Which makes the present situation the more puzzling. Sixty years on and by any standards Manchester City are a big club. Their gates, around 25,000, are the envy of most of the Premier League. They have won championships, they have been successful in domestic and European cup competitions. And yet, to the football world outside Greater Manchester, they remain the city's subsidiary club.
Everything City do is cast against the red glow coming from Old Trafford. People can quote, almost to the hour, when United were last champions, but it is now a quarter of a century since City last won the title. Who is aware of that, outside the immediate environs of their supporters? Who cares? The media tilted its gaze towards Stretford 50 years ago and has remained facing that way, distracted only by the Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison era.
'It's been a bone of contention for a long, long time,' Les Saul, chairman of the Manchester City Supporters' Club for 23 years, says. 'No matter what we do, the attention is always on United. Even when they weren't doing well it was 'What's going wrong at Old Trafford?'. You travel abroad and tell people you're from Manchester and their first reaction is 'Ah, United' - never City.'
Saul and his colleagues in the splendidly appointed supporters' club offices were approaching the end of the the biggest weeks in the club's recent history. The new Platt Lane stand was opened on Friday, while interest in City's FA Cup quarter-final with Tottenham today is immense. Tickets have been sought with an enthusiasm not seen since they reached the Cup Final in 1981.
'We like to say that City are the real local club, that we have more supporters than United in Greater Manchester itself,' Saul says. 'They draw their support from all over the country.' It is with great glee that City fans point out Maine Road is in Manchester proper while United is in Stretford and the borough of Trafford.
Try to find a reason why United have reached out beyond their natural boundaries and most people would point to the Munich air crash and Sir Matt Busby. The 1958 tragedy drew sympathy from a nation already intrigued by a young team blazing a trail for the country in the European Cup. Manchester mourned, but so did Britain, and it was on a wave of national support that a team of reserves and youth team players reached the FA Cup final three months after the disaster. The fact that Busby rebuilt a team around Best, Law and Charlton simply reinforced the affection.
Tony Book, so ingrained in City folklore that he is still referred to as 'Skip' 20 years after he gave up the captaincy to become coach, manager and then coach at Maine Road, says: 'Bobby Charlton told me not to bother about what was going on over there. We were the two captains touring schools together and he said, 'That place is different. Start worrying about what's going on there and you'll never do anything yourself.' I've taken that attitude ever since.'
That Busby, the architect of everything Book had to ignore, should have been a City player before he became manager at Old Trafford after the Second World War, is not the only ironic link between the two clubs. United's first championships, in 1908 and 1911, were won on the back of five former City players, including Billy Meredith, who were signed after a bribes scandal prevented them playing for their former club.
Busby, too, would not have had the money to buy players if City had not allowed United the use of Maine Road immediately after the war. 'Old Trafford's capacity was reduced to around 15,000 because of bomb damage,' Saul says. 'If we'd said, 'Sorry it's not possible,' they'd never have gone on to what they did.' Instead, both club's reserves played at Old Trafford, and United continued to use Maine Road until well into the Fifties. United's record gate, 82,950 against Arsenal in 1949, was set in City's ground.
It is in the shadow of United's championship challenge that City's present squad will attempt to go a step nearer Wembley today. 'We're a big club, the players know it, the supporters know it,' says Terry Phelan, who watched the club as a fan growing up in Salford. 'We just don't go around shouting about it. There's always one club that's bigger in a city. It's just like Liverpool and Everton.'
Or is it? Everton are part of the 'big five' that threatened to break away from the League in the Eighties, as are Tottenham despite their money problems and a lack of a championship since 1961. City were overlooked then, and almost certainly would be again if a European League was formed.
Which makes the chase for honours at Maine Road just as urgent as is it is at Old Trafford. Memories of sky blue supremacy in the Thirties are are all but gone, and even the most cherished day in City's recent history - 11 May 1968 - is not that recent.
At the start of that day - the last of the season - City and United were level on points at the top of the First Division. City had a difficult away match at Newcastle, who had lost only once at home in the League, while United were hosts to lowly Sunderland. United were slight favourites but lost 2-1; City produced one of their greatest performances to win 4-2.
To be in Manchester then was to witness an explosion of sky blue pride. Cars were bedecked in blue, white and purple scarves, the Coronation Street-style houses surrounding Maine Road were decorated with banners and club regalia. At last City had outdone their neighbours. They were top dogs in the place that carried the club's name. It all lasted just 18 days.
'Even when we won the championship, United topped it by winning the European Cup,' Saul said. 'They always find a way to outdo us. If we win the Cup they'll probably be champions.'
The city, if not City fans, would settle for that.
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