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Column: United vs. City now a clash of equals
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND (AP) - As with Elvis Presley’s death or the Moon landing, those who care about Manchester City can recall where they were and what they were doing when a billionaire sheik from Abu Dhabi radically rerouted the trajectory of their soccer club and threatened to darken Alex Ferguson’s twilight years as manager of rival Manchester United.
City for years was Manchester’s other team, the poor cross-town cousin who could look on only with envy and sadness as United bounced from victory to victory under Ferguson and built a global, money-spinning brand that sells from Beijing to Baltimore and beyond.
To be a City fan required large amounts of loyalty and no small amounts of masochism and good humor. Former manager Peter Reid recalls that the club was so threadbare that he once paid for a team hotel with his own credit card. When Ferguson was leading United to the final of the 1999 European Cup, City was mired in the purgatory of English soccer’s lower leagues. Five months before United was crowned king of Europe, City sunk to its lowest league position ever, knee deep in England’s third tier.
Yet its fans still attended matches in droves, taking defeat on the chin and rolling their eyes at “typical city.” While United fans gleefully rubbed their hands, City supporters crossed fingers and hoped for better days.
One sheik and hundreds of millions of dollars later, their wait is over.
For the first time in a generation or more, the United vs. City match this Sunday _ the so-called “Manchester derby” _ will be a true contest of equals.
When referee Mark Clattenburg blows his whistle, City will field 11 players who can match United’s star-studded lineup for talent and experience.
They’ve already proved that by building a two-point league lead over United before this game. That could grow to five points if they win. Sunday could be so important in determining whether United or City wins the Premier League next May that Ferguson described it as “a six-pointer” _ a game that counts double.
In short, after so many years of more downs than ups, City fans now find themselves in a wondrous place.
“To say we’ve been on a roller coaster is a great term, really,” City’s life president, Bernard Halford, said in an interview. “We really went through the mill.”
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world when you’re in the same city and one side is very successful,” explained Mike Summerbee, who played nearly 450 times for City in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“You go to work every day, you bump into people who are there every day _ from the opposition, Manchester United supporters,” he added.
But now at City, “there’s a bounce about the place.”
In City’s gleaming offices, with their deep sofas, easy lighting and glassed-off spaces, there is the heady scent of revolution and money in the air. People speak with genuine awe and thanks about how the almost bottomless wealth of Sheik Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan is transforming the club he snapped up in 2008 and allowing its supporters to dream seriously about knocking United off its pedestal.
At times, the sheik is talked about in almost quasi-religious terms. Halford spoke of club employees “spreading the gospel on behalf of the sheik” and said: “He’s not just creating a football team, he’s creating a dynasty of warmth to people.”
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