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(Not) just another Manchester derby

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(Not) just another Manchester derby

by Paul Mahoney 

Racism allegations, coins thrown at players, blood spilled, a pitch invader intent on assault, death stares, goading, sulking, swearing and a winning goal in added time. Just another dull grey afternoon in Manchester in the English Premier League 15 shopping days before Christmas. All this and Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall, too. And Rooney – Wayne, not Mickey.

It was Sky Blue versus Red. City versus United. The prefix of Manchester superfluous. The A-list celebrities were mobilized for this clash of the Premiership’s top two teams. Cruise (50 years old but looking 40 and with hair that women of a certain age would kill for) was wearing sunglasses. He clearly has never been to Manchester in December before (or in any other month, for that matter).

Duvall looked like a hotdog seller in his scruffy baseball cap and brown leather jacket. Interviewed on Sky Sports before the game, the 81-year-old claimed to be a lifetime football fan and proved it by saying ‘football’ not ‘soccer’. He’d probably been reciting that mantra all morning like Nicolas Cage repeating “Yellow then red” in his Elvis jumpsuit about to leap out of the ’plane in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’.

Arriving in Manchester, Duvall said: “This is the first game I’ve seen in England. I’ve been following it since the Eighties.” He looked so old, he may have been referring to the 1880s when this Manchester  fixture began. “I was in London when Pele was 16-years-old traveling though. So that dates me,” Duvall said. “I’ve seen all the World Cups since. The greatest character I ever met in my life, and I’ve met a lot in Hollywood, was Wee Jimmy Johnstone,” he said.

Johnstone was a legendary winger for Celtic and Scotland in the 1960s and ’70s, who cashed in with a stint at San Jose Earthquakes in the twilight of his career. “I named a dog after him,” Duvall said wandering off topic like a daft and lovable grandfather. “Great character. He died too young.” The dog or Wee Jimmy?

Cruise’s grin could stun stampeding buffalo. He was name-dropping – best buddies, that he is, with United, Real Madrid and LA Galaxy icon David Beckham. “I just had an email from him. He’s jealous that I’m here.”

The Hollywood stars were there to plug their latest movie (there’s always an angle). It’s called Jack Reacher and has guns and explosions and car chases in it - and that cinematic tautology, a Russian villain. Which is just about all that this dust-up between City and United didn’t have. On second thoughts, there was a car chase. City’s Mario Balotelli was surrounded and taunted by United fans as he tried to drive away from City’s Etihad Stadium in his Bentley with its camouflage livery – you know, so no one can see it.

Not so Super Mario had been invisible on the pitch for 51 minutes until his manager Roberto Mancini had seen enough of his hopeless effort and hauled him off, sending on Carlos Tevez. Balotelli is more flawed than genius these days. More Days of Blunder than Thunder, with apologies to Cruise. Balotelli, whose agent says he is as valuable as the Mona Lisa (insert laughter here) left the pitch like a scolded schoolboy and stomped off in huff past Mancini pausing only to mutter something no doubt charming at his manager while firing off a stare than could strip paint.

From 2-0 down courtesy of two goals from Rooney, City fought back to 2-2 courtesy of Balotelli’s sulking exit and Tevez’s hyperactive introduction and desire to run himself ragged for the Sky Blue cause, as he once did for the Red half of the city. Then up stepped Robin Van Persie in the 92nd minute (a player pursued by both City and United in the summer after he left Arsenal) and it was RIP City’s two-year unbeaten home record and a six-point lead for United over their sibling rivals at the top of the Premier League.

Both have played 16 matches. United have 39 points to City’s 33. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson waved his arms in the air and danced a jig like an embarrassing dad at a wedding reception disco. Mancini scowled like the father who knew he had given his daughter away to a scoundrel.

Goodness knows what viewers around the world make of all this toxic tribal madness. But one thing is for sure, it is unmissable, enthralling, shocking and propelling entertainment. This manic Manchester match was so hyped it felt like the title decider. But they’ve not even reached half way. The return fixture is not until April and no one will ever never forget that City came from eight points behind last April to pip United to last season’s title with a goal by Sergio Aguero with the very last shot of the campaign in May – on 93 minutes and 20 seconds to be precise, as the message said scrawled on a bed sheet and unfurled in the main grandstand to taunt the United team and fans.

This was the 164th Manchester mash-up since 1881. The score is United 69, City 45 with 50 matches drawn. But this is a new-found vitriolic rivalry. City have only won the championship three times. Last year’s victory was the first in 44 years. They have traditionally accepted their inferiority complex with the ho-hum defeatist attitude of a little brother who knows he can’t stand up to his bigger, smarter, richer and more successful sibling. Until now. City have swagger. The little brother has come into money and fancies revenge for decades of humiliation and bullying. The first sign that this rivalry had taken on a new menace was when a gang in balaclavas turned up outside Rooney’s house two years ago to warn him not to sign for City. But United’s true rivals in the past half a century have been Liverpool. United lead that championship battle 19-18.

Turns out the pitch invader is 21-year-old Matthew Stott, a landscape gardener from Knutsford (that figures) near Manchester who attended the match with his father. “I’ll be back in a minute dad. Just gonna punch Rio.” “OK son, don’t forget your woolly hat with the bobble and pigtails.” Stott, the clot, has apologized via a solicitor – for running on the pitch but not, as yet, for the hat.

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