Football: Horton relieved as war turns to peace: City manager looks forward to his fans' 'cup final' against Manchester rivals today. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
FOR Brian Horton the situation is strange. No one is suggesting he will lose his job if Manchester City are beaten today and relegation, which has stared him in the face unrelentingly since he arrived at Maine Road, has moved on to fix its glare on someone else. It should be a tranquil time.

Or at least it would be if City were playing almost any other team today. A derby against neighbours United is never designed to get the blood pressure falling, even for a manager who has been enjoying his first moments' peace since he left the relative calm of Oxford United.

Local pride, a tint of jealousy and decades of derision from the red side of Manchester is an ever-present and potent cocktail for City supporters but this derby offers an extra ingredient. Not only would a win all but banish any fears of dropping from the Premiership but it would land a vicious blow to United's hopes of retaining the championship. The prospect is almost too exquisite.

'As far as City supporters are concerned it's our cup final,' Horton said. 'If we can beat United it will make their season, particularly after the problems we've had.'

The problems Horton has had would have turned some people's hair white. Arriving as 'Brian Who?' four matches into the season he has had to overcome an injury list that extended to 12 first-team squad players at one stage, a takeover of the club by Francis Lee, and more reports of his impending redundancy than anyone in the mining industry. Reports of his death have not just been exaggerated, they have gone on and on like an Ariston advert.

Through it all, he has mainatined the same line: 'I'll be judged on results. The fate of my job is in my own hands.' The results - unbeaten in seven games - have been favourable and so has the judgement. An announcement is impending about his future and no one expects it to lie elsewhere.

'I've never worried, even as a player,' Horton said of the months of uncertainty and rumour. 'I've always been single-minded and strong enough. I've always been a confident person when it comes to my own ability. Anyway, if you started to think about everything people said you'd never sleep. You'd be a nervous wreck.

'With me it's a switch-on, switch- off situation. In the week I'm calm but for 90 minutes, yes, I do go a bit berserk. But at 5pm I change again and people think I'm quiet and shy, which is totally untrue for anyone who knows me. That's one thing the press have got completely wrong. They say I'm quiet but I'm not.'

There have been quite a few misconceptions since Horton arrived at Maine Road. City supporters had hoped for a high-profile manager like Joe Royle or Steve Coppell and when a relative unknown arrived from the Manor Ground there was widespread bemusement. On Horton's CV, however, was the promotion of Hull to the Second Division and the maintenance of Oxford's First Division status despite the upheaval brought about by the fall of the Maxwell empire.

'I saw some of the headlines and heard what people were saying on the television and radio,' he said soon after his appointment, 'and at first I thought it was hilarious. But then I looked back at what I'd achieved and thought the reaction was pathetic.'

To cap that his close friend, John Maddock, soon stepped down as chief executive and then the man who had employed him originally, Peter Swales, was bought out by a consortium led by Lee. He appeared to be without allies and worse, given the injury and boardroom situations, a manager without luck.

Lee has stuck by the previous incumbent's man, however, and backed his judgement to the tune of nearly pounds 2m by allowing the purchase of Peter Beagrie and Paul Walsh and the loan signings of Uwe Rosler and Steffen Karl. Their impact has been profound and City have cast off the ragged appearance of a club heading for the drop and replaced it with optimism for next season.

'We're playing some attractive stuff,' Horton said. 'Which is a bit of a surprise because it's not very often you bring four or five players in and they gell straight away. We've beaten Newcastle and had the better of a game against Norwich over the last couple of weeks and they're two teams who can play a bit. We outplayed them. We're looking a very good side.'

He concedes he will also be playing a good side today, and one who inflicted damage on the City psyche last November. United had reeled back from Turkey after being knocked out of the European Cup by Galatasaray and their confidence was set back further when City took a 2-0 lead into half-time at Maine Road. Forty-five minutes later and the Eric Cantona-inspired visitors had won 3-2.

'Frustrating is not the right word,' Horton said. 'I don't think there's a word strong enough to describe how we felt that evening. I know it took the players a long while to get over it; for myself, Tony Book and the other staff it took longer.'

He does not subscribe to the suggestion that City live and breathe in green when it comes to their more glamorous neighbours. 'Not envy. No, I've never felt that from anyone in the club. Obviously they are doing something right and they represent a standard for us to aim at. But our squad, when everyone is fit, is comparable with United's. There's no need to be envious.'

Indeed, Old Trafford probably covets a whiff of the optimistic air sweeping Maine Road. 'People say it's always been a happy club here,' he said. 'Gordon Smith, who I played with, and Paul Simpson, who I bought, both rang when I got the job here and told me I won't find a friendlier club anywhere. That's how it's proved.'

They will be happier still this evening if they have inflicted a defeat on the old enemy.

(Photograph omitted)