Maybe once every 4-5 years, a confrontation presents itself in the world of soccer which stirs the emotions and creates a passionate, intense atmosphere amongst its participants. This coming Wednesday, in Manchester, we have one of these moments . It’s called the Manchester Derby
The participants are Manchester United and Manchester City, and this promises to be not just another “derby” match. The prize for the winner is a place in the League Cup Final but that is the least of either club’s concerns going into next week’s clash. We’ll look at some of the history behind this rivalry and what the tie means to the soccer world and the people of Manchester.
Traditionally, “derbies” involve teams from the same city or neighboring cities . In England, the Liverpool “derby” between Everton and Liverpool has always been considered to be the most intense . Families are split down the middle on those two days per season where everything is at stake. Anfield and Goodison Park are only separated by a public park , Stanley Park , and fans intermingle socially and at work . Players rarely are transferred from one team to the other because of possible reprisals at home and in the neighborhood. Other similar rivalries in England involve Arsenal and Tottenham , Birmingham and Aston Villa , Newcastle and Sunderland, but none quite reach the heights of the Merseyside clash.
Some of the more intense rivalries around the world include AC Milan and Inter in Italy , Real Madrid and Athletico Madrid in Spain , Galataseray and Fenerbache in Turkey, and Boca Juniors and River Plate in Argentina. Of course, there are many others but the king of them all has been for many years the rivalry in Scotland between Celtic and Rangers . A hatred based on religious beliefs is so powerfully a part of Glasgow’s culture that the 4 games per season are THE most important dates on that calendar . Unfortunately, violence and death have crept into the events surrounding the match-up in past years , and the word “battle” has been used literally in many cases.
No matter where in the world these games take place, there is always a special significance which adds extra spice to the game. Players, fans, and the media love to be a part of these rivalries and some of the most historic moments in a club’s history , occur in these types of fixtures.
In looking a little more deeply into the Manchester derby, it has not been traditionally regarded with the others mentioned above . Not because the fans are any less intense, or that the feeling within the city does not embrace the match, but more because the teams have followed vastly different paths over the last 25 years .
Back in the late sixties, Manchester certainly had two powerful teams who conducted a bitter rivalry. Manchester City won the League title in 1969 following United’s European Cup success in 1968. United had one of the all-time great managers in Sir Matt Busby , a Munich crash survivor , whilst Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison led Manchester City . Allison fell into the category of “loudmouth” who regularly lit the touchpaper between the two camps. Mercer and Busby were the quieter types who nowadays are considered legends of the game in England. Matches were frequent and of high quality and intensity but then the fortunes of both teams declined over the next 10-15 years . United were relegated in 1974 to the Second Division , ironically on a goal scored by one of their “Holy Trinity” , Denis Law , in a match against United. They were promoted back the next year but failed to win a League title again until 1991 while City followed an up and down trend between the top divisions and won a couple of Cup trophies here and there.
Over time , certainly since the inception of the Premier League , United have had the more successful run while City have struggled to keep up with their more famous rivals . This status quo had been the norm for quite some time until the beginning of last season when everything changed , at least if your a fan at Eastlands.
Rich Middle East owners moved in and bought the club and almost overnight created a fantasy team of star players. Robinho, Gareth Barry, Shay Given, Emmanuel Adebayor, Julian Lescott and Shawn Wright-Phillips were all purchased for large amounts of money. City catapulted itself to the top of the list of richest clubs in the world, eclipsing United and others . To rub salt in United’s wound, Carlos Tevez did the unthinkable and swapped teams to become City’s most important signing. The club then went on a publicity spree around the city with huge billboard ads “welcoming Tevez to Manchester”, referring to a long held claim by City fans that they are the only team in Manchester (United are based in Trafford Park which is technically a suburb outside the city limits ). Tension escalated as Sir Alex Ferguson responded by referring to his rivals as a “small club” and that “he would outlast 20 City managers ( he’s already outlasted 17 of them ! ).
Consequently the first derby match at Old Trafford this season was billed as a high intensity affair and it did not disappoint . United took the lead three times only for City to equalize three times . Finally a 95th minute winner by Michael Owen decided the match but not without huge complaints from then City manager Mark Hughes who claimed that the referee had been influenced by Ferguson. However, it was made clear that the landscape had changed and that United would no longer be the dominant club.
After the two teams were drawn against each other in the League Cup semi finals, a two-legged tie, it was plain to see that more was at stake here than just a spot in the Final . The rivalry had taken on a new meaning. This had become a genuine challenge by City to wrestle bragging rights away from United not only in Manchester but as one of the biggest sports teams on the planet. Listening to their players and their chief executive Gary Cook, it is clear that the injection of cash reserves has created a new sense of urgency at the Eastlands . They feel capable, for the first time in a generation, of finally competing on a level playing field with United and are determined to upstage them.
I recall back in my college days, not being able to get a United ticket for a Maine Road derby so a couple of us bought tickets to stand in the Kippax ( with all the City fans) . I remember hiding my United scarf under my jacket and praying that United didn’t score or we’d probably get lynched. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, United lost 1-0 and we made it home safe.
So onto next week. What makes this particular game so special other than the issues mentioned above ?
Firstly, City won the first leg 2-1 and are in the driver’s seat. They won on a controversial penalty decision by referee Mike Dean and both goals were score by guess who ? Yep, Carlos Tevez . United’s Gary Neville had made gestures to the City fans and apparently disrespected Tevez which led to Tevez cupping his hands to his ears after scoring his second goal in contempt of United fans. Statements made by Gary Cook in New York this week also added fuel to the fire as the heat was turned up. FA officials and local police departments are trying to play down a potentially explosive tie but the fuse has already been lit.
This game will definitely be worth watching. It will be very physical and certainly emotions will run high . I expect it to be a bad tempered affair with a few red and several yellow cards thrown in for good measure . I hope and pray that the FA install Howard Webb as referee as he will be the only official able to maintain some level of control. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be available for viewing in the US but if you get a chance to see it, pay your money and sign up .
Sometimes matches that are hyped up like this tend to fizzle out on game day but I doubt that will be the case here. Too much is at stake and there is too much bad blood to be spilt yet . I hope it doesn’t descend into a fight but the physical aspect of English soccer will be there for all to see.
It will be a barn-burner – I guarantee it.