This feature is a part of A Tale of One City

Welcome to Manchester. After Carlos Tevez’s infamous multi-million pound move from Manchester United to cross-town rivals Manchester City, his new employers erected a huge billboard in the city centre in their traditional sky-blue with a picture of the Argentine’s outstretched arms in a dig at their enemies. Lying as Old Trafford does outside the municipal boundaries of Manchester in neighbouring Salford, it gives perfect ammunition to attack the identity of the country’s most successful club. Although the billboard was a humourous tongue in cheek ploy to rib a rival, it pointed to the heart of what makes the relationship unique.

Never has the title ‘A Tale of One City’ been more apt than to describe the relationship between Manchester United and Manchester City. Whereas many rivals distinguish themselves across boundaries of social, religious or political history, the Mancunian giants have had a peculiar symbiosis marked by their attempts to claim the same ground, namely the pride of the city. For all the posturing and attempts to outsmart each other, the two clubs share a lot more than they might care to admit.

Manchester is not what one would call a naturally beautiful or romantic city, but it is without question one of the most historically original and progressive cities in the world. The sheen of Victorian red brick architecture is impressive in its individuality, but there is still a certain austerity to its style that even today offers a reminder of the industrial past.

Back in the 19th Century, the cotton industry had enveloped the city to the extent where there were at one point over 100 major mills in and around the area, all receiving shipments from the Caribbean and the southern states of America. Liverpool was one of Britain’s most significant ports, especially for transatlantic trade, and thus had been able to charge high rates to companies wishing to utilise the Albert Docks. To get around this, and having to depend on the world’s first intercity railway, built in 1830, the Manchester Ship Canal was constructed to gain direct access to the sea in 1894.

This feat of engineering was astonishing, costing the equivalent of over £1 billion and taking six years to complete. At its official opening, Queen Victoria arrived in person to much fanfare – £10,000 was spent on celebratory decoration alone – which gave a huge sense of pride in the city to its residents, many of whom were living in horrific conditions. It was an example of the enterprise for which the city became famous, and which prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to say: “What Manchester does today, the world follows tomorrow.”

To cope with the boom in heavy industry, ‘Cottonopolis’ exploded on a wave of rushed construction that led to often poorly built and planned housing. The world’s largest industrial park was established on what had once been a beautiful sweeping estate belonging to the De Trafford family as the urban area simply continued to swarm outwards, and huge factories dominated the grim landscape.

Inevitably, such huge expansion led to the terrible paradox of industrial advancement fuelled by the labour of people forced to suffer the most unimaginable squalor. In many areas of the city, where the average life expectancy in the middle of the 1850s was as low as 17, there was simply nothing to do for many young men except drink their meagre salaries away in the dingy pubs and beer houses, or fight.

Scuttling was a popular past time for adolescents after a hard day’s labour that often began at 6am; bare-knuckle bouts, often between maturing teenagers and children as young as 13 or 14 to ensure a bloody outcome, were the only form of sport available to them. Gambling on street corners was rife, as was the threat of even more ghastly violence. Newspapers of the time reported stabbings in the unlit streets as people stumbled down unpaved roads in mud up past their ankles, and skirmishes between gangs of disaffected young men were common as bricks, old bed posts and rocks were used as weapons.

Something had to be done. In West Gorton, the daughter of the rector of St. Mark’s Church, Anna Connell, had established a working men’s club, while her father ran a soup kitchen which dispensed over 1,500 gallons of soup in its first week in 1879. Miss Connell had been a governess in Preston and had a hand in the running of St. Mark’s school, so she brought her energy for education and reform to a wider range of society with the help of William Beastow, who ran the parish cricket team. Despite their best efforts, scuttling continued to plague the area, so an alternative outlet was sought, and in 1880 the church club’s cricketers played their recorded first game of football.

Rugby and cricket were far more widely played than football at this time, partly due to its infancy as an organised sport, and partly due to the relatively elitist nature of the game at the time. Many public schools created their own set of rules, and it was not until the late 1870s that football caught on in Manchester. In January 1878, a representative side from the city entered the FA Cup facing Stoke, and a month later they played Nottinghamshire, a precursor to the world’s oldest professional club, Notts County. Two years earlier, ‘Manchester Association’ had hosted Sheffield at the nearby Longsight Cricket Club ground in the same competition, but only 500 spectators had attended.

One major problem was finding somewhere to play. West Gorton and the surrounding area was heavily built up, so wasteland that today’s players would consider suicidal was the only option. On November 13, 1880, James Collinge became the first goal-scorer in a 2-1 defeat on land belonging to Brooks & Doxey’s Union Ironworks, but it wasn’t until a decade later that the club actually had grass to play on, and even then they had to plant and grow it themselves.

A week later, the football club set up by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway company for its employees at the depot in Newton Heath played their first official match against Bolton Wanderers reserves. They had been established two years earlier for essentially the same purpose of St. Mark’s, to keep its members away from the vices of gritty Victorian life, but until this point had only played against teams from other departments within the L&YR. Their first home was no more glamorous than St. Mark’s; land near the railway tracks in Monsall had to be levelled out, and the changing rooms were over half a mile away in the Three Crowns pub.

While ‘The Heathens’, as the railway side soon became known, were born with instant backing from their actual employers, the team that began as St. Mark’s struggled to survive in their early years. After their first season they upgraded their ground by moving to Kirkmanshulme Cricket Club, where they played their first home game against Newton Heath, gaining revenge for the first ever fixture earlier in the season, a 3-0 defeat, with a 2-1 win.

At this stage it was not regarded as a fierce contest, as more local sides stirred the players to a greater degree, and at any rate, the ethos of St Mark’s was still philanthropic rather than competitive. They were, however, already starting to look further afield in their bid to improve as they brought in players from outside the parish. This set the tone for their inventive attempts to thrive in the face of other clubs with more backing.

After being evicted by their landlords from the cricket club, St. Mark’s merged with another West Gorton club, or almost disintegrated altogether, depending on which account you believe. The following year only four games were recorded, while many players appeared for other nearby teams, and by the end of the 1882-83 season, there was a real possibility of the club ceasing to exist. The following four years brought three more ground moves, a merger, a reformation, two name changes and almost bankruptcy, until a partnership with Chesters Brewery and connections with the local MP Richard Peacock secured a move to Ardwick.

All this while, Newton Heath were making headway in the newly established Manchester Senior Cup, appearing in the final for the first seven editions. Before a formal league was set up, it was the best way gain fame and build reputations, and by 1892 the habit of offering the best players from around Britain jobs at the railway company so they could qualify to represent the team had become unnecessary, as the club outgrew its parent and went it alone. The success they garnered stirred a fair few envious glances from Ardwick, who had become famous for an entertaining brand of football; they began ending up as top-scorers by the end of each season and attracted the highest crowds in the area.

The first major wedge that was driven between the clubs was upon the expansion of the Football League in 1891. By this stage, days of the 11-1 drubbing handed out by Newton Heath in the first round of the Manchester Cup were long gone, and the teams were much more competitive. Ardwick had embraced the onset of professionalism and were banned from organising money-spinning friendlies against established sides like Everton and even the Canadian national team – whom they beat 3-1 – in their pursuit of improving.

When it came to the vote to admit new members, their innovative approach was recognised but wasn’t enough to provide sufficient support to admit them to the league. Newton Heath received no votes, while Ardwick received four. The following year, the rival Football Alliance merged with the Football League, and having beaten the Heathens in the Manchester Cup final 1-0 the year before, Ardwick were brimming with confidence. League stalwarts Bolton Wanderers were dispatched 4-1 in the Manchester Cup, while fellow Football League members Stoke were thrashed 5-1 in a friendly. They were left stunned, however, when they were admitted to the new Second Division, while their rivals were brought straight into the top flight.

Resentment based on status has formed a key part of the antagonism between the clubs ever since. The Victorian era was not a positive one for the city’s image, despite the huge steps forward in industry, as there was little else other than the cotton mills and the engineering feats to make the city stand proud. The famous French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville spent time in England in the 1830s studying the social climate, and his view was as bleak as it gets:

“A thick black smoke covers the city. The sun appears like a disc without any rays. In this semi-daylight 300,000 people work ceaselessly. A thousand noises rise amidst this unending damp and dark labyrinth … the footsteps of a busy crowd, the crunching wheels of machines, the shriek of steam from the boilers, the regular beat of looms, the heavy rumble of carts, these are the only noises from which you can never escape in these dark half-lit streets.”

This was what both clubs wanted to claim, to shine through and become the beacon of pride as a representative of the whole city. It wasn’t until 1912 when Manchester United, as Newton Heath had been rechristened by investors ten years earlier, moved to Old Trafford, and by then they had won the Football League Division One title and the FA Cup, still considered the more significant and prestigious trophy, under legendary manager Ernest Mangnall. City had drawn first blood on a national scale by winning the FA Cup in 1904, inspired by a star-studded side that boasted the original Welsh wing wizard Billy Meredith and centre forward Sandy Turnbull that simply plundered goals for fun. The popularity contest was easily being won by City; their attractive style contrasted with the dour but efficient defensive approach favoured by Mangnall.

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As United finally gained promotion in 1906, rumours of illegal bonuses being paid to City players by their directors were investigated, and the whole board was banned from football for five seasons. Meredith was banned from playing for a year, and suddenly the free-flowing club was forced to auction off its assets in a desperate bid to stay alive. As if that wasn’t enough for City fans to take, they had to suffer as United’s canny manager – or secretary to use his formal title as it was – caught wind of the fire sale before his league rivals, and snapped up Meredith, Turnbull and their forward line partners, Herbert Burgess and Jimmy Bannister.

Mangnall moved across town – just as Old Trafford was completed – to become the only man to ever manage both Manchester clubs, having won a second league title the year before. Meredith himself went on to play a staggering 30 years in the city, exactly half of them for each side, accumulating 670 appearances and scoring 164 goals. He was the game’s first maverick; although he made his living in a professional game, he held certain Corinthian values highly, and refused to be transferred for a fee when he demanded to leave Manchester United. He was one of the founding members of the Players’ Union, the precursor to the PFA, the year of United’s first league title.

“If football is a man’s livelihood and he does more than others for his employer, why is he not entitled to more pay than others?” he protested in 1908. “So far as I can make out, the sole reason the best footballers in England are prevented from earning better than men of lesser ability and experience is purely sentimental.”

The period from then until after the Second World War was a fallow one for both clubs on paper, although United suffered hugely behind the scenes too, with only a single league title and FA Cup coming to Manchester in 37 years. Wartime football often resulted in players turning out in guest appearances for different clubs as a spirit of togetherness bound the nation; coupled with their joint lack of material success, the intensity of the derby waned somewhat. While City won their second FA Cup in 1934, United were so broke that three years earlier their gas and electricity was cut off and they couldn’t even afford to buy their employees the traditional Christmas turkey.

It didn’t take long to stoke up the enmity again. Having earlier been rescued by investors for the second time in 30 years, and with their modern cantilevered stadium destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941, the Reds were in need of a spark, and they found it in the southern Italian city of Bari. Sgt. Major Alexander Matthew Busby was in charge of a team of officers there, where he also met his future assistant, the garrulous Welshman Jimmy Murphy in a training match. He had already been approached to take over at Old Trafford, an offer he accepted on condition that he took complete control of transfers, training and team selection. As a classy half-back, he had played over 200 times for City before moving to Liverpool whom he captained before the outbreak of war.

The man who oversaw the appointment of Busby, James Gibson, was the saviour who had invested over £40,000 in 1932 to prevent the slide into liquidation that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. Gibson was a Salford-born clothing entrepreneur who had supplied the uniforms to the Armed Forces in the Great War, but who grew up in the centre of Manchester, and he wanted to do what Ardwick had tried years before: build a team that would make local people proud. His solution had been simple, efficient and brilliant – and it revolved around youth. He immediately set up the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club to provide the cream of local talent with an organised form of development, and in doing so, set in motion the process that would lead to the most glorious, and tragic, episode in the story of Manchester United.

After a surprise league win in 1952 with an ageing team, it was expected that a long period of rebuilding work would be necessary, but graduates of the youth system, and their mentor Matt Busby in particular, had other ideas. Local lads like Eddie Colman and Roger Byrne were supplemented by the finest talent from across the country and Ireland, and their brand of flair and incredible work ethic blew spectators away. They stole the hearts of all neutrals with their style, and towards the end of the 1950s, when their swashbuckling fearless approach had brought them two consecutive titles, they captured the imagination not just of Manchester but of the whole country.

When the Busby Babes’ plane failed to take off at the third attempt at Munich-Riem airport on February 8, 1958, and exploded, claiming the lives of 23 people, including eight United players, the nation mourned. The outpouring of stunned grief was accentuated by the potential of the group, which secured the affections of the vast majority of the population, although as the atmosphere of fandom changed after the aggressive hooliganism of the 1970s and 1980s, Munich became used as a disgusting ‘insult’ by rival fans.

After the 50th anniversary derby, which City won 1-0, a group of inebriated City fans taunted the home support by wheeling around with their arms outstretched, just yards from the statue of the man who had been a father figure to the Babes. It was a sour note, especially after the minute’s silence had been impeccably observed inside the stadium. When East German international Uwe Rösler signed for City in 1994, he was greeted by t-shirts his new club’s fans had printed with the phrase: ‘Rösler’s grandfather bombed Old Trafford’. The current Leeds United boss, who went on to become a cult hero at City, later said that he accepted the message as “English humour”, although it was a controversial way to goad their rivals.

The 1960s and 1970s saw United’s popularity rocket, something that was increased exponentially by their relegation to the Second Division in 1974. By the time of the last relegation in United’s history, attendances had begun to thin after the uninspiring reins of Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell, but buoyed by suddenly becoming the big fish in a small pond, Tommy Docherty’s ‘Red Army’ rampaged throughout towns of second tier teams that had never experienced such following before.

The violence that had sprung up in and around English grounds was in full force at Old Trafford, as the Catholic virtues that Sir Matt Busby had rigidly instilled in the club became a distant memory, amongst the fans at any rate. The fact that Busby himself was allegedly implicit in bribing parents of promising youngsters to sign with his club, or that he negotiated the highest salary in English football while refusing to allow illegal bonuses to his players – a practice that had been commonplace in England for decades – is a moot point.

The good will that had flown towards the club was quickly dissipating, despite the continued entertainment. On the pitch, this was an era of wingers; George Best, Gordon Hill, Sammy McIlroy, Willie Morgan, Mike Summerbee and Colin Bell. Both clubs lay claim to being the natural proponents of attractive football, but fans were spoiled as they became intoxicated by the heady mix of tribalistic belonging and dizzying swagger.

The long-term effect of this change of image was felt more keenly in the 1990s during the formative years of the Premier League. City had dazzled in the days of Francis Lee, Bell and Summerbee, the latter who shared a bachelor pad with George Best in the late 1960s, but while Eric Cantona was inspiring the Red Devils to their first league title in 26 years, they began their second decline in a decade. Two relegations in the late 1980s had seen the club yo-yo between the First and Second Divisions, but their support remained astonishingly high as they slipped back out of the Premier League again in 1996.

As Manchester United began their phenomenal period of trophy collecting under Sir Alex Ferguson, there was an enmity towards them that became more than just jealousy. Ferguson built his success upon a siege mentality, caring little for what others thought of him and his charges; the trade-off he made was bitterness from the outside, in exchange for unswerving loyalty on the inside – and it was one he was delighted to make.

City fans have long pointed towards the impressive crowds they drew – just like their ancestors St. Mark’s and Ardwick – and when they had attendances of 30,000 in the third tier, it was hard to argue. The dynamic between the clubs had been altered somewhat by the much fiercer rivalry United developed with Liverpool, but barbs about support still sting. Thanks to the global appeal and marketing success of the Manchester United brand, the identity of the club has come under attack from their “noisy neighbours”, as Ferguson famously labelled City, although a look through the current senior squad at the Etihad stadium shows just two Englishmen, the goalkeepers Joe Hart and Richard Wright, so they are hardly blameless on this count.

In truth, the institutions we see today offering eight-figure salaries to a host of nationalities are unrecognisable from the amateur clubs that battled their way through swamp-like conditions in the Victorian pursuit of rigorous exercise. Those early clubs taking, their first breaths in football, could be said to be the truest representations of Manchester.

But what of Manchester itself? Has the city not changed? Where once there were factories and chemical plants, now there are studio apartments and nightclubs; what was once a grimy dockside is now the start of the art MediaCityUK complex. However unpalatable it may be to older generations, both clubs in their own way can lay claim to being the very symbol of a regenerated city – and the eternal battle for supremacy, in whatever form and on whatever stage, is what really defines Manchester.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint