When plain Alex Ferguson arrived in English football from Aberdeen in 1986, "knocking Liverpool off their perch" (with an expletive or two deleted) was his long-term aim for Manchester United.
It took six or seven years to accomplish and ever since, his own club have been the ones in everyone else's sights; Jose Mourinho's Chelsea left them hanging on by their claws, but found in a resilient United something more than a dead parrot. Now, closer to home, the Manchester blue variety have designs on that perch.
City would do well to keep a sense of perspective, which is a quality admittedly difficult to maintain given the events of the past couple of years. Normal timescales, like normal financial parameters, no longer seem to apply. Spending £200m in a year – possibly more, as few people seem to know either how much Carlos Tevez cost or where the money went – does not encourage either perspective or patience and nor does a run of five successive wins to start the season, let alone victory in a friendly away to the European champions, Barcelona.
Even the manager, Mark Hughes, as composed as any man could be in the heady atmosphere of Eastlands, was to be heard at times on Friday looking way beyond this afternoon's Manchester derby to the possibility of greater glory, before attempting to check himself. He might have been wiser, for instance, to resist a question about dethroning United, rather than merely beating them once or twice, but could not quite manage to do so.
"I think these things go in cycles," he replied. "I was a Manchester United player when Liverpool dominated. It was very difficult to overcome them because they had the mindset and winning mentality. It's a different era, but who knows? Let's hope it's us that changes it, because it will change. It's a huge challenge. They've been successful over a significant period of football history and to be able to overcome them – or maybe change the make-up of the Premier League – is a challenge in itself.
"To be able to do that you have to be able to overcome teams like Manchester United. The fact that they're in the city – well, not quite – it's important for us they're there and it's great they are because they're the benchmark and if we get anywhere near them we've done really well."
In the circumstances, United supporters might say the same applies to this afternoon's game at Old Trafford. It has come at a bad time for City, mocked for having collected strikers like Panini stickers but finding Craig Bellamy the only one fully fit and available today. Tevez may just win a place among the substitutes, depending on how well his knee has responded to yesterday's training session. Emmanuel Adebayor (pictured below), keeping the Football Association's disciplinary department busy with his reprehensible antics against Arsenal last weekend, is missing and the best Hughes can hope for is to use his suspension as a motivational tool, trying to convince the squad that as well as the world not being enough, the world is now against them.
"Given the week we've gone through, from a motivational point of view any words I use have to have more motivation," he said. "We've had a difficult week and we sense that people outside are trying to speak about us in a negative way, so you can use that to our benefit."
Amid all City's excitement, it was reassuring to hear a young player like Micah Richards attempting to bring some perspective when he said: "I don't think at their place we are the favourites. We have players to match them but they have been a unit for the past how many years? Arsenal, Liverpool, Man United, Chelsea have had the same players for five years. We have bought a brand-new team in the last year. We have shown we can win games but it takes time to gel. We have the players to be an unstoppable side but we aren't there yet."
A first trophy of any description would be an important step, as Hughes well knows, having played such a crucial role in Ferguson's first for United, the 1990 FA Cup. "You're always bonded together as a group if you win something together and that collective spirit is something that can sustain you when things go wrong over periods of a season or in a game," Hughes said.
Barely a mile away at United's training headquarters, however, his former mentor was adopting an attitude of studied indifference. If his taste in comedy stretches as far as Catherine Tate, he could have borrowed her recalcitrant schoolgirl's "Am I bovvered?" catchphrase. For Ferguson, matches against Liverpool are still the real derbies and if he has long ago knocked them off their perch as promised, they have at least remained a threat.
In contrast City have been able to look down on United at the end of a season only once since 1978 and even then (1991, see panel above) they did not have to look far. Ferguson has labelled the new (or nouveau) City "cocky" and, when they got under his skin with Tevez banners reading "Welcome to Manchester" this summer, he famously categorised them as "a small club with a small mentality".
On Friday he was equally dismissive, even about the level of their spending: "It's not unusual because it has been done before. Chelsea did it, Sunderland did it back in the Fifties, the 'Bank of England club', and got relegated. It happens. With the kind of wealth people have today they want to own football clubs. I think you will see more of that. More clubs will go in the same direction. I have heard some stories of big clubs being willing to sell to Middle East groups and there is a trend in that."
Was he envious of their spending power in the summer? Hardly, when United had picked up £80m from Cristiano Ronaldo's transfer. "No, I have got my squad. I could have bought someone at £52m [Karim Benzema or Franck Ribéry] but I didn't think anyone was worth it. I didn't think it was a good time to buy because of what happened over the Ronaldo fee."
As to City's supposed new prominence in the English football firmament: "You can't get any bigger than playing Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. This doesn't make any difference. It is a game in which three points are important to us. We need to go on a run now. Consistency has to be the name of the game for us. We lost a game to Burnley and we don't want to lose any more."
The little that he would concede was that United's immediate neighbours should continue to improve, as they managed to do in the second half of last season from an admittedly low starting point – the bottom three at Christmas. "They've spent some money and had a good start to the season so you would expect a challenge from them," Ferguson said. "That is what they expect themselves, I'm sure of that. They would not have been spending that money without getting a dividend and the only dividend you can get is winning a trophy. That is the name of the game. I was asked the other day whether they are capable of getting into the top four. I don't think that really matters. To be number one in the country is the main thing. That is what we have to do. Whether it's City or Crewe Alexandra, you have to be number one."
That is a harsh judgement, as fourth place now brings a prize of its own and is therefore considered something to aim at, at least for those many clubs who have been unable to break into the current quartet. After 30 years of hurt, the more rational City followers talk of the top six and perhaps a Champions' League place; if Tottenham can do so, they feel equally entitled to.
Today will not, however, be the day to judge them, even if United are inclined to do so. It would appear that Bellamy will have to play on his own, with Shaun Wright-Phillips, Stephen Ireland and Martin Petrov supporting from behind. Even a cameo from Tevez would be interesting, though Ferguson predicts a harsh reception for him and says of his departure from Old Trafford: "I'm not bothered about it. Believe me, I'm not the slightest bit worried about it. It happens and you can't keep all of the players all the time, that was proved with Cristiano."
Old-timers like Mike Summerbee claim "we're now as good as United", which was true of his time and beyond – from, say, 1967 to 1978 – but has never been the case since. For all the Middle East millions, there is much still to do, and eyeing up United should not be a priority. As anyone who has ever cleaned the bottom of a cage can testify, looking upwards at a perch can have messy consequences.
A game of two halves
2008-09: City: 10th United 1st
City 0 United 1; United 2 City 0
2007-08: City: 9th United 1st
City 1 United 0; United 1 City 2
2006-07: City: 14th United:1st
City 0 United 1; United 3 City 1
2005-06: City: 15th United: 2nd
City 3 United 1; United 1 City 1
2004-05: City: 8th United: 3rd
City 0 United 2; United 0 City 0
2003-04: City:16th United: 3rd
City 4 United 1; United 3 City 1
2002-03: City: 9th United: 1st
City 3 United 1; United 1 City 1
Last seven seasons:
Played 14, City won 5, United won 6, drawn 3. Overall: Played 140, City won 37, United won 55, drawn 48. Last time City finished above United in League: 1990-91 (5th/6th). League titles: City 2, United 18.FA Cups: City 4, United 11. League Cups: City 2, United 3. European trophies: City 1, United 4.Reuse content