The Manchester Derby: A Tale Of Two Masks
As the supporters of football clubs, there are two masks that we are required to keep about our person at all times. One of these masks is practical. It’s the mask that prioritises league position over everything else. It’s the mask that accepts the limitations of the clubs that we support. The other is that with which we are more familiar from the media representation of supporters. This is the emotional side, the side that refuses to listen to reason or moderations when we’re watching our team play, the side that brings out our inner child in the name of oneupmanship or, heaven forfend, “the bantz.”
Yesterday evening at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester City and Manchester United put the former of these two worlds on hold for an hour and three-quarters. We have all known since before Christmas that this year’s Premier League title race has been over. Manchester City have led the way since the very beginning, and even the loss of their unbeaten record in January didn’t a have great of effect in terms of stalling their onward march towards the league title. City’s stately procession towards the league title has sucked the life out of the Premier League season. Manchester City have been so much better than everybody else that we have become a million bald people arguing over five hundred thousand combs.
A second defeat of the season came yesterday afternoon, of course, and it remains almost certain that this particular loss was little more than a footballing equivalent to Custer’s last stand for Manchester United. The gap at the top of the table is so great that a Manchester United win in this particular match would be no more than an exercise in postponement. Even the most one-eyed of United supporters surely recognise that. But yesterday’s win in this match wasn’t a win for the head. Yesterday’s win was a win for the heart, a win for the here and now, a win for the joyous experience of refusing to look the harsh truth square in the face.
It’s not difficult to see this match entering the folklore of Manchester United in the same way the last match of the 1973/74 season entered into that of Manchester City. On that day, more than forty years ago, United entertained City on the last full Saturday of the season – they still needed to travel to Stoke City the following Monday evening for their final fixture – needing a win to have any chance of staying avoiding relegation to the Second Division. In front of a crowd of almosy 57,000 people at Old Trafford, United huffed and puffed until, shortly before the end, Denis Law nonchalantly backheeled the ball past Alex Stepney and in to score the only goal of the match. Law refused to celebrate a goal scored against his former club and was substituted shortly afterwards. It became known as the goal that “relegated” Manchester United.
Excpet that wasn’t the case. Even if we dismiss near-philosophical arguments that one match cannot relegate a football club – relegation comes about as a result of bad result after bad result over the course of a season – Denis Law’s goal that day had no appreciable affect upon Manchester United’s fate. United’s position that day was so desperate that they were already dependent upon results from elsewhere in order to avoid relegation. Birmingham City’s win over Norwich City and West Ham United’s draw against Liverpool made the difference that day. Denis Law’s goal was arguably symbolic of the nadir of the club’s decline in the six short years since becoming the first English club to win the European Cup, and little more.
Last night’s result feels as though it has the potential to become similarly symbolic, albeit it for very different reasons. Manchester City will still win the Premier League title, but yesterday evening at the Etihad Stadium Manchester United became the noisy neighbours, taking the gloss off what many were expecting to be City’s ultimate humiliation of their rivals. This was supposed to be the day that Manchester United had to witness the club, whose rise they have attempted to continue to appear insouciant aboutover the last five or six years or so as, lift the title. The narrative – which included the continuing the decline of Jose Mourinho and his soap opera-esque ongoing “feud” with Pep Guardiola, the misfiring of United’s very expensive recent acquisitions, etc etc etc – had already been written.
The foreword to the story of the day began a couple of hours before kick-off when Paul Pogba – who, over the course of this season, has become something of a totem for the ineffectiveness of United’s “marquee signing” policy of the last couple of years or so – turned up at the stadium with the top of his hair sporting what looked a little like Manchester City colours. It didn’t really matter that the top of his head has been shaded this way for a couple of weeks, now. This, to critics, was everything that is wrong at Old Trafford at the moment. The highly expensive but misfiring player turns up for a match of this symbolic importance with his hair shaded in the colours of their local rivals didn’t feel like a particularly wise decision, regardless of any other considerations.
By half-time, we thought we knew how this story was going to conclude. Manchester City had sauntered to a two goal advantage thanks to goals from Vincent Kompany and Ilkay Gundogan, while United had looked as lethargic as they so frequently do when things aren’t going according to plan. Pogba had been anonymous. United had been abject. It felt as though the margin of victory would be the only talking point of the second half, and as though the symbolic significance of the day would be rooted in the anguished faces of those connected with Manchester United at what would likely be widely reported as the metaphorical passing of a baton form one side of the city to the other. This, we were reliably informed, would mark the beginning of the Guariola dynasty at the Etihad Stadium.
In sixteen second half minutes, however, that illusion fell away with a sense of drama that only professional football can manage. Pogba awoke from his slumber and scored two delightful goals in three minutes to bring United baack from the dead, and with a little over twenty minutes to play Chris Smalling, another player who had been notable largely for his apparent absence during the first half, side-footed a third goal. The celebrations, hubris and schadenfreude were cut short and flipped on their head. City huffed and puffed and United definitely rode their luck when Ashley Young might have been penalised by conceding a penalty kick and receiving a red card for a rash and high tackle on Sergio Agüero, but the timbre of the game turned so dramatically upon Pogba’s awakening that there was no way back for the home side.
City had rested a couple of senior players, and one of them, Kevin de Bruyne, was introduced as an afternoon of celebration suddenly became a desperate dash against a ticking clock to prevent an abject humiliation. Davd de Gea made a wonderful save from an Agüero header. Raheem Sterling hit the post. But there was no way back and, at the final whistle, as the Manchester United supporters celebrated as though they had just won the Premier League title, the ever-helpful television cameras of Sky Sports panned across an emptying stadium to pick out the bemused, the baffled, and the tearful. Manchester City supporters who’d started the day believing that it would end with the most delicious of victories had to settle for the knowledge that they would have to wait until another day to toast their title win.
Sky Sports did their best to make this a title decider, even though it remains most likely that the decision over the whereabouts of this year’s Premier League trophy has most likely only been postponed by a week or two. Manchester City travel to Wembley next weekend to play Spurs, a match which could result in a third successive defeat, but the rest of their season is made up of matches against the Premier League’s flotsam and jetsam. The points will surely come, but in the gap between now and the next match Manchester United supporters will surely allow themselves the indulgence of at least daydreaming about the tiniest possibility that the greatest choke in the history of English football remains at least mathematically possible.
But what of the future? Could this be a pivotal result for Manchester United? Might Paul Pogba finally start demonstrating his stellar ability on a more regular basis? Will Jose Mourinho be able to turn the Premier League title race into a duopoly rather than the monopoly that many have been assuming that it will become? Those questions might be for another day, but it’s worth reflecting upon the expectations that have been placed on Manchester City over the course of this season. It was considered as likely as not that they would sweep all before them in all competitions this season, but their FA Cup journey ended in ignominy at Wigan Athletic and their continuing involvement in the Champions League hangs by a thread following their abject first half performance at Anfield in the first leg last week. Will the blows suffered to their self-esteem over the last few days have any lasting ramifications? This may not have been a title decider, but it did at least set us up with some fascinating questions ahead of next time around.
If football is a continual tug of war between the head and heart, Manchester City supporters will be thinking with the former this morning, whilst United supporters will be thnking with the latter. Manchester City remain thirteen points clear at the top of the Premier League table with six games left to play. They will, barring a calamity unprecedented in the history of football choking, win the Premier League this season. Manchester United may end the season with only the FA Cup to show for the vast outlay spent on players last summer. But in the heat of the moment early yesterday evening, neither the past nor the future mattered that much. Whether it was the sting of defeat and the disappointment at not being able to rub their rivals’ noses well and truly in it or the feeling that, somehow or other, the accession of a rival to the league title had been put off for another day in the most satisfying way possible, yesterday’s Manchester derby was a day for the present, a day for emotions to rule over everything else. It’s been a fairly pedestrian season in the Premier League. Yesterday evening’s tumultuous match was a reminder of why, for better or for worse, a reminder of why we get involved with it all in the first place.