It was a small and inconsequential moment but one that said plenty about a mood and a rivalry. Manchester City were 6-2 up in the Premier League derby against United at the Etihad Stadium last October and we were into the 89th minute.
Previously, after Phil Foden had made it 6-1 on 73 minutes to join Erling Haaland as the scorer of a hat-trick, the City fans had joked that they wanted 10. Or maybe they were not joking. Now, shortly after the United substitute Anthony Martial had pulled one back, City built in midfield only for João Cancelo to play a loose pass, Bruno Fernandes intercepting for the visitors. There was an audible groan from the home support.
To repeat, City were 6-2 up in the last minute. Their record victory in this fixture is 6-1 – achieved in 1926 and 2011. They had dismantled their most hated opponents. And yet when Cancelo gave away the ball, there was frustration.
Perhaps it was just an instinctive reaction. But the hard-to-ignore impression was that the crowd did want more. When Martial got another consolation goal with a stoppage-time penalty to make the final scoreline 6-3, it almost disguised the humiliation United had suffered. There were some City fans who, in their hearts, were a little bit annoyed about that.
This is what total supremacy looks like – why words such as machine and juggernaut are applied to Pep Guardiola’s team. Maybe it is a byproduct of the standards that the manager sets, his remorselessness from game to game, from one phase of play to the next. Or perhaps the City support have just become spoiled, especially those under the age of 25.
What is indisputable is that there is no club over whom City would rather lord it, no opponent they would rather make suffer, and it frames Saturday’s first all-Manchester FA Cup final. Guardiola would take victory however it came, by however slender a margin and so would his players.
But as City look to complete step two of a possible treble, the ultimate one, which only United have achieved under Sir Alex Ferguson, there is an insistent plotline that takes in payback time. How United would force their neighbours through the mill during the long years of Ferguson’s tenure. So if City are to emulate his Class of 99, who better to beat in a final – especially if they could justify their hot favourite status and rub United’s noses in it? City face Internazionale in the Champions League final on Saturday week, having wrapped up the domestic title a little under a fortnight ago.
United draw strength from their 2-1 league win over City at Old Trafford in January, together with the overall positivity of their season under Erik ten Hag – Champions League qualification secured via a third-place finish; the Carabao Cup in the trophy cabinet.
But there is a reason why Wayne Rooney, the club’s record goalscorer, wrote in his Sunday Times column that “there will be a lot of nerves in the red half of Manchester”. United have suffered a few shuddering implosions this season. And, if any opponent can cut loose at any point, it is City.
Niall Quinn, who played for City from 1990-96, believes the final is a bigger game for United. “That is exactly how I would describe it,” Quinn says. “The last few years have left City in a position whereby they needn’t worry about United any more. This match gives United a chance to remind people how big a club they are and it would be a huge victory for them. Since my time at City, the tables have turned completely.”
Quinn can say that again. City’s 5-1 win over United at Maine Road in 1989 had been an epic result for them and their supporters. For years afterwards, it was simply known in Manchester as the 5-1. Yet it was their first derby victory since 1981 and they would not win again in it until 2002.
For most of the 90s – and, indeed, the next decade – it would have been ridiculous to foresee City as treble-chasers, not least when United won the lot in 1998-99. That season, City were scrapping to escape League One, which they did after the playoff final penalty shootout victory over Gillingham, having forced extra-time with two goals after the 89th minute. Four days earlier, United had beaten Bayern Munich 2-1 in the Champions League final with two stoppage-time goals.
There were not many other parallels. Quinn blames United’s dominance and the feeling it created around town for City’s slide down the top flight and, in turn, the divisions – after his team had finished fifth in 1990-91 and 1991-92. United were sixth in that first season, then second before Ferguson won the first of his 13 league titles in 1992-93.
“I always look back and think we’d have been a fine team if United didn’t exist,” Quinn says. “We were going the right way but it was the start of United’s golden era. No matter what we did it was looked down upon because of how well United were doing.
“The club panicked a bit. We changed the managers, we changed the owner [Peter Swales departed in 1994, Francis Lee came in]. The whole thing could not compete with what was happening across the way. The confidence fell out of the club, the team and the fans and our collapse was fairly spectacular.”
United felt that they avenged the 5-1 with their 5-0 derby win at Old Trafford in 1994 and there were times when they seemed to be toying with City. After they had come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Maine Road in 1993, Quinn remembers how Clayton Blackmore – who was not a part of the United squad that day – serenaded him as they made their way up the tunnel.
“I got a slap on the head off him … ‘Blue Moon, you started singing too soon,’ he sang,” Quinn says. “I used to meet him on the golf course occasionally; he was a very good golfer. But you want to grab him by the throat and deck him then!”
Ferguson would treat City as an irrelevance, seeking to deny them rival status, saying United’s focus in that regard was Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Leeds. But things began to turn, Ferguson’s attitude to change, after City were taken over by the Abu Dhabi Group in 2008, albeit the club had enjoyed decent results in the derby from 2002 up to then.
A major turning point was in the 2011 FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, City beating United 1-0 en route to their first trophy since 1976; the United support were forced to take down the banner at Old Trafford that chronicled City’s years without silverware. The record-equalling 6-1 win would come at Old Trafford the next season.
Since the Abu Dhabi takeover, City have 17 derby wins to United’s 18 and since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 they have 12 to United’s nine. The markers of City’s progress are numerous, this is the 10th season in a row that they have finished above United in the league. They will go for the kill at Wembley.