Rivals in the City

The biggest derby in English football was never the one in Manchester. But suddenly, it has taken on a greater significance.

By Anthony Lopopolo

A WIN IN THE DERBY always meant more to Manchester City, because a win for Manchester United was routine. For the United supporter in the 1980s and ‘90s, the derby was just another chance to rip on their miserable neighbours. Their Reds almost never lost.

One year was different. It was a Saturday in September in 1989, and Paul Lake was driving to Moss Side, the inner-city of Manchester, for the 111th edition of the Manchester derby.

On the drive to their stadium, pumping the music loud in the car, a fan spotted him. The man was draped in sky blue, and he had his arm around his son. He nudged his boy and they caught Lake, and the man looked at Lake in the car with a “haunted expression” on his face. Lake could make out the words he was trying to say to him over the music.

“Please. Please. Please.

Lake was born in Manchester, developed by City, and he spent his whole career with the club. So he not only played in the derby, he felt and understood it the way some of his teammates couldn’t. It could have been a youth team match or a friendly: it meant all the same to City.


One of those teammates wore a red tie on this particular match day, and Lake give him a good verbal lashing. Never the colour of United. He apologizes now in his book I’m Not Really Here, but such was the frenzy of this game that the blood rushed.

For City fans, this was all about pride. They were mocked as a second-rate club.

And Sir Alex Ferguson made it clear that Liverpool were the bigger rival for United. City weren’t even good enough to be a legitimate threat.

Lake would go to pick up the newspaper and a Red would come up and remind him of the stuffing City would soon get. His mother, working behind the bar at a local club, heard the insults too.

“Paul, love,” she said, “I hope you’re going to win this derby. There are some loudmouths back there who need shutting up.”

The score was 5–1. City won. One of the biggest defeats in the fixture. Lake set up the second and fourth goals.

He limped off the field injured before time ran out. But even as he was lying there on the treatment table, the roar of the crowd at full-time lifted him. The club of the people — or so the supporters say — were playing for the them, and Lake could not forget the image of that father pleading for something, some kind of hope, to silence the criticism.

“I thought as if I owed him one,” wrote Lake. “We had to beat United.”

“Welcome to Manchester”

IT WOULD TAKE ANOTHER 13 years for City to win one. They were relegated in 1996, and that was the only way they could get a reprieve from the sting of defeat after defeat to United.

But these fans, the real ones — not so much as they are now, struggling to fill the Etihad on Champions League nights, complaining of the rise of the common ticket price — would follow their team all the way down to the lower reaches of English football. About 30,000 would watch them play in the third division. There was still pride in this club.

“Through the 1990s,” writes journalist David Conn in his book Richer than God, “City were cast as the lovable, authentic Manchester alternative to corporate, plc United”.

City fans claim to support the only true team from Manchester proper, with their roots in volunteer work. The club was formed by the daughter of a priest in the 1880s, and they began to play for common welfare, promoting the sport and the church.

Manchester has always been a town of steely people, and as the factories went and the industry changed, poverty took over. It became “the fourth most poverty stricken local authority area in England,” according to Conn’s findings.

Maybe Sheikh Mansour saw an investment opportunity in a club brought up with hardy values. City were rocked off their foundations once he bought them up. His Abu Dhabi family has poured at least £1 billion into the club and accompanying facilities. They are revitalizing east Manchester, starting with a new £200 million training complex that was built on land once occupied by one of the familiar factories.

The landscape is changing in Manchester, and so has the rivalry. Now it’s City mocking their United counterparts.

The derby gained relevance after the summer of 2009, when Carlos Tevez switched Old Trafford for the Etihad for £25 million. City went on a PR crusade. They plastered a huge billboard in the city square, the background a typical sky blue, with a picture of Tevez on the front, the man stolen from across town, as if new to the real city.

Ferguson scoffed at this silly team trying to make a name for themselves. He called City a “small club with a small mentality.”

“They think taking Carlos Tevez away from Manchester United is a triumph,” he said. “It is poor stuff.”

‘Our players make history,
your players make money’

AH, BUT THE MONEY was not so small. They would eventually spend £38 million on Sergio Aguero, and he would later score the winning goal that won City their first league title in 44 years.

As their fortune grew, so did the derby days. City have won six of the past nine editions, and they have outscored United 9–2 in the past three (including a 6–1 win at Old Trafford in 2011).

On Sunday they play again. United actually spent more than City this summer, more than £150 million invested in players (and possibly more if they buy Radamel Falcao outright).

But City currently own the largest wage bill in world sports. It is a far cry from the playing days of Lake. These are not salt-of-the-earth players. These are world-class athletes earning an average of £5.3 million a year.

Parts of Manchester are essentially owned by the royalty of Abu Dhabi, and the disparity between the poor in the surrounding areas and the rich playing on the campus nearby is staggering.

The saying among United supporters goes something like this: “Our players make history, your players make money.” City made a bit of history of their own recently, Aguero taking over as their all-time Premier League scoring leader with just 61 goals. And that is the point they’re making: there is so little history that any record is easy to break.

These fans are having a go at City, and maybe it is because they take them more seriously. Maybe it is because they are jealous. Or maybe because the roles are reversed.

Anthony Lopopolo is a freelance writer for KICKTV. He has previously done work for FourFourTwo, the National Post and A Football Report. He can reach him on Twitter @sportscaddy.