The Manchester derby


So, today was fun. It was the Manchester derby.

Some explanation is needed. In the English Premier League, this is one of the biggest of all derby games (when two teams from the same city play each other). And at the moment, arguably the two best teams in the country are the two Manchester clubs. City in blue; United in red.

I was born in Manchester and my family tradition is blue. The city is pretty much evenly divided, blue and red. But since the early 1970s, United have had the upper hand much of the time. And since the 1990s, they had it pretty much all the time. City maintained a strong support base, but ended up yo-yoing from the top flight to the second tier of English football. And then, in 1998, they plummeted to the third tier.

Still, their support remained strong and committed. I saw a lot of games that season, mostly away. The football was dire, but the occasions were great. As a supporter it was great to go to the smaller grounds of lower-ranking clubs, where a visit from City was like a mini-cup-final. There were many low points though. 3-0 defeat away to Reading at the horrible Elm Park. 1-0 defeat away to Wycombe Wanderers mid week. And 0-0 at the dull Manor Ground to Oxford United.

Today’s game was a first for me, though. A first visit to enemy territory. Old Trafford. Back in the late 1990s City had a player from old East Germany, Uwe Rosler. He was a hero. There’s a famous City chant about Uwe’s grandad bombing Old Trafford (it was hit in 1941). Such is the feeling of the City fans towards their rivals.

I was a guest of Ben Smith of Concha y Toro, who are one of the many sponsors of Manchester United – their official wine brand. He managed to score a couple of tickets (these are pretty much impossible to get), and so we flew up for the day. It’s kind of ironic. The joke goes that most Manchester United fans, drawn by the success of the club, have no connection with Manchester, and many of them live in London. Here I was, doing the United fan cliche of flying to the game from down south, as a City fan.

We were seated high up in the gods in the east stand. Old Trafford is a vast stadium, made to feel even more vast by its uneven development. Twickenham (the rugby venue) is bigger (82000 versus 75000 capacity), but feels smaller because of the way that it’s built, with all stands the same size, so the ground has a coherence. Same with Wembley. Old Trafford has two stands with three tiers, but because of the way the roof overhangs, you don’t have a full view of  the rest of the stadium. It takes a while to get used to.

The game? It was pretty good, but ended up a 0-0 draw. I know this sounds boring, but it was a really engaging encounter. Both sides were well organized and cancelled each other out a bit. I think this report has it about right.

I was a little relieved at the result, to be honest. You see: I am one of those sad individuals who supports a sports team and cares about the outcome, even though I know this is silly on many levels. So had City scored, it would have been hard for me to contain my excitement, and even though football grounds are pretty safe places these days, it’s appallingly bad form to sit in the home area and cheer the away team.

On another level, though, following sports is fairly harmless and creates an interest. It’s something you can share with others. And, as with life, the outcome is entirely unpredictable. There’s the ever-attendant risk of failure, as well as the hope of success. It captures some of the emotions of real life in a different context. Today’s game was also a lovely break from real life: a chance to switch off and focus on something entirely different for a while. As for a wine connection? As with sport, with wine there is no guaranteed outcome. Whatever your competence level, whatever degree of winemaking ability, there is the vintage, which is beyond human control. Every year is akin to a fresh game. You can only deal with what is in front of you. Whatever the past form, there is always the opportunity for the underdog to cause a shock. Form comes and goes. Old stars fade; new ones emerge. And it is tremendous fun watching this all unfold.

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