clear that evicting them was going to be very difficult. In 2012, after a late charge in the final months of the season, City edged out United and won their first title since 1968. That would have been bad enough for United's supporters, but when Ferguson retired in 2013, David Moyes struggled and the club slipped out of the top four. Suddenly, City were the only team from Manchester to be in European competition, the first time since 1979 that such a thing could be said.
"I remember going through school and being one of the only City fans," Steven Allweis, writer of City blog View From a Blue tells me before the game. "You used to go into derbies and just expect to lose because we were such an inferior team. Now it's just completely switched around. Two years ago, when we met near the end of the season to battle for the title, that was probably as intense as it's been. Now, it's not the same. It's title challengers against a team who will probably finish fourth."
"Any success City have achieved has been clouded by the fact that it's been funded by a billionaire," said United blogger Nooruddean Choudry, "so any level of respect we might have isn't really there. A lot of City fans will argue that Manchester is blue, which I find ridiculous. It's not."
As you can see, this is hardly a friendly rivalry. "The majority of supporters are passionate," said Superintendent Craig Thompson, the officer in charge of operations at the Etihad, two days after the November game. "But some do intend to cause disorder. We gather intelligence before the game, monitoring websites and forums, and we have a number of ways of dealing with potential offenders. We can use dispersal notices that require them to leave the area, and 35 of these were issued on the day of the game."
The police presence around the stadium is intentionally obvious, but it's hardly the militarised and heavily armoured show of force that can characterise some games, particularly in London. Perhaps the weather is a contributing factor, but uniformed police bereft of body armour chat happily with supporters outside the stadium, police horses trot around to the delight of a number of children and there is no hint of impending confrontation. Away on one side of the stadium, the United supporters are fed through a concrete cordon and then up into the stadium, where they immediately make their presence known, flanked on both sides by rows of yellow-jacketed stewards.
"It's been all right the last few years," says one policeman deployed in the hinterlands near the United entrance. "I mean, look at us. There's loads of us everywhere. There are spotters around the pubs. You might get a little bit of trouble in pockets around the city, but not much more than that."
Spotters, experienced police officers who know troublemakers by sight, are obvious at Manchester Piccadilly train station that morning. More of them are positioned around the city, especially at United pubs where there has been information to suggest trouble is brewing.
But at the stadium, there isn't even a hint of trouble. To their immense credit, City resist the temptation to bombard the stadium with music before the game. At Wembley, the volume is so high and the pre-match announcer so gregarious that the wax can be shaken out of your ears. Here, the music is on, but not so loud that it gets in the way of the natural build-up of excitement. Both sets of fans make their own atmosphere.
As kickoff approaches, City's PA men finally try to seize the initiative, whacking club anthem "Blue Moon" on and turning it up to 11. Light blue scarves are raised to the sky and the sound swells, but the United supporters refuse to be drowned out. Their fists pump in unison as they bellow defiantly above the din, "You-Ni-TED! You-Ni-TED! You-Ni-TED!"
The derby will later be described by some reporters as a quiet one, not like the ones of the past. It still seems pretty noisy from where I'm sitting.
"The city is ours!" chant the City fans. "The city is ouuuuuuurs! F--- off, you bastards! The city is ours!"
The United supporters beg to disagree, and they do it at high volume. After nine minutes, the yellow line of stewards around them is supplemented by a row of policemen, brought in from outside as resources are shuffled around from on high.
It's hard not to feel sorry for referee Michael Oliver. Every decision he makes, right or wrong, is viciously howled down as if it's the worst kind of slander. Rooney is in his face, shouting for yellow cards for City players. Joe Hart is literally on his face, roaring for justice when Chris Smalling illegally charges down his goal kick. Smalling is booked, which proves costly a few minutes later when he slams into James Milner on the edge of the United box. Oliver trots over and shows him a second yellow and then a red. It's one of the few decisions he makes that goes unquestioned by either team.
Smalling looks like he's going to cry. The City fans look like they're going to pass out with happiness. But City still aren't getting the big decisions. Oliver and his assistants are escorted down the tunnel at half-time, and during the break a steward rages at a television showing replays of two rejected penalty appeals. Another one is turned down in the second half and United, driven and determined, no longer look like a team with 10 men. But then Sergio Aguero finally breaks the deadlock and a cathartic explosion of relief turns to gleeful schadenfreude as the banks of City fans either side of their rivals point and jeer.
United's volume never wavers, and a cloud of red smoke rises from the upper tier. As the clock runs down and dark clouds loom over the stadium, the visiting support loudly mock the announcement of the attendance of 45,358 (Etihad's capacity is 46,708; Old Trafford, by contrast, can sit 75,731 fans).
But the City fans are already singing "Blue Moon," scarves held aloft. They know that they are almost there. When full-time comes it is met with another huge cheer. In the away end, the United fans applaud their 10 men for their efforts. And so, with three points collected, the City fans exit and stream down toward the city centre, chatting happily until those shouts start up.
"You-ni-TED! You-ni-TED! You-ni-TED!"
Fortunately, it's little more than sabre-rattling. There is tension, but no trouble, and the United fans rumble along, happily chanting about "two for one" tickets for that week's upcoming clash between City and CSKA Moscow. A police officer in the city centre will later suggest that a steward accidentally released some United fans earlier than was previously agreed, but fortunately there are no repercussions for his premature ejection.
Elsewhere in the city after the game, a small-scale battle will be fought outside a pub between two groups of opposing fans, the majority of whom, according to a grainy video on the Internet, look like they're just happy to be there. (You can watch the video here; it contains explicit language.)
THERE ARE A few punches and kicks, but compared to the violence of the 1970s and 80s, it's timid stuff. One young man waits 60 seconds before plucking up the courage to climb a fence and join in, but he falls over before he can even swing a fist. The police find it hard to do much afterward because none of the combatants will press charges.
As the supporters arrive in the city centre, they disperse and diffuse. Many head to the train station, others slip off into pubs. There is no prevailing crowd, no sense of common destination.
Two hours after full-time, a City fan will burst into a quiet alehouse and shout something incoherent that involves some of the foulest language possible.
"F--- off, mate," says a United supporter without even rising from his seat, and the City fan duly does.
The barman watches him leave.
"That's the only trouble we've had all day. And I don't even think you can call that trouble."
According to the Greater Manchester Police, there isn't a single football-related arrest until approximately 90 minutes after the game, when there are five arrests in a pub. After that, it's all quiet. And it really is quiet.
By 7pm, Manchester is like any other city on a Sunday night. There are isolated tables of drinkers in the city bars, young people squeezing every last drop out of their weekend or experienced boozehounds topping up their levels before bedtime. Only Canal Street has any life. Inside one bar, four powerfully built drag artists twerk and croon to an appreciative audience. Outside, the doormen look bored.
"They've had me on since 4pm," says one. "They brought me in early because there was a load of rumours about some serious trouble, but there hasn't been a sniff of it. Usually we at least have to say no to anyone in football shirts, but we've not even had that. We're all wired up on the radio as well," he says, tapping his earpiece. "Every bar in the city is on here so if anything happens, we'll all know about it. But nothing's happening. Nothing at all."
In the absence of any discernible action, I buy myself a ticket for the Big Wheel in the city centre and watch the street lights and the high-rise hotels spread out around me as I rise.
FOOTBALL HAS CHANGED. The price of the tickets and widespread TV access has meant a shift in the demographic. When you watch the old videos of the games in the 1970s, the groups of fans who spill onto the pitch are all so young, their bell-bottoms flapping around skinny adolescent legs. These days, large groups of working-class teens can't so easily afford access to the game, and the clubs aren't too concerned as long as the tourists continue to fill their seats, their half-and-half scarves in hand.
The police have changed. They work with supporters' groups now, and while the relationship between the two groups in some parts of the country isn't all that it should be, it's much improved from the old days. It has been many years since police horses were released onto the grass to drive back pitch invaders.
But perhaps Manchester has changed, too. This isn't some industrialised mill town with wide chimneys belching smoke over long lines of blackened terrace houses anymore. It's a vibrant and exciting 21st-century city. Football isn't the only shaft of light at the end of the working week, and it's far from the only attraction. The city is layered with bars, clubs, restaurants, shops and hotels. There is music, fashion, art and thriving business. The BBC are based up the road in Salford, Adidas are here, even Gazprom have their national headquarters here.
Football is still popular, passionately and perpetually watched, but it's just one of many things that are popular. When the fans hit the city, they are consumed by it. Not the other way round.
The other thing that has changed, of course, is the balance of power. You can discuss economics, politics, demographics, sociology and the nature of humanity as much as you like, but to the football fans of Manchester, only one thing matters: City won the game. And they are stretching out in front of United.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.