Welcome to Manchester, Carlos Tevez.
Carlos Tevez’s summer move to Manchester City after leaving rivals United was a statement, both from the player and the club.
United were keen to keep Tevez, but a deal couldn’t be agreed, and City had pinched an asset from under their rivals’ nose.
It was a rare win for City over United, and they were keen to make the most of it. Sure enough, in Deansgate, up went that famous – or infamous, however you choose to look at it – “Welcome to Manchester” poster.
Sir Alex Ferguson had Liverpool in his sights ever since taking over in 1986, and never really gave little City little more than a condescending pat on the head. For all the talk, City weren’t seeing results on the pitch. They weren’t a credible threat... just yet.
But the summer of 2009 began to change that.
The animosity between City and United had been growing steadily amid the takeover in 2008, a takeover that saw City become one of the world’s richest clubs.
Tevez’s contract would expire at Old Trafford at the end of the 2008-09 season, leaving his future in doubt. Following the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov, he’d found regular game time hard to come by.
Adoration from the Stretford End however was not hard to come by, with renditions of a song featuring the lines ‘Who’s that man we all adore?’ and ‘Forever at United he will score’.
As the season drew to a close, Tevez scored the second in United’s 2-0 win over City, strengthening their grip on the title. Fans this time turned their attention to the dugout – “Fergie, Fergie, sign him up.”
Of course, he wasn’t signed up, not by United anyway.
City, keen to make their mark with new owner Sheikh Mansour, made six big signings, including Gareth Barry, Emmanuel Adebayor, Roque Santa Cruz, and of course, Carlos Tevez.
By contrast, United had lost Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were another year older, and their only signings were Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan, Mame Biram Diouf and Michael Owen. A Wigan winger, two young unknowns and increasingly injury-prone forward didn’t strike fear into their rivals. Owen in particular raised eyebrows. The former Liverpool hero, signed on a free transfer having lost Ronaldo and Tevez was hardly a like-for-like.
For all of Ferguson’s jocular dismissal of City, he was irritated by the poster. Far from dismissive, he admitted he’d been upset by ‘that stupid poster’, saying it ‘showed an arrogance’ and ‘was naughty’. In the build-up to the game, Hughes, asked about the poster was able to laugh it off, saying that ‘it does seem to have really upset Sir Alex for some reason’.
There was still very much a ‘Big Four’ in the Premier League, of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, but Manchester City, the soon-to-be-known-as ‘noisy neighbours’, wanted in.
They’d signed Adebayor along with Kolo Toure, weakening rivals Arsenal, and had a significantly improved squad.
The season started perfectly, with three wins on the bounce. Four goals scored, none conceded, and Adebayor had taken to City like a duck to water. This was a player who’d scored 34 goals across his last two Premier League seasons with Arsenal, and the signing looked like a masterstroke.
Then came City’s first real test – a home game with Arsenal. They’d taken two key players from Arsenal, who’d finished fourth the previous season and could be City’s biggest barrier to the top four, and Arsenal were favourites at the City of Manchester Stadium.
Arsenal fans weren’t shy about letting Adebayor know their feelings about his move, and the Togolese had left a couple on Santi Cazorla and Robin van Persie on his reunion, and was given a retrospective ban afterwards. Sure enough, he scored City’s third and sprinted to the other end of the pitch to celebrate in front of incandescent Gunners fans.
The first test had been passed, but a bigger one awaited the following week: Manchester United away.
These days, wins at Old Trafford are more common for the visitors than the hosts, but that wasn’t the case in 2009. City had won just once in 28 matches. Prior to their 2008 victory, you had to go all the way back to 1974 – the infamous Denis Law back heel as United were relegated.
United had got off to a good start to the season, but were still adapting to life without Tevez and Ronaldo, having both departed in the summer. Wayne Rooney had taken the mantle as United’s talisman and centre-forward, tasked less with creating chances and more with getting on the end of them. He’d scored five goals in the Reds’ opening five games.
Ferguson had been asked if United would ever go into a derby match as underdogs. “Not in my lifetime,” was the withering retort. United were underdogs in their ill-fated Monday night trip to the Etihad not two seasons later, and it’s a retort he’s still reminded of to this day.
Even in this game, while United were favourites, it was the first time in many fans’ memory that they had something to be scared of in City.
There was an added needle for this game. Not to say that previous Manchester derbies were low-key affairs, but there was jeopardy this time for United fans not usually there when facing City. Despite the odd draw throughout the years, United came to Old Trafford expecting to win this fixture. This, however, would present more of a challenge.
And so to that warm Sunday afternoon. Neither side was at full strength; United missing Edwin van der Sar and Rafael through injury and Paul Scholes through suspension; Rio Ferdinand initially a doubt with a calf injury made the starting XI. City were without Vincent Kompany and Roque Santa Cruz, while Adebayor was suspended.
City weren’t far off taking the lead after 60 seconds following miscommunication at the back. Rio Ferdinand’s back pass wasn’t picked up by either stand-in keeper Ben Foster nor Nemanja Vidic, and Tevez was almost allowed in, before Foster’s hasty clearance hit Tevez on the way out.
But United were quickly up the other end, with Patrica Evra’s pull-back finding Rooney, who navigated Nigel De Jong and Kolo Toure to slot under Shay Given. Bedlam. The notion that this was a new, more formidable, more resilient City, undone inside two minutes, and Old Trafford was rocking.
A misguided pass from Joleon Lescott – which looked more like a clearance so far was it from a blue shirt – was retrieved by Foster who made an almighty mess of things under the pressure of Tevez. The City man picked his pocket and found Gareth Barry who stroked in to equalise. Bedlam again, this time in the City end.
It hadn’t been the most pleasant quarter of an hour for Tevez; every touch booed, every mis-control cheered, and the early assist would’ve been nice – City fans echoing United from the previous season: “Fergie, Fergie, sign him up.”
Old Trafford had been silenced, but for the noisy corner housing the City fans. Despite the early goal, they weren’t rolling over. They’d taken the sting out of the United fans and the game itself.
The rest of the first half was a timid, scrappy affair. Neither side holding on to the ball for any period of time, neither side carving out any chances, with as many niggly fouls as you’d expect in a derby.
Until the dying moments of the half, when City attacked with laser-precision. A surging run from Kolo Toure, a wonderful flick from Ireland leaving Tevez through on goal, his effort clipping the post and going behind.
Had you told those inside the ground that they were halfway through arguably the greatest Premier League game they’d ever seen they would have been utterly perplexed at what was about to come.
But not four minutes into the second half, a Ryan Giggs cross was met at the back post by Darren Fletcher, his header diverted in by Barry.
Old Trafford had been awakened; United looked revitalised.
Park Ji-sung and Giggs both had opportunities to quickly double United’s lead. Ferguson’s half-time team-talk seemed to have had its desired effect.
But just two minutes later, Craig Bellamy was allowed inside onto his right foot, unleashing a fearsome strike from the edge of the area into the top corner past a helpless Foster. City level again.
The goal hadn’t quite stifled the hosts like the first equaliser did. United had a renewed tempo and impetus and had carved out more chances than in the whole of the first half and were applying pressure to City’s back line.
A point-blank free header from Berbatov was straight at Given; a gilt-edged chance, and an impressive reflex stop from the City keeper.
A Nemanja Vidic header was then cleared off the line by Stephen Ireland, and another Berbatov header from close range was beaten away by Given. United were getting closer, and a goal started to feel like a matter of when rather than if.
Moments later, Giggs brought Given back into action again on the half-volley. Getting closer.
If United were missing anything at this point it was perhaps that killer instinct of a forward who had an uncanny knack for finding a half-yard in the area. Enter: Michael Owen.
Just as the spark appeared to be dying out and the momentum lost, Ryan Giggs whipped another cross in, this time from a free-kick, with Darren Fletcher once again heading in. While Given had made a number of impressive saves in the second half, it wasn’t the first time he’d been caught glued to his line and it had cost City, and surely this time there was no coming back.
After their second equaliser, City had sat back, getting deeper and deeper, offering nothing going forward. The goal had felt like a matter of time for a while, and if anything, despite a renewed impetus from City, United looked the more likely to score if there was to be a sixth.
Then what threatened to be a pivotal moment, from a corner, substitute Martin Petrov firing hard across the face of goal, with Micah Richards two yards out unable to get a touch, when any meaningful contact would’ve been 3-3. A reminder that this game wasn’t quite done yet.
And then, the man who it was suggested wouldn’t even be fit to play, Rio Ferdinand, tried nonchalantly scooping the ball over Petrov. The Bulgarian was able to chest the ball down and send the rapid Bellamy on his way. Ferdinand couldn’t catch Bellamy. Foster’s goalkeeping left lots to be desired, and Bellamy slotted home from the tightest of angles. The celebrations in the City end were deafening; they’d equalised for a third time and surely stolen a point from their arch-rivals.
Four minutes of stoppage time were to be played. Each side had their own, sole objective: for United, to score a goal; for City, to prevent a goal.
A last throw of the dice saw Michael Carrick replace Anderson. Added height and guile for the last moments.
Towards the end of stoppage time, Rooney sent a hopeful effort over the bar. United’s last chance appeared to be gone.
With the lengthy City celebration and the United substitution, more time was added. Still, the final whistle was due any second.
But as they say, it only takes a second to score a goal.
A free-kick just inside City’s half was awarded. Surely this would be the last action. Rooney’s ball in was poor and cleared easily by Ireland, but United’s number 10 got a second chance to hoist the ball in. Half cleared by Lescott, only as far as Giggs. The calmest head in Old Trafford with a quick glance up, found Owen screaming for the ball on the edge of the area. Never mind half a yard, Owen had been afforded half a mile.
One touch to control, another to poke past Given. United had won it in the most incredible circumstances.
Mark Hughes was incensed by the decision to play the best part of 90 seconds beyond the indicated four minutes; Sir Alex Ferguson was jubilant.
Though there was a victory of sorts for City – they’d shown they really could hang with United. This wasn’t a false dawn, City were here to stay. But on this occasion, they’d fallen heartbreakingly short.
For United, they’d had a scare or three, but came up with the answer each time to eventually win the game – which in fairness they fully deserved – in the sweetest of circumstances.
Welcome to Manchester, Michael Owen.