Willo the will-o'-the-wisp lifts Keegan

City manager buoyed by his new boys as a window of opportunity beckons.
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The Independent Football

Many clubs have an away ground where the only thing they ever seem to get is a warm welcome - as serial losers. It is one of Manchester City's many misfortunes that the stadium in question for them is Old Trafford, home of their hated rivals.

A banner on permanent display at the Stretford End, in ironic commemoration of the Blues' last major trophy (the 1976 League Cup), now reads "28 years". The temptation this afternoon must be to put another alongside it proclaiming "30 years", which is the length of time since City last beat Manchester United there. That was the dramatic occasion on which United, almost unthinkably, were relegated, causing City's true-blue captain Mike Doyle to express his disappointment, on the basis that his team were no longer guaranteed two wins every season.

Happy days, when Colin Bell, Francis Lee and the rest regularly ran amok as United's European Cup-winning side disintegrated into Tommy Docherty's kickers and scufflers. How inconceivable Doyle's boys would have found it that City should fail to win in 24 subsequent visits stretching into the following century.

Kevin Keegan has had three attempts at ending the run, achieving a 1-1 draw on City's return to the Premiership two years ago, but losing out 3-1 in the League and 4-2 in the FA Cup against 10 men last season, after Gary Neville was sent off. Now he is trying to present today's game as a window of opportunity rather than a ride into the valley of doom: "We're saying to the players, 'Why not us?' That's got to be our attitude. It's nothing to do with these players what happened 30 years ago. Most of them weren't even born. Some of their dads weren't born!"

That last assertion is a jocular reference to the age of some of the squad Keegan has been relying on lately since a crop of injuries did for players such as Trevor Sinclair, Sun Jihai, Claudio Reyna, Joey Barton and Ben Thatcher. The versatile Shaun Wright-Phillips, "such a genuine kid", is already looking like a veteran in comparison to two names that could be scribbled on the teamsheet today: Willo Flood, a 19-year-old from Dublin who plays wide on the right, and the left-back Stephen Jordan. Both did well in the otherwise undistinguished 1-1 draw at home to Norwich last Monday; indeed, Keegan believes it is their elders and so-called betters who need to up their game.

"It's both a little bit worrying, but also exciting, trying people out," he said. "Willo Flood has trained with us for a year and a bit, and Stephen Jordan for nearly two years, waiting for a chance. They've got to show they can handle it if they want a big future at the club, and the young lads have been our best players in the last couple of games. It's mainly my senior players who've got to pick up from the last two games."

Are you blushing, Steve McManaman? Unlikely to have his contract renewed next May, the former Spice Boy is looking at his last derby day at Old Trafford, always assuming that he appears this afternoon.

The youngsters' other great virtue is that, unlike some of the overpaid under-achievers added to the payroll in the past couple of seasons, they could save the club a lot of money. It is an important consideration, as City are title contenders, if not outright leaders, in the Premiership Debt League, an impressive £62m in the red (pardon the expression). As Keegan has put it: "Because of circumstances we're having to lean on our younger players. We want to send out a message to all the young players here that while we've got some great players in, we aren't closing the door on new talent. I think we've got four or five that are coming through now and are making progress, and have come through the academy with a terrific grounding."

A disappointing 16th last season, with only nine wins, and not in the top half of the table at any stage of the current campaign, City go into today's game with one victory - characteristically against Chelsea - in their past six outings.

Keegan, whose own reputation is taking a knock or two, is emphasising respect for the old enemy, and knows better than to make anything of Paul Scholes, one of his old England favourites, having not scored in 19 games, especially since he was on target in all three of last season's meetings: "Last time I talked about Michael Owen not scoring, he got a hat-trick against us! I'm not going to motivate any of their players to play against us. You know what I thought of Paul Scholes as England manager, he played every game he was available for. It's the sign of a good team when people think they're not firing on all cylinders and are still getting results.

"Their results are still pretty good. If you take away an exceptional start by both Arsenal and Chelsea, they'd be up there in a normal year. But these are not normal years in the Premiership; there are exceptional teams, and then the rest of us. The exceptional teams are the clubs who are getting big squads together, and spending big money because they've got the finance from the Champions' League."

It is a gratifyingly realistic assessment of City's standing in the great scheme of things, which Keegan has in the past been as guilty of overstating as other dreamers. With nothing to lose except another Old Trafford derby, he can pile the stress on to United and coax his boys into thinking they can be heroes for more than just one day.

"The pressure's on United to win, they're at home." he says. "We've been the underdogs every time we've played them, but if we win we go within one point of them. Records are there to be broken, as they did to Arsenal. It can make a season for us. It's a game you've got to look forward to. I certainly look forward to it and, more important, I know the players will."