Welcome to Manchester - The centre of the 21st century football world

‘Welcome to Manchester’ read the billboard at the beginning of Deansgate. The face adorning it was that of Carlos Tevez, the man who, up until now, symbolised the modern day relationship between the city’s two biggest clubs better than anybody else. There has always been a healthy rivalry between Manchester City and Manchester United, but it was not until the summer of 2008, when Sheikh Mansour and Co. arrived in East Manchester, that things began to reach the seismic levels that they are now at. Following the arrival of Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and a whole host of superstars, this Saturday’s Manchester derby is arguably the most eagerly anticipated in years, with the outcome likely to be pored over and analysed for days. Manchester is very much the centre of world football right now, but how has it gotten to this stage and is this level of intensity here to stay?

Manchester is famous for being a city that is not afraid to lead the way. The city has a history of revolutionary spirit and protest; be it the Peterloo massacre; the birthplace of Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes movement, or as the city where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels formed many of their ideas which would ultimately go on to shape much of the 20th century.

Similarly, in the latter part of that century, the city’s music industry also lay claim to being the torchbearer for British music, with Manchester bands such as Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, New Order and Oasis making waves on both sides of the Atlantic, and the city’s Hacienda nightclub becoming synonymous with the rise of acid house and rave music.

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The city’s musical heyday is long gone, just like that of the Industrial Revolution which spawned there in the early 1800s and is the foundation upon which modern-day Manchester is built. The austere Victorian red brick architecture that can be found throughout the city is a stark reminder of what life was like for those that lived there at the time. In his classic, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, Engels expressed his dismay at the workers’ horrific living conditions, describing what he had witnessed as ‘hell upon earth’.

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It was at this time, in the conditions of filth and squalor that Engels chronicled, that the early incarnations of both Manchester City and Manchester United were formed. In 1880, Anna Connell, the daughter of the vicar at St. Mark’s Church in West Gorton, helped form a football club in order to provide refuge for disenchanted young men in the area. Unemployment was high, and gang violence and alcoholism were rife in East Manchester; football was seen as a way of offering the working class something more wholesome to do in order to escape the miseries of Victorian life. In just a handful of years, St. Mark’s evolved from a church club competing in local Manchester leagues, to become Ardwick FC, one of the founder members of the Football League’s Second Division, before eventually becoming known as Manchester City FC in 1894.

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Just a few miles north, in Newton Heath, the early seeds of what would become Manchester United were already being sewn. Newton Heath LYR Football Club were originally formed in 1878 as a railway company team but quickly rose, in their famous green and gold kit, to become one of the best sides in the area. On 12 November 1881, the first meeting between what we now know as City and United was recorded, with Newton Heath defeating St. Mark’s 3-0 in what the Ashton Reporter described as a “pleasant game”. The ‘LYR’ was eventually dropped from the club’s name and Newton Heath FC were admitted into the Football League’s First Division in 1892. They were relegated to the Second Division within just two seasons, and in 1902 changed their name to Manchester United.

United, playing at Bank Street in Clayton (minutes away from where the Etihad Stadium stands today), won promotion back to the top division in 1906, just as rumours were emerging of City players being paid illegal bonuses by their directors. The club’s board were banned from football for five years, and key players including Billy Meredith, nicknamed the ‘Welsh Wizard’, had to be sold. United caught wind of this and snapped up Meredith alongside three of his City teammates. The signings paid off, with United winning the First Division title in 1908, pipping City to become the first Manchester club to be crowned champions.

United moved into Old Trafford in 1910, and were clearly inspired by their new home, going on to lift the title for the second time the following season. However, the departure of manager Ernest Magnall to City signalled the end of this successful era, and it would be another 41 years before United were to be crowned English champions again.

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Manchester has always been a footballing hotbed, none more so than in the 1960s when both of its clubs were challenging at the top of the English game yet again.

United, under former City player Matt Busby, had been the team of the 1950s. The Scotsman rebuilt an ageing team by bringing together a mixture of local lads and the finest talents from across the British Isles, who would go on to be known as the ‘Busby Babes’. This group of players captured the hearts of the nation, winning two league titles, before it was all cruelly snatched away on 6th February 1958, when their plane exploded on the third attempt at take-off from Munich-Riem airport.

Gradually, Busby, who had survived the crash, rebuilt the club yet again, and in 1968, a United team including Bobby Charlton (another survivor), Denis Law and George Best went on to lift the European Cup for the first time in the club’s history. City had also been rebuilding under the managerial duo of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison, and with the signings of Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee and Colin Bell, they had their own equivalent to the Holy Trinity. They won the league title in 1967/68 but, in ‘Typical City’ fashion, their achievements were eclipsed by those of their rival.

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This era was the closest that the rivalry has ever got to that of today. The defining moment in Manchester derby history occurred when the sides met on the final day of the 1973/74 season in what is now known as ‘the Denis Law game’. With United requiring a win to remain in the First Division, and the game at 0-0 with 80 minutes on the clock, Franny Lee found Law, now at City, who back-heeled the ball past Alex Stepney to consign his former club to relegation.

United’s dominance in the 1990s and early 2000s meant that any meetings between the two were often a rather one-sided affair, with Liverpool becoming the club’s main rivals during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. However, Roy Keane’s blood-curdling tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland in 2001, which he later admitted was premeditated, saw increased hostilities between the two for a brief period. Two seasons later, under Kevin Keegan, City beat their neighbours for the first time in 13 years, in the last ever derby to be played at Maine Road, before in 2003/04, a 4-1 victory in the first game between the two at the City of Manchester Stadium put a large dent in United’s title hopes.

The 2008 takeover can be highlighted as the moment when things began to change. Ferguson famously described City as United’s “noisy neighbours”, which at the time seemed like both a humorous and fair comment. However, in the years that have passed, City have become stronger whilst United have been far from the imperious force that they are traditionally seen as.

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Upon the arrival of Mansour, City signed Brazilian forward Robinho for £32.5 million on transfer deadline day as they aimed to make a real statement of intent. Wayne Bridge, Craig Bellamy, Shay Given and Nigel De Jong were all signed in January, before £137.5 million worth of new talent arrived in the summer of 2009 as City attempted to build a squad capable of achieving the new owner’s ambitions. Of all of the signings made by then City boss Mark Hughes that summer, it was that of Tevez, who had previously spent two years on loan at United, that showed the real aspirations of the new Manchester City.

The Argentinian had joined United in 2007 from West Ham United, scoring 34 times during his two-year spell at Old Trafford. Alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, Tevez had proved lethal as United lifted the Champions League and Premier League in his first season with the club. His enthusiasm was infectious; something that made him even more popular with United supporters, who made clear their wish for the club to make his signing permanent. Ferguson stated his intentions to do so, but by the time he had approached Tevez’s unnamed third-party owner to sign the player for the £25.5 million asking price, it was too late. City had got there first with a bigger offer.

From this moment on, things would never be the same again. City improved significantly under Roberto Mancini, and, in dramatic fashion, lifted the Premier League for the first time in 2011/12. The rivalry was stoked up further, by the fact that the team they had beaten to the title on goal difference was none other than their rivals from the other side of town. Ferguson may well have laughed off the thought of City challenging United’s dominance but he could certainly hear the noisy neighbours loud and clear now.

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The Scot’s retirement in 2013 was followed by a slump as both David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal failed to get their teams challenging for the title. Another championship followed for City in 2013/14 under the guidance of Manuel Pellegrini, but the last two seasons have seen the club stagnate after a number of underwhelming signings (Kevin De Bruyne aside) failed to step up to the plate.

Both teams finished 15 points off eventual champions Leicester City last season and, subsequently, both clubs have opted for a change in direction this summer. To much fanfare, City announced the arrival of Guardiola back in February, and United responded in May by appointing the Catalan’s nemesis, Mourinho. The pair are the antithesis of each other in more ways than one and have history dating back to their times in charge of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Guardiola is widely seen as the pre-eminent coach of the 21st century and his arrival at the Etihad Stadium heralds a new era for City as they attempt to establish themselves amongst the European elite. Although the Premier League is the goal for this season, the Champions League is the ultimate aim for City, and the club’s owners believe that Guardiola is the man to help them realise these ambitions.

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Meanwhile, in contrast to Guardiola’s aesthetically pleasing and innovative approach to football, United have put their faith in Mourinho and his win-at-all-costs mentality. The Portuguese boss has won the Champions League with three different clubs, yet still arrives at Old Trafford with something to prove after his latest spell at Chelsea ended in ignominy. The bitterness between the two runs deep, and the fact that their rivalry is now set to be played out, not only in the Premier League, but in the same city makes it all the more fascinating.

Both have already set about making changes at their respective clubs, shedding the deadwood and making a series of impressive additions. Guardiola has stunned many by bringing in Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo as a replacement for long-standing number one Joe Hart, who himself has been shipped out on loan to Torino. Ilkay Gundogan, Nolito, John Stones and Leroy Sane have also made the move to Eastlands but it has been more a case of a gradual transition than Guardiola making wholesale changes.

Over on the other side of the city, Mourinho has already stamped his authority at United. The marquee signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (free transfer) and Paul Pogba (£89 million) show that he means business at Old Trafford, whilst new signings Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan also look like smart recruits. Mourinho is notoriously ruthless, something that is desperately required at a club where complacency appears to have set in at an alarming rate, however, the Portuguese’s treatment of Bastian Schweinsteiger has been questionable at best.

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The arrival of the new bosses, coupled with the impressive business that they have conducted, has left both sets of supporters dreaming of a title challenge this season, and the early signs are promising with both United and City winning all three of their opening games. The Red Devils look sharp and full of attacking intent, two traits that were in short supply under Van Gaal, however, Saturday will be the first major test for the new regime. Meanwhile, Guardiola’s City have been fascinating to watch, mainly due to the tactical complexity and knowledge that the new boss already seems to have instilled at the club.

Manchester will come to a standstill at midday on Saturday as supporters of both clubs pray that their side is able to continue their impeccable start to the season. At least one of those 100 per cent records will have gone come 2.30, and the fall out from the game will continue for days. Make no bones about it, this fixture is a completely different animal to what it was 135 years ago when Newton Heath met St. Mark’s in a match between a club for the workers of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and another set up for the downtrodden young men of East Manchester.

Of course, the sport has changed significantly since those early days, but so has Manchester as a city. The dark days of the Industrial Revolution are long gone and Manchester has become a hub of regeneration, with the Media City complex close to Old Trafford, and the Eastlands area of Manchester just two of the communities witnessing rapid transformations. The city’s football clubs also reflect this, and whilst their superstar managers and players commanding eight figure salaries with world record transfer fees are a world away from the everyday lives of real Mancunians, the fact that the race to be the best team in this great city looks set to be played out on a global stage for the foreseeable future is compelling to say the least.

Featured image: all rights reserved by Johnny Vulkan

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