Typical City

Posted by Simon Curtis

When Denis Law back-heeled an unspectacular goal into the net at the Scoreboard End at the then unreconstructed Old Trafford on April 27, 1974, a young boy's love affair with football began in earnest. The ball barely trickled over the line. It wasn't a 30-yard humdinger or a cheeky overhead kick. It hardly reached the netting at the back of the goal, but it had a beauty and a symmetry that was utterly beguiling. It seemed like the perpetrator of the act and his accomplices had arrived from another dimension.

And the drama it created had me completely transfixed.

Onto the pitch ran hundreds of young men with wildly flared trousers, tanktops, feather-cut shoulder length hair, Doc Martens and red and white scarves tied around their wrists. It was like the Day of the Triffids only they were moving much faster. This then was the penultimate day of the 1973-74 season (Manchester United still had an away game at Stoke's Victoria Ground to negotiate) with the Reds attempting to avoid relegation to a second division containing Oxford United and Carlisle. After 80 minutes of frenetic and largely unwholesome football, Colin Bell broke forward across the rutted turf and played in Francis Lee, whose reverse ball into the box found former United legend Denis Law with his back to goal. A simple swing of the leg as the ball arrived sent the ball skidding gently past the hapless Alex Stepney and into the goal. Out of lethargic sun-drenched boredom had come a lightning bolt of the largest and loudest proportions.

"Denis has done it!" shrieked Gerald Sindstadt on Granada TV, the words embedded into the subconscious of every City fan.

Law I seem to remember was almost immediately substituted - both for his own safety and his peace of mind - and never kicked a ball in anger in the Football League again. The Bay City Rollers Mob on the pitch were doing their level best to force an abandonment of this crucial game. United were heading down the pan. Despite the quite wonderful anarchy, the result stood. Manchester United were in the second division. People often love to write that City relegated the reds that afternoon at Old Trafford, but results elsewhere had a bearing on the outcome too. Alas, City alone cannot take full responsibility for what turned out to be a kind of mercy killing of Manchester United.

Whilst Law - a hangdog expression playing across his features whilst the staunch City-ites Colin Bell and Mike Doyle slapped his chops and ruffled his hair - would never play for the Blues or anyone else again (bar a limp showing for Scotland at that summer's World Cup finals in West Germany), United spent a single season caning the living daylights out of Oxford and Carlisle, before returning to the First Division the next season emboldened and rejuvenated under Tommy Docherty.

This was so absurd as to be quite unnervingly beautiful to a spotty eight year old. My new Blue heroes had sent the red menace packing, only for it to return twice as strong a year later. What marvellous irony. What delicious bad luck. I was instantly and hopelessly in love.

City's relationship with United has continued very much along those lines for the thirty-odd years I have followed them. Every minor success trumped in an instant. A league title in '68? United won a tear-drenched, emotion charged European Cup days later. 5-1 slaughter in '89? A horrible Andrei Kanchelskis-inspired 5-0 drubbing soon followed at Old Trafford.

Since that historic back-heel, United haven't given Blues followers too many opportunities to feel giddy. Mostly just bitter. I still occasionally wake up in a terrible lather after yet another dream sequence featuring the afore-mentioned Kanchelskis skinning poor one-paced David Brightwell yet again. I try to balance all this damp hysteria with thoughts of Brightwell's brother Ian "just wellying it", of David Cross, Dennis Tueart and Kevin Reeves all nodding in at the Scoreboard End, of Michael Robinson scoring a "goal to grace any derby match", of Keith Curle returning from the penalty spot with a City fan draped around his neck, of little Shaun Wright-Philips and his wobbly arm celebration, of Shaun Goater and Benjani, of Uwe Rosler and Trevor Sinclair. They have all put the ball in the United net over the years, a moment that produces a bigger high for City fans than any other in the league programme could ever manage.

And so it is in 2013. City, title holders, go to Old Trafford with United closing in on "their" trophy. We have had our fun. Now they want it back. This is just typical isn't it? Well, in a way, it is typical. Typical City means these sorts of things happening time and again over a period of 35 years. It means taking bitter blows, being embarrassed, trying not to cry in public. But Typical City also has another, delicious, mischievous side. The one that allows the Blues to head to Old Trafford on the Munich Anniversary as overwhelming underdogs and come away with a 2-1 win (the first, in 2008, since Denis struck his farewell shot all those long years ago). It allows City to go to Old Trafford under all the pressure in the world to reveal their new much vaunted status is not a big, heavily priced joke, and come away with a 6-1 win that shook the football world. Typical City is what binds us all together, for we know not when or how it will strike next, but be assured it will strike again just when it is least expected.

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