Football Is Life

It might be the first soccer blog (to be called football from here on) I've ever done here but if one day deserves a bit of talking about it is yesterday.

It had been somewhat of a strange week in Manchester. With the services to commemorate the Munich air disaster 50th anniversary hanging over the proceedings like a grey, sad cloud the match almost didn't matter. But they still wanted it to be perfect, and so they should. Perhaps the occasion got to Man United a little - or perhaps saying that is just a way of taking some credit away from my magnificent team. A team I have been so rarely proud of like I was yesterday. I've spent my entire life being disappointed by my team, Manchester City. They have consistently failed to do anything matching our richer, more popular neighbours, Manchester United, for nigh on 20 years now.

You can trace the history and traditions of the city of Manchester through its football teams. In the 50s, when both teams were good and one was struck by tragedy. In the 60s and early 70s when both teams were excellent, as good as each other. In the 80s when both teams were pretty poor. And then, a turning point - September 1989. A Maine Road hammering of United by City, scoreline 5-1. The United fans shouting 'Fergie out' at the hapless manager. But from then it turned. They won the then Rumbelows Cup in 1990 and capitalised on that with the European Cup Winners Cup in 1991. And from that point City have descended while United have prospered. They have become the biggest, richest, best supported team on earth while City have struggled in the doldrums. Now, with new investment we have started to rise, very slowly, from the ashes. I can't say where it will all end. I'm quite sure we will never be as famous or popular as them and nor would I wish to be. They're welcome to their overseas superstores and lucrative Dubai trips. I care about my team first. I'm a City fan, not a United hater.

At first it seemed like having the Old Trafford derby the weekend after the Munich anniversary was a pretty poor idea. Both clubs had the chance to object and, for reasons unknown, didn't. Rumour flew that some City fans (not really fans – United haters first, City fans a distant second, I have no respect for those people) were planning to disrupt the minutes silence before the game. The machines of both clubs swung into action. Warnings were given to the fans from both clubs, the media and even, in a very ill advised and idiotic last minute attack, a United player (Scholes). City were under the microscope and I feared the worst. A few boozed up louts might shame us all. I half expected to hear a few lone yelps followed by a thud as the City fans surrounding the offenders gave them a well-deserved smack in the face. I had been dreading the game and it dominated my thoughts all last week. In recent years our home record against United has drastically improved. After that famous 1989 win we didn't beat them again until 2003 - in the last Maine Road derby before the stadium move, Shaun Goater scored his 100th City goal to beat United. In the list of great footballing days of my life it was right up there with the Cup win at Spurs (3-0 down with 10 men, won 4-3) and the 1999 play off final against Gillingham (still the single greatest City related day of my life). After that we'd beaten them at home in the first derby at our new stadium, 4-1. We'd even beaten them, undeservedly, earlier this season at home.

But away from home, at Old Trafford? No wins in 27 games. No win since April 1974. Yes, 1974. My parents had been married for only a few weeks then. We hadn't beaten United away in my lifetime. I have seen all kinds of derbies there - robbed by a ref's whistle a few years ago of a perfectly good Goater winner, the draw following thug Roy Keane's career-ending assault on City player Haaland, a thoroughly depressing 5-0 hammering and so on. It's miserable playing there and on the very rare occasions we have scraped a draw I've greeted it with happiness and relief. It's just not a place anyone wins. United lose about once or twice a season at home, if that. Even teams ten times better than us like Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool often come away with little or nothing from a trip there. They have a home record that is the envy of most clubs on earth. They expect to win every home game and so they should. With four important players, all suspended, missing (two each – Rooney/Evra for them, Corluka/Elano for us) I thought the playing field, Ronaldo excepted, was relatively even. Though an excellent player I knew Tevez would find it hard to outplay man mountain and club captain Richard Dunne. The tactics had to be spot on or we'd be on the receiving end of an emotionally charged beating.

I tried to walk calmly to the pub with my iPod on. I switched it on and grinned as Don't Look Back In Anger came on random play. Oasis are the City band, always have been. I was a nervous wreck. The stadium was awash with red and white scarves, specially made for the day and given to each fan. The 3000 City fans in one corner had the same scarves, though blue and white of course. The managers walked with wreaths to the centre of the pitch and laid them down in remembrance as I felt tears welling up. And then the moment came, the silence. I held my breath and stood up in tribute in my local, a sparsely populated Arsenal pub. I blinked away tears as the fans held their scarves high and the players stood immovably. You could have heard a pin drop. Some fireworks were let off outside the stadium during the minute, which briefly confused me, but no-one batted an eyelid. They knew what they had to do. One might say, why should fans get praise for behaving properly? To say that is to underestimate the hatred that has grown between United and City fans in the years since the Munich disaster, back when many fans supported both teams. That was the 50s, things were different then. A nasty, greedy, Thatcherite veil has come down across this country in the last 20 years. Mean-spiritedness is the norm at football games. As well as good natured banter there's a nastier edge to football now, which no doubt partially comes from the increased corporate image of the game. It started when fans stopped being called fans and became consumers.

Well not this time. In that stadium were 76,000 people who felt it together. As one entity, as one city united in grief. I feared the worst and my faith in the best of people was restored. That was really all that mattered yesterday, the silence. The demonstration that for one minute people could reach out to each other and hold hands when usually they would hurl abuse. Football became honourable and pure and untouched by corporate greed, local rivalry and mean-spiritedness in that moment. It was one of the great moments I've experienced and I only wish I had been at home with my dad to celebrate it. So with the blown whistle came the sigh of relief across the 1 million-plus Manchester inhabitants who knew the world was watching. And now the usual United win could commence even with United without Rooney, City without Elano - arguably the two clubs two most important players. In the first minute Ronaldo got the ball and no less than three City players surrounded him, snapping at his heels. The tactics were clear - stop Ronaldo, stop United. How simple is that? But my god, it worked. He barely had a kick - not because of his own bad play, because he was not allowed to play. Not given the room and space that other teams give him and live to regret. He was crowded out, pushed, harried and, every so often, kicked. His own frustration, which led to typical petulance, came bubbling to the surface a couple of times. He never had two yards of space around him. And thus, United were impotent.

Tevez and Giggs were shackled by the tenacious, determined and tough Dunne and Richards. Scholes was not at his best and was repeatedly embarrassed by the talented Swiss youngster Gelson Fernandes. In the first half the best United player on the pitch, Anderson, walked all over City's Stephen Ireland. In the second half that was reversed. Hamann, who I only wish was a decade younger, was in complete control of midfield, his brain working a hundred times faster than his ageing legs. United looked dangerous going forward as they always do. But they ran into brick walls time after time. And when they got past the hard working Ball or England U21 international youngster Onouha they bumped into his England U21 team-mate, keeper Joe Hart, whose decision making still needs work but looks the real thing. And leading the line, our new signing Benjani. This guy looks the real deal. Thank you Jermain Defoe - if you hadn't settled for an easy life in Portsmouth instead of fighting for the Big Four place your talent deserves Portsmouth would never have sold Benjani. He was powerful, intelligent, did the simple things well, didn't give the ball away and held it up like the complete 29-year-old striker he is.

The first half was even. United weren't allowed to get going so they struggled. One man's poor home performance is another man's great away display. In order to win at Old Trafford you have to take advantage of weakness and we smelled blood. With two wins in twelve games for us and United going for fourteen wins in a row at home the odds were stacked against us but something happened - we scored. A United style counter attack, a jet speed break up the field and, after a poor initial shot, Vassell fired the ball home and ran towards the barely believing City faithful in the corner. And then, we started to believe. From that point onwards, despite my palpitating heart which lasted until the final whistle, we were taking punches and hitting back. We were standing up to the biggest boy in his own backyard. They found limitless heart and strength on a day where United should have won easily. A minute before half time a wickedly whipped in cross from Petrov was flicked into the net by Benjani. How could I ask for more? A goal on his debut at Old Trafford. Half time. Dazed, I exited the pub to buy some fags to calm my nerves. My stomach was churning, my head spinning. It felt like I was asleep and having the footballing dream I couldn't imagine - 2-0 up at half time at Old Trafford. But I'm no fool. I remembered a mid 90s game where we went 2-0 up by half time, with a Niall Quinn brace, and lost 3-2 to a late Giggs winner. And that was at Maine Road, not even an away derby! No chickens would be counted.

I settled into my seat for a heart-thumping, nervy, hand-wringing second half. The Arsenal fans in the pub couldn't understand it. 'You're winning, you should be thinking of 3-0, you're so defeatist'. I attempted to explain that I had been kicked in the teeth so many times that I couldn't bear to assume anything. Emotional insurance, I call it. 'You're mad, that's why you never do well, you defeat yourself'. I took a breath and replied, 'When you've been in the third division tell me that again. It's called humility. It's something that hasn't reached the south yet'. He didn't reply. I hope, no matter what happens to my team, I am never like that. That sense of self-entitlement and arrogance is why I've never liked Londoners much. My mind was racing. We were holding them off and playing well but United are known for late goals. The crowd roared the team forward as the City fans, who could barely believe what they were witnessing, sung their hearts out. There was no complacency here, no certainty that we would win and no taking for granted how hard getting to the finish line would be. I bit my nails until they were invisible. I fidgeted and chatted distractedly with another Arsenal fan next to me. He told me to keep calm. I resisted the urge to glare at him. A little late for that I'd say.

With a few moments to go I started to relax and realised we might actually do this. As the clock ticked past 90 mins into 3 of injury time I allowed myself a smile - and then United scored. Just shows, you should never celebrate before the whistle. Talk about tempting fate. But even then, when the team could have had a last minute panic, they didn't. They stood firm and tall and batted away every desperately lofted ball. The goal kick sailed high into the crisp Manchester air and the whistle was blown. We had won at Old Trafford. I'll say that again - we had won at Old Trafford. I confess, I thought it was a day I might never see in my lifetime. There's nothing quite like breaking a decades old hoodoo. I felt like this when we won the last derby at Maine Rd/first derby at the COM stadium. I punched the air as a huge beaming grin spread across my face and I've been stuck that way ever since. I'm quite sure I've freaked out random passers-by with my plastered immovable smile today. I almost felt sorry for United, doing this to them on their most sacred of days. After the game their manager fled the country. No really, he did. A pre-planned trip to South Africa - but he left without a word to the press. He'd once confessed that when we beat them 5-1 all those years ago he went home, put his head under a pillow and didn't come out for 24 hours. He's a bad loser and all the best managers are.

United assistant manager Queiroz tried to blame the international call-ups the week before for the lacklustre performance, saying many of the United players had been tired. Perhaps he forgot that just as many City players were also called up and played 90 mins midweek for their countries? It wasn't like the home win in August when we were hugely fortunate to win. This time we deserved it - and not because United were bad, but because we were good. And once we scored we believed we could win. And when it comes to beating United, or indeed any team or foe better and bigger than you, belief is half of the battle. United were surprised to not have an easy derby game, like they have often had in recent years. We surprised ourselves. And we got our karmic reward for every single City soul in that stadium showing our respect to United and their loss in a very difficult emotional week for them. I walked on clouds out of the pub as the emotion overwhelmed me and tears welled in my eyes. When we win, I call home and shout loudly down the phone. This time I called home and my dad talked while I stayed silent for a while - I had no energy to speak. He told me he was drained. My emotional and mental energy had been sapped too. But hearing his voice, his glowing happiness over the phone, gave me my energy back and we talked animatedly about the players and the game. None of this felt real. I watched the highlights just to make sure it was.

It was.