City left behind by history

FOOTBALL: Ball finds solace in his side's performance as Scholes' early strike gives United their fifth consecutive derby victory
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The dilemma of a Mancunian parent. "I just do not know what to," said one father - a lapsed Blue. "I cannot get tickets for United, but if I take him to City he'll be cursed with supporting them for life."

In the event he went to Maine Road and saw City score four, a collector's item indeed, even if it was only against Wycombe Wanderers. But his lad is not convinced, because "all his mates at school support United".

The proudest boast of City fans - almost their only one these days - is that Mancunians follow City, while United fans are long-distance glory- hunters. Now it appears even that consolation is in danger.

And no wonder. United's 1-0 victory at Old Trafford on Saturday was their fifth derby win in succession. City have now conceded 13 goals since they last beat Peter Schmeichel and have defeated United only once in the last 21 matches. A generation has grown up since City last won at Old Trafford, 21 years ago, when Denis Law's back-heel relegated their hosts. Five of Saturday's team have been born since then, four locals and the Londoner, David Beckham.

Unfortunately it was one of those days when youth was inhibited rather than exuberant. Even though the lack of away support had diluted the derby atmosphere, United's cluster of local-born starlets were still infected by the inherent tension of these matches.

City first lost possession within five seconds and when they went behind, to Paul Scholes' fourth-minute header, a nearby voice muttered:, "Fetch the abacus". A good book would have been more useful, or a pillow. With United not performing to their usual high standards, and City having to produce one of their best recent performances simply to rise above the mediocre, the match was one of the poorest derbies in years.

Alex Ferguson had noted in the match programme that United often find it difficult to kill teams off but promised there would be "no letting anyone off the hook today". However, he had to return to the theme later. "The young players did not have the experience to know whether to penetrate or keep possession," he said. "There are a lot of local players who know the importance of these matches, who are just happy to win."

Such a result never seemed in doubt. There remained a significant gap between the sides, if not the gulf that had been anticipated. But the narrow scoreline did lead to growing unease in the all-Red stadium, and Niall Quinn could have levelled twice. He was presented with a clear chance by Gary Pallister's poor control after half an hour but shot wide. He finished just as ineptly 17 minutes later, when the hard-working Garry Flitcroft put him through. This time a weak tap to Peter Schmeichel was all the Irishman could muster.

That was it for City. Although Flitcroft's endeavour and Georgi Kinkladze's thoughtfulness earned plenty of possession, there was no cutting edge. At the back, until they chased the game late on, they were tighter than of late. But they still conceded a bad goal - Richard Edghill's ill-judged attempt to clear Ryan Giggs' corner left Scholes so alone the 5ft 7in striker was actually able to stoop to head in off Keith Curle's chest.

For a long time after that United failed to create any real chances and one began to wonder if the improvement in Andy Cole's all-round game had been at the expense of his goalscoring. He has scored once in eight games this season, a drought serious enough to warrant a double-page spread in Saturday evening's football pink.

As that spread is printed before the day's football, sod's law would usually dictate that Cole struck a hat-trick. It was certainly a risk to take with City the visitors but, when City left gaps and Cole finally began to find chances, he missed them all. Six good opportunities were wasted in the last half-hour, only one demanding a save from Eike Immel.

His poor first touch, and his propensity to run offside as United delay the forward ball, fuel the belief that Newcastle got the better of January's pounds 7m deal - especially as the make- weight, Keith Gillespie, has scored three goals in five games.

However, Cole does appear to be having an impact on the team, if not the scoresheet. In his eight matches United have scored 18 times; in the five he has missed they have managed just four goals.

That is still more than City have managed in the league all season and their plight is growing desperate. In the short-term they have lost eight league games in succession. Long-term it is 19 years since they won a trophy, 16 since they even qualified for Europe. That may be remedied next season, but only through the Anglo-Italian Cup.

Alan Ball, having admitted the result was fair, took comfort from his team's spirit. But it was small solace. "Even though they were poor we did not have enough to take anything from it," he admitted. One player was even more upset than him, Peter Beagrie, who expressed disgust in Ball's direction when substituted. Ball sold Beagrie when he was manager at Stoke.

Ball still retains a surprising degree of support among City fans, many of whom appear to accept their fate as the consequence of years of poor admin- istration. United, meanwhile, seem to attract fans with terribly short memories. When Scholes, who had suffered from bronchitis during the week, was withdrawn, the crowd booed the decision. One spectator then turned to the press box and said of Ferguson: "This bloke is the worst manager in the world, yet you blokes never write it".

This after two championships in three years following more than a quarter of a century without. What City would give for a manager who could achieve that.

Goal: Scholes (4) 1-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce, Pallister, P Neville; Beckham, Keane (McClair, 75), Butt, Giggs; Cole, Scholes (Sharpe, 62). Substitute not used: Parker.

Manchester City (4-4-2): Immel; Edghill, Curle, Symons, Phelan; Lomas, Flitcroft, Kinkladze, Beagrie (Summerbee, 58); Quinn (Creaney, 79), Rosler.

Referee: R Dilkes (Mossley).