Modern soccer has been wussified, mostly for the sake of things like knee ligaments, which apparently can come in handy later on in life. But local derbies are supposed to have a special flavor. Winning trophies is all is well and good, but first thing’s first — beat that lot. Fans on one side of the divide hate the other, the fans on the other side resent the first, and this transmits itself to the players.
Disappointingly, the Manchester derby doesn’t have enough hate in it anymore. Even though these two clubs have alternated winning the league for the last four years, the fixture in itself seems tamer than ever. Once one of the feistiest local rivalries in England, United and City going head-to-head has gone as soft as the first half of a Viagra ad.
One of the main reasons for the lack of potential bust-ups on Sunday is a matter of personnel. Sure, there are brilliant players on both teams. But there aren’t enough genuine lunatics. Roy Keane practically committed assault and battery in a derby once. Joey Barton is without a doubt an odious cretin, but it’s characters like him that added real intrigue to already combustible situations.
Who in the current squad for either side can assume the mantle of unnecessary violence? Marouane Fellaini may be good value for a flying forearm here and there, but he’s more oafish than he is unhinged. Pablo Zabaleta is hard as nails, but sadly he seems too much of a professional to sneak in a cock punch at a corner kick. In the middle of the park is where all the action is supposed to take place, where the fighting should really kick off, but from whom? Daley Blind has the manicured stubble of a man who’s never been in a proper fight, and Yaya Touré made headlines this summer for complaining about not getting a birthday cake. Not exactly a recipe for a bloodbath, is it?
Solution: Recruit more talented players to Manchester who also happen to be mentally imbalanced. Has Pepe signed a new deal at Real Madrid yet?
Another factor that has dulled the edge that the derby once carried is the annoying chumminess shared by both sets of players. Now that City is big time, both clubs draw from the same pool of world class and near-world class players. As a result, players from both sides are international teammates and friends. (Juan Mata and Dave Silva aren’t exactly going to be flying two-footed into challenges on each other.) It’s hard to deliberately elbow someone in the face when you play Xbox together, take selfies at the World Cup, and your wives have dinner once a week.
Solution: Make any social gathering involving City and United players punishable with a heavy fine and/or a public flogging. As an alternative, if the players do want to fraternize with the enemy, then they should really fraternize with the enemy. That is, someone has to reignite the ill-feeling in this fixture by doing a crosstown John Terry on a rival’s wife or girlfriend. A sordid tactic, maybe, but we need the derby to come alive again, even if Jesus Navas has to seduce Coleen Rooney right out of her knickers to make it happen.
Finally, the fact that United and City are as evenly matched as they’ve ever been doesn’t lend itself to random acts of violence. The stakes are too high for players to allow themselves any of the old recklessness. In the good old days — when City was still dog shit — the Manchester derby had little relevance in where silverware ended up at the end of the season, and the matches were gloriously unpredictable, hard fought and bloody affairs. Because they’re now both teams with title aspirations, it’s become just another big game in England, and it’s lost some of the batshit uncertainty of a local rivalry. There’s too much “this game is a tactical chess match,” and not enough “why is Michael Ball kicking Ronaldo in the ribs 20 minutes into the game?!”
Fortunately, the solution to this problem may have already been found. Chelsea is pissing the league, City is experiencing another post-title hangover, and United isn’t even a real team yet. Without the title to worry about, the Manchester derbies this season can go back to being just about pride. And kicking people. Maybe the players will remember that they’re supposed to despise each other and we’ll get see a throat grab or a headbutt, and maybe even a red card or two.
It’s time to bring back the hate.