Manchester United won 3-2 at Manchester City last season with a last minute Robin van Persie goal
Guest Author: Darren Richman
As we prepare for the visit of City this evening, I thought it was an apt moment to reflect on United’s last win against their cross-town rivals. I had not originally intended to write a piece about my trip to Eastlands that December but, given the way the day unfolded, it would have been remiss if I did not. In the week that saw the launch of a book in which I wrote a chapter about the best day of my life (26/5/99 of course, buy it at http://www.deepestredbook.com/), that trip to the Etihad was almost certainly the greatest away day I have experienced. Setting aside Moscow (since it wasn’t, strictly speaking, an away day) and the Cantona kung-fu kick (since it wasn’t, strictly speaking, great – we drew 1-1), there are only two other genuine contenders. Beckham from the halfway line at Wimbledon and the Spurs 5-3 were both obviously great moments but context is all and City are City. This was the zenith.
To give an idea of my own personal context, I apply for every single away game and normally have success in the ballot about 1.5 times a season (that’s an average, I don’t get booted out after the first half of any games). When the email came through confirming my application had actually been successful, I enjoyed it for roughly 3 seconds before the reality of the situation set in. We went there the April before and didn’t manage a shot in anger. Our defence, at the time, was a shambles. The midfield crisis loomed large. City hadn’t lost a home league game in 37. Journalists and bloggers across the board concurred. A friend at The Guardian informed me ‘We could take a grisly hiding’ while an email the day before the game from a mate simply stated ‘Tomorrow could be horrible.’ I could not recall United as unfancied in a league game for many a year.
That Saturday night, to quote John Swartzwelder, ‘I slept like a baby – waking up every three hours screaming and crapping my pants.’ I counted sheep while I was awake and City goals while I slept. The only ray of light came from the most pessimistic United fan I know. He insisted that since we always blew those kinds of opportunities to open up a decent lead at the top and all logic dictated that we would lose the game, he had no doubt we would triumph. Paraphrasing George Costanza, he insisted that if every instinct he had was wrong then the opposite must be right. As I passed people outside my flat on their way to church, I felt a kinship. We were all on our way to something we suspected wouldn’t be much fun but felt was the right thing to do.
My walk from the station to the ground was utterly surreal. Erring on the side of caution, I reached Piccadilly an hour before kick-off. It was a picturesque scene as I strolled along the canal listening to an old edition of Desert Island Discs. As Kenny Everett, facing his own mortality, picked Puccini as his final choice, the ground came into view. Italian opera is not an ordinary prelude to watching a game of football so I put away my iPod and prepared to enter the ground. Duly frisked and searched, the stewards could find little more objectionable than a Philip Roth novel on my person. Finally, I was in.
The atmosphere inside the ground was reminiscent of my very earliest trips to watch football in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The ground is soulless in the way most new builds tend to be with fans so far from the pitch but it was raucous behind our goal. A fair few United fans had brought their passports with them to wave at the City contingent and remind them of the fact that, as a result of their Champions League group stage exit, they wouldn’t need them again that season.
In terms of team selection, Ferguson got it spot on. Like my opting to walk from the station and wear a second layer of socks, the man in charge got the big decisions right. It turns out one of the greatest managers ever to have drawn breath actually did know more than some people on twitter. He knew his best XI and picked it. Rather than setting up a team not to lose as he did the previous April, Sir Alex sent out a team with the intention of winning. Fortune favours the brave and he was rewarded handsomely with Rooney and Young, in particular, playing as well as they had in years. It was the Manchester United of old, ruthless on the counter-attack. Good management is all about getting it right more often than you get it wrong and we can safely say he managed that during his time in charge.
The United fans were in good voice throughout. At one point Yaya Toure threw himself to ground slightly too easily and was serenaded with a rendition of ‘Are you Suarez in disguise?’ at which point it dawned on me that the Uruguayan would probably be one of the few players who saw little wrong with blacking up.
After the game, Roberto Mancini said United got lucky since they had three shots on target and scored three goals but, in reality, it should have been four for four. Despite being stood behind the goal, I didn’t need a text message to tell me Young was onside. When City scored a minute later despite De Gea’s best efforts, I could only see it ending one way. ‘We’ll lose this now’ I cheerily informed my neighbours. When it went to 2-2, I wasn’t even upset, simply resigned to the worst. I started repeating ‘A draw’s still a good result’ in my head like a mantra. And out loud I think because I’m sure the bloke next to me said, ‘You’d have taken it beforehand.’
Then we got the free kick. Despite myself, I had a sixth sense it would go in. It seemed to happen in slow motion. There was only the tiniest gap between Hart’s hand and the post. The ball span towards us and into the goal. The rest is noise.
Strangers embracing, fans jumping over seats, the players at one with the supporters (something all too rare in recent years). Not one United player did anything beyond celebrate a last minute derby winner with their own fans. The notion that Rio was in any way inciting the home contingent was patently preposterous. Yet he could still have been blinded by the coin to the eye. The goal brought release and relief and the players were enjoying it. If that’s no longer acceptable and people are in danger then we may as well pack the game in altogether. The players and supporters live for moments like that. To suggest Ferdinand was in any way responsible for an arsehole throwing a coin is as absurd as accusing Evra of instigating the Suarez incident simply by being black. Further still, Rooney pointed out the coins thrown when he went to take a corner at least half an hour earlier and was effectively told to get on with it. The press using phrases about the trouble like ‘marring United’s win’ and ‘overshadowing the game’ did little to disincentive the minority of morons at every club. If it truly did take away from the action then the idiots have won. I know City are used to throwing money at a problem but that shouldn’t extend to a human being.
I feared the worst when one such specimen made his way onto the pitch and attempted to confront Ferdinand. The defender still seemed to be shaken from the coin incident and I was concerned he was no longer in control of his emotions. Hats off to Joe Hart then, we’ve all mocked him in the past but he intervened and made sure the ‘fan’ didn’t reach Rio.
Given the behaviour of some of their supporters, the wrongly disallowed goal and City’s response to defeat in the FA Cup a season earlier, United could consider themselves moral victors, actual victors and every other sort of victor in between. What was even more pleasing was that that would have hurt them more than the 6-1 did us. To pull it back then blow it is the nadir as a football fan. Heavy defeats happen to every team at some point so they’re not quite the kick in the nuts of a last minute loss having pulled it back from the brink.
We were kept in the ground for what seemed like an eternity after the game but nobody seemed to mind. There was a Christmas spirit of good will in the air (along with the distinct smell of marijuana). The City staff, to their credit, were helpful and communicative. Robin van Persie’s name was sung on a loop.
To round off one of the most amazing days of my life though, one of the most awkward Larry David in Curb your Enthusiasm style incidents I have ever endured. On the tube back from Euston, I spotted a lady reading Lance Armstrong’s autobiography. Despite my euphoria, this seemed very odd to me. What a bizarre choice I thought. Never mind though. At Tufnell Park I went to get off and noted that she, too, was alighting the train.
We both walked towards the lifts and ended up waiting side by side for the next one. I was in a great mood. I figured it was worth asking. The following is, verbatim, the conversation that took place.
Me: Excuse me, sorry, I have to ask, how can you read that book given all the recent developments?
Her: (confused) What book?
Me: The book you were reading on the tube, the Lance Armstrong one.
Her: Oh, that. What recent developments?
Me (more confused than she was) Um, he’s a drugs cheat. Turns out he was cheating for years.
Her: Oh, I didn’t know that. My dad bought it for me as my boyfriend has been diagnosed with cancer.
Me: OK, bye then.
I abruptly exited and took the stairs. Had my day taught me nothing about late twists in the tale?