Like most Sabbaths, Sunday will be a day of worship in one of England’s largest cities.
The faithful will rise, don their Sunday bests and join a congregation of thousands at one of the city’s most famous cathedrals in the hope of seeing an early Christmas blessing: a win for one half of Manchester at the expense of the other.
That the cathedral in question will be the Etihad Stadium and those Sunday bests either a hue of United red or City blue matters little to the devout following. For those who ascribe to the teachings of either Sir Alex Ferguson or Roberto Mancini, their sole concern is getting a result and saving face for the week ahead.
“It’s a local derby,” said United legend Denis Irwin, who never tasted defeat against City in his 12-year career at Old Trafford. “It’s a big game because the media will talk about it all week, and you want to give your fans a smile on their faces when they go to work the following day after the game – bragging rights – and it will be like that this weekend as well.
“United fans will want to go into work on Monday with a big smile on their face and likewise with City fans. It’s that important, it’s huge.”
It’s been that way for much of the last century between the teams – Sunday’s match is the 164th Manchester derby, with United holding a clear 68-45 edge – but the rivalry was given a new lease on life four years ago when Sheikh Mansour, the emir of Abu Dhabi, bought City for £150-million (about $238-million). Mansour has since lavished more than £400-million (about $635-million) on new players, all with the aim of usurping United at the summit of the English game.
That dream became reality last May when City ripped the title from its rival’s clutches with a dramatic, last-gasp win over QPR to secure the club’s first championship since 1968 on goal differential.
Having overhauled the 18 league titles of United’s other great rival, Liverpool, with its 2011 Premier League win, and with Arsenal and Chelsea seemingly not the forces of old, Ferguson now views City as the sternest challenge to the Red Devils’ supremacy.
“City are our biggest threat now, there’s no question about that, and we’re their biggest threat so that’s changed,” said the 70-year-old Scotsman. “That’s the great thing about football, things can change – their fortunes changed the moment the Mansours took over and I was well aware the minute that happened that it was going to be a different ball game altogether.”
Of course, the Old Trafford club is no stranger to spending big bucks either. Valued as the world’s most valuable sports franchise by Forbes last July – worth $2.23-billion (U.S.), more than double that of the Toronto Maple Leafs – United has regularly flung open the cheque book to recruit talents such as Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Robin van Persie.
And while City fans have regularly borne the brunt of accusations that their title was bought – particularly from United fans – others consider the accusation somewhat unfair.
“There’s been plenty of clubs with money that haven’t won things,” Irwin said. “They used to say about Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s that they used to buy the best players, but that’s the way that is, just for less money than it is now.
“They used to say that about us in the ’90s, that we bought the best players, obviously not the same kind of money that is thrown around now, but that was thrown at us in the ’90s.”
But cold, hard cash is part and parcel of the Premier League. With its TV rights set to top £5-billion (almost $8-billion) for the first time for the three seasons after this one, spending money is simply how top clubs conduct business these days, and the two Manchester outfits are no different – that’s if you even consider them both to be in Manchester.
“You walk down the street these days and you either see a red shirt or a blue shirt,” said Kevin Parker, the general secretary of the Manchester City Supporters’ Club. “There is of course this friendly rivalry where we as Manchester City fans certainly think that Manchester United are not even located within the city boundaries any more. They’re in a nice little area called Trafford and the majority of their fans appear to come from London.”