With a rich history of urinating on their own party bonfires, they came in their masses to witness one thing or another: the feast of Steven or another raging embarrassment and damp squib.The first British winners of a European and domestic double had done so in the teeming rain of the Prater Stadium with the whole nation watching Chelsea v Leeds in the FA Cup final replay instead. Big Mal’s boy wonders had gone out of the FA Cup in the quagmire of Halifax. Alan Ball’s football genius tactics had brought Steve Lomas to the corner flag to time waste when City needed another goal v Liverpool to stave off relegation. Third division play off glory had been rescued from the biggest wreck of all against Gillingham. FA Cup delight at Spurs had only come after going down to ten men and dropping three goals behind. The first Premier League trophy in 2012 had been hauled in with the small matter of two goals in injury time to thwart United. I could go on but the walls are closing in on me.
So here we were confronted by that self-same United, the behemoth of old, grown wrinkly and slow moving under the stop-and-swivel tactics of Jose Mourinho. Still second though, still grumbling and growling, still hauling its hunking weight across the pitches of England with the whiff of ancient authority. The ghost of Alex Ferguson still haunts the fields of the Premier League and the not-in-my-lifetime irreverence still sends a shiver down many spines. Drawn to the fight as ace party poopers may have been an oddly reduced role for United to play, but here they still were, standing tall and ready for the off.
The only thing missing from the whole glossy show was Raheem’s pocket compass.
Under the half time arc lights all had seemed so well. United, cowed and miserable, two goals down but a whisker from a five-goal drubbing, were making Ferguson wriggle grim-faced in the comfy seats. David Gill sat alongside looking for all the world like the man who had sat on a pin cushion.
Then a strange but remarkably comforting thing happened.Despite all the money, the glistening new stadium with its towering stands and the immaculately dressed über-coach, City, dear old City, reverted to type. The ghosts of the Shay, of Romark, the bog-eyed soothsayer who put a spell on Malcolm Allison, of Alan Ball’s corner flag routine, of Raddy Antic, of City’s late 90s in-house Manager of the Month award and the grating sound of a thousand giggling adversaries came back all at once.
United, flat, horrible and defeated, suddenly perked up. Paul Pogba, the inevitable target of Pep’s first attempt at Mourinhou-esque mind games in the build up to the game, also sputtered into life. It all seemed so natural, so inevitable, as one goal became two and two became three.Towering Vinny and the whirling dervish Otamendi stood like pillars of salt as United carved their way through. Raheem stood and pondered his three clear misses, then added another for good measure as the game stuttered towards its cataclysmic end. Gabriel Jesus, mindful of his no-show at Anfield last week, entered the fray with a bee in his bonnet and was booked for swinging his legs at anyone that came near him. Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero, wrapped up in cotton wool for Liverpool, were suddenly out there too, a moving breathing admission from the coach that events had overtaken him.
Even the referee, the learned Mr Martin Atkinson of Drighlington, added some light shading of his own to this drastic tableau of ever-darkening colours, waving away penalty appeals after Ashley Young had demolished Aguero in the box. By the end, all light had faded. We were spiralling back down into old familiar territory. All those voices of approval that have talked up City’s wonderful passing game all season were suddenly guffawing again, just like in the olden days.But, as the lights went out on the party that never was, you couldn’t help wondering what this contrary old beast had in store for us all next Tuesday and, whatever it was, would we be able to stand it?
This article originally featured in the print version of the Irish Examiner's Terrace Talk column