The city fan who lives at the back of me was confident, even arrogant, at the close of last season. This was only the start, he confidently predicted. They wouldn’t need to edge us out on goal difference this season, because the world had changed, had gone from a deep red to a flimsy light blue, and the future would be city using their newly found financial muscle to dominate United and everybody else. He even went back on his promise to display his city flag in a prominent position because he said he was leaving that until they’d won the treble, which he believed was inevitable within five years. I’ve not heard much from him lately.
Where city fans got it wrong, of course, was in their naive assumption that short-term cash was all you needed. It was exactly the same assumption that lay behind Blackburn’s now largely forgotten period of assumed dominance in the mid-nineties. The only difference is one of scale: city have a hell of a lot more financial clout than Blackburn did and they need to be taken seriously, but nowhere near as seriously as they take themselves.
Their problem – for their fans as well as the club itself – is that for so long they’ve bought into a ridiculous stereotype of Manchester United: the idea that all there is to us is a lot of money and an international support base which can easily be gained if you’ve got enough of what used to be the green stuff and a slick marketing operation. While condemning us for this, they’ve always secretly wanted it for themselves which is why, having been taken over by Sheikh Mansour and his billions, they’ve established the most extensive marketing operation in football and greedily accepted the buying of whatever soul their pitiful club possessed in a way that would make fans of other clubs uneasy, or at best leave them with very mixed feelings. Say what you like about Chelsea fans, I’ve never heard them chanting Abramovich’s name and they’ve certainly been vociferous in questioning some of his decisions. Meanwhile, city fans have accepted the sale of naming rights to their ground with barely a whimper of protest and have happily accepted the Mansour billions, unashamedly going against the ethos of any self-respecting football supporter by chanting the name of their absent benefactor at games, in the mistaken belief it will make them be what they’ve always really wanted to be: United.
That this season hasn’t gone to plan for them has made their frustrations very evident. You can hear it in the voices of those who phone into Radio Manchester like jilted lovers who assumed a single quick bang behind the bus depot was enough to kick-start a long-term relationship with success. It’s clear in the protests of Mancini who, unable to find an acceptable reason for why they’ve fallen so far behind United this season, can only point vaguelyto luck. It’s evident in the performances of so many of their players this season, particularly when the admirably ego-less Kompany hasn’t been there to provide sensible leadership to the band of mercenaries he shares a dressing room with. It was extremely apparent in the actions of those who threw coins at Rio Ferdinand and particularly in that youth who attempted a one-man pitch invasion when we beat them back at their place earlier in the season. This wasn’t in the script, they’re screaming, like overly pampered children who’ve opened their Christmas prezzies to discover a pile of wrapped up turds exactly the same as those they used to get ever year, only wrapped up in shinier paper.
They’d made the mistake of assuming that world domination and the establishment of city as a world-famous club would ensue via a flash of the cheque book because they believed that’s where United’s came from. They’re now having to learn an awkward lesson, should they choose to accept it, which they probably won’t. The lesson is that you can’t buy culture, history or genuine status; you can’t buy what United stand for or the support that has upheld it which has seen us through so many hard times off and off the pitch, which has remained loyal and even increased when we fell into the second division back in 1974. It’s not something any city fan can know or understand because it’s so far outside their experience, which has largely consisted of pressing their envious noses up to the window of what United had and assuming, with a huge dollop of sour grapes, that surely window dressing was all it was.
The fact is that, whether or not we’ve got a fifteen point lead at the top of the league, and however the game goes on Monday night, there is a gap between the two clubs that is unbridgeable and always will be; this may seem an unfathomable conundrum to city supporters, but they’ve got the rest of their lives to ponder it.