Nothing like it used to be when the away followings would be huge at both grounds. The atmosphere at any game depends on a boisterous and sizeable away section, but the Premier League years have given us a clipped, cropped, corralled 3,000 for every match, who do their best to make a din, but… Even the derby matches are relatively muted affairs compared to days of yore, despite an obvious upswing in glee since 2008. Hit any Youtube footage from the 70s or 80s, however, and enjoy the unrestrained bedlam of yonder, with straggle-haired teenagers hanging over the fences and wild-eyed romantics bellowing insults at anyone and everyone.
This is also nothing like it was. Modern football crowds enter late and leave early, seek concourse entertainment and souvenir-shopping possibilities. The heaving ranks of lads looking for their counterparts for a quarrel have been replaced by small knots of try-hards, who are more than likely to be confounded by the sheer numbers trying to access the ground without dropping their falafel wraps and latte meal deals these days. Timing for tv is also a factor. How often do you see the Manchester derby scheduled in the “perfect” 5.30 Saturday evening slot? More likely to be gently prodded into the sleepy, not-too-many beers Sunday lunchtime gig.
City fans used to get the whole of the Scoreboard Paddock at Old Trafford, an amazing mosh pit of heaving limbs with the real and frequent necessity to duck from the shower of gifts descending from K Stand behind. The section reached the peak of its usefulness when Keith Curle netted a penalty there in a night match in 1992 (the “Steve Bruce Has Only One Gear” match) and had to carry an ecstatic pitch invader all the way back to the centre circle. Nowadays the corner section offers a half-decent view and a chance to exchange pleasantries with the noble folk on the edge of the Main Stand.
Strangely, the best thing about Old Trafford is something that you will no longer find there. With the curious advent of regular cup-winning at City came the end of the beloved Old Trafford ticker, counting year-by-year City’s extensive trophy drought. Its passing was an occasion many thought would never happen, but its lingering memory allows the blue hordes to banish any thoughts of sympathy for United fans in their present (relatively) ragged clothing. The ticker may have gone but forgiving and forgetting was never really in the contract.
Those old enough to remember the majestic Colin Bell cut down in his prime by Martin Buchan are also stubborn enough not to let the memory go. Rio Ferdinand and the cherubic Anderson trying to get a hold of a laconic why-always-me Mario Balotelli is another image that refuses to fade away, as do Roy Keane maiming Erling’s dad and Paul Scholes raking his studs across Pablo Zabaleta’s thigh in the epic FA Cup semi of 2011. Derby Day is a day for red and blue, for high tension, a rising mist before the eyes and a racing pulse, but also an excuse to dig out all the old enmities just one more time, to giggle again at Gary Neville with his head in his hands and raise a drink to the hardest of City hard nuts, Mike Doyle, for whom derby day was his raison d’etre.
Despite the soft focus, pop-music-backdrop Premier League era, City’s rise has produced some bite to a fixture that always used to be full of one-sided venom, aimed at a club that insisted they had bigger battles to fight against Liverpool, Arsenal and in Europe, now a line you can hear from some City fans, ironically. Throughout the 80s and 90s, United wiped the floor with City. The decade after, they didn’t even have to try: City’s derbies were with Bury, Crewe, Macclesfield and Stockport. Now the boot is on the other foot and, with the tables turned, there’s a nip in the air.
Alex Ferguson. Decades of belittling City at every opportunity meant that, while the rest of the football nation rightly praised the Govan Growler for his formidable feats, City’s ranks blanched at the thought. Even with the end-of-era writing on the wall, the sneering “not in my lifetime”, “noisy neighbours” tropes grated terribly. The look on his face at Wembley 2011 and at the Stadium of Light when news of Sergio Aguero’s devilish acrobatics reached the Northeast will stay with us forever. (Dis)Honourable mention to Ferdinand, Scholesy, Giggsy, Hughesie, Big Ron, The Doc, Pancho Pearson, sardines, trawlers and big, pouting, gesticulating Chris Ronald.
With each win – and there have been more than any of us dared expect in the last ten years or so – the memories of Cole and Yorke, Giggs and Scholes, Bruce and Pallister and little adopted Michael Owen become another grade fainter. The strutting, the gesturing, the upturned colours, the upturned noses, the hail of brickbats and insults, the shame, the embarrassment of a thousand and one awkward derby moments become just a historical footnote to the grand scheme of things we are now living in 2022. Where once Mike Doyle with a good handful of Lou Macari had to suffice, now a cornucopia of positives fill the mind from a decade of fizzing goals and ritual humiliation.
You are transported directly and rapidly back to the Days of Whooping. United now celebrate a result against City like City did in the 00s. The look of delighted surprise, the neighing and whinnying and people on the internet digging up terms like bragging rights and being owned. Despite their entertaining fall from grace, United have held their own in enough recent derbies for the prospect of losing always to be there, but then, City fans will never lose the feeling of impending doom that 40 years of hurt ushered in. Being ready for disaster is second nature even now, despite the bright new clothes of the bright new era.
The NLD has assumed increasing significance in recent seasons, to the point where it now feels akin to a Champions League play-off. The resulting tension and sadly, the levels of animosity, seem to have risen in equal proportion. First up against the wall, come the revolution, should be those responsible for an ungodly 12.30 KO. On the pitch, players so often fail to pull their fingers out and start playing before half-time and on the terraces, barring a liquid breakfast, fans tend to be far more docile and the atmosphere is largely deprived of any alcohol-fuelled electricity.
As a result of the pandemic, we’ve only visited Spurs' new stadium once to date (and I’ve spent the months since last May trying to erase this abysmal outing from my memory!). Thus I’ve yet to establish a new routine for invading & escaping enemy territory, with body and soul intact. Having witnessed numerous disturbing incidents over the years, where kids have been left in floods of tears by the sort of rabid hostility that’s left me wondering why anyone would want to risk inflicting the trauma of this sort of Tottenham experience on any young offspring, I remain convinced that Spurs fans’ trip to the Emirates is far less intimidating. Following every trip to the Badlands of N7, I continue to breathe a huge sigh of relief upon my safe return to the red and white end of the Seven Sisters Road.
As with most modern grounds, there are decent enough sightlines in the away section of the Toilet Bowl and it’s great to see “safe standing” being introduced at newly built stadia.
Aside from “The Exit”, as much as it pains me, I have to admit to being envious of Spurs’ single-tiered south terrace, where, in contrast to our gaff, they don’t have the spoiler effect upon the atmosphere of upper and lower tiers being separated by two prawn circles (executive & club levels).
The hostile rivalry has existed ever since the Arsenal relocated north of the river. Yet, as a kid my old man would often take me to watch the Arsenal one week and to Spurs the next, in the good old days of unreserved seating back in the 60s, when the two sides played at home on alternate weekends. However, any such good-natured rivalry evaporated, with Spurs fans increasingly fervent indignation, after having endured the best part of half a century of suffering in the Gunners’ shadow. Sadly, without a St. Totteringham’s Day to savour, as we’ve finished behind the old enemy for the past half dozen seasons, we’ve fast become far too familiar with this shoe being on the other foot.
Our relationship is directly related to the hierarchy. Spurs fans have hated us with an increasing vengeance, so long as we’ve looked down upon them with smug satisfaction since the 70s, at their continued dearth of silverware, whereas with our world having been knocked off its axis ever since 2015, sadly we Gooners have come to know what it means to inhabit a North London universe where bitter and angry resentment abounds.
Adebayor’s exploits weren’t exactly endearing, but I suspect he trails behind Sheringham and his efforts to deprive us of silverware with both Spurs and Man Utd. His three-fingered salute for Utd in ’99 and his open admission of his aversion to the Arsenal must surely rank Teddy as Gooner enemy no.1
Victory isn’t an essential requirement for Derby Day rapture. How privileged I am to have experienced the thrill of a lifetime TWICE at White Hart Lane. Ray Kennedy’s header to secure the title in ’71 and the resulting ecstatic celebrations left a lasting impression on me as a ten-year-old bairn, but there was no less euphoria in an equally momentous 2-2 draw which earned us our second league triumph at the Lane in 2004.
Like most North London Gooners, from my brother-in-law to some of my closest pals, I’m surrounded by the enemy on all sides and a derby day defeat is so extremely depressing that I’m unlikely to emerge from under my duvet for at least a week, to be able to contend with the endless mickey-taking