Saturday November 9th, 2002. 2:14pm.
Fabian Barthez parries Shaun Goater’s shot. The ball bobbles across the six-yard line and into the path of Nicolas Anelka. Time stops.
In my mind’s eye, Maine Road lives forever in this single freeze frame. For fans who could not remember, or weren’t alive when City had last beaten United (5-1 in 1989), the final Manchester Derby that Moss Side would ever see was not just a long overdue good day.
It was catharsis.
I don’t believe it is an overstatement to say that fans born after 1980 needed City to win this game. Needed in the Maslowian sense. I know, claiming that the result of football match was pivotal to my adolescent psychological welfare sounds like a wild exaggeration. But it’s not. There’s definitely a case to be made that my happiness should not have been tethered to the performance of the (then) least reliable team in England. I blame my dad. His decision to take me to Maine Road fatally aligned my school days with City’s darkest period and United’s golden age.
Growing up Blue in Manchester in the 1990s and 2000s was, to put it mildly, character-building. In the five seasons prior to the last Maine Road derby, City had been either relegated or promoted. It was never dull, but that doesn’t mean that it was especially enjoyable. Any “success” paled in comparison to the dominance being enjoyed in Stretford. A fortnight before City escaped Division Two by the skin of their teeth in the Play-Off Final, United had staged their own injury time comeback at Camp Nou to win the Champions League and complete an unprecedented treble. The 40,000 plus Blues at Wembley two weeks later told them where they could stick it, but still. The gap between the two sides was cavernous.
Even when City returned to Premier League playing total football under Kevin Keegan in 2002, the idea that they could finish above United was science fiction. The only opportunity that City had to land meaningful blows was to beat United when the teams met. Today, derby days are nerve-racking for City fans. Back then, they were torture.
Derbies in the 2000s were torture because, much as we liked to deny it, they were our cup finals. The last one at Maine Road had all the makings of a Typical City disaster-class. The Blues hadn’t beaten United for thirteen years; City’s first choice centre halves Steve Howey and Sylvain Distin had both limped off in a League Cup defeat to third-tier Wigan four days earlier (some things never change); and to cap it all off, playing in goal for City that day was United’s most decorated goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel. Literally anything could happen.
And it did – and not just on the pitch. About fifteen minutes before kick-off, the Maine Road public address system stopped. I *think* it was an electrical issue, but whatever it was; a fault, an intentional decision, sabotage, it doesn’t matter – it was magic. Much as I love Brainbug and Fatboy Slim, being part of the uninterrupted sound of 33,000 voices reverberating around the famous old ground remains one of the most spiritual quarters of an hour of my life. The singing devoured most of the pre-match nerves and helped us fans remember our job. When Paul Durkin blew his whistle at two o’clock, Maine Road was a wall of blue noise.
Shaun Goater would go on to steal the show (after stealing the ball from Gary Neville) with his 99th and 100th goals for the club, but it is the split-second before the first goal, four minutes in, that I think will live longest in my memory. That Saturday lunchtime in Moss Side, the crowd was so in-sync with the players that you felt able to see what was about to happen just before it did. As the ball rolled onto Nicolas Anelka’s right foot six yards out, it seemed like there was a collective breath in, and not just in preparation to celebrate. North, Main, Platt Lane and Kippax all inhaled the moment, savouring the experience of City taking the lead against United at Maine Road. And yes, then we went mad.
Towards the end of the game (like, very close to the end when we were certain that the 3-1 win couldn’t be Typical Citied away) “We’re the pride of Manchester” rang around the stadium with Helen’s bell. And that day, for the first time in (my) living memory, we were.
Before or since, I have never been so excited about a Monday.