One of the earliest and most hard-earned lessons I learned in the playground as a young football neophyte was that there was no team called Manchester.
An older, wiser head — I’m guessing he would have been, oh, at least eight or nine — never hesitated to put me straight when, at the outset of my enthusiastic but stumbling apprenticeship, I repeatedly slipped up and betrayed my ignorance.
“Manchester? Manchester?” he’d scoff. “What do I keep telling you? There’s no team called Manchester.”
Eventually, of course, the penny dropped — though I’d be embarrassed to have to confess just how much longer it took to come to what was, for me, the staggering realisation that there wasn’t in fact a team in Scotland rejoicing under the name of Patrick Thistle.
Fortunately, The Jags didn’t command a whole lot of support when I was growing up in Tallaght in the late 60s.
Manchester United did, of course. And it was United, almost always United, to whom my exasperated young mentor was referring when, not remotely sparing my blushes, he sought to advance my football education.
Not that Manchester City didn’t have their own exotic appeal back in the day: There was always something to catch the eye when Mike
Summerbee, Franny Lee and Colin Bell were in their pomp, and Neil Young was after the goal rush.
But United had the holy trinity of Best, Charlton, and Law on the pitch and the revered Matt Busby in the dugout and, even for neutrals, that made them a team and a club to stir the heart and capture the imagination.
Poor City; even when they dethroned their rivals as champions in 1968, pipping them to the title by two points, their achievement was eclipsed just 18 days later — and forever in the history books — by Busby finally realising the dream that had survived even the horror of Munich as he saw his beloved United beat Benfica 4-1 at Wembley to become the first English side to claim the European Cup.
That glorious legacy sustained the club through relegation and a 26-year title drought before the arrival of Alex Ferguson ushered in the modern era of unprecedented success at Old Trafford. But there’s a generation approaching the age of footballing reason now for whom awareness of such total dominance would be scant, for whom you suspect Manchester now definitively means City, not United.
And how could it be any other way when, in the last six seasons, the Blues have won three titles to the Reds’ one and, going into tomorrow’s Manchester derby, the unbeaten reigning champions lead their seventh-placed rivals in the Premier League table by nine points, having scored 33 goals to United’s 19 and conceded four as against 18, generating a superior goal difference, after just 11 games played, of +28.
(Only in the Champions League have City tasted defeat so far this season, losing 2-1 at home to Lyon).
But, of course, the role reversal runs much deeper than that.
In the style stakes, City are streets, nay boulevards, ahead, capable of blowing teams away with a scintillating brand of attacking football.
In stark contrast, United, when they haven’t been ragged, have been dogged, grinding out results against the head, seeming to require a goal disadvantage before they can shake off the shackles
and overcome the nerves and begin playing to the undoubted strengths of such as Pogba, Sanchez, Martial, and Mata.
The smash and grab comeback win in Turin, a classic of the recent kind for United, was obviously a timely boost ahead of the derby. But while that’s now three wins on the spin, the spasmodic nature of the performances involved hardly make for a convincing case that they’ve turned a corner in terms of the season as a whole, although their current form is clearly a lot more acceptable than when they were conceding three goals apiece against Brighton, Spurs and West Ham, and Mourinho never seemed more than another bad day away from the exit.
But, ol’ Man City, they just keep rolling along, the only dark clouds on the horizon appearing to relate to issues of fair play — from the alleged serious circumvention of Uefa club financing rules to Raheem Sterling’s oversight in neglecting to inform the referee that he didn’t deserve a penalty against Shakhtar Donetsk. (And, for the record, I would suggest that Sterling has much less to answer for than Sheikh Mansour). It tells you everything you need to know about City’s embarrassment of riches that not even injury to the outstanding Kevin De Bruyne has been able to knock them out of their stride.
All logic suggests that, on home soil, Guardiola’s well-oiled machine should have far too much for a United side who, a defensive mindset apart, seem to make the rest of it up as they go along but, after mugging Juve in their home place, neither could you rule out the prospect of Mourinho getting to cup his ears again at the end of another 90 minutes but this time, most rewardingly, in the direction of those noisy neighbours.
But even if United do win this battle or, at least avoid defeat, you’d still have to conclude that there’s precious little chance of them winning the war. In England and, even more importantly, in Europe, City ought to be standing long after United have fallen away in 2019.
The reality is that the tectonic plates in Manchester have shifted in a major way, even in comparison with that momentous day in 1968 for the Blue side of town when City beat Newcastle United 4-3 to become First Division champions. Here’s how the Guardian match report of the day reflected on the end of what had been a 31-year wait at Maine Road.
“They have been brilliant and they have been quite dreadful. They have been lauded to the skies, and they have had their office windows smashed by disgruntled supporters. They were frequently as Lazarus at the rich man’s gate. And nobody need inquire who in this context was the rich man.
City spent a great deal of time, money and effort trying to catch, let alone keep up with, their neighbours along the way.”
All is changed, changed utterly.