The morning after the QPR game I spent about £15 on papers and wedged myself behind a table at a local greasy spoon. There, I immersed myself in bacon, match reports, eggs, Shaun Custis, sausages, Martin Samuel and about a gallon of tea. While the world left me alone for an hour, I basked in the title victory and began to come to terms with the word ‘Champions’. That hour was not the time for deep reflections or analysis of the campaign, that was time for some self-indulgent wallowing whilst 44 years of pain were washed away.
But as the dust has settled on the season, it has become easier to look back and see the patterns emerge. In particular, the four games against the rags stand out for me like milestones along the journey, illustrating graphically what was going on with our club on and off the field at each of the times we played them. This is not some rag-fuelled obsession – it is simply that those games turned out to be barometers of a title winning season: one season in four games, if you like. Those matches could have been real banana skins for us (two almost were) but in the end the pattern of those games highlights and exemplifies much about our season and provides perhaps some real pointers for the future.
We kicked off in August with the Community Shield at Wembley. We were not, in truth, widely fancied either for the game itself or the league campaign to follow. In an eve of season poll of 30 BBC pundits, 26 had tipped United to retain the championship, with only three brave souls predicting a City title win – one being GMR’s Ian Cheeseman. Mark Bright bravely tipped Liverpool who only missed out on the title by 38 points. But at Wembley, against the run of predictions, and rather against the run of play, we established a two goal lead before half time. The second half saw United fight back to 2-2, but with Mancini chasing the win towards the end of a bad tempered contest, an uncharacteristic slip by Vincent Kompany allowed Nani to hare upfield and skip round Joe Hart to win the game. United celebrated with their customary restraint and modesty. Wayne Rooney told the world that this result showed who the better team was, and then tweeted some gloating nonsense about a footballing lesson – the lesson presumably being how satisfying it is to win a trophy at the expense of your fiercest rivals by scoring deep in injury time.
There were straws which showed the way the wind was really blowing for those who cared to look for them. David De Gea had been weighed, measured and found wanting. The Typically Defensive Italian had sent nine men up to United’s area in search of a winner with the score at 2-2. A full strength United barely coped with a City short of Tevez and Aguero and with Samir Nasri looming on the horizon. None of that stopped the media cliche factory from clicking into gear: Scholes and Neville were gone but Jones and Cleverley had taken their place; Fergie had once again conjured a youthful team who would storm the premiership; moneybags Manchester City had no clear vision other than to buy every player in sight and hope it would all come good; another injury time winner for the relentless United machine.
There was no doubt that the general consensus of opinion in punditland was that the Good Guys had won and the Bad Guys had lost. Whilst Matt Lawson in the Daily Mail viewed City as ‘too defensive’, Martin Keown compared United’s attacking play to Barcelona’s. (Seriously.) Gary Neville proclaimed Mario Balotelli to be an ‘embarrassment’, and Graham Poll considered City fortunate to end the game with 11 men still on the pitch. And with appropriate lip-service paid to the need for caution, the media at large satisfied itself that the season would probably pan out in much the same way as the match at Wembley: City’s wealth might take them so far, but in the end United’s know how and class would see them home. Steve Howard, writing in The Sun, summed up the prevailing mood when he wrote ‘this was a result to make football itself stand up and cheer’. Mark that phrase. Mark it well.
As the season proper got under way, there were signs that the traffic along Fleet Street was not entirely moving one way. Henry Winter, one of the more thoughtful of football writers, was interviewed at half time during City’s first home game against Swansea. His optimism about City’s prospects deserves credit, for at the time City were drawing 0-0 against a newly promoted side widely tipped to go straight back down. But whilst Winter’s was not a lone voice, it certainly did not represent the main stream of opinion. Nonetheless, it became clear as the season progressed that the Universally Hostile Press of 2010-11 had mellowed into merely a Mostly Hostile Press.
As the second derby approached, City began to attract more plaudits for their entertaining and attractive football. As in 1967, notice of a genuine title challenge was served with a thumping win over Spurs. Scoring three or four goals a time was commonplace as Blackburn, Villa and Wigan were put to the sword. Even our nemesis Everton was dismissed without troubling the scorers. But although City deservedly topped the league, United would not let us get away. We scored three against Bolton, they scored five. We put five past Spurs, they put eight past Arsenal. Rags regularly pointed out, as the derby approached, that Spurs were the only side of note we had played whilst they had faced not only Spurs but Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool as well. So the marketing men at Sky could scarcely have hoped for better material to hype up the October derby. Two unbeaten teams going head to head; First against Second; the richest club in the world against the most famous club in the world at the top of the best league in the world; the two best attacks against the two meanest defences; all that money v all that history. (And it’s live.)
When the game kicked off, the rags undoubtedly had the better of the first 15 minutes or so but by the time we went ahead we had already achieved more than just a foothold in the game. Our half time lead was thoroughly deserved taking the first 45 minutes as a whole. But early in the second half Mario ‘embarrassment’ Balotelli was put clean through on goal following a neat one-two with Aguero, and the rest as they say is history. Later, the gracious Glaswegian would point to the sending off as the decisive moment of the game. I’m not so sure about that. In a one-on-one situation you would back Balotelli to score more often than not and certainly against David de Gea at that point in the season. So the real effect of the sending off may well have been to keep the score at 1-0 for 15 minutes longer than would otherwise have been the case. Had they been chasing the game for 45 minutes at 2-0 down, even with 11 men there is every chance we would have taken them apart just as clinically as we did after Evans’ red card.
But as it was, with the rags a man short City controlled the game totally. In the end it really could, as the song says, have been ten. A five point lead – clear blue water – had opened up between us and them; but the game was about much more than three points or local bragging rights. We had been stringing 20 pass goals together for quite a few games before James Milner crossed for Balotelli’s second. When we penned them back in their own half for lengthy periods it was no more and no less than we had done to every other team since the season began. But now Football sat up and took notice. ‘Another flowing Manchester City move’ was how Alan Parry described Aguero’s goal, and with complete justification – we had been doing this all season, only now we were doing it in the champions’ yard. And if we learned one thing only from that game it was that, like most bullies, United cannot take a hiding.
The cautious media approval that had been building since the season got under way now turned into open fawning. Jamie Redknapp considered the win to be the biggest statement of intent any side had made in the premier league era. In The Guardian, Kevin McCarra suggested that ‘only a curmudgeon could fail to appreciate the accomplishment of City’. Paul Hayward in the same paper was not alone in acknowledging David Silva was to be ‘comfortably the player of the season so far’. Who needs Carlos Tevez, asked Gary Neville, when you have Dzeko, Balotelli and Aguero? On the pitch, we continued to take teams apart, scoring three or more goals in each of the five games we played following the 6-1. Norwich, Newcastle and Stoke were all put to the sword in the weeks that followed. Wolves conceded eight in two games against us in the space of four days, despite an abysmal refereeing display from Stuart Attwell at the Etihad. Which brings us nicely to the issue which dominated the middle third of the season: some appalling, inconsistent and possibly biased refereeing.
Nobody had noted a serious problem with referees prior to the Old Trafford derby. But as we approached the turn of the year, especially away from home, we could scarcely get through a game without being on the wrong end of some controversial decision. An Agger elbow on Aguero at Liverpool resulted in no more than a free kick, whereas Balotelli’s flailing arm when challenging for a header led to a red card. David Silva was denied the clearest of penalties at Chelsea with the score at 1-0 and City in the ascendancy, but Lescott was later penalised for handball when he might easily have been given the benefit of the doubt. Clichy was sent off for offences similar to those for which Meireles went unpunished. In a tight game at West Brom, a good City goal was wrongly ruled out, though in the next tight game at Sunderland an offside goal was allowed to stand. Charlie Adam kicked all and sundry at the Etihad without a card being shown, Gareth Barry picked up two yellow cards from three innocuous fouls in the same game. There were dark mutterings as to where this spate of dreadful decisions had come from.
Despite all that, City fans were in general licking their lips when the third round draw of the FA Cup brought the rags to our door. Our first defence of the only trophy we had won in 35 years could scarcely have been more apt. In front of their own fans – well, if truth be told, in front of a fast-emptying stadium – we had demolished them. What would we do to them on our own turf?
As things turned out, the prospect of giving them another good hiding lasted less than a quarter of an hour. We bossed the first 10 minutes. They scored a good goal on the break, but we had scored 3 times in five minutes more than once this season already and being 0-1 down to the rags with 80 minutes to go did not faze us. But then Vincent Kompany slid in to make a good interception – or so we all thought. What had not even looked like a foul, certainly not a dangerous or reckless challenge, led Mr Foy – in surely his last ever appearance at the Etihad – to show a red card. With perhaps a little help from his assistant referee Mr Rooney. United took full advantage, as we had done in October, and by half time had raced into a 3-0 lead. And in truth, it could have been worse.
Many have said that the interval in this game with the scoreboard showing City 0 United 3 – the first time the Etihad scoreboard had ever registered such a travesty – represented our lowest point of the season. Had we been asked after the demolition derby whether the rags would ever put six past us on our own ground, we might have answered ‘not in my lifetime’. As the second half loomed it looked like they could do it within the next half hour.
But then two things happened. First, the team began to fight. Mancini – he who was derided for having no Plan B – reorganised the team so we played with 3 at the back and five across the middle. That did not put us on the front foot so much as staunch the bleeding from the first half wounds. And we came out snarling and ready for the scrap in the second half. Mancini’s changes worked, and City started to take the game to them.
Next, the crowd began to fight. Some had left at half time – and who could blame them, we have been through so much pain over the years. But an embarrassing evacuation of the sort we saw at the swamp was never on the cards. This was a Manchester Derby. We stand our ground, we never run. And we do not give in to Them – ever. Remember winning 4-3 at Spurs without Barton? We have done this before, we can do it again. Kolarov drilled in a free kick and we really had something to shout about. The stadium got behind the team in a way I can scarcely remember when we have been behind against the rags. Loud and proud. We escaped a very strong penalty shout – frankly Foy should have given it, but as is often the case, he perhaps over compensated for his earlier decision. And at the other end De Gea spilled a shot, Aguero pounced, and it was 2-3. Game on.
The rags – against 10 men – had seen their healthy lead evaporate and were now hanging on by their fingernails. But the third goal did not come. We went close: Kolarov tested De Gea with another free kick. Big Pants, up for a corner in the dying seconds, flashed a header wide. In the end, however, it was not to be. The rag cheers at the final whistle were cheers of relief as much as celebration, for when it had been 10 v 11 in our favour, we had humiliated them. When it was 10 v 11 in their favour we came close to humiliating them again. For the first time I can remember, a City team which had just been beaten at home by United was given a standing ovation as it left the field. The referee, not the opposition, had caused the defeat. We felt cheated, not beaten. We lost our trophy but not our pride.
There was something of the Dunkirk about that defeat. Like any home defeat by them it hurt badly, but it could have been an absolute disaster. For so long City have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; now we had snatched defeat from the jaws of annihilation. What turned the game around was the fighting spirit displayed by the team and the crowd acting together (hashtag). Mancini and Khaldoon would both later pick out this performance as a key moment during the season. Mancini even described it as ‘important’. We would need that spirit – that ‘strong mentality’ – as the season progressed, and we found it when we were staring at catastrophe.
The next couple of months were endured rather than enjoyed. The Carling Cup slipped away. We missed Yaya and Kolo at the African Cup of Nations. There were suspensions for Kompany and Balotelli. We struggled away from home at Everton and Swansea, and rarely looked imperious on our travels even when we returned with three points. There were bright moments along the way – wins over Spurs, our old foes, and Chelsea, the latter featuring the return of Carlos Tevez to the fold; we saw some emphatic home wins over mediocre visitors. We even revived the Ballet on Ice against Fulham, though it ended up as something of a waltz. Overall, though, the first three months of the new year were dogged by uninspiring performances and disappointing decisions, especially on the road. And all the while, we watched United as they were gifted game upon game by one dodgy decision after another.
But even as our once healthy lead became an 8 point deficit, we hung in there grimly. Mancini maintained in private if not in public that our chance would come. And it did, as we put ten past Norwich and West Brom whilst United struggled against Wigan and Everton. The appalling prospect of watching our team applaud them onto our pitch as champions faded away. By the time they came back to the Etihad, our destiny was in our own hands: lose or draw and it was all over bar the shouting; beat them, and whilst it would go right down to the wire, winning our remaining games would surely see us home.
What followed may in years to come be heralded as the day City arrived as a major force in world football. An estimated 650 million people watched the game in clubs, bars and homes around the world, in the early morning in Australia and New Zealand, late into the night in Asia, and in the quiet of a Monday afternoon in the Americas. Those of us fortunate enough to have been there have never experienced anything quite like it, though the QPR game a fortnight later would come close. The build up to the game was hype on a scale barely witnessed before, and never in the context of a domestic league game. Our legends were all there. Diego was in town. Liam was in town. Richard was in town. (Scudamore, of course, who did you think I meant?) Sky were ejected from their normal studio next to the south stand scoreboard in favour of a foreign TV station, and the old studio in the opposite corner was pressed into emergency service. TV crews from the middle east, the far east, the States and South America interviewed fans around the ground. Our starting 11 featured internationals from 6 different nations, with five more nations represented on the bench.
And yet, this most cosmopolitan of Manchester derbies was settled in the most English fashion. A hulking centre half – the captain no less – went up for a corner and powered home a bullet header. It was Mike Doyle, Dave Watson, Andy Morrison and Steve Howey all rolled into one with a healthy dollop of Mick McCarthy and Richard Dunne rolled in for good measure. Who put the ball in United’s net? Vincent Kompany did. “Buzzin’ ‘” was how he would describe it in his Brussels-cum-Beswick accent. “Deeecent”.
United could not live with City in the second half. They had played the first half in their own third, but now they needed to attack more and find some penetration. They couldn’t do it. We looked closer to a second than they did to equalising, chances falling to Yaya and Nasri in particular. On the touchline, the gracious Glaswegian visibly lost it. Since October it had been rammed down our throats that United would come good in the run-in, like they always do. But when a really big performance was needed, they failed to muster a single shot on target. Their vaunted know-how simply deserted them. In one way, watching City surpass them in this fashion after they had thrown away an eight point lead was an even greater humiliation than the 6-1.
As in January, in the stands we roared them on. I have never heard the Etihad louder. The chorus of Blue Moon while the players left the field at half time was just immense, Hey Jude at the final whistle even more so. We had come onto the world stage and every single person associated with this club did themselves proud as that incredible spectacle unfolded. The fact that it was an intensely mancunian affair did not detract from its international appeal, it enhanced it. The Premier League suddenly understood that an acute cross-town rivalry at the top of the English league might actually eclipse the Spanish giants’ traditional rivalry, and indeed Maradona would later compare the Barcelona/Madrid El Clasico game unfavourably to the Manchester derby. Internet message boards around the globe buzzed with the game, the hype, criticism of the hype, discussion of the worldwide TV audience, analysis of what the game meant for the outcome of the league and the future of the two clubs. Not so long ago, the Manchester derby wasn’t even the major story in Manchester. Now it was the biggest talking point in World sport.
That game of course only laid the foundation for the title: nerve shattering games against Newcastle and QPR stood in our way. But we had done it: the title had been all but theirs, and we had wrestled it out of their hands while the world watched us do it. This really was a result to make Football itself stand up and cheer. And cheer it did, as it did when thirteen days later we secured the title in the most dramatic fashion. Football watched, Football drank it in. Football did the Poznan at the Stadium of Light, and cheered us from Swansea and from Stoke and from Stamford Bridge. The best ever finale to the best ever season in the Best League In The World. Football? Bloody hell.
So there you have our season, a 10 month white knuckle ride encapsulated in four games all against the same opposition. Unloved and unfancied going into the first game, United’s win cemented some lazy press attitudes which in truth were hangovers from the season before and had been unfair even then. By the second game, our free flowing football was taking apart all opposition, and our win at the swamp was in fact pretty typical of our autumn campaign. The FA cup game was mired in controversy, as were so many of our games at that time, but the fighting spirit which came through that day would stand us in good stead as the season approached its climax. And then the piece de resistance, the worldwide event that announced who we are in the modern age, the vital stepping stone to the title. The day we knocked the rags off their perch. Each one of those four games, especially the last, was potentially a banana skin on which we might so easily have slipped, leaving the rags to saunter ahead once again. How very very satisfying to have left those four skins behind.