Through the Eighties it acted like a sky-blue flag to a bull for United followers. As the figure grew from the teens to the early 20s, the T-shirts were an irritant to Old Trafford, the banners an up-front, up-raised reminder of failure. Until the numberbecame 26 and the title was won.
Now the joke has rebounded. Among the ware being peddled on Sir Matt Busby Way there is the "National Mockery" (in memory of United's recent derby victory) but also a design reflecting it is 19 years since their neighbours last won anything. For a club with City's lofty aspirations it is a huge embarrassment that no silverware has passed through the in-door at Maine Road since the League Cup was won in 1976.
Which puts the next three weeks in perspective. If City flop over the festive period the era of failure will have stretched for another year. The printers can get their artwork ready to add insult to injured pride and the ambition nourished in and aroundMoss Side since August will be reluctantly tidied away again.
Starting on Wednesday, when they play Newcastle United in a Coca-Cola Cup fourth-round replay, City will have six fixtures in 19 days that will set the agenda for the season. Among them are matches against three of the five clubs ahead of them in the Premiership - Blackburn, Newcastle and Liverpool - and a less than comfortable FA Cup trip to Notts County. Win the lot and Wembley and a Uefa Cup place will beckon; lose them and four months fighting a familiar opponent, mediocrity, will loom.
"The next three weeks could make or break our season," Niall Quinn, their Republic of Ireland striker agreed. "I don't like to look at it like that but the games are so good and the teams of such a quality we will really have to roll our sleeves up. We lost to Arsenal on Monday in a match that could have acted as a springboard for us and we need a similar response now to when we were beaten in the derby. We reacted to that with three wins on the trot."
Quinn launched that last recovery scoring the only goal in a win at Leicester and it will be the 6ft 4in totem to whom the club will look now. Jack Charlton, the Ireland manager, describes him as the best header of the ball in the world, while at Premiership level he is the keystone in a strategy that revolves round two wingers and his ability to cause havoc in the air and on the ground. When he plays well, City invariably follow.
Quinn is a muscular figure who towers over opponents, but a giant so amiable you wonder how he has prospered in the less-than-savoury atmosphere that swirls around craggy centre-backs. "I'll see if he's free," a woman at Maine Road said, "but he does a lot of work for charity and at this time of the year he's very, very busy. I don't think Niall knows how to say no."
He has been saying yes for City from the moment he arrived from Arsenal as a raw, gangling centre-forward for £800,000 in March 1990. At least everyone assumed he was raw, having witnessed the uncomfortable, self-conscious figure he had cut at Highbury, but almost as soon as he took to the Maine Road pitch he was a revelation.
Gunners supporters had rubbed their hands at the cash brought in for a player who appeared able to trap the ball further than he could kick it, but City saw an accomplished forward who matched aggression with a subtle touch. "I take great pride in surprising people," he said. "That's all someone of my height can do."
Quinn accepts his career was going nowhere at Arsenal, where he was expected to fulfil the role of the big, lumbering centre-forward and no more. His job was to give the ball and then take to the far post, a personal strategy he found regimented and repressive. "I had a lot of good times at Arsenal," he said, "but most of them were off the pitch and you couldn't see my arse for dust once I got the chance to leave. I signed 20 minutes after coming to Maine Road, I knew it was an incredible chance for me."
What swung it for Quinn were the first words of the then manager, Howard Kendall. "He told me, `I haven't signed you for your aerial ability'. He'd watched me play in the reserves at Arsenal and in those matches I was able to express myself. I used to try things that I wouldn't dare do with George Graham watching in the first team.
"It's all about confidence and that was generated by other people. Howard started it, Peter Reid carried it on and to be fair to Brian Horton he hasn't shackled me at all. I'm enjoying myself. Ever since I arrived in Manchester I've felt confident."
He is appreciating the season all the more for missing the bulk of the last one with a cruciate ligament injury that took away 10 months of his career and deprived him of a place in Ireland's World Cup campaign in the United States. He is fully fit now and able to revel in the style of the City team that has evolved with the signing of wingers Peter Beagrie and Nick Summerbee and made Maine Road a home to attacking football of the like that has rarely been since the glory days of Bell, Lee and Summerbee.
The style is either kamikaze or swashbuckling depending on which side of the critical fence you sit. City, as their supporters will tell you, are capable of beating any team, although the 5-0 massacre at Old Trafford and two defeats against Arsenal suggests that applies to themselves as much as the opposition. This seems particularly so against the thoroughbreds of the Premiership.
"I think the really good teams cut our supply off," Quinn said. "Of course every team tries to shackle Peter Beagrie and Nicky Summerbee because they realise they are our strong point, but the best sides have stifled them. We've got to have an alternative when we're facing the likes of Blackburn and Liverpool.
"It does look great when we're flying. We've played many teams at home this year where we've known we were going to win after 20 minutes. But against quality opposition, particularly the sort of teams we're going to face in the next few weeks, we're going to need to find another trick up our sleeves."
As for his own future Quinn seems as struck on Maine Road as the supporter who wraps himself up in a blue and white scarf and braves the cold. "If I leave Machester City it will be the club asking or telling me they have no further need for me," he said."I would love to play out my career here. I've got plenty to look forward to with Ireland - the European Championship finals and even the World Cup of 1998 - but I want to be part of the team that brings silverware back to Maine Road.
"People use the phrase sleeping giant or what have you, but the manager and the team that brings the next trophy to City will be colossal. The expectation is so great. The supporters are desperate for success, I can't explain it to you." He does not haveto. It is written on the faces of his supporters. And in the jibes a few miles away.Reuse content