DENIS Law takes us back to the day in mid-May when Manchester City ceased to become mere noisy neighbours and assumed the mantle of champions.
Law was at a family gathering: the christening of a grandson. With one eye he was being the attentive patriarch, with the other he was being the football man, captivated by this great spectacle that was unfolding between City and United, the former against QPR at the Etihad, the latter at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland.
“The last day of the season,” he says. “I’m not sure we will ever see a day like that again. In fact, I’m pretty sure we won’t. How long have I been around football? Well, a long time. How much am I supposed to know about the game? Not as much as I thought I knew is the answer to that one. At the family occasion I was popping my head in the door where some were watching the games and I saw United were ahead and City were behind and I thought, ‘That’s it, Fergie wins again’. Then I see City equalise and even then I’m thinking ‘Yeah good, but it’s too late, there’s no time, what a great attempt but they’ve fallen short, what a great thing for the city of Manchester to have these two great clubs going head to head, but it’s another title for Alex’. That’s what I know about football.”
He throws his head back and laughs.
“Who did you want to win?” I ask.
“Oh now,” he says. “There’s a question. I’m going to say… Aberdeen!”
Seventy-two years old and yet Law still has a presence in a room like not many current footballers do, the presence of greatness, no question. Two hundred and thirty seven goals for United spanning 398 games and 11 years. Thirty goals in two stints at City scored at a rate of almost one every other game. Nobody needs numbers to remind them of the phenomenon that was the Law Man, but it’s no harm to look at them all the same.
For to be so prolific for so long is a rare thing, a thing that makes him an icon for eternity as well as a gentleman in the here and now as he talks about the latest encounter between Sir Alex Ferguson’s United and Roberto Mancini’s City, two teams with their own problems heading into this afternoon’s first Manchester derby of the season.
The fact they are sitting first and second in the Premiership table says more about the chasing pack than it does about the pace-setters. Neither have hit their straps yet, not even close.
They are troubled, but in different ways. United’s defence is a mess and City’s attack is nothing like it was. In the continuing absence of Nemanja Vidic, Ferguson’s team have become a soft touch at the back, Reading taking them for three goals with Aston Villa, Chelsea, Stoke, Tottenham, Southampton and Fulham all scoring two, a level of vulnerability that would have City licking their lips in anticipation of a Klondike if they happened to possess anything like the clinical touch they had at this time last season, which they don’t.
Sergio Aguero had 11 Premier League goals at this point last season. Now he has five. Eden Dzeko had scored ten in the league, but he’s on six right now. Mario Balotelli had scored eight times after 15 league games last season but the Italian has only struck once in the Premiership this time around. As a collective, they are 21 goals behind where they were at this time in last season’s campaign, a lack of firepower that Law would simply know nothing about given that he rarely suffered from anything resembling a drought when it came to executing the chances that came his way.
“The nice thing about the derby game and the city of Manchester as a whole is that we’ve got two fine teams now. City haven’t had the greatest time in Europe, that’s true. So you look on that side of it and they will be concentrating on the league now. That’s what they’ve got to look forward to. United, on the other hand, are still fighting on all fronts, so that could be an issue, we don’t know.
“But United have Robin van Persie and that is a big, big plus. A major difference to last season when they got very, very badly beaten at the Etihad [6-1]. And you have Rooney, who’s not having the best of times with his goalscoring but he could spark at any second.”
Rooney’s season is another thing of fascination. He is hangdog and has been since the summer. He’s only scored four in the league compared to 11 at this time last season. He’s not himself. He’s not even playing regularly up front any more. Ferguson has gained a remarkable goalscorer in Van Persie but he seems to have lost the great talent that was Rooney at the same time. Van Persie’s goals – ten in the league and 15 in 22 games in all competitions – have been the ballast of United’s season. The Dutchman has been everything Old Trafford hoped he would be.
“I rate the two of them really, really highly,” says Law. “As a partnership I’d rate them right up there with anything that was at the club in my day, right up there with [George] Best and [Sir] Bobby [Charlton, pictured far left] and myself. Oh yeah, they’re in the category already. For sure. If you look at Van Persie he always looks like he’s going to score a goal – and maybe more than one. It doesn’t always happen but he is the one that the opposition will really be afraid of. And that’s not to talk down Rooney because he is a marvellous player.
“That left peg of Van Persie’s is really powerful, maybe a bit like Bobby with the left foot from outside the box. I don’t think I ever scored a goal from outside the box, but Van Persie can crack ’em in from anywhere.”
There has been the inevitable pre-match handbags between the managers, Ferguson displaying a grasp of statistics that made you smile when you realised how he twisted the numbers to suit his argument. Ferguson was talking about penalties awarded to City since the start of the season before last. “It’s 21 [penalties] in the last year isn’t it?” he said. “Something like that. If we were to get that number of penalty kicks there would have been an inquiry in the House of Commons – and protests.”
The beauty of all of this, of course, is that United have been awarded precisely the same number of penalties in that time-frame: 21. So the great one-eyed man of Old Trafford was at it again. Mind games. Messing with the officials’ heads. Messing with Mancini’s head as well.
“Mancini?” says Law. “It’s all down to victories and trophies, isn’t it? He’s got a demanding boss but considering he’s not been in Manchester that long he has had a couple of major trophies. A league title and an FA Cup. You know, what do these people require? Only one team can win that league and he’s won it. You feel for the first time in many years that Manchester City are achievers. In the 1960s it was a two-team city, a major city with major teams and then it dropped off and now it’s back again and it’s wonderful.
“Last season I was just delighted for the city of Manchester. It was nice to see these two going head to head and this will be a crucial season for the both of them and I think everybody knows that. The emergence of City’s challenge keeps Alex young. I feel that, in any city that has a couple of major teams, it keeps everybody going, managers and fans. Everybody wants to win. We all want to win but we know we can’t win all the time. Does Alex know that? Actually, do you know what? I’m not sure he does.”
He laughs again at the thought of the atmosphere today. How long will Ferguson relish days like this, I ask. “Until he’s about 80. Or 85, maybe. Hahaha. Something like that. He’s a great man.”
It takes one to know one.
• The two Manchester clubs met four times last season and shared the spoils with two wins apiece. But City’s victories were more signficant, coming in the two Premier League meetings. They destroyed United 6-1 at Old Trafford last October with Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko each scoring twice. They also won 1-0 at the Etihad in April to put themselves in pole position for the title with two games to go. Captain Vincent Kompany scored the goal. United’s wins came in the Community Shield curtain raiser at Wembley and the FA Cup third round at the Etihad. Both matches finished 3-2.
• Sir Alex Ferguson is waiting on the results of a scan on Tom Cleverley’s calf injury before finalising his United side. Antonio Valencia (hip) and Nani (hamstring) are definitely out, while Shinji Kagawa, skipper Nemanja Vidic (both knee) and Anderson (hamstring) are major doubts.
• David Silva could return for City while James Milner (hamstring) and Gael Clichy (ankle) are also hoping to prove their fitness. Aleksandar Kolarov is out injured.