x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The rivalry at Old Trafford is changing

With City flush with money from their new owners, fans have enjoyed their rise. That it has coincided with United being plunged into debt is a bonus.

Manchester United fans let off flares before their match against Manchester City.
Manchester United fans let off flares before their match against Manchester City.

The rival Manchester United and City supporters flood out of the City of Manchester Stadium together into the cold darkness of the Mancunian night.

In years past, the police would hold back visiting fans while the area around the stadium was cleared. It was a dubious tactic. The delay allowed the battle lines to be drawn and for the power in the crowd to grow, for those looking for trouble to congregate and gesticulate.

Football hooliganism has been in decline in England for more than two decades, but it has not been eradicated, especially at high-profile fixtures between big rivals such as United and City.

It is still edgy and nervy outside the away end following the 0-0 draw. The eyes of the world were watching events on the pitch, but 10 minutes after the end of the game it is the eyes of the hundreds of police officers watching the crowd disperse off it. The police are on foot, in riot vans, on horseback and in a helicopter, which hovers ominously above with a spotlight concentrated on the scenes below.

The 3,000 United fans are like a tributary running into a bigger river. And, like water merging with water, few know who anyone else is. Hardly any of the United fans wear red - it isn't advisable for fear of being picked off like the brother of one United reserve player last season. He wore his red shirt with pride. Unfortunately, he had no idea about the nuances of fan culture in Manchester and was assaulted by angry City fans. The same thing would have happened the other way round.

A few angry Blues aim taunts in the direction of United fans. "We're having a party when Fergie dies," they sing. Older, wiser Blues tell them to grow up.

Two fireworks are thrown towards the area where City think the United fans are. The firework explodes at the feet of a City fan. It is tense and not for the faint-hearted. It feels like trouble could break out at any minute, but it does not. The police have taken a calculated risk and it has paid off. Just.

The enmity has always been present between the fans, but the Manchester rivalry is changing.

"On paper we look very good going into this game," said Steve Price, a City season-ticket holder, before the match. "Our team have not fully gelled yet, but we're getting there inch by inch. … I'm on the verge of thinking that United are a fading force, but what I learned last season is that you can never write United off because they know how to win."

"United know how to win on memory," added his friend, Steve Craven. "But I think we are better individually." With City flush with money from their new owners, fans have enjoyed their rise.

That it has coincided with United being plunged into debt by the loathed Glazer family, who own the club, is a bonus. But United are still the top dogs in Britain's football-mad city. They finished higher in the league last season and won another trophy - Sir Alex Ferguson's 30th since taking charge in 1986.

Reds mock Blues because they haven't won a trophy in 34 years, but they know that City are an emerging force, that sooner or later they have to win something.

Suddenly, United fans are looking to their own doorstep to see the club's greatest threat to their status as England's most successful club in the past 20 years.

City fans, so often pessimistic and used to heartbreak are now more confident, and with good reason. They feel that their club is closing in on success, even if they know that they will not become England's pre-eminent team overnight.

sports@thenational.ae