David Meek and Ian Cheeseman: Sparks fly as Mr City and Mr United go head to head

The Brian Viner Interview: As Manchester awaits the FA Cup semi-final, two veteran reporters who know the clubs inside out agree to disagree over the rivalry
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The Independent Online

The names David Meek and Ian Cheeseman might not ring too many bells outside the Greater Manchester area, but inside the M60, the bells clang and resound. They are the Mr Manchester United and Mr Manchester City of the local media, the former having been shifted from his job as leader-writer at the Manchester Evening News on the day after the Munich air disaster, and invited by the editor to cover the club's fortunes for the rest of that 1957-58 season for the poignant reason that the paper's United reporter, Tom Jackson, had perished in the crash.

Meek's temporary job lasted 37 years. He has also ghosted the programme notes for every United manager since Matt Busby, and, improbably spry at 81, continues to do so, making him one of the few bona fide authorities on the mindset and temperament of Sir Alex Ferguson. Indeed, their weekly note-making ritual alone is revealing. Meek is expected to turn up at United's Carrington training ground at 7.30 every Monday morning. "There are times when I think I've beaten him in," he says. "So I go and have a cup of tea in the canteen, but then he comes in and he's already been in the gym for 20 minutes."

Cheeseman, 51, has also had an insider's role at his beloved club; he was the stadium announcer at Maine Road. But his career has followed an entirely different trajectory. Where Meek was the journalist who fell into football, Cheeseman was the football fan who fell into journalism, a City obsessive who worked in a bank but joined local radio with the precise objective of making his passion his job. He has been BBC Radio Manchester's City reporter for 10 years, and reckons to have missed fewer than 20 City games, home and away, since 1977.

So, here the three of us are in BBC Manchester's lounge, discussing not just tomorrow's FA Cup semi-final between the two old adversaries, but their stature in the city, their respective wealth, their fans, their futures.

I start by asking Cheeseman whether his love for City means commensurate hatred for United. He is understandably uncomfortable with the word "hatred" so I put it another way; was he rooting for Bayern Munich to win the 1999 European Cup final? "Of course," he says. "But you know what? Without United, City maybe wouldn't have the support they've got. If this was a one-club town, fans might have drifted away a bit more. But it's almost an anti-United thing that holds City fans together. Watching United winning all those trophies while we were languishing in the lower reaches, it was like a badge of honour."

Rather as David Moyes once sought to distinguish Everton from Liverpool, so Cheeseman is emphatic that City is the true "people's club" of Manchester. "Without a doubt," he says. "On derby days I go outside the ground doing what we call voxes, and all the City fans I talk to are obsessed Mancunians. Then I go up to a group of United fans and they don't speak English. They walk into Old Trafford and they're all taking pictures, and you think 'is this Disneyland, or what?'"

Meek rolls his eyes. "This view that City is the Manchester club is a gimmick," he says, "something that City fans cling on to because there's not much else to cling on to. There are just as many United fans in Manchester as City fans. The difference is simply that the United fan base is global."

Nonetheless, is there such a thing, at least in Manchester, as a typical City fan, and a typical United fan?

"City fans have a clear identity," says Cheeseman. "They have a self-deprecating humour. At Anfield on Monday night [where City lost 3-0 with what Cheeseman says was by far their worst performance of the season] the City fans were laughing at themselves. You can't imagine United fans doing that. It's a different psyche. If we beat United in the semi, City fans will fully expect to lose to Stoke or Bolton in the final. That's typical City. Although, having said that, I'm noticing now that the younger generation, the fans in their late teens who've come in as the new wealth has come in, seem much more humourless about defeat. More like United fans, dare I say."

So what does Meek think is the typical United fan?

"Arrogant, one-eyed," interjects Cheeseman.

Meek smiles. "Ian says 'arrogant', and I think there is a sense of them being spoilt by success, of expectations exceeding normality. That chant from visiting fans at Old Trafford, 'Fergie's right, your fans are shite,' there's some truth to that. They go quiet. They're not passionate enough to see the team through lean spells. They lack patience. City fans have had patience hammered into them by disappointment."

They have also had chippiness instilled in them by years in United's shadow, hence the "Welcome to Manchester" poster in the city centre, when Carlos Tevez moved from Old Trafford to Eastlands. "Typical City, they couldn't resist a dig," says Meek.

"Yeah, it was mischievous," says Cheeseman. "But United try to take the moral high ground even though they officially condone a banner inside their own stadium counting the number of years since City last won a trophy. If some supporters brought it along every week, I'd have no issue with it, but it's officially sanctioned, it stays there permanently. Frankly, I find that disgusting."

"It's a bit provocative," says Meek. "But City have got to be big enough not to get upset by it. It's just banter."

Cheeseman is unconvinced. "If in 10 years' time United hadn't won a trophy for 10 years and City were top dogs, and City put up a banner like that, I'd say 'take it down, don't sink to that level'."

It's the biggest of ifs, a rosy vision of the future, suffused with light blue. But does he really think it will happen, City eclipsing United?

"I do. Whether under [Roberto] Mancini or the next manager or the next but one, City's time is coming, there's no doubt. The owners [Sheikh Mansour and his family] are a gift from heaven. They are benevolent, they don't interfere, they want everything done the right way, and they have bottomless pockets. Their plans for the area around the stadium will knock Old Trafford into a cocked hat. And once Fergie hangs up his hairdryer, with that massive millstone of debt, their empire will crumble. But when it does, I don't want City to become like United. I don't want everything to be about winning trophies. I hope they'll stay human, and humorous. United have sold their soul."

"You won't be able to stop it," says Meek. "The fans will lose that self-deprecation. They will become like United fans, never satisfied, always demanding. But it's a bit flip, saying that United have sold their soul. There's still a strong family tradition there. Ken Ramsden, who recently retired as secretary, started as a ticket seller. His mother worked in the laundry. The corporate hospitality areas might be a bit flash, but the essence of the club is still homespun. They were the first club to form a Former Players Association, in fact they helped City form theirs. And having the same manager for 25 years helps that family identity. Sir Alex is always saying that we must value history, because if we don't know where we've been, we won't know where we're going. Of course there's a soul at Manchester United."

I'd score that exchange one-all, which brings me to tomorrow's semi-final, a match both sets of fans are desperate to win, but surely the Blues rather more than the Reds.

"Our ambition this season was to finish in the top four," says Cheeseman, "and we're still on course for that. But the team selection at Anfield suggests the priority is to beat United in the Cup. Leaving out [David] Silva and [Nigel] de Jong for a league game against Liverpool, that was a statement of intent. It's do or die on Saturday. All that optimism will be knocked back if we lose. There will still be a longer-term optimism, we're still coming to get you, but it will set it back a season."

Meek is unmoved. "United to win 2-0," he says. "The fact that the treble is still a possibility makes it a must-win game."

"I don't do predictions," says Cheeseman. "But I know United will dig deep, I know it will be dramatic, volatile, and almost certainly decided by one goal, hopefully not a controversial one, though I know United will wind up the referee."

A small snort of derision from Meek. "United have the best disciplinary record in the division. Where are City in that table?"

"They have a good disciplinary record because they intimidate referees," counters Cheeseman.

"Not true," says Meek. "The manager has been banned from the touchline. He doesn't intimidate, he gets punished."

Cheeseman raises an eyebrow. "Well, I felt sorry for Lee Mason. He was lambasted for [recommending] that Rooney ban, and that was clear manipulation of the officials, because it puts the next referee on edge."

Maybe, maybe not. But let me now play Red Devils' advocate. Didn't Ferguson at least achieve his early successes with a core of home-grown players, whereas City are simply buying their way to silverware?

"Yes, but as patient as City fans might be," responds Cheeseman, "we don't want to wait 10 years, and in this day and age there's no way of doing it without buying in top talent. And bringing through local boys is not a Fergie exclusive. Yes, Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and Neville came through at about the same time, but to a lesser extent we did it with David White, Paul Lake, Steve Redmond and Ian Brightwell. That was the core of the team that beat United 5-1 [in September 1989]."

Meek prefers to delve further into history for his derby memories. "The dynamic between the two clubs is like the tide, it comes and goes," he says. "In the last season or so the dynamic has got an edge to it again. It had become a bit depressing, because City had struggled to the point where a lot of their supporters had ceased to be angry with the team, and had retreated into joking about them.

"But for me the late 1960s was the most exciting era for derbies. City had Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer in charge, and I'll never forget Malcolm, before a derby at Old Trafford, walking his players round the pitch beforehand, so they could get used to the abuse. The two teams were level-pegging. United had three European players of the year in Best, Law and Charlton. But City probably had more England players than United, in Lee, Bell and Summerbee, and Mike Doyle, bless him, who had that abrasive edge. He felt about City a bit like you do, Ian. Extreme."

Cheeseman laughs. "That local dimension is what makes the 5-1 derby the most special, not because it was 5-1, but because the core of the team were Mancunians. As highly professional as they are, this group of players tomorrow, to them it isn't a Manchester derby, it's the semi-final of the FA Cup, against someone who could stop them winning a trophy." A pause. "But it's a derby for the fans," he says. And how.