x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

United v City not for the faint-hearted

Columnist Andrew Cole recalls the buzz of the Manchester derby and how he played for both United and City in the games that shook the city.

Let me take you inside the dressing rooms ahead of a Manchester derby. I played for both teams and I am proud that I was never on the losing side.

I used to get a buzz from the Manchester derby, just as the players of both sides will when they meet at Old Trafford tomorrow.

It did not matter that I was not from Manchester, it did not matter that Roy Keane was from Cork in the Republic of Ireland, David Beckham was from London or Dwight Yorke was from Tobago in the Caribbean.

We all spent enough time at Old Trafford to become rooted in the fabric of the club. I had not grown up in Manchester like Wes Brown, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, or in nearby Bury like Gary and Phil Neville, but all those Mancunians in the team made sure that we knew the importance of the game. I knew already.

Like my teammates, I learnt the history of the club and their main rivals - though in the 1990s City were not one of them in a playing sense. They are now, but until recently United were on another level.

Not that we could let our guard down. The build up in the week leading up to the derby took many forms. Fans would collar you on the streets, in shops or in the supermarket. They would come up and shake your hand and tell you to score against City. Or City fans would instruct me to have an off game on Saturday.

My family have made Manchester our home. We never thought we would stay. Now we think we will never leave. We are happy here and we know how much of a football city the place is. I have a huge amount of respect for City, but I am a United fan.

Unfortunately, I am in a minority of one in my own home. My son Devante plays at City and they have been great with him. He's City. My daughter supports her brother so she's City. And my wife, a London girl, isn't too fussed about any of the Manchester teams. Tomorrow should be fun.

When I played, I had friends who were United fans and City fans. They would be talking about the game for weeks ahead.

Pride was at stake, bragging rights - yet the last thing the players would do is brag. What mattered was what we did on the pitch.

City were relegated in 1996 and slipped as low as the third division. We did not see them in the Premier League again until 2000.

I was glad to return to Maine Road when they came back. That was a proper football ground with four stands which looked completely different.

The crowd did not like us - and that's being diplomatic.

But that only encouraged me more when the game started. You don't hear the crowd then. It all fades into the background, unless you are playing badly, in which case you hear every comment aimed at you. A few years later, I was playing for City. One or two of their fans did not like the fact that I had been a United player.

I did nothing except put my head down and work to the best of my ability and got a few goals. The fans saw that and were soon supporting me and did not want me to leave in the end.

It was weird to go back to Old Trafford as a City player. To go into the away dressing room.

I still knew everyone there, the tea ladies and the ground staff. I had been back with other teams, but this was the derby when the fans were more tense, louder and more expectant.

I knew all my old teammates and made sure I said hello to them before the game. But once the whistle blew, they were not mates.

I did not know what kind of reception I would get from the United fans wearing the blue of City, but they were good, even though we drew one game and won the other.

They might have been a bit different had I scored the winning goal for City. But as I said, I was never on the losing side and I had a good relationship with both sets of fans.

Carlos Tevez is a great player, but he cannot lay claim to either of those achievements.

Andrew Cole is the second-leading goalscorer in Premier League history. His column is written with the assistance of correspondent Andy Mitten