Manchester City fans are often told they’re obsessed with Manchester United. In some cases, it’s almost on a weekly basis that Blues supporters are told they should focus on their own team rather than looking at what their rivals are doing with a view to taking the Mickey – and it always said with a straight face, as if Old Trafford has never been interested in doing the same towards what’s happening down the road.
When Roberto Mancini took charge of City in December 2009, he faced United really early on in his tenure. It was the seventh match of the new manager’s time at the club, as the Blues hosted the Reds in the first leg of the League Cup semifinal. They took a 2-1 victory to Old Trafford and set themselves up for a potential first domestic final since 1981.
With that first leg on the horizon, the Italian promised the fans of his new club that he would “take that banner down”. He was referring to a black sign draped across the Stretford End that marked how long it had been since City had won a trophy – the League Cup in 1976 – and that had been there year-on-year for some time.
It was club-endorsed – would the banner have really remained on the stand if Manchester United themselves didn’t want it to be there? – and it was a source of great delight for the fans, who would often chant about the number of years that City’s barren spell had extended to. It was the Blues who were obsessed, though.
“I am well aware how long it is since City last won a trophy,” Mancini said ahead of the double-header that January, “and this season we have a great opportunity to put that right. Big clubs have to think of the big picture, winning trophies and being involved in the big competitions. Derbies are just one or two games a season. We must think of trophies. It’s important we have that mentality.”
City went on to lose that semifinal in the closing minutes at Old Trafford, in what would be their third stoppage time defeat to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side that campaign. There was the Michael Owen added time debacle in a 4-3 loss under former boss Mark Hughes, the 1-0 Paul Scholes header roughly 13 seconds from time at Eastlands – and, sandwiched in the middle, was the League Cup tie that swung on Wayne Rooney’s header just after the board had gone up at the end of the second leg.
The 2-1 lead taken to Old Trafford was wiped out in a mad second half spell. Carlos Tevez scored twice in the home leg to give Mancini’s team a narrow lead, but Scholes and Michael Carrick turned the tie around. Tevez equalised on aggregate and it looked to be heading into extra time at 3-3 – until Shay Given failed to leave his line for a cross and allowed Rooney time and space to head home with seconds left to play.
The travelling fans were devastated and a chance of a first trophy in 34 years was gone. That was compounded by an FA Cup loss to Stoke a few months later and the Blues missing out on the Champions League places in May. It felt like nothing would go right for the club and a season of disappointment was crushing, after the promise that Sheikh Mansour’s takeover two years earlier would end the hurt.
When Mancini’s team returned the following season, there was a fresh banner at Old Trafford. “33 Years” had become “34 years” and there were eyes on it becoming “35 years” towards the end of the campaign. City had been knocked out of the League Cup by West Bromwich Albion in the first match, after the manager had fielded a much-weakened team, while the club’s chances of winning the Europa League were over in mid-March, following a defeat to Dynamo Kiev over two legs.
City’s hopes of winning the Premier League had always been slim – they’d missed the chance to go top of the table at Christmas in losing 2-1 to Everton on a very cold Monday evening, but even if they had reached the summit it would have been by virtue of having played many more games than the others around them. City were one of the few teams not to have had matches postponed because of bad weather that year.
It was in United’s hands to stop City from winning the only other trophy open to them by that stage of the season, too. With Mancini’s side having survived scares against lower-league opposition in the early phases of the FA Cup, following draws at Leicester and Notts County that both required replays at Eastlands, the Blues had comfortably dispatched Aston Villa in the fifth round and Reading in the sixth, both at home.
The City fans had eyes on winning the cup as early as the 3-0 victory over Villa. The draw for the next round had already been done by that stage – the Blues were playing a round behind due to earlier replays and their involvement in the Europa League. In fact, on the day Mancini’s side won 5-0 against Notts County in their fourth round replay to set up the tie with Gerard Houllier’s team in the fifth round, the sixth round draw was being made.
Their potential opposition for the quarterfinal also wasn’t known, as Everton hosted Reading after that draw too. That tie was to be played the day before City hosted Villa, meaning they knew who they’d face if they won that Wednesday night. It would have been a write-off if Everton had got through – they were a big bogey team, home and away, for the Blues back then – but Championship Reading upset the odds to win at Goodison Park.
By beating Villa 3-0, City knew they had lower-league opposition to get past in order to reach the semifinals. The competition was opening up, too – Manchester United had drawn Arsenal and subsequently knocked them out on the Saturday, before Mancini faced Reading on the Sunday.
A bullet header from Micah Richards put City ahead, despite the Royals’ very resolute defending, and with the semifinal draw taking place before the end of that match, the home fans knew it was to be Manchester United at Wembley by the time the referee blew the full time whistle. With Bolton facing Stoke in the other tie, it felt very much like the FA Cup winner that season would be the team that came out on top of the campaign’s third Manchester derby.
For City fans, there was the mental anguish of facing their rivals for the chance to end their barren spell once again. There were still bitter memories of that night at Old Trafford, where the fans were forced to listen to “Glory, Glory Man United” having been locked in the away end following Rooney’s winner – as the Reds went marching on to Wembley in the final – the season before.
This time, though, a defeat in the FA Cup semifinal would be even more painful to witness – it would have been at the national stadium and the fans would be crushed on the long journey back north if they’d not made their first final since losing to Tottenham in 1981.
It would have marked a third year since the takeover without a trophy. In black and white, that sounds greedy from the fans – City were, at best, a mid-table side when the investment arrived in September 2008 and to expect things to change in three seasons might have been a little demanding – but after several generations of Mickey-taking from their cross-city rivals, who allegedly didn’t care for that sort of japery, there was a level of impatience that is entirely understandable.
There was also the realisation that if Mancini was going to tear down the banner from the Stretford End, he’d have no easy ride to do it. It’s often said that nobody remembers who the winning team faces en route to a final, but that’s not the case for City’s 2010-11 FA Cup run – the City fans can never forget. Facing United in the semifinal was as much a symbolic power-tussle as it was a literal one, and the Blues would have to overcome their rivals on the pitch if they were going to put an end to their suffering off it.
United, meanwhile, knew that another victory in a crucial head-to-head could leave them with the chance to add another to their growing list of honours and extend City’s barren run by another year at least. A new banner would be needed and the Blues would again be the bridesmaids, Mancini sent back north with his tail between his legs after failing to deliver on his promise to the fans from around 15 months earlier.
On Saturday 16 April 2011, both Manchester clubs made their way to Wembley for the semifinal. The build-up had centred on how the two sides had lost their most influential players for the match – Rooney was suspended, having sworn several times directly into a television camera during United’s 4-2 win over West Ham, while Tevez was injured, after limping out of City’s 3-0 loss at Liverpool the previous Monday evening. Ferguson turned to Dimitar Berbatov, Mancini did the same to Mario Balotelli.
It’s fair to say one of them had a better afternoon than the other.
United settled the quicker, while City looked very nervous. Gareth Barry, under pressure on the edge of his own box, laid a bad pass back towards Joleon Lescott in the very early stages and the centre-back could only try and ping the ball out of harm’s way. It fell for Carrick, roughly 30-yards out, and his great control and slick pass into Scholes opened up the first chance of the match. The midfielder turned the ball first-time to Park Ji-Sung, who did the same around the corner to send Berbatov clean through – but Joe Hart was off his line well and spread himself brilliantly to block the Bulgarian’s effort.
Seconds later, the striker should have atoned for that miss. From the resulting throw-in off Hart, United caught City napping – with Pablo Zabaleta allowing Nani to turn far too easily and escape into the box. His low, driven cross to the back post had Hart desperately scrambling across his goalmouth to where Berbatov was sliding in, unmarked. Somehow, and with the net gaping, the forward skied the shot and placed it over the bar, as Aleksandar Kolarov dived in from left-back to try and get a block in.
He couldn’t – and the Bulgarian pushed his face into the turf. It was a bad miss. The director of the TV coverage, who had cut to the camera trained on Rooney in the stands, played a blinder as they caught the England striker’s anguished look at the squandered opportunity.
The City fans could have been forgiven for thinking it was going to be a long afternoon at that point, especially if their side didn’t settle down quickly. But things changed as soon as Mancini’s team began to get David Silva on the ball. Still in his first year at the club and still finding his own feet in England, the Spaniard began to pull the strings at Wembley and he created the Blues’ first real chance. Some of the City end thought their side had scored from it – the team were attacking the United fans in the first half – and they got jeers from the Reds for celebrating when Barry hit the side netting with his turn-and-shot in the box.
But it signalled the start of a shift in dominance in the match. Balotelli hit the target with a ferocious attempt from a long way out, roughly 30-yards from goal, and Edwin van der Sar was forced to palm it over the bar. It would have disappointed the goalkeeper to have let it in, but there wasn’t much else he could do with it.
From the resulting corner, City spurned a golden chance to punish United for their earlier misses. Adam Johnson’s cross found Lescott unmarked and, despite having time to readjust his body position and take it on his left side, the centre-back rushed his effort on his right foot and volleyed over from seven yards. His defensive partner, Vincent Kompany, then tried to put his team in front from the edge of the box – Silva squared it and the skipper side-footed a shot towards the corner of the goal, but it didn’t quite bend back towards the target enough.
But, after the break, Mancini’s side weren’t in the mood for letting United off any more. A long punt downfield from Lescott was chased into the corner by Barry, forcing Rio Ferdinand to knock the ball back to his goalkeeper. It was a poor pass. It bobbled and bounced its way to van der Sar’s box, and the Dutchman’s clearance was equally as bad – kicking it straight to Silva. There was good fortune for the Reds, as it fell kindly for John O’Shea to intercept and find Carrick.
However, the United midfielder played it too casually. His pass forward was pounced upon by Yaya Toure – a player who was yet to be confirmed as the influential superstar City’s fans now recognise him as – and the Ivorian out-muscled both Carrick and Nemanja Vidic to roll the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs.
City had the lead after 52 minutes and it was thoroughly deserved. This was nothing like the Manchester City side that had tamely rolled over to have their belly tickled in the League Cup semifinal of 2010. This was a bolder, more brash team that was punishing its opposition for being wasteful. There was steel and fight. There was belief.
The Blues could have gone further in front. A short corner between Johnson and Silva allowed the Spaniard to cross to the back post, where Lescott was making a late dash to try and connect – he could only flick his header wide, though, as he beat Berbatov to the ball in.
United had one more chance to get back into the game. A free kick from around 23-yards out was left to Nani to hit – his effort deflected off the wall and could have deceived Hart in the City goal, but the England goalkeeper reacted well. He was almost diving past the ball, but was able to get a hand up to touch the shot onto the crossbar; with Kolarov and Toure completing the clearance.
It was a reminder that 1-0 was a perilous advantage. However, what the City fans were learning at this point in their club’s development was that when Mancini wanted to shore up his defence, he could do it. And when the Italian decided to try and see out a game, generally the Blues did it.
His plight was helped out by a rash Scholes challenge with around 15 minutes to play. Another poor van der Sar clearance fell loose in the midfield and Zabaleta got there ahead of the United midfielder. Scholes, not renowned for his tackling ability, left several stud-marks on the Argentinian’s right thigh. It was a high challenge, over the ball, and not pretty – with Mike Dean rightly showing a red card, something the midfielder probably expected after trying to avoid the referee’s gaze for a few moments after the incident.
In stoppage time, there was the chance for City to add some gloss to the scoreline. They’d stood up to United for 90 minutes and as the Reds pressed for an equaliser they left themselves open to a counter-attack. It came through Silva on the left – he found a low ball into the box for Toure to run on to, but the Ivorian lost his footing as van der Sar dived at his feet. He couldn’t scramble the ball over the line.
The final action of the game saw a United cross into the box, which was comfortably headed away, and Kolarov made sure he was fouled in challenging for the second ball on the corner of the area with Fabio. The referee blew for full time as the resulting free kick was smashed down the other end of the field.
“Just wait for the explosion of joy,” commentator Martin Tyler said in the seconds before. “At least from one end of the stadium,” he added. “Some of the others have already gone.”
The celebrations were huge. This wasn’t about having beaten a rival – it was far more than that. This was a mental block being lifted. A club that had been in its neighbour’s shadow for two decades was emerging from the darkness and fighting back; this was another step in breaking the 35-year duck and it was at the expense of the club that had been merciless in their mocking in all of that time, too. United revelled in City’s misery and it was that which caused the sheer joy at the full time whistle.
Despite having spent so long as the tormentors, it seemed the Reds weren’t too keen on getting a mini taste of that medicine. As City’s players mobbed each other on the field, as the fans jumped around in the stands, and as the coaching staff dived onto the manager, Ferdinand was on the hunt for Balotelli. The Italian had clearly done or said something to spark the reaction, but the defender took the bait.
Wearing his “I don’t give a f*ck” face, Balotelli was being hounded by a number of United’s players, as Mancini tried to calm the situation down. As Ferdinand stomped back towards the tunnel, the striker lifted his shirt up and began to fist-pump towards the City end, while the United defender exchanged strong words with coach David Platt.
The City players thanked the fans with a “Poznan” celebration, something the supporters had borrowed from the fans of Polish side Lech Poznan earlier in the season, as they turned their back and jumped up and down. It mirrored what those in the stands had done at the start – taking the focus off their opposition, the supporters had “Poznan’d” their way through the United team line-up announcement.
Of course, in the back of everybody’s mind was that there was still time for Typical City to strike. The Blues had been underdogs for the semifinal with United – but they’d go into the final as the favourite, facing either Stoke or Bolton. When the Potters put five past the Trotters the following day, nerves were jangling again. It would be a very City thing to do if they beat their rivals to have a chance to tear down the banner, only to fall at the final hurdle and start all over again.
It was Toure again who ensured that wasn’t to be the case. His strike in the 74th minute past Stoke’s Thomas Sorensen was enough to win the cup, City’s first major trophy since 1976, and render the banner at the Stretford End out of date. There was more mischief at the final whistle after the Blues had lifted the trophy, as captain Kompany unfurled their own banner – this one, just as United’s, in black and white, but crucially reading “00 Years”.
Mancini was only just beginning. Ferguson would claim he saw off the City boss by remaining in a job for longer than the Italian – he resigned from Old Trafford a couple of games after the Blues sacked his opposite number. However, that fails to take into account what Mancini achieved in his tenure: he was the first City boss to take on and beat the United manager at his own game, finishing above the Reds for the first time since Peter Reid in 1990-91.
He ended City’s trophy drought with that FA Cup, instilling a belief into the squad that transformed them from regular also-rans into winners. He won the top flight title for the first time in 44 years for the Blues, embarrassing Ferguson at the same time with a proper de-throning of the Champions thanks to a 6-1 victory at Old Trafford, United’s worst at home in the Premier League, and a 1-0 win in the reverse fixture to complete the overhaul over an eight-point gap.
Ferguson may have remained in the job for longer, taking the title in Mancini’s final campaign in charge. But the Italian won far more battles. City were contenders again, beyond simply having the resources to spend big on players. They were back in the big time and fighting for honours, instead of fighting to avoid unwanted records or relegations. They were the butt of the joke no more – and that’s all down to the foundations that Mancini laid, the first marker of which was that FA Cup semifinal win over United.
Written by David Mooney
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