Saturday 21 April 2018

Derby glory trivial to owners with a world to conquer

Watching Manchester City's players celebrate on Monday night, as they cavorted with has-been pop stars and superannuated Argentinian hand artists, it felt like they were marking something a bit more than a derby victory. A bit more indeed than simply putting themselves in pole position for the title. What they appeared to be marking was something more substantial: the beginning of a new era. Not to mention the end of an old one.

Even if City counter all logic and slip up at the last to hand the honours to their now slightly less voluble neighbours, the trajectories for the immediate future appear to be set in place.

City, with the deepest pockets in the game, with the wherewithal to buy in whoever they fancy, will only grow stronger after this. While United, their team a thin parody of the 2008 European champions, face major reconstruction work whatever the outcome of the championship race. The power shift was tangible all round the Etihad.

Of course, the baton has changed hands in the race for Mancunian football supremacy before. Before the first world war, United's management cynically exploited City's punishment for financial irregularity to snap up their best players, who subsequently won the Reds the title for the first time.

It was at another derby in 1974 that City helped to dispatch United into their only post-war spell out of the top division. In 1999, as City lifted themselves out of the gloom of third tier football, United were romping to the treble.

But the imminent exchange of dominance feels different not just because it is the first time many of those dancing in delirium in the Etihad stands will have seen City in the ascendant. Nor is it simply because it promises to be more substantial, more long-term, more financially secure. It seems new because of the motivations of those steering the Sky Blue cause.

For many City fans, a first league championship in 44 years will taste all the sweeter if they could pip United to it. That's what really matters to them, beating United.

I was brought up steeped in the rivalry between the two clubs, and from the moment United stole City's thunder by winning the European Cup the week after City had won the league in 1968, my blue friends convinced themselves they were yoked to a vast conspiracy emanating from Old Trafford designed to do their club down.

Labouring in a lengthy shadow of success cast over two decades has tested the patience of even the most saintly. For many of my mates, United have played a disproportionate part in their thoughts. It became a mark of identity, how down-trodden they were by the hateful Salford supremacists. Even the best-selling memoir of a City fan, written with characteristic gallows humour by Colin Shindler, had the other lot's name in its title: 'Manchester United Ruined My Life'.

In that, City's more masochistic fans are no different from the followers of many a club. The problem was, however, that too often in the past such thinking infiltrated and infected the boardroom. For owners like Peter Swales and Francis Lee, getting one over on United was the sum of their ambition. There were many in the club who deemed a season like 2008 a successful one entirely because they did the double over United. Never mind that United themselves were European champions.

But now, it is different. The new owners do not share any such sense of inferiority. They have no history of coming second best. They were not there when Alan Ball instructed his players to waste time playing for a draw, unaware his team needed to win to avoid relegation.

And for the members of the Abu Dhabi royal family, beating United is not the summit of their purpose. Watching the pitchside hoardings spin through their repertoire on Monday you got an idea of what their motivation lies.

Homeland

There were adverts for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, for holidays in the gulf, for the many destinations of Etihad, the family airline. What Sheik Mansour and his relatives want is for their football club to put their homeland on the map. And to do that, it will need to win a lot more than derbies. The owners need it to rule the footballing world.

For them, beating United is fine in that it brought them three points closer to the championship, the first staging-post on their journey to footballing domination. But they have no personal score to settle.

Likewise, manager Roberto Mancini would have been as happy were it Chelsea or Arsenal who were vanquished. He has no personal animus against the colour red driving him on. The owners even removed the long-held ban on tomato ketchup in the refreshment concessions. No need for that when your eyes are on bigger prizes.

And in a sense that makes the way ahead much clearer. For the fans, six points and nirvana awaits.

For the hierarchy, however, even a slip-up at this stage will not alter the plan. Quality reinforcements will be bought in whatever the outcome of the title race. Their intent is clear: it is to become the best. If in pursuit of that they leave United behind then so be it. Not because they are United, but because what these City owners want is to leave everyone behind. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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