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.”
One such fan is an East Londoner by the name of David Beckham, who created quite a stir on more than one occasion recently, with the former United player stating that no amount of money can help City acquire the rich history and tradition of its great rival.
“He talks about history,” Parker said. “Manchester City were the first club in this city to win a championship title; Manchester City were the first club to win the FA Cup; Manchester City were the first club in England to win a domestic and European title in the same season. We’ve got the largest ever capacity in a football league game of 84,000; we’ve got the largest ever capacity in our stadium for an FA Cup game and I could go on and on.
“David Beckham talks about history when he knows absolutely nothing about it, but to be fair to David, there’s only so much information you can get in those limited number of brain cells.”
But while Beckham’s cerebral capacity can be debated, the contents of United’s trophy cabinet cannot. A record 19-league titles and three European Cups reside there, but most of those have been won under the unprecedented run of success since Ferguson assumed the Old Trafford hot seat in 1986. Though the current City squad has a long way to go to rival United in the silverware department, for one City legend, last season’s success shows that the club has finally rediscovered its lustre.
“We’re on a level and we probably might be better than Manchester United as a team, but I think it’s brought Manchester City back into focus where they should have been,” Mike Summerbee said. “We had a period from 1965-75 and probably a little bit beyond that into the early ’80s when Manchester City had a really strong side.”
As a member of City’s 1968 title-winning side, Summerbee knows all about bringing success to the sky blue side of town, and was playing in the derby on the day United was relegated from the old First Division in 1974 – a situation that is almost unthinkable these days and unlikely to be repeated with both clubs riding high at the top of the English Premier League.
Following on from their championship success last season, City is not about to rest on its laurels and is planning to make its stay at the top of the English game a lengthy one. Taking the lead from its neighbour across town, City is embracing the worldwide appetite for the game, opening up club stores in places such as Abu Dhabi, embarking on far-flung preseason tours, and looking to boost the game-day experience. With its £153-million ($243-million) turnover in the last financial year less than half that of United’s, there’s clearly room for growth in that department.
And with top-level soccer now the norm rather than the exception, City is also constantly upgrading its 48,000-seat Etihad Stadium home – converted from its former role as the centre piece of the 2002 Commonwealth Games – and recently doubled the size of its press conference room at the behest of UEFA, after being told the original was inadequate for Champions League interviews.
It appears the current Manchester City squad is also inadequate for Champions League soccer at present, too. European soccer’s most coveted trophy remains elusive, painfully so after Manchester City exited the Champions League on Tuesday with the lowest point total – three – ever accumulated by an English club in the competition. But while Ferguson is sitting pretty with two European crowns to his name, the 48-year-old Mancini is unfettered, feeling he has time on his side, even with rumours swirling that failure to successfully defend the Premier League crown this season will cost him his job.
“Ferguson won his first [Premier League title] after seven years and his first Champions League after 14 years,” Mancini said. “I have another 12 years to win a Champions League.”
Whether Mancini is still in the job by then – he said he “probably” would be – the Italian’s immediate concern is stopping United disappearing over the Premier League horizon Sunday. United tops the table, three points clear of its rival, and avoiding defeat is a must if the defending champions are to stay in touch over the Christmas period. But whatever the result, having the eyes of the soccer world trained on Manchester this weekend is a win-win situation for the city.
“I just think the heartbeat of football is up north and it’s good for the city of Manchester that both clubs are involved,” Irwin remarked. “Manchester has always been on the list of cities renowned for football because of United but obviously with City jumping on board, it’s even more so now.”