The War of 19-18
Though I had heard of their existence before, I had never seen the banners until a few weeks ago when I sat in the famous Stretford End of Old Trafford for a Manchester United game. The larger one called the "City Ticker" is updated every February to record the number of years Manchester City has failed to win a major trophy. On the night I was there, it proudly proclaimed "35 years." The other sign, less prominent but equally taunting, screamed "Coming Soon: Manchester United 19, Liverpool 18."
And here's what I found twisted about the whole thing: United wasn't playing City or Liverpool; that night's opponent was Chelsea in a Champions League quarterfinal. So I asked the guy in the seat next to me why, with so much ridicule to heap on its fierce rival from London -- the Blues spending $81 million to buy Fernando Torres, John Terry slipping on the penalty spot in the 2008 CL final against United, etc. -- did the supporters feel the need to showcase their bile for City and Pool?
"Oh, we have no love for Chelsea, but these banners are permanent fixtures," he explained. "We're kinda obsessed with those clubs."
Kinda obsessed? That's like saying Donald Trump is kinda obsessed with his hair.
This banner night came back to me Saturday as a raucous mob of United fans packed my local pub in anticipation of watching their beloved Red Devils finally wrap both hands firmly around the coveted Prem trophy they had loosely clasped for the past month.
Yet when that historic moment came and United equalized against Blackburn to earn the workmanlike point it needed to clinch its 19th championship, no triumphant chants of "Glory, Glory Man United" -- a long-standing anthem among supporters -- went up in the bar. Rather, we were treated to a mocking chorus of "Are you watching Merseyside?" and this catchy tune about the club Sir Alex Ferguson refers to as United's "noisy neighbors":
this is true,
A trophy was won by a team in blue
It's been a long time since that day
So we'll sing a song
That they #@%@$% hate
So the question must be asked: Why, in a season when United has won a record-breaking league crown and the honor of losing to Barcelona in the Champions League final, are its fans not basking in the glow of their own glittering achievements instead of being fixated on the fate of their despised rivals? Is becoming the most successful club in English soccer history not enough of a reason to celebrate, or must Liverpool and City fail for United fans to feel truly fulfilled?
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"I'm thrilled to win the league, especially with all the rubbish about this not being a vintage team," conceded my maniacal United friend Luke Dempsey after the Red Devils did just enough to clinch the title. "But I'd be lying if I said I won't be happier if City lost the FA Cup and Liverpool didn't qualify for the Europa League. It's a tribal thing."
As an Arsenal fan, I'm all for blood feuds, but had the Gunners won the league Saturday I'd be running down Fifth Avenue naked, not worrying about how those spawn of Satan from North London -- aka Spurs -- fared against Liverpool. As it turned out, they made United supporters ecstatic by winning 2-0 and reclaiming fifth place, not to mention nosing in front of Liverpool for the final berth in the much-derided Europa League.
But that loss was probably nothing compared to the pain the Anfield faithful must have suffered watching United hoist the record-breaking EPL trophy, even if it was only a cheap plastic facsimile of the real thing. And let's just hope that no women or children on Merseyside got a glimpse of the photo Wayne Rooney posted on Twitter with the number 19 shaved into what passes for his chest hair.
"You have to remember that 20 years ago, Liverpool had won 18 league titles compared to our seven," said Luke, making no attempt to stifle his fiendish delight. "Then Fergie began his mission from God to knock them off their perch, and today it happened." In other words, why dance with the trophy when you can rub it in the faces of Liverpool and Man City supporters until they bow down in supplication?
"We came here to watch United do the double," said a loud and wobbly United fan at Kinsale Tavern who appeared to have had several doubles himself before arriving at the bar.
"The double?" I asked, thinking the only other title left for United to win is the Champions League, although that would qualify as a miracle.
"Yeah, United wins and City loses," he explained as he swayed through the bar, giving everyone an "I love you, man" hug. He and his crew had rolled up to the pub around 7:45 on Saturday morning in a stretch limo and stumbled out in various stages of disintegration. "We just graduated from the University of Florida," said the head Gator, who was wearing a United jersey that looked to have been marinated in Guinness for about 12 hours. "And we've been up all night celebrating."
You don' t say.
Still, fearless journalist that I am, I pressed on. "I noticed you guys singing anti-Liverpool and City songs all through the Blackburn game," I said. "Do you hate City and Liverpool more than you love United?"
"Can't you hate and love at the same time?" asked my Gator chum, who apparently majored in existential philosophy in Gainesville.
My inner Sartre conceded the point. After all, the trophy-raising yin and visceral loathing yang can coexist harmoniously in the heart of every unhinged soccer fanatic.
Much to the dismay of my new best friend from Florida, City had its own silverware to flaunt two hours later, when the non-drug-using Toure hammered home a blistering shot to lift the Sky Blues to a 1-0 FA Cup win over a valiant but overmatched Stoke. Thus ended a streak of futility that has been 35 years in the making.
Manchester will now have dueling open-bus parades through its streets that should keep local police busy. Of course, United fans will continue to mock City for buying its way into the Champions League and FA Cup history with its outlandish spending in the transfer market. They will scoff at the Sky Blues for their risk-averse, coma-inducing style of play and remind them that the end to their high-priced glory is nigh, with financial fair play rules being introduced in 2013.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
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• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
But there is no denying that the balance of power in the EPL has migrated from the capital to England's second city. As Chelsea searches for yet another savior -- arrivederci, Carlo; the Champions League quarterfinals and a second-place EPL finish don't cut it with egomaniacal Russian oligarchs -- and Arsene Wenger awakens to the horror of having to buy quality, battle-hardened (read: expensive) players to stay competitive, the clubs parked just four miles apart seem to be putting a hammerlock on the Prem.
Though United may not exactly conjure up memories of Brazil's 1970 World Cup virtuosos, and Barca may not be quaking in its boots at the prospect of staring down Jonny Evans in two weeks, there is no question that United was the best team in the league. City, by contrast, is the most expensive team ever assembled in the EPL, and while it will win no style points from the purists, Roberto Mancini deserves credit for keeping a squad featuring such combustible stars as Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli from imploding. On Saturday, City played with the confidence of a team that sees qualification for the Champions League and winning the FA Cup as the first steps on a quest to finally topple its neighbor as England's dominant club.
And if United chooses to ignore this nascent power down the road, its fans will still have to do something about that banner in the Stretford End, the one that cost about $700 to erect and $350 million to tear down.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."