Sir Alex Ferguson is calling it a game for masochists. But the true nature of a Manchester Derby has been sullied by two decades of Man City yo-yoing between the divisions and sacking managers and spending small fortunes on useless players ( and I’m not talking about the odd bad buy here).
Personally I’m glad that City have got themselves back up into contention, albeit funded by oil money and before that the funds of Doctor Death (did he really have a ministry for knocking on their doors and rounding them up to disappear in the middle of the night). At least now they can start doing their job properly and be rivals again, because take it from me , it was Manchester City who ruined and devalued the Manchester Derby by being so useless for years.
When I was a young kid , that wasn’t the case. City had very good players like Bell , Lee and Summerbee, and although United had great players in the shape of recent European Players of the year like Law, Best and Charlton, City always seemed to have the edge in Derby games. Looking back it was the understated players , the so-called journeymen that are important to any team , the ones who help get the best out of your star players that gave City the advantage. With all the emotion surrounding a derby City could rely on players like Alan Oakes, Mike Doyle, Glynn Pardoe and Tony Book to play with a composure and consistency that often saw City ease past United in those late 60s , early 70s derby games when the chips were down. This was perhaps the Golden era for Manchester Derbies , with both teams fielding wingers and playing a hard tackling attacking style of football that was unique to the Manchester teams. It meant the Manchester Derby was always a much harsher yet more breathless one to watch than Liverpool versus Everton and there was always plenty at stake.
There are City fans who will still talk about the Old Trafford Derby of 27th April 1974, the one where Dennis Law back heeled a late goal that lead to a pitch invasion and according to some City fans version of events – relegated United. The truth of that game was that it was a very cagey and lack lustre affair , with United creating all the chances and dominating possession but with a team , that didn’t contain a single striker which was the main reason we were relegated that season. It wasn’t the usual bloodbath on the pitch either and had none of the hell for leather qualities of previous Derby games and unfortunately for City fans and their misty eyed memories – if United had won the game 5-0 , we would still have been relegated that day , as we needed Birmingham City to lose.
But let’s hark back to the tradition of the Derby games in the era when they were truly competitive and it wasn’t unusual to see one team on the end of a total massacre score-line wise. My first ever Derby match was United Versus City in the FA Cup 3rd round in January 1970 at Old Trafford. United cruised it 3-0 that day despite missing George Best and Denis law, with Brian Kidd giving City centre half Tommy Booth a roasting as he slotted two goals. Yet only a month earlier United had lost a two-legged League Cup semi final to City 4-3 on aggregate and a month previous to that with Best , Law and Charlton in tandem had been drubbed 4-0 at Maine Road. What I’m saying is that in the great era , when both teams were good , you could never predict what would happen in a Manchester Derby so it was pointless to try. In the lead up to Monday night’s game it’s all going to be about can United compete with City’s midfield , can United’s wobbly looking defence stop Aguero and Tevez , it seems as if a lot of the pundits have written United off for this one. It’s all exciting stuff , but I’ll have a wry smile and wonder if United or City fans will ever see two players as good as Bell and Best in their side. I’ve seen some amazing players at Old Trafford and I’ve seen the running of Toure and the stealth of Silva at City and wonder if you could mate them both , would you get a Colin Bell.
In truth when it comes to one side or another affecting the others fortunes, the Denis Law back-heeler doesn’t even register. In the League Cup in 1975 at Maine Road , following from a 2-2 draw at Maine Road in the league only 6 weeks earlier, Manchester City smashed us 4-0. Now City played well , but United that night had Paddy Roche in nets , the equivalent not so much of a rabbit caught in the headlights , but a traffic bollard caught in a gale force wind and Tueart scored for City within 35 seconds of kick off. The tragedy that night was a mistimed tackle (not dirty or malicious) by United Captain Martin Buchan on Colin Bell, it was a muddy pitch and Bells standing leg was caught as he was on the turn and his studs sunk into a very muddy pitch, Bell would never recover from that tackle. The sad part is that Bell was at his peak at the time and looked like he was getting better and better, that tackle cost England qualification (and a genuine chance of winning) the European Championship that summer and I’ve no doubt , qualification for the world cup in 1978, but it cost City the one player who had consistently dragged them out of the mire in those games when they weren’t performing . As a United fan , I still can’t believe that Colin Bell doesn’t even seem to make the shortlists for best ever England 11 , because he deserved to and who knows what that midfield pairing of Hartford and bell , which was awesome at times , could have achieved for Man City.
In 1976/77 season Manchester City suddenly discovered what a liability Rodney Marsh and the past it Mike Summerbee had been to their team. They’d had a very good team on paper in 1974/75 and 75/76 but in 1976/77 season with Asa Hartford bedded down in midfield and Barnes and Tueart on the wings and Brian Kidd and Joe Royle linking up and getting amongst the goals they looked like they were destined for glory at last, the biggest regret for City fans must have been that that Colin Bell was finished and couldn’t be slotted in next to Asa Hartford that season. City finished one point behind Liverpool, the only game they lost at Maine Road all year was 3-1 to United at the end of September 1976 , and we beat them by the same score at Old Trafford in March of 1977 with Lou Macari bossing the midfield and perhaps putting in one of his greatest ever performances in a United shirt as Coppell , Hill and Pearson slotted in the goals. Yes we took 4 points of City that year , including (two points for a win back then) those valuable points at Maine Road , and Man City lost the title by one point to Liverpool – Happy days.
Which brings me back to the ‘Game Of The Century’ hype that surrounds this particular match. Both clubs are going for the title in what has been a very poor Premiere league this year and the eyes of the country and the world are on the game we’re told (some saying 400m viewers worldwide , others saying 650m – a bit of a gap between the two figures). Forget about the player’s salaries and if you’re a United or City fan , hand on your hearts , can you say that Summerbee, Lee , Bell, Young and Coleman against Law, Best, Charlton, Stiles and Morgan or Barnes Tueart ,Royle, Kidd and Hartford going up against Macari, Hill , Coppell , Pearson and Greenhoff is less enthralling than Silva , Nasri, Tevez, Toure, and Aguero going up against Scholes, Rooney, Hernandez, Nani . At todays prices what would you pay for a Law Best or Charlton or a Lee, Bell and Summerbee. Would any City fan say a centre midfield pairing of Ya Ya Toure and De Jong is better than Bell and Hartford and would any United fan say that Valencia and Nani dazzle more as wingers in a Derby match than Hill and Coppell or Best and Morgan.
It’s been a strange season and I’ve a feeling this Derby match with both Manchester clubs riding high and fighting to the wire for the title is less a shape of things to come , than a one season blip. Next year Arsenal , Chelsea, Liverpool , Spurs will be back stronger and teams like Newcastle, Sunderland , Everton will consolidate and I think it’ll be a much more competitive league. So for the masochism match I think as reds and blues we should settle down and try and enjoy it through gritted teeth , it is special , and Man City are finally back , let’s try and embrace it and make the most of it regardless of the result on Monday and if you’re looking for a prediction, look elsewhere , because the one thing time has taught me is that Derby matches have a life and a mythology of their own.