Even though he only returned from Manchester City's Uefa Cup tie away to Schalke in the early hours of Friday, Mike Summerbee looked extremely well for his 65 years as he walked into the city-centre hotel. It comes as a shock to realise that he made his first-team debut for Swindon Town as long ago as 1959; yet, unlike so many of that generation from an era of brutal tackling and cold-sponge physiotherapy, he receives little or no gyp from old footballing war wounds. Perhaps it was the combination of an excellent City performance in Germany – the 2-0 win qualifying them for the knockout stage with two matches still to play – and the prospect of today's derby that added a spring to his step.
Outside, the Manchester Evening News billboards were trumpeting "City no threat to us says Fergie". The previous day, United's manager could barely resist a Govan guffaw when it was put to him that Manchester's other team were now serious rivals to the Premier League champions. Wayne Rooney, meanwhile, had taken the opportunity to emphasise who the "kings of Manchester" were; not the team, he suggested, mired in mid-table, for all theirnew-found millions.
Summerbee, never one to turn the other cheek, was not going to take that lying down, although his response is commendably restrained: "I think that's slightly unnecessary. It's a typical thing that happens before derby games, people have little digs and say silly things. We've done particularly well against them over the last two or three years. We went to Old Trafford last season on the 50th anniversary of Munich and they thought it would be a cakewalk, and it backfired on them [City won 2-1]. I don't think Manchester United are playing as well as they can. I've seen them play two or three times at home this year and there's no improvement from last year, I don't think."
Ask if, as a former outside-right, he enjoys watching Cristiano Ronaldo, and the reply comes with the speed of a Francis Lee penalty: "I'd rather watch George Best." While acknowledging that Ronaldo is "a superb player of today", he adds: "I have to have a giggle when I hear Sir Alex saying he must be protected all the time. When you look at what the late, great George Best had toput up with, you wonder how he [Ronaldo] would have got on in our day. If you've got the ability he's got to run at people, you've got to take the knocks. You have to wonder, is he taking the knocks, or pretending he is? And I think the United fans have done remarkably well to forgive him for the close-season outbursts about wanting to leave."
For many years, Best and Summerbee, supposedly deadly rivals, were bosom buddies, whether starting a boutique together, holidaying in Spain, watching Stockport County on a Fri- day night or judging the "stripper of the year" in a Hulme pub. George was even Best man at Summerbee's wedding, sporting a hideous moustache in a rare lapse of taste. "He was always there for you, always supportive," Summerbee says. "A very nice and very shy man. With us, it wasn't blue and red, it was just the two of us friends."
There were those who disapproved of such socialising with the enemy. Summerbee's City team-mate Mike Doyle, a native Mancunian, had grown up loathing all things red and never forgave Best for the tackle that broke Glyn Pardoe's leg one derby day in 1970. Summerbee, however, believes the incident was quite unintentional, and that it affected Best "very deeply".
His favourite derby memory is a League Cup semi-final when he scored the decisive goal; United's keeper Alex Stepney pushed out a free-kick from Lee, not realising it was indirect, and Summerbee followed up, celebrating long and loud in front of the Stretford End. Then there was a 3-1 victory at Old Trafford en route to City's one modern League championship, thrillingly snatched from United on the final day of the season; and, of course, the day United were relegated after defeat by City, a bizarre one that ended with Summerbee having his head cut by one of the United supporters invading the pitch after Denis Law rather reluctantly scored against his old club with his last touch in football.
Summerbee's own last kick in League football was also memorable: playing for Stockport, it was Barnsley's Mick McCarthy he kicked – hard – walking off before the referee produced the inevitable red card. There would be one more FA Cup tie after that, 18 months later, as he returned to help non-League Mossley beat Crewe; plus another near giant-killing for the POWs against Germany after his mate Bobby Moore phoned to ask: "Hey, Miguel, fancy being a film star?" The film, of course, was John Huston's Escape to Victory, with Pele, Moore and Ossie Ardiles alongside him.
For several years he was able to watch his son Nicky become thethird generation of Summerbee professionals (Mike's father played for Preston, Chester and Barrow), believed to be a unique achievement. These days he does part-time hospitality and corporate work for City, in which capacity he will be at Eastlands this afternoon. "I'm a fan now, same as all City fans, who've had their ups and downs. But now we're the envy of most clubs in the world because of what we've got, and we won't be affected by the credit squeeze.
"I have to laugh when I read that you can't buy success. Six years ago Chelsea were just an ordinary side. Then Mr Abramovich came. Manchester United have spent big, big money as well as having some wonderful young players coming through. Now City have the facility to spend, though Mark Hughes is a very sensible person and he'll only go for the people he wants. The club's in good hands, I've met the chairman and they're all very good people. The future looks fantastic."
The past was pretty good too, from the time Summerbee became the first signing by the managerial team of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison ("the greatest coach English football has had") until the team were "too quickly"broken up. "I was in the right place at the right time," he says. "Football in the present day might have suited me, though I was a bit aggressive, but I played in a fantastic time of attacking, entertaining football when you never knew who'd win the championship."
Then it was off to take on the former United full-back Arthur Albiston at a sportsman's lunch, twirling a blue-and-white City scarf with typical bravado. Albiston would have been well advised to have his shinpads on.
'Mike Summerbee: the Autobiography' is published by Century (£18.99)
Chelsea v Arsenal (Sky Sports 1, 4pm)
Since Arsène Wenger's arrival there has rarely been more than a goal between these teams, and until the past couple of seasons Chelsea struggled to win any of the League games. But victory here would take them clear of Liverpool (who play at home to West Ham tomorrow). Who will get the worst reception from their old club's fans, William Gallas or Ashley Cole? It could be close. Like the game.
Manchester City v Manchester United (Sky Sports 1, 1.30pm)
The first Abu Derby since City struck oil is the 150th between the clubs, and United fans may just be reminded during the afternoon that their team lost both last season. Cristiano Ronaldo has received some cruel treatment at Eastlands and will have to be prepared for some more as United seek a first goal in three games.
Portsmouth v Blackburn (3pm)
The Uefa Cup can be a mixed blessing, and although Portsmouth will always remember Milan's visit, 90 draining minutes and the blow of having victory snatched away could take a toll on Tony Adams' small squad. A long trip but a good fixture for Blackburn after slumping from seventh to 19th.
Tottenham v Everton (3pm)
Jonathan Woodgate says having an Englishman in charge "doesn't make a blind bit of difference – look at Fabio Capello", but the Harry Redknapp effect affects Spurs for the better. Without Louis Saha, Everton are likely to revert to 4-5-1 and keep things tight.
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