At last, a table-topping derby treat

ACCORDING to yesterday’s press reports of Fergie’s recent conversations with a “frustrated” Michael Owen, the boss has told the player that, up until now, “the season hasn’t really started yet”.

That might be unwelcome news to those who’ve already blown over €500 following United since early August but I can see what he means. Fergie explained that the internationals’ disruption, and the fact that the usual club weekend-midweek-weekend schedule hasn’t really been established, meant he wasn’t yet able to open out the full squad rotation system, and that therefore Owen would have to be patient.

Nevertheless I think we can all agree that Saturday surely marked the kick-off proper. Not least because we finally saw something akin to a real United performance at our favourite White Hart Lane hunting ground, pleasingly spearheaded by my two favourites, Berbatov and Rooney.

The combination of guts, improvised flair and unique skill – best summed up in the dazzling and decisive third goal – was the United we crave to see, and settled many a brow furrowed by the discomfort suffered against Arsenal. Equally importantly, we saw at least a glimpse of a systemic outline after weeks of uncertain tampering. And Fergie now has that tinker-friendly routine schedule to enjoy, starting last night in Istanbul and continuing with Sunday’s derby.

Normally I would be knuckle-chewing as I write this column on a Tuesday morning, not knowing the result of a game you’ve just watched, but for once I couldn’t give a hoot, so hugely and majestically does Sunday overshadow what went on last night. I wasn’t in Istanbul, having not set foot in that country on principle since November 1993. Moreover, this European group must surely be one of the least inspiring we’ve ever been drawn into, despite at least the novelty of visiting FC Wolfsburg. Is the European Cup in danger of becoming a competition you only start to care about in the New Year? Of the last 24 English group qualifiers, 23 have progressed onto the knockout stages. Where is the tension and interest, then, in six expensive matches that end up rubberstamping what you already probably took to be a virtual fait accompli? Potentially famous last words of course – especially if we lost last night, and remembering what happened to us in 2005 – but still: wake me in February.

The exact inverse applies to Sunday, of course. For as long as I’ve been writing this column, I have felt almost apologetic for thrusting derby-day hype at you, fully aware as I am that to a non-Mancunian audience, City as prospective opposition provokes shoulder-shrugging at best. Indeed, it’s been a Mancs-interest-only zone for as long as most can remember, with bored outsiders tending merely to remark upon the poor quality of the football we usually collectively produce, and to express bafflement at the stunning levels of hostility hurled at each other by supposed neighbours.

Now, for the first time since I was a kid, we have a Manchester derby that is not only the Match Of The Week, but a table-topper and – gasp! – potential title six-pointer that the whole footballing world wants to watch. I can’t fully express how masochistically thrilling it is to write that at last. It’s something I have simultaneously longed to witness, yet also dreaded. Rio Ferdinand, with his usual bumptious cluelessness, decreed last week that Manchester isn’t big enough for two big clubs. (‘Mind your own business, you cockney twat’ was one instant response). Of course it is. It always used to be, too, in the late 60s and 70s, and mid-50s too. The last time both clubs were genuine simultaneous title challengers, 1976/77, I saw both matches, two exhilarating 3-1 Red wins that ultimately cost City the title. May history be repeated…


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