Football: Turn down the treble, turn up the volume as sky-blue Manchester get in on the act

Simon Turnbull hears Joe Royle prefer play-off passion to Man U mania
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The Independent Online
IT WAS the lunchtime after the night before. "They're still celebrating on the streets of Manchester," the newsreader on Radio 5 said. Not on the streets of Moss Side, they weren't. Outside Maine Road, the Blue Moon Chippy was shuttered to the world. The proprietor might well have been sick as a chip or even a parrot, but it was clear to see that no one on the City side of Manchester's football divide was over the the blue moon.

Within the sanctum of Maine Road, it was as though the night before had never happened. "First of all," Joe Royle was asked, "did you watch the game last night and what did you think of the opposition?"

"We're not playing either of them," the Manchester City manager reminded the assembled ladies and gentlemen of the press. "We're here to talk about our game on Sunday and we're playing Gillingham. I know it's a great line for you but comparisons are inappropriate."

Indeed, they are. But they also happen to be inevitable. At the end of the week in which Manchester United completed their historic treble, Manchester City tackle the first leg of their own treble mission: to beat Gillingham in the Second Division play-off final at Wembley today, win promotion again next year and climb to the upper reaches of the Premiership the season after that.

Those Reds who may be inclined to scoff at the relative poverty of such ambition might care to recall that the last time Manchester United were crowned champions of Europe they were booted out of the old First Division six years later - well, back-heeled out, to be precise, by Denis Law's Old Trafford winner for City on 27 April, 1974. True Blues, of course, can always dream of Terry Cooke doing something similar at the end of the 2004-5 season.

"I'm actually hanging on to something more than that," Colin Shindler, lifelong City fan and author of the quite magnificent Manchester United Ruined My Life, confided. "They overshadowed us winning the League in '68 by winning the European Cup and now we'll be overshadowing them by winning the Second Division play-off final."

It helps to have a sense of humour when you follow Manchester City, as Shindler has discovered in the 44 years he has spent devoted to what has been, more often than not, a losing cause. It was Stuart Hall who called Maine Road "The Theatre of Comedy" and humour of the gallows variety has been required to sustain City's staggeringly loyal support through the nightmare of every fantasy coming true for the glory hunters who frequent Manchester's Theatre of Dreams.

Shindler, who wrote the script for the film Buster, describes his book as "the wail of a man who has suffered silently under years of overwhelming Manchester United arrogance". Not that he spent Wednesday evening wailing inconsolably in front of a television set. By teatime on Thursday, as the European Cup was being paraded down the A56, he had yet to endure the painful sight of Teddy Sheringham's equaliser or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's winner. "I haven't seen the game," Shindler confessed. "I don't even know who scored the goals. I've gone deliberately out of my way to avoid watching television and I've cancelled the papers for today. I've been told that they won 2-1. I don't want to know any more than that."

It was a feat of Likely Lads dimension to have got so far, 20 hours after the final whistle in the Nou Camp, with so little knowledge, though the days when Bob Ferris and Terry Collier ducked in the front seats of their moving Cortina to avoid billboard news of England's fate in Bulgaria are far removed from such fever- pitched media madness as Thursday's wall- to-wall Man U mania on 5 Live and the Manchester Evening News' scoreline of United 17 pages, City half a page.

"That totally justifies my point," Shindler said, listening in horror to the extent of the suffocating news coverage he had blacked out. "It's the sort of thing that prompted me to write the book in the first place. If Aston Villa had done it, do you think this would be the national response? Everyone forgets they won the European Cup but in many ways it was a greater achievement because of the resources they had."

It was a moot point that ventured beyond mere parochial jealousy. No- one back in 1982 suggested that Villa's manager should arise from that heroic night in Rotterdam as Sir Tony Barton. It was a moot point, too, because Joe Royle, while pointedly deflecting any question which included the word "United" at the press conference called to mark City's play-off final appearance, spoke of Villa's European success of 17 years ago in inspirational terms.

"City have not been one of the top six teams for a long time," Royle said, "but this is still one of the big six clubs. The infrastructure of the place is geared towards Europe rather than the Second Division. Aston Villa had to take some of this medicine. We've got to look at that and think it's a possibility. This club has been majoring in disappointment and underachievement for a long time but sooner or later someone's going to get it right here and I hope that it's me. With the right rules laid down we'll be on our way."

Under Royle's rule, City have made it on to Wembley Way in upwardly mobile shape. In 15 months he has trimmed the fat from a 52-man squad, the legacy of pounds 33m of misspending during a three-season plummet from the Premiership, and replaced a lay-down-and-die attitude with a die-for-the-cause spirit.

As a member of the last City team to lift a major trophy, Tony Book's 1976 League Cup winners, Royle knows all about the Blue Moon cause. And, of course, he knows how to win a first-class prize in the management game. It was the Scouse pragmatist, as Everton's FA Cup final manager four years ago, who masterminded the last cup final defeat suffered by Manchester United. You have to September 1989 to find the last time United were beaten in a Manchester derby. The Reds were calling for Alex Ferguson's head after that 5-1 Maine Road thrashing, as a true Blue like Shindler needs no reminding.

"It just shows you how things can turn round," he mused. "In due course the wheel will come full circle and at some point City will be top dog in Manchester again. Good luck to United. I hope they enjoy the peak because it won't always be like this. They will have to deal with the down side when it eventually comes."