The Moscow Diaries: A City United, February 2008

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In celebration of it being ten years since Manchester United’s last European Cup win, we are running excerpts from the forthcoming book ‘Moscow’.

With the Manchester derby this weekend, this first excerpt looks back at the derby from February 2008, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster.

United held a ceremony at Old Trafford with scores of officials and former players in attendance; club captain Gary Neville lit 23 candles in tribute of those who had passed away fifty years before. More than three hundred United fans travelled to Munich, where a service was held at the crash scene led by Germain politician Harmann Memmel. “In England you say God Save The Queen,” Hemmel said. “But today I say to you God Save Manchester United.”

Sir Bobby Charlton said that the current United team were fine representative of everything the Busby Babes had stood for. “They would be very proud of the way this team play, really, they would,” he said. “Their coach was Jimmy Murphy, the manager was Matt Busby and their philosophy was always adventurous football. Matt always said to me: ‘All those lads you see in the morning going into work at Trafford Park, they come to watch you on a Saturday. They have a boring job so you have to give them something a little bit special, something they will enjoy’. He was always saying: ‘Don’t be afraid to express yourselves’ and that’s how it is now with the wonderful and exciting players we have. They know how to express themselves and it’s wonderful. And fitting.”

John Richardson and Richard Tanner of the Express paid tribute to former assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, who kept the club alive after the disaster. “While Sir Matt Busby fought for his life in a Munich hospital his faithful sidekick Jimmy Murphy battled to keep Manchester United breathing,” Richardson wrote. “It was proud Welshman Murphy who begged and borrowed to ensure that not even the deaths of eight of the club’s finest players would bring a footballing institution to its knees.”

Tanner’s tribute was similar. He said: “One wonders what would have become of Manchester United after the tragedy had it not been for the sterling rebuilding work at the club carried out by Matt Busby’s loyal No2. Murphy had not travelled with United for their fateful European Cup tie in Belgrade because he was helping Wales prepare for a World Cup qualifier in Cardiff that week. With Busby spending months in and out of hospital recovering from his injuries, it was left to Murphy to become the caretaker manager. And despite his overwhelming grief at losing so many of the men he had helped groom into stars, he showed enormous strength of character to keep the club afloat. With many people wondering whether this would be the end of United, Murphy guided a patched-up team to the FA Cup final three months after Munich and to runners-up place in the league behind Wolves the following season.”

United maintained their position that they would hold a minute’s silence before the next game. “It’s a solemn event,” said club spokesman Phil Townsend. “Our view is that the minute’s silence is a more appropriate way of recognising a disaster that killed 23 people. I don’t think we should change those plans because of the fear of a few idiots who might want to spoil it. It was a crash that affected the whole of Manchester. It is very much Manchester’s ‘Kennedy moment’. Everyone of that generation knew where they were when they heard the terrible news. It is not just about Manchester United, it is about the city and about the way it pulled together in the aftermath of the tragedy.”

Unlike City fan Kevin Parker, official club spokesman for City Paul Tyrrell said that they would participate in a ‘shared’ tragedy. “We have already made representations to Manchester United about the commemorations and the two clubs have been working together for a number of months,” Tyrrell said. “We are wearing a special kit, decorating the away concourse area and members of Frank Swift’s family are attending the game. We also spoke to United and expressed our concerns about a minute’s silence. United took those concerns away and came back and said they wished to continue with the idea of a minute’s silence. We respect their decision and, ultimately, it is their decision because it is their home game and, clearly, the tragedy was felt more at Manchester United than anywhere else. However, the whole of Manchester shared the grief.”

Ahead of the game, Ferguson admitted he was perplexed that the fixture calendar had this particular game on this particular weekend. “When I saw what the fixture was at this time at the beginning of the season I said ‘who the hell chose that?’” he said. “There was no opportunity to change it. It puts pressure on the clubs. We could easily have had Middlesbrough at home or something like that.”

The Premier League said they had not received a request from either club to reschedule the fixture. “We weren’t approached by either club to move the fixture,” insisted spokesman Dan Johnson. “The fixture list goes round at the beginning of the season before it’s made public. Every club has the opportunity to comment on the fixtures. If they feel either one is insensitively placed or one is impracticably placed, they have the opportunity to ask for it to be moved.”

Any concerns about how City’s supporters would behave was completely unfounded. They were impeccable on the day, from the second the lone piper, Terry Carr (who, incidentally, had performed the same service before a game against Everton following the death of Sir Matt Busby in 1994) led the two teams out on to the pitch. The minute’s silence was perfectly observed and followed by an emotional roar from both sets of fans when the whistle went to conclude it. It was then down to business, but it was obvious that the emotion of the day served as a comprehensive handicap to United’s players. Players like Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, who had come through the club’s youth system (players who had achieved trophy hauls which compared favourably against those who lost their lives well before their own prime) for once appeared restricted by the sense of the occasion. It was forgivable. Other players who may not quite share that connection such as Nani, Anderson and Cristiano Ronaldo had been present at events and meetings through the week where it was explained what had happened and the extent to which United had to rebuild; in a purely clinical sense, it was hoped that these foreign players who had done so much to illuminate the club’s season would be disconnected enough from the event for it to not impact on their performance, but the reality was United could not get going.

They started positively enough, and had Ryan Giggs’ early effort gone in instead of being well saved by Joe Hart, it may well have been a different matter. But that adrenalin fuelled momentum quickly dissipated as the reality weighed heavy on this packed stadium. In the 24th minute, Steven Ireland was played in by Martin Petrov but van der Sar denied him. From the rebound, the Dutch keeper was alert enough to save from Darius Vassell, but the ball fell back at the feet of Vassell and he was able to finally put the ball away. Just before half-time, City made it two. Benjani, who had only just played at Old Trafford for Portsmouth before moving to City on transfer deadline day, flicked in a corner to score on his debut.

United’s response was absolutely flat and even though they scored an injury time goal when Michael Carrick’s daisy cutter from the edge of the box went in, they never looked as if they would get anything from the game. It was City’s first win at Old Trafford since 1974, when Denis Law scored with that infamous back heel which erroneously is always regarded as the goal which relegated United to the Second Division, even if symbolically it may as well have done. This result potentially could inflict similar damage on United’s title aspirations.

Assistant manager Carlos Queiroz accepted that United looked drained, but suggested it was down to the players having been on international duty in the week. “We believe the team was affected by international call-ups,” said Queiroz. “But talking about that would be an excuse. It was not our day. We didn’t play well and need to accept that. It was really unusual to see a couple of our players playing so slow, without tempo and making mistakes. That’s never happened before and if it is a coincidence we will let other people decide. The reality is that the players have been affected. Not only the English players but others like Ronaldo and Vidic were not so sharp. We didn’t play in the right way. Manchester City were really difficult to play against because they were very organised and compact waiting for the counter-attack, which they did very well. Individual mistakes, collective mistakes and the way City played was, in my opinion, the explanation why we did not take three points. We lost a lot of duels and that was something strange for us. I am really disappointed by the result. It is always a disappointing day for us when we lose but especially because it was an important day for us. But we are going to prepare ourselves for next week and beating Arsenal.”

Wayne Barton is an author and has worked with numerous Manchester United icons. He ghost wrote the autobiographies of Brian Greenhoff, Gordon Hill, Danny Higginbotham, Mick Duxbury and Clayton Blackmore. He is the football columnist for international broadcaster eirSport.

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