WHEN Man City beat Man Utd 6-1 at Old Trafford last October, it was widely believed that this was not just such a devastating result on the day, but that it would be decisive in the broader conflict. Now it is believed by some that United's 1-0 defeat by Wigan will make all the difference.
I think there was only one person who pointed out that the City result would mean nothing in the end. That Man Utd would immediately resume doing what they do, which is the same thing that they've been doing for roughly 20 years, and which usually sees them eventually winning the Premier League.
Yes I was right about that, and I will be right today too, when they beat Villa. Because, if anything, my understanding of the situation has now deepened.
Hitherto, I had tended towards a dark assessment of United's achievement, the fact that their success in the Premier League was based almost entirely on their incessant beating of the bad teams, on the bullying personality of Sir Alex Ferguson which has intimidated this football culture of ours for generations, and which is ultimately exposed in the Champions League where United are not feared to the same extent either by their opponents or by referees -- indeed, they were found out again this year in the Champions League in circumstances which were so embarrassing, even the regular football writers were starting to ask the questions to which some of us had been supplying detailed answers for several years.
And yet... necessary though it was to look into that darkness, I now suggest that there is a dimension to United's dominance of the Premier League that is to be admired. Even, yes, to be celebrated.
It can best be described as a moral dimension. To put it simply, the United players are not necessarily better footballers than those of City -- and some of them are considerably worse -- but without doubt, they are better men. Or at least they have been made that way, by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Whether they are inspired by him or just terrified of him is not really the point anymore. The only thing that matters is that he has somehow found a way to make these men more virtuous than they would otherwise be, to work harder, to give more of themselves, to get it over the line somehow, in these moments of the fiercest intensity.
Which doesn't mean that they will win every match, that Wigan should just have faxed them the three points to save everyone a lot of trouble -- though a lesser manager than Wigan's would be quite happy to fax United the points, with a complimentary note.
And yes, United can only do it in the Premier League, but the fact that they can do it at all, in any league, is enough to separate them from all other men who would pretend to be their equals.
Yes, there is a form of morality at work here, and it may be unique not just in football but in the entire world of men -- perhaps even in the world of women.
For example, we often hear that stupid old question about whether Wayne Rooney should be getting paid millions more for "kicking a pig-skin around a field" than a nurse gets paid for saving people's lives.
It is a bad question, because Rooney is a genius, and because a genius by definition is incomparable, we tend to accept that such people are entitled to whatever they can get, regardless of current rates of pay in the HSE under the Croke Park Agreement.
It would be a much better question to ask whether Wayne Rooney should be getting paid more than a banker. Because the answer to this is abundantly clear, and loudly in the affirmative.
It also brings us to the essence of what Sir Alex has achieved here, which is somehow to establish a measurable level of performance for men who are getting paid what we call "silly money".
The banker seems to have no criteria at all, no reason that is rooted in truth or morality of any kind, to justify the silly money -- except to say that all the other bankers are getting it.
Ferguson alone has set a basic minimum standard for the multi-millionaires under his management, and it is simply this: they must always beat the teams in the Premier League that are inferior to them. Always. Every time.
They must not entertain even the vaguest notion of coming off that field without the full three points, because if they do they will be contemptible, and his wrath will be too terrible to contemplate.
'Whether they are inspired by him or just terrified of him is not really the point anymore'
This is what constitutes an honest day's work. And anything less is not just unacceptable on a professional level, they will go to hell for it. Last Wednesday, hell was in Wigan.
An honest day's work -- it is a moral code which, for all its ancient power and simplicity, is an increasingly elusive concept in this world. And in the world of silly money it is almost entirely unknown. Except to one man, and to his team, who have established that for a hundred grand a week, there is actually such a thing as an honest day's work.
When it is done, then and only then, will they sleep in their mansions. And it will be the sleep of the just.