As is customary during the long summers, when the absence of our weekly dosage of football is as mind-numbingly tedious as Christmas shopping, when the fixtures for the upcoming season are released there is no doubt that the first fixture that is scoured amongst the 38 matches is the matches against our bitter blue foes.
Given their lazarus eclipsing renaissance and comeback of epic proportions which was nothing short of nauseating to hear as the news filtered through to the Stadium of Light (more on Sunderland later) and our giving away of the league last season, like a servant dishing out Ferrero Rochers’ on a tray at a dinner party, Sunday’s grudge match, the first between the sides since the two hideously gut-wrenching displays against the noisy neighbours last campaign, felt decisive, meteoric, this fixture in particular was of uber importance.
So much so that Hollywood A-Listers Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall were among those in attendance at the Emptyhad at the weekend. The fixture draws in the stars, a vicious vortex of glamour and foreign import, it is a clash of the titans that is plain unmissable even to those who call the beautiful game ‘soccer’. Aside from the fact that two film heavyweights were watching England’s top two heavyweights slug it out in battle, pundits across various broadcasting stations were highlighting the potential significance of all outcomes from the Derby. YSB Graeme Souness in the pre-match coverage remarked, ““What a marker it would put down for United to beat them. Psychologically, it would be a real punch in the nose for City. You don’t win titles in December but you can definitely lose them.”
Ex-Red Clayton Blackmore, probably getting more acclaim and fame than ever during this one interview with Sky Sports News, in the build-up to the encounter said “Get in their face, you can’t be giving players too much respect. You’ve got to get in their face.” Sky’s veteran commentator and seasoned pro in his field Martin Tyler (great turn by Machedaaaaaaaa) has been around the block long enough and has certainly been the man to bring us the action from many a Derby from yester year said “Titles are never won at this stage but you do put down markers and send out messages”.
The context and implications of the derby have certainly gone up a few notches in recent years. The allusions of grandeur regarding this fixture have been doubtless. If we reluctantly take a trip down memory lane, the rivalry has been there from the outset, one fateful day in particular only heightened to intensify the rivalry- one of the United trinity triumvirate Denis Law scored an outrageously nonchalant back-heel (probably Dimitar Berbatov’s most-watched video on YouTube) for that lot to consign us to relegation. How could he do that?
To merely call the fixture between City and United a ‘derby’ is understating the new-found significance. Ever since City stumbled into a bit of money (the biggest injustice since Nicki Minaj forging herself a decent career and X Factor being one of the most popular shows out there) the desire to get the all-important 3 points is not only from their half but more so from ours, to ensure that we will never be dethroned no matter how much money they throw at their toy or as more and more people prefer to christen it ‘their project’- how awful is that?
In more than one way, this match-up is more than a game. It is somewhat more a grand occasion of state, a clash of two footballing juggernauts whose hatred for one another holds no end. It obviously divides a city (although with 20,000 empty seats are you f*****g sure?), it even divides families and partners (I would love to know the reasons if you are indeed tied up to or seeing a bluenose). No doubt the fixture has it’s own space on numerous calendars across Manchester (apart from non-football lovers). Low and behold, the match is centred around various catchphrases, slogans, s*** posters involving a certain money-grabbing whore, the Manchester derby has a unique and ferociously gripping stranglehold on the agenda, much like Manchester’s recent unparalleled stranglehold in terms of footballing hegemony domestically.
Given the acrimonious pain at seeing blue ribbons on our silverware, the gold badges on their sleeves (there is not meant to be another combination other than red and gold), it has not only given the fans the added motivation to never experience such pain and heartache again, but also the players have been given an injection of fear and drive from the manager to bring us back to where we belong. Their success is obviously everywhere you look, I’d be on the verge of millionaire status if a quid was given to me for every time Sky show that Aguero goal on their adverts, it’s uncanny how many more blue shirts you see in town these days. Seeing them as champions is a nightmare that we have thus far not been able to wake up from.
The extra edge that now goes into the derby is epitomised by Wayne Rooney. It is no coincidence that his comments towards City in his recently published autobiography (yes it seems like he can indeed write) has resulted in a monumental performance in his first match against them since the book was released.
“I realise that money doesn’t just change the way most fans think about players, it also changes the way they think about clubs. City. Suddenly they’ve got cash to spend, they’re talking about who they’re going to buy and where the club is going to go in the next few years, which suddenly makes the derby this season a bit more spicier. They’re chatting about titles and being the biggest club in the country, maybe Europe. They’re going to be a challenge to us from now on. It’s weird for me to see them up there, as a threat. I’ve been used to watching City finish way below United, ever since I fell in love with footy as a kid. They’ve always been miles away in the league despite the occasional win over us. Now it’s great to have an extra edge to the games. I don’t know how the manager views the takeover, but I do know that the players want to beat them more than ever. The fact that City are suddenly getting a bit closer in terms of ambition gives us an extra incentive, a bigger desire to make sure we stay on top. A bit more fight and battle is going to be needed to make sure that we keep ahead of the other lot”.
That last sentence of a chunk of Rooney’s autobiography is certainly what we got on Sunday, the players, in particular Rooney himself, probably had that sentence and a riot act from Ferguson ringing in their ears or nailed onto the walls of the away dressing room of the Emptyhad. Sunday was without question a vividly marked improvement on the two horror shows against the noisy neighbours last year. City wanted it more last year, in both encounters. As Martin Tyler put it on commentary, we have nailed down the first marker, the first knockout blow needed to knock them off their nosebleed territory.
We showed guts and fight on Sunday, when playing in a derby there is no alternative. Rio Ferdinand did not give a crap about the thuggish nature of City fans, he bled for the cause, all for that 3 points- something that will no doubt further endear him to our set of supporters when he moves on. We played without fear, something which sadly cannot be said about the cataclysmic disaster of the corresponding fixture last season, negative tactics (Ji-Sung Park was brought in for in-form Danny Welbeck, Valencia benched) resulted in no shots on goal- unheard of for a Manchester United side, we were beaten from the start that day, City wanted it more. The manager would have slaughtered them if there was a repeat showing Sunday. We took the game to City, exposing their weakness and potential nerves. Of course City were going to respond and expose any chinks in our defence, they always do.
But one thing that has stood the test of time following our great club, we never know when we’re beaten. It has always been a critical fabric in the Manchester United DNA, that innate ability to graft and to pick ourselves up off the canvas to score in the dying seconds has given us many priceless moments and will continue to do so, moments that live long in the memory and define us as a football club. That spirit is well and truly ingrained into our club, it is as valuable as a commodity as any.
Which is why I had no doubts that Robin Van Persie would deliver yet another magic moment. He represents our first coup over City in the season, a man who has visibly irked Roberto Mancini by choosing Red over blue, he knows that Robin could be the difference between us reclaiming our trophy and them extending their loan of the silverware. This goal was so sweet on so many levels: 1) It was in front of our travelling brigade, many of whom would have been at the Stadium of Light on that horrible day. 2) His free-kick deflected off his ex-Arsenal team-mate Samir Nasri, who incidentally rejected United for City’s deep pockets- who else is glad he turned us down now? 3) Of course one win against that lot does not compensate for what occurred last season but it went a long way to restoring the pride had had been seriously dented, it was almost a case of normal service has been resumed in England’s footballing capital. 4) City had made their gaff a footballing fortress, so to end that stranglehold where they had not lost prior to Sunday since December 2010 was bordering on the echelons of Utopia. 5) It was symbolic and apt that our Dutchman bagged the winner, it was a direct message to Mancini- ‘this is why I chose United’.
Over recent years, we have been fortunate enough to score some crucial and memorable last minute winners against City. There is no better feeling in football. Van Persie’s strike resulted in him becoming the fifth player in 3 years to achieve this feat. September 2009- Michael Owen in Fergie time. January 2010- Wayne Rooney takes us to Wembley, headed winner in the Carling cup semi. April 2010- Scholesy’s header, resulting in a smooch off Gaz Nev. August 2011- Nani tore City apart in the curtain-raiser. December 2012- RVP’s free-kick sends us 6 points clear at the top.
It is standard procedure when you chose to take a ride on the Manchester United roller-coaster that there will be moments of unadulterated ecstasy during the nine month onslaught for glory. As fans, we get the feeling when an important goal has been scored, we saw this last year with Giggsy’s last-gasp winner at Norwich on his landmark day. Under normal circumstances, the destination of the title hinges on moments like this. You saw from the fans’ reaction to Van Persie’s winner on Sunday that this goal could have massive implications come the end of the season. The euphoria surrounding that one flick of his left-foot wand said it all.
Of course, we are not shallow enough to suggest that the 6 point gap that has opened up has already become unassailable. It was only a matter of months ago that we surrendered an 8 point margin with a shorter time-period remaining. We saw it with this year’s Champions League campaign, the manager admitted last year’s collapse in Europe’s elite competition was down to complacency, this year we ensured qualification as early as possible, allowing us to ease off in the latter stages and focus on the league- where we are now sitting pretty. So complacency should not be a factor this season.
But on Sunday, City’s apparent air of invincibility was burst. Our fight and hunger this time was akin to theirs previous. We wanted and needed this result.
6 points at this stage is not going to shape the title, but it is without doubt a comfy cushion. As promised onto Sunderland. They are our opponents this weekend, it is not normally a game where the extra spice Wayne Rooney was referring to is needed. But given their celebrations on the last day at our demise, on a day they were well beaten serves up extra motivation to knock them back and plunge them further into relegation misery. The manager told the players to bottle up their feelings from that day and remember it as it would serve them well in the future. He means this weekend.
If karma does exist, we will give them a right hiding and be sitting 9 points clear at the top at Saturday tea-time given City’s tough looking fixture at Newcastle.
We have struck the first blow in our battle for the title with City, time to build on that now.