The red corner: It hurts but at least it's not Liverpool
There'll be no escape tomorrow, but it's better to lose to rivals than enemies
Paul Vallely is Associate Editor of The Independent where he writes on social, ethical, political and cultural issues. He writes leaders, features and has a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Saturday 12 May 2012
It could be worse. It could be Liverpool. Or Chelsea even. We Man United fans, after years of pretty unbroken success, are looking down the barrel of defeat. Manchester City have moved to within touching distance of their first title for 44 years. Worse still, neutrals are talking about the Mancunian tide having turned, with United on the ebb and years of City dominance to come.
We have not given up entirely. United are famous for last-minute feats of escapology. We have gone to the last-day wire before. In 2008 we were level on points with Chelsea going into the final game; they drew and we won. In 1999 we just had to beat Spurs to win the league, and did. In 1996 we had to beat Boro on the last day, and did.
But in each of those years our fate was in our own hands. Now it lies in the long shot that QPR can get a point against City at home. Rangers have one of the worst away records this season, and City the best home record. Even supposing we beat Sunderland, it won't be 9-0 to claw back the goal difference. Many United fans think it's all over and that it's City's year.
At least it's not Liverpool. One of the jauntiest shirts on the peddlers' stalls outside Old Trafford early this season sported a photograph of the motorway sign near Junction 24 on the southbound M6. Liverpool 18, Manchester 19, it reads. The sign means miles, but the shirt counts the number of times each team has been champions in England's top league.
You might imagine that the prospect of losing to the noisy neighbours would be worse. A visit to my local gym would put you right on that. Half the iron-pumpers are United fans, and half City. It's an interesting testament to the difference between rivalry and enmity.
Enmity is what exists between United and Liverpool. Listen to the chants at the Theatre of Dreams and it is clear the animus is visceral. The Scousers are accused of "eating rats in your council house", their iconic anthem is transformed into "You'll Never Get a Job" and there is downright malice in the chant of "murderers" recalling the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster. The Merseysiders reciprocate with distasteful chants of their own about Munich; they have even been known to make aeroplane noises.
Rivalry is different. There is a lack of commonality about enemies; success for one necessitates failure for the other. But neighbours, no matter how noisy, hold interests in common. Listen to the blokes in the gym and you'll pick up that the success of either of the two halves of Manchester, or both, reflects well on the place they all live. City and United will dominate football for the next three or four years, a former player told BBC Radio Manchester the other day, and that's good for all of us.
There is the routine ribbing, of course. United fans are all outsiders, the Blues insist (though the season-ticket holders round me are Mancs to a man). To which the Reds riposte that anyone can win the Premier League if they spend £235m buying a petrodollar team.
But there are curious crossovers. Many City fans feel the turncoat Carlos Tevez has behaved as badly in Blue as he did in Red; by contrast, some United fans sneakingly concede he was badly treated by Sir Alex Ferguson, and wish him well. City fans resent the Glazers treating Old Trafford as a milch-cow; United fans concede that players like David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Yaya Touré have played with flair where United have just ground out results. Mario Balotelli is a figure of some affection with all the urban myths about him checking 24 homeless people into the Hilton on New Year's Eve or paying for the petrol of everyone on the forecourt when he filled up at a garage in Cheadle.
That is not to say that we are not hoping that QPR will trip City up tomorrow, comforting ourselves with the tenuous hope that City old boys Mark Hughes, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Nedum Onuoha and Joey Barton will all want to exact revenge on the club that sacked them. They also need a point to stay up.
"Believe," Rio Ferdinand tweeted the other day. We are doing our best.
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