For Manchester City fans, Monday's night's crucial clash with United isn't simply the final battle of a season-long war. It isn't even just about clawing their way back into the race for the Premier League title. Their pain runs far deeper than that. City have lived in the shadow of their rivals for too long and they are desperate to break out into the light. You have to go back to 1991 to find the last time they finished above their rivals, a feat that was spoiled somewhat when United beat Barcelona to lift the now defunct European Cup Winners' Cup.
United have a nasty habit of stealing City's thunder. Coverage of last season's FA Cup win, City's first piece of silverware since 1976, was truncated to make room for news of United and their record 19th league title, sealed just a few hours earlier. In 1999, when City escaped from the clutches of the third flight, United won the treble. Most famously of all, City's last league win of 1968 was blown away by United's 4-1 European Cup win over Benfica. Whatever City do, and it hasn't been much in the last four decades, United do bigger, better and with rather more regularity.
Sir Alex Ferguson once described City as United's "noisy neighbors," but they have been neighborly only inasmuch as Dracula and the villagers are neighborly. They share a Zip code, but have very different ideas of what constitutes "getting through the night." While United have been scooping up trophies to the extent that one season without silver usually constitutes a 'crisis', City have been battling just to survive. In the season that Alex Ferguson took over at Old Trafford (1986), City were relegated. They returned two years later and stabilized, but a three-year period of Brian Horton and then Alan Ball in the mid-90s saw the club lose control and career off the road like a car full of screaming clowns. They eventually returned, but never as equals to United. For City, it seemed the best they could hope for was sharing a division with their rivals, not the limelight. Or so it seemed until 2007.
The arrival of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as owner was the moment that City fans first began to believe their club might have a chance of catching up. Little did they realize, he was just the warmup man. Shinawatra brought in Sven Goran Eriksson, this being a period when you could do that kind of thing with a straight face, and City roared into the top three as Christmas approached. It didn't last. Having won nine games in the first four months of the season, City won only six in the last six and were walloped 8-1 by Middlesbrough on the last day. Eriksson was sacked and replaced by Mark Hughes. Shinawatra, facing dark allegations of corruption back home in Thailand, had his assets frozen and was later sentenced in absentia to two years imprisonment.
That left the door open for the Abu Dhabi United Group, which was handy as they had several large trucks full of money to reverse into the car park. They snatched Real Madrid's Robinho out of Chelsea's hands so quickly that Robinho himself didn't seem to notice.
"Chelsea made a great proposal and I accepted," he told reporters at his introductory news conference at the Eastlands Stadium.
"Erm...you mean Manchester City, right?" asked a journalist.
"Yeah, Manchester. Sorry!" said Robinho.
In fairness to Robinho, very few people could keep up with what was happening at the club. It was hard to accurately express just how rich the new owners were, a dilemma they helpfully tried to solve by frantically spending more money than anyone had ever spent on a soccer team. Ever. But City finished 10th in the first season of the new era and, only sixth before Christmas 2009, Hughes was fired and replaced by Roberto Mancini.
Mancini laid down foundations. Though he couldn't deliver a top four finish in his first half-season, he did stabilize the club and begin to impose his will on a dressing room full of forthright players, a number of whom had proved their truculence by agitating for moves from their previous employers. The next season, playing his cards carefully, he delivered the FA Cup and, far more importantly, access to the cash trough that is the Champions League. Now he has them on the brink of glory, one game away from regaining the lead at the top of table after a slump in form threatened to destroy the season.
They have worked hard for this, and they have spent harder. Hundreds of millions of pounds have gone on transfer fees, hundreds of millions more on wages. According to
Of course, City fans are swift to point out that United didn't exactly win £30 million ($48M) striker Wayne Rooney in a raffle. They will also remind you that Ferguson's spending in the early years could hardly be described as frugal. Brian McClair and Steve Bruce cost approximately £1.75 million between them in 1987, Mark Hughes a similar amount a year later. The £2.3 million ($3.7M) paid out for Gary Pallister in 1989 was a then British record for a defender, and that's before we get to the likes of Andy Cole (£7M in 1995), Dwight Yorke (£12M in 1998), Ruud van Nistelrooy (£19M in 2001) and Juan Sebastian Veron (£28M in 2001). Nevertheless, the general perception in England and beyond is that City have tried to buy the title.
But while this may look like a battle between new money and a traditional powerhouse, or the early leaders against the resolute champions, for the people of Manchester, it's something far more primal. This is about either holding on to decades of supremacy, or snatching it from their oppressors and beating them around the head with it. This is about bragging rights and dignity, the reception they will be given when they go to work on Monday morning. For the people of Manchester, this match is purely about pride.