HERE’S a sign as to how far Manchester City’s standards and expectations have risen: When they beat United 5-1 at Maine Road in September 1989, Manchester Evening News correspondent Peter Gardner gave every City player 10 out of 10.
Twenty-two years and one even bigger victory later, current incumbent Stuart Brennan reserved his one perfect 10 for David Silva.
Joe Hart only got a seven. Then again, Darren Fletcher’s goal wasn’t as good as the volleyed scissors kick that Mark Hughes put past Paul Cooper.
Noel Gallagher was once asked for his recollections about the 5-1. He admitted to being a little hazy, saying that he went clubbing for what seemed like (and maybe was) three days to celebrate. “We asked ourselves: did that f****** happen? And it did,” he remembered.
There was a similarly surreal quality to today’s derby, even in a season that saw United thrash Arsenal 8-2 and City wallop Tottenham 5-1 on the same day in late August.
“If we leave Old Trafford with a draw, that is good for us,” City manager Roberto Mancini had said before the game. A radio station asked me on the Friday night if there was a danger that Mancini would be ultra-defensive against United, as he had been for the goalless draw at Eastlands last November. Although I figured City had too much attacking talent to play for a 0-0 draw again today, I could understand the question.
Mancini acquired a reputation during his first 18 months in England, not unwarranted, for putting an emphasis on defence. Last season, they let in only 33 league goals, the fewest they have ever conceded in a top-flight campaign. This season, though, they have been obliged to attack from the start.
City were always going to be more of attacking threat this season, with David Silva fully settled in English football, Edin Dzeko starting to find his way and Sergio Aguero acquired from Atletico Madrid. Mancini, for his part, told his players that they needed to score around 75 league goals – 15 more than last season – if they wanted to mount a serious league title challenge.
What no one banked on was Mario Balotelli’s increasing influence. To paraphrase the comment Tony Blair once made about John Prescott, Mario will always be Mario. But when he’s not holding impromptu indoor firework displays, Balotelli looks as if he might actually be worth all the fuss.
When Mancini left Balotelli on the bench for a few games earlier this season, there was no Carlos Tevez-style hoo-hah. Instead, Balotelli worked hard and waited for his chance. It came in a Carling Cup tie against Birmingham last month. Mario scored – and has scored in every City game he has played since. Today’s two goals took his total to six in five games.
When David Oldfield scored two for City on that sunny afternoon at Maine Road in 1989, he didn’t feel the need to celebrate by lifting his shirt to reveal a vest bearing the possibly rhetorical question “Why always me?”
But then Oldfield was a very different character, and those were different times. To prove the point: When Oldfield joined City from Luton in the summer of 1989, he signed his contract live on Granada TV’s Friday night preview show Kick Off. The thought of any City player signing a contract live on local TV now seems absurd. Mind you, perhaps we shouldn’t put anything beyond Balotelli.
The one link between September 23, 1989 and October 23, 2011 was sitting on the Manchester United bench. Sir Alex Ferguson described today’s defeat as “the worst result in my history, ever”.
It was just about his heaviest defeat (I can find a couple of 5-0 tonkings during his time as St Mirren manager, including one against his previous club East Stirling in April 1975, but nothing worse). But perhaps that infamous 2-1 loss at home to Crystal Palace in December 1989 was a lower point. That was the match which saw a banner unfurled at the Stretford End declaring: “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta-ra Fergie.”
Ferguson, at 69, is in a far stronger position now than he was that day. The problem for him is this: so are City.