In 1999 Manchester United under Alex Ferguson (back then he was known as ‘just’ Alex and not ‘Sir’) were on the verge of a unique treble never before seen in English football as their star studded side won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in remarkable flamboyant fashion with the likes of Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, Keane & co playing an attacking football philosophy with a never say die attitude that earned plaudits throughout the world.
That very same year (1998/99) Manchester City finished third behind Fulham & Walsall in the Second Division of the Football League (England’s third tier of professional football). City managed by Joe Royle with bustling centre half Andy Morrison as skipper, Michael Brown in midfield and the Goat & Dickov up top were also gutsy, taking a leaf out of United’s Champions League winning book a few days earlier to turn around a final in stoppage time from 0-2 down and eventually go through on penalties in the playoffs verses Gillingham.
IF first Kevin Horlock then Paul Dickov had not scored injury time goals for City in the Wembley final against the Gills that day things might have been so much different? That said if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham failed to net for United in last gasp fashion at the Nou Camp against Munich, we might not be talking about that particular legendary team as much as we rightly remember them for their eventual achievements. Perhaps ‘Sir’ Alex Ferguson might not even have been crowned ‘Sir’.
To think 20 years on a team in the third tier of English football is now not just the best team in Manchester, but one of the most idolised and feared in Europe for the players they have and style they play, and to think Manchester United, the three times Champions of Europe themselves are these days struggling to compete amongst the countries elite despite having still one of the biggest budgets in world football? Oh how things of changed.
City were heavily backed to even go one better than United’s 99 achievements this year, after winning the League Cup in February the odds slimmed to an unprecedented quadruple, although that eventually and thrillingly succumbed to Spurs and VAR in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League. City despite this slip up have been one of the continents most impressive forces under Pep Guardiola, they should win the FA Cup this year, they now have the league title in their own hands, a domestic treble is not to be sniffed at.
As for United, the rebuilding since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement has not gone to plan. A lot of money has been spent and a lot of Managers have failed, first Moyes, then van Gaal, most recently Mourinho. Now Solskjaer may need time, at least he has the fans backing despite recent bad results, I think now the United supporters understand that they are no longer following a team that just has to turn up to win games, as they might of expected in years gone by under Ferguson at times.
For Guardiola and City he should finish the season off winning every game which will guarantee two more trophies to his already huge collection, but to match the dominance of the great side of Sir Alex from down the road, he must win in Europe, he must win the Champions League and the toughest prize of all and with it break the Citizens duck to become Continental Champions. If he fails at that, despite all the great attractive football his teams play, Pep wouldn’t have fulfilled his potential with City, so this must happen within the next 2/3 years whilst he has what is on paper the best squad in club football.
To speak of the pressures and Manchester City as a dominant force in Europe, a team that I’ve grown up with remembering the likes of David White, Paul Lake, Georgi Kinkladze & Uwe Rosler a team pleasing on the eye but never that troubling to even the top half of teams in England’s top flight, but one now that since the funding of Sheikh Mansour & co is seriously considered amongst the world’s elite. It’s clear that City are now far and away the best team in Manchester, they are most probably the best team in England (although Liverpool will run them close) but to ‘be’ the best team in Europe they need to achieve what Mansour and what Guardiola has come to City to achieve.
United’s pressures are now very different. In some ways they have less pressure than their ‘noisy neighbours’, Ed Woodward and co will now need to decide whether they back Ole Solskjaer long term and whether they back him with cash. United have spent a fortune in recent times without success, their plans now need to be a little less immediately ambitious, with a view perhaps at looking at the bigger and brighter future of the club.
If United finish sixth this season it will be two or three below par, but they might now accept that seeing out their holes on this course with a view to looking at their next competition and following season would be more sensible than taking a wild swing at a tough looking target in the hope that Champions League football would paper over their cracks.
United now need time, the club needs to have faith in the Management team they have employed and time, only time will tell if they can slowly bridge the widening gap that is making the blue half of the city very much Manchester’s number one.
And even if it takes 20 years so be it… Football swings and roundabouts suggests that it’s always been a funny old game. Their time will certainly come again.