By Sam Lee
“Bitter” is the word often bandied about where football rivalries are concerned. The pre- and post-game posturing between rival fans often descends into who, in fact, is the most bitter.
Over the years, the word has become as much a part of the Manchester rivalry as Denis Law, Curly Watts, “plastic fans” and, latterly, “Agueroooooooooooooooooooooo…”.
For years, United fans referred to City as bitter. Bitter of United’s dominance, bitter about their riches, bitter about everything. The examples – blue ketchup at Maine Road, a ban on red cars for City employees – have been trotted out ad infinitum since Abu Dhabi ploughed their money into the blue half of Manchester.
Carlos Tevez was snatched away from Old Trafford in a deal that City hoped would be a sign of the times. But it was the manner of the transfer which rankled most with United fans and even Sir Alex Ferguson.
The infamous “Welcome to Manchester” billboard erected on Deansgate sparked more point-scoring between clubs and fans. Was it an example of City being small-time or was it harmless fun to which United reacted bitterly? Either way, it was certainly a benchmark in the modern rivalry.
But, even as City started to ramp up the volume off the pitch, they were continually served up heartbreaking defeats on it. Michael Owen in the last minute in the league, Wayne Rooney in the last minute in the Capital One Cup, Paul Scholes in the last minute at Eastlands. All in that same season. Just like the old days.
Those games were interspersed with crowd unrest. The atmosphere at Old Trafford for Tevez’s early-season return was toxic, as it was later that season in the Capital One Cup after the Argentine had taunted United fans and substitute Gary Neville after scoring a penalty in the first leg. Neville had fired back a one-fingered salute.
City frustrations grew with each cruel defeat and, for them, every match became more and more an opportunity to give United the beating that they had coming to them. Wayne Rooney’s overhead kick did nothing to help matters as the next season wore on.
The tide turned in City’s favour later that campaign when they reached the FA Cup final at the Red Devils’ expense. They went on to win the trophy, their first since 1976. United clinched the league title on the very same day and the point-scoring got louder and more passionate in an hour of mutual glory. Whose success meant more? Who was overshadowed?
And so the 2011-12 season started. United were the defending champions, City had won the FA Cup. United’s crowing about City’s long barren spell, a staple of match day Stretford End sing-songs, had been put to an end. “Thirty-five years…”, no more.
The first derby of the campaign rolled around with United fans wondering quietly if City might actually go one step further. They had got a trophy under their belt, after all.
The 6-1 hammering that followed turned English football on its head.
Were United about to be overthrown by their “little brother”, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once remarked? It was as big a result as the English top flight had seen. Had the lie of the Premier League land been changed forever? Was this the oft-mooted power shift?
This time it was United who had been embarrassed and they did not like it one bit. They knew that they were in a fight and worries set in as the season dragged on. The bitterness over that defeat was only multiplied months later when the Red Devils were outplayed at the Etihad Stadium as City went top with a handful of games to play.
And what happened in the final minute of season will have been the bitterest pill that United fans have ever had to swallow. The kind of miraculous recovery that had typified Ferguson’s side had bitten them on the backside in the most dramatic circumstances.
Martin Tyler’s throaty roars will haunt Reds forever, even if they win the league by 30 points this season and the next five editions after that.
It was enough to make any man bitter. Sir Alex has never publicly discussed his feelings on that fateful day, stating only that the club had to move on.
In the unabating narrative of football, the first derby of this season, back in December, offered United a chance a revenge. The atmosphere was again electric.
From an emotional point of view, the match was a disaster. United fans were jubilant as they went 2-0 up. The glory days were back, they had put the last day of the season behind them, United were playing brilliantly and would go six points clear.
But they were soon a nervous mixture of anger and sadness as their rivals pulled it back to 2-2 in the second half. City fans, once again, were lording a dramatic comeback over their red counterparts. The team had again showed that they just flat out refused to be cowed by United and their fans responded in kind.
Then Robin van Persie scored in the last minute and everything went blurry. Rio Ferdinand was hit by a coin as he celebrated with his own fans, lucky that only one flying object struck him. Moments later, a fan ran onto the pitch to confront the England defender. A number of arrests were made, as is common at big derbies. What was unusual was that one of those detained was not even at the ground – he was so furious after watching events unfold on television that he racially abused Ferdinand on Twitter.
The 15-point gap that has developed between the sides since then should actually serve to diminish the emotions surrounding the match – but only a little. United can exert their traditional dominance once again on Monday. If the destination of the title is not certain already, a home victory will dispel any doubts.
City, for their part, can show that they are not a flash in the pan. They can give United, who have underperformed since Nani’s red card against Real Madrid, something to worry about for the run-in.
Either way, old wounds are about to be reopened as the Manchester derby gets fiercer than ever.