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John Ludden

Tainted Love, The Manchester Derby by John Ludden

Have you ever been to party that’s rocking splendidly? The vibe is wonderful, everyone is having a great time. The Music is cool, infectious, the booze on tap, fine wine, sausage rolls not canapés. Barncakes not baguettes. (Don’t mention muffins). Mancunian shiny happy people holding hands. And then, they walk through the door.

Swaggering, loud, rude, utterly legless, someone gets headbutted, girls cry, glasses smash and they immediately start a food fight. What was a fiesta becomes a fiasco, the police are called but the night has been soiled. Tears all around.

Ladies and gents, I give you the Manchester derby.

Make no mistake, behind the scenes on Saturday at the Etihad all had been arranged to celebrate winning the title. The stage was set. The player’s children dressed in City kits for the lap of honour, Pep Guardiola to address the adoring masses. A blue moon fully risen, only the small matter of beating their nearest and deadliest remained before the shark hats could be adorned and the inflatable bananas waved in triumph.

Welcome to Beswick. Arriving here on enemy territory, only a stone’s throw from their own birthplace in Newton Heath, up the road, came Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. A season chasing City’s shadow as they disappeared over the hills and faraway has definitely irked Mourinho beyond all ends. So far clear of his United team, Guardiola’s City could only be viewed by binoculars in terms of points difference.

It has been nothing short of a stroll along the Irwell.

From the off the champions-elect have played beautiful football on the eye. For Pep there can be no other way and he would insist his team played in this manner even in the midst of an earthquake. Teams have been pulverised, spirits shattered. The media have fallen in love with this footballing symphony. A thing of beauty as the blue shirts pass, move, interchange, never still, all in perfect sync. Wins piled high, plaudits higher, whilst across town, although in second place United were never more than functional.

Better than the other also-rans, but like a Lada chugging along way behind a Porsche on the M62.

Mourinho has always appeared to be constantly fire-fighting, a face with the worries of the world on show. Living the life of a Mancunian gypsy, albeit, the Lowry as caravans go isn’t half-bad. Wherever he laid his scowl that was his home.

Then, with United supporters becoming increasingly frustrated with a style of play seemingly prehistoric to their cross-city rivals, the Spaniards of Sevilla arrived at Old Trafford to sensationally knock the reds out of the European cup. Suddenly, from a mood mostly of resigned pessimism came anger. Mourinho’s pragmatism could be stomached if results were forthcoming, but to perform as United did against Sevilla in this manner and lose? Not just lose but what was a truly shambolic performance.

Well, the twitter hit the fan.

Boos and catcalls came roaring from the terraces and online social media turned into a red meltdown.

Across the city, the blue hordes fell about laughing. How times change, their once great red shirted nemesis who never laid down, who won games they had no right too. Who haunted and tormented for two decades and more, it appeared their fires, had if not been extinguished, they were definitely waning. A flame had become just a spark. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement had brought for them not just comfort and joy but with Old Trafford resembling Rome burning, Manchester, in terms of football success was beginning to turn a worrying shade of blue.

This season’s glory not just on the home front, but Europe also, beckoned.

City, once of Maine Road and endless jokes. The Francis Lee stand, looking grand but sadly facing the pitch. Now, this same club stood ready to march on and win a first European cup.

Then came ‘coach-gate’, a whole bevvy of Scouse bottle throwers and Jurgen Klopp’s rapier-like machine gun football combining to disrupt and destroy Guardiola’s artisans 3-0, in the quarter final first leg. Liverpool erupted on a City side to leave them reeling, outgunned, outclassed and seemingly already out of the competition. Questions once more asked about Pep’s tactical ability to cope when teams refused to cower and instead go right for their throats.

No plan b, just a footballing bunch of wizards and magicians without a wand. As Anfield swayed, scarves raised and Celtic’s finest YNWA roared out loud, City and their fans returned to Manchester nursing their wounds, egos and a coach that resembled a tour bus in Syria.

With a Manchester derby almost upon him and little time for self-pity, Guardiola was left to ponder whether to make wholesale changes for the United game and keep his powder dry for the second leg against Liverpool? Or, play his strongest team on this day of blue days when City could win the title against United to ignite a party destined to go down in Mancunian football history as possibly the ultimate changing of the guard.

A shift of power complete.

Sometimes, common sense and facts mean nothing, it’s what’s in the heart. Fans of both sides knew exactly what was at stake. A City win to take the title was deemed a heaven-sent opportunity to rub the ‘rag’s’ noses in the dirt for a generation and more. Whilst on the red side, if United could spoil the party, then footballing Armageddon could be averted. A battle and season undoubtedly with the title already over lost, but the war could continue. It mattered that much, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

On the eve of the match, whether simply mind games or Pep was actually telling the truth, he revealed that back in the January transfer window, City were offered both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and sensationally Paul Pogba by their agent Mino Raiola. Mourinho refused to bite when questioned. Content to say one of them was lying, possibly laying a grenade for the summer wheeling and dealings. Matters hardly helped when the extravagantly talented Pogba, hardly one for keeping a low profile turned up at the Etihad with a blue and white haircut. This a leftover from him being with the nation team France, but immediately latched upon by both fans and media as some kind of sign he was sending out a message. Or, simply plain attention seeking, when in reality it was neither.

Modern football eh?

As for Guardiola’s much talked of team selection, he actually did make changes, but those whom came in did him proud as for the opening forty-five minutes they tore a hapless United apart. 2-0 should have been five as goals from Vincent Kompany and Ilkay Gundogan had the Etihad enraptured. The first, Kompany’s fine header from a corner as history repeated itself when the Belgian outjumped and outfoxed Chris Smalling. An all-but title decider back in 2012 on the same pitch when Smalling lost his man. Six years on the same culprit proving he remained fallible. In fact, Smalling with Eric Baily alongside him both performed that first half like they had just returned from a food tasting competition in Salisbury. As City pinged the ball around a second arrived courtesy of Gundogan, a sweet drag back and fine low finish past a despairing David De Gea. Whom at times in that opening period must have felt he would have been better off having ten wheelie bins in front of him. It really was that bad. Paul Pogba being amongst the worse. A red shirt even with his blue tints resembling an insipid fumbling passenger in the midfield area. A further remarkable bout of misses from Raheem Sterling that should have speared United beyond all hope left Guardiola on the touchline clutching his head in sheer frustration. Two was good but it should have been more, many more.

The visitors, come the half-time whistle should have been red, dead and truly buried. The Etihad, United fans apart was up and dancing. The party ready to roll. Over the tannoy came the Inspiral Carpet’s ‘This is how it feels’ for so long a tune used by red supporters to mock City. Irony, a cruel Mancunian trait not being lost on all present. Adored by the vast majority, whilst amongst the visitors, such had been the disgust at their team’s showing some considered leaving at half time. A few actually did. A few in hindsight whom will regret it forever more.

The vain hope for United to at least put up a fight and battle for the shirt seemingly asking too much for these pampered, overpaid, over-rated superstars, whom in the words of so many of red persuasion during that fifteen-minute break. ‘Just could not give a f—k.’

In the United changing room as the noise, songs, cheering and mocking from the home fans reverberated loud, Mourinho implored his player not to be just mere clowns at the forthcoming party. New coach Michael Carrick also said his piece as did senior players Ashley Young and Ander Herrera. At least go down fighting. Play for the shirt and fans. Elsewhere, preparations to paint Beswick blue was well underway.

Sometimes, even a tiger that appears tame and broken is still a tiger, and if you pull the tail will turn around and bite you, for that’s it’s nature.

There’s a couple of lines from a song well known to Blue fans with a lyric of:

‘‘Backbeat, the word was on the street. That the fire in your heart is out’’

Come the second half it would sound bitter sweet.

To say Manchester United came out a team reborn is a huge understatement, for the only thing they resembled from the first half was their kit. Pogba and Alexis Sanchez especially began to link well and the visitors at last came alive. In a remarkable fifteen-minute spell United scored three times to send their supporters cavorting in delight and the unwelcoming hosts careering into despair. Two from Pogba, a finely worked goal that ended with the Frenchman finishing well and then a header to ignite remarkable scenes in the away end. However, when the much-maligned Chris Smalling finished with wonderful aplomb to grab a third, events in the Etihad had truly been turned on their head. City did not know what hit them.

Guardiola acted fast and on came the big hitters. Sergio Aguero’s header looked to have levelled proceedings, only for David De Gea to produce a save tipping over the bar that bordered on miraculous. These types of moments almost the norm now for De Gea, who if he carries on in the same vain is in serious danger of toppling Peter Schmeichel as Manchester United’s greatest ever goalkeeper.

Come the final whistle, for those of blue persuasion it really did feel like a mugging. The uninvited guests had shown and ruined it for everybody. Tears flowing amongst the Etihad faithful, clearly born of frustration. The desire as stated early to rub the rag’s’ nose in the dirt all prevailing. Guardiola’s decision to prioritise the forthcoming Liverpool game cannot be argued in any rational manner, but when has football in this city ever been rational?

Red and blue rivalry is deep, bitter, twisted, warped even and more. For United to ruin the day meant everything to their supporters. That the title was undoubtedly City’s mattered little. ‘Love thy neighbour’ it claims in the bible, well in Manchester such thoughts when it comes to football doesn’t exit. Bask in the misery of a miserable blue moon, not very neighbourly, but it’s a tainted love.

As derbies go it’s one that will be talked about for years. City will soon be champions and deservedly so but they never won it against United. Both Mancmade but hardly footballing brothers in arms.

 

John Ludden

All Rights Reserved.

John Ludden: Dad: writer: books, screenplays, stageplays. My ‘Once Upon a Time in Naples’ is the basis for the upcoming ‘El Diego’ Maradona film. All work enquiries @Johnludds

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