Ferguson v Mancini in what is quite possibly the biggest Manchester derby *ever* is imminent. However, we've been here before....
“If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself. What we call chaos is just patterns we haven’t recognised.”
Chuck Palahniuk, US novelist
“It’s all just a little bit of history repeating”
Alex Gifford, “The Propellerheads”
With high expectations, the Manchester clubs kicked off the 2011/12 football season during a warm yet sultry August to a backdrop of civil disobedience and unrest. One of Europe’s capital cities was under attack from its own disaffected youth. The nation’s authorities and moral hand wringers struggled to comprehend how this situation had escalated so far, so quickly. Politicians, spooked by the turn of events demanded in Parliament that troops be deployed on our high streets.
Those very same troops, those that remained following the swinging axe of the Coalitions’ austerity budget, were required in warmer climes still. The war in Iraq is officially over, yet troops remain. Afghanistan remains a tinder box, a smoldering incendiary that flares up periodically on the UK news to report casualties.
Closer to home, yet far enough away that Britain can watch on in fascination, social media brings us graphic news that the Arab Spring rages on. Tunisia, then Egypt fall to a popular uprising. Protests in the wake of Tunisia’s revolt spread through much of the Arab world. Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi is captured and killed. Syria continues to burn up column inches as the death toll rises.
It is to this bewildering backdrop that the football season progresses. The light blues began this campaign like a tracer bullet. Buried under an avalanche of goals, opponents are vanquished and City head the table. One by one, like the leaves of autumn, challengers have been shed. By March, only one realistic opponent remains. Leading his charges, the grand patriarch of modern football, Sir Alex Ferguson, reflects that he has been in this position before – many times.
Have the Citizens got the stamina for the battle? Anodyne panelists, blind to football before the Premier League think not. This is a unique position to many – A Mancunian drag race to the title. City fuelled by petro-dollars and an insatiable hunger, take on the top dogs.
Football fans of a certain vintage may be forgiven for experiencing the imperceptible twinges of déjà vu. For the first time since 1968 the two Manchester clubs are slugging it out for the right to be crowned as the League Champions. Remarkably consistent throughout the campaign, and with barely a cigarette papers’ gap between them, the city rivals seem to be heading inexorably towards a photo finish.
On 5 May this year, Manchester City will travel to the north east to play their final away fixture of the campaign. This is a remarkable echo of the climax to the 1967/8 season, when 20,000 sky blues supporters made the trip to Newcastle to witness the denouement of an uncannily similar close contest. At kick off that day, the blues and reds were level on points, with City perching precariously on the throne by virtue of the slenderest of margins – a superior goal average.
Then, as now, clinching the championship would be anything but straightforward for the Blues. Bookmakers, snug in their Crombie overcoats, made United slight favourites for the title. Newcastle were a strong team at home, whilst neighbours United, the reigning champions, were that same day at home to a Sunderland side who had only recently cast aside relegation worries. Who do the 2012 vintage of red devils play in their final match of this season? Sunderland.
Off the field, those with longer memories may draw alternate parallels between now and then. Social division, international unrest, racial tensions, economic hardship, strikes and violent student demonstrations all came together in a perfect storm to provide the 2011/12 season with a vivid and sometimes nightmarish backdrop. You may be forgiven for thinking that such a confluence of events was unprecedented. You would be wrong.
‘There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely there will ever be again’, wrote Mark Kurlansky in his enlightening book, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. ‘At a time when nations and cultures were still very different there occurred a spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world.’
As the Manchester giants matched each other stroke for stroke in their pursuit of the title, the world was changing quickly. The increasingly unpopular Vietnam War was becoming the catalyst for demonstrations driven by a youthful desire to rebel against the establishment and all that was outmoded. At times, they took on a life of their own. The rage of youth burned at a breathtaking pace during that tumultuous year, not only in the United States, but also in Mexico City, Berlin, Paris and Rome.
As with the Middle East, popular uprisings against a totalitarian and despotic state flared. Warsaw and Prague saw anti Communist protests ruthlessly fought, but unlike the modern versions, these mutinies were to be ultimately crushed.
Across the pond; tragedy. One assassination is one too many for any country. But for America in 1968 there were two. On April the 5, 1968, The Rev Martin Luther King, unofficial leader of the American people was shot. Bobby Kennedy was to follow later in the year.
Closer to home, Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “Rivers of blood” speech criticising Commonwealth immigration. This wasn’t the only time race hit the headlines. Later in the year, the South African government objected to Basil D’Oliveira’s inclusion on in an England cricketing touring party because he wasn’t white. The tour was subsequently cancelled.
Just one solitary month after the untimely death of Martin Luther King, at St. James Park the clock ticked inevitably towards 3 pm. For Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison it was simple, if indeed anything is ever simple for City. Go out and win, and come back as heroes.
The whistle blew, yet it was the home team who settled first. Newcastle’s Jim Scott arrowed a dipping shot onto the crossbar as goalkeeper Ken Mulhearn lay beaten. However within 13 minutes Summerbee had given City the advantage – it was not to last long.
As the 20,000 City fans celebrated and the players drew breath, the magpies launched a stunning counter attack. Within a minute, the ball lay in the City net as Bryan “Pop” Robson wheeled away in delight at such a quick fire response.
The match settled down, and as half time approached the players thoughts turned to a restorative orange quarter and a cup of tea, whilst the fans began queuing for a Bovril or something stronger. This reverie would be broken – Neil Young blasted his team ahead only for Newcastle to repeat their earlier trick and catch the blues cold once again. This time it was to be Sinclair crashing in a magnificent equaliser.
Returning to the dressing room, the blues were given some unexpectedly good news. Despite another goal from George Best, Sunderland were leading United 2-1. Malcolm Allison regrouped the troops, the game and the title was there to be won.
Within minutes of the restart, City were ahead Neil Young when pounced again. And when Francis Lee drove a fierce shot beyond McFaul in the 63rd minute the title was won. The home stadium turned blue, and not even a late Mulhearn header could dampen the mood.
110 miles to the South, Sunderland had held on to a famous victory and the trophy would be decked in sky blue ribbons for the first time since 1937.
Within the month however, United had cast any disappointment aside. Led by the breathtaking skills of George Best, the reds overpowered Benfica in extra time to become the first English side to lift the European Cup.
It was 10 years since the horrific Munich air crash that had so cruelly decimated the club. Manchester rejoiced in the twin triumphs of its heroes as both teams ended the season is dramatic triumph.
The narratives of 1968 and 2011/12 are remarkably similar. Viewing the past through the lens of the present affords one a stunning insight and perspective. It’s easy to draw parallels where maybe there are none. The human mind inevitably wants to see patterns and order where perhaps only chaos and coincidence exist.
As in 1968, 2012 is a summer Olympic year. It is once again a Leap Year. As in 1968 civil disobedience has made its presence felt. As in 1968 democratic uprisings take centre stage on the geo-political agenda. As in 1968 racism and has reared its ugly head, tainting the sporting world. As in 1968, a legendary manager stands in the way of a first Manchester City championship for two generations.
In 1968, Manchester City clinched the League title, and replaced Manchester United as League Champions.
In 1969, Football legend Sir Matt Busby has announced he will retire as manager of Manchester United at the end of the season, stating “It’s time to make way for a younger man”
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