They were swapping stories of European derbies at Manchester City's training ground as the game with United loomed out of the December murk. You might have expected Steve McManaman to talk about playing Barcelona at the Nou Camp but not the inner workings of the Hamburg derby as described by Kevin Keegan.
"It was my first season with Hamburg and little St Pauli had just come up," the City manager said. "They had a small ground by the Reeperbahn and when they got promoted they shared our stadium and beat us in it. That hurt. I probably lost when Scunthorpe played Grimsby."
Between them, McManaman and Keegan do derbies well. McManaman could become one of the few players to beat Manchester United with three different clubs, while Keegan has never lost a League derby on Merseyside, Tyneside or in Manchester.
Manchester City need to cling to every omen they can. Monday's Annual General Meeting, which Keegan chose not to attend, dwelt on £50m of debt, losses of £15m and an ageing squad with little resale value. In the past month they have exited the League and Uefa Cups and scored one goal in 10 and a half hours of football. Old Trafford awaits.
Four years in Madrid, where every defeat is forensically investigated, insulate you against this kind of talk. "There, a crisis was a defeat," McManaman said. "And, if you lost two or three, the manager would be sacked. We got through it at Real by considering all the analysis in the papers as a load of rubbish. If we won, the papers went way over the top, too.
"But we know that, if we lose on Saturday and lose next week to Leeds, then it's a disaster. I know what the stakes are but some of the younger lads might not. Last year, when City finished ninth, there was no expectation; now there is, especially with a new stadium and new players."
McManaman was one of those players, choosing Manchester over an emotional return to Everton, the club he supported as a boy. After a fluent, elegant start, things have begun to sour. He was dropped by Keegan, allegedly for a poor attitude in training, and responded in his column in The Daily Telegraph, which led to speculation about a rift between the two men.
"I thought, if I didn't mention it at all, I'd be accused of ducking the issue," he said. "I had talked to the gaffer about it but people saw the column, went to get a reaction, and it all spiralled up. Then, I got criticised for whingeing." Had the standard of the Premiership taken him by surprise? "The quality was probably what I expected. I hadn't been living on another planet.
"A lot of people at the club don't have that experience of coming back from defeats. I have had that experience with Liverpool and Real Madrid. Blips will happen to United and Arsenal and it will happen to the best teams in the world. It's all about how you come through that. Look at the table. If anyone goes on any kind of run, you are talking fourth or fifth place. Then everyone wants the ball."
His manager, pilloried as a man who quits at the first sign of trouble, was relaxed, even buoyant, yesterday. "I don't think it's as bad as it's been for me at Manchester City, but we're in the Premiership and everything is exaggerated and under scrutiny. Shortly after I first came, in November 2001, we were eighth or ninth in the First Division. People were starting to jump on the bandwagon and say this would not work out. We won the division with 99 points. I've been in this position before and I will be again. That is the nature of football.
"I must try to keep it in perspective and I like to think I have. I listen to the phone-ins driving back and it's the same person who last week was saying the manager was the best thing since sliced bread, now demanding he has to go. That's what football is coming to. But, if you can sit detached from it, you can understand how the emotion of supporters has spilled over: the team has played badly and for these people the world has gone wrong. I have not lost faith in my players, I will never lose faith in my players. Maybe that's not a good thing to judge me by but it's what I believe."
You might expect the likes of McManaman and Nicolas Anelka, men who play by touch, to suffer crises of confidence, but they can infect anyone at any time. "At the beginning of the season, when we were scoring fours and sixes, everyone was talking about 'this great team'," McManaman said. "Suddenly we're not scoring and people react differently. You talk about 'the flair players' suffering from nerves but who's to say that a big, strapping centre-half is not affected by a loss of confidence in the same way a young lad would be?"
McManaman preferred to focus on the rewards of victory rather than the pitfalls of defeat. "At Madrid, we knew that as soon as we walked off the field having won a derby, it was more than a victory; the Spanish lads were going ballistic in the dressing-room and it meant everything to the city. This is on a par except that with Barcelona and Madrid you are talking two countries in one. There is none of the politics but there will be 67,000 people at Old Trafford, the noise will be the same and it will mean the same to the spectators."
The occasion might inspire Anelka, still as enigmatic as he was when he first encountered McManaman in the Bernabeu. "I think he's better now than he was at Madrid, although I only knew him briefly then. He had his problems in Spain but he scored the important goals, won a Champions' League medal and then went home to Paris, and the experiences in different countries have improved him greatly."
And now for the awkward question. Do Manchester United miss David Beckham? "They have always coped. You talk about the time when Ince, Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes left and Ferguson was murdered for it [the summer of 1995]. They went on to win the title, but I never had any doubts David Beckham would settle because all good players should be able to fit into a team like Real Madrid. There will be problems with the language, but he knew that when he was going to join. Once he got on the pitch, he was always going to be fine."Reuse content