Monday’s title deciding Manchester derby is not the first time Reds and Blues have faced off for England’s top honour. Indeed, 43 years on many still remember the 1967-68 race between the two clubs – won by City on the last day of the season after United lost to Sunderland at Old Trafford.
Watching closely that day was 15-year-old schoolboy Brian Greenhoff, remembered fondly today as a versatile young midfielder, who went on to form a fine partnership with Martin Buchan in the heart of Manchester United’s defence. Decades later and Greenhoff remains a United fan, committed to seeing the Reds overcome the Blues this time round.
“I was offered a contract and it was up to me to decide where I went,” Greenhoff told United Rant this week.
“I went on holiday – it was my first time abroad – and then when I got back my dad asked ‘where are you going?’ It was always going to be United. Leeds wanted me too, but my dad would never have let me join them.”
It turned out to be a fine choice. Over six seasons in the United first team, and more than a decade with the club overall, the younger of the two Greenhoff brothers started 268 games and scored 17 goals for the Reds. Born in Barnsley, Greenhoff joined United’s youth team in August 1968 – just months after the team’s European Cup Final victory – having chosen the Reds ahead of a raft of suitors, including the aforementioned Leeds United.
The year is remembered by Reds for United’s emotional European Cup final win, coming a decade after the tragedy at Munich. Blues, meanwhile, recall City’s last domestic title triumph – soured when two weeks later at Wembley United trumped City’s achievement.
There will be no European Cup consolation for whichever team loses Monday’s game of course, although the emotions and rivalries remain intense. And there are few who better understand the changing nature of both football and fandom between ’68 and the present title race than Greenhoff.
Local rivalries still ring true, but the media hype surrounding the build up to next Monday’s game has grown beyond recognition, says the 58-year-old.
“It wasn’t so much the media and TV, more local press in them days. Media was local then, but the hype with the game coming up is huge. It’s better not to watch it all. It’s going to be incredible,” says Greenhoff, who played in 10 derbies and holds supporters close to his heart.
“You are doing it for the fans; you want them to have the bragging rights and the big smile on their faces. I used to love playing in derby games, but don’t like watching them. I get too wound up, I want to kick somebody. I play the derby game more than any other.
“This is the biggest derby game since 1968. It went to the last game then and it’ll go to last game now, whatever happens.”
There was no title-deciding match-up in ‘68 – City beat United 3-1 at Old Trafford with 10 games still remaining – but the local edge to the clash was unmistakable. After all, while players from Shay Brennan to Nobby Stiles, John Fitzpatrick, George Best and Bobby Charlton may have hailed from all corners of the British Isles, many ‘grew up’ in United’s youth team.
“Danny Welbeck will probably be the only one,” adds Greenhoff, of the current crop of players.
“You want lads who’ve come through the ranks. When I’d played there were quite a few that came through. Even playing in the B team or the reserves we wanted to win the derby. It was always about putting one over your neighbour.
“I would knock around with [Manchester City’s] Dennis Tueart. We were all friends off the pitch, nobody hated each other. Fans seem to hate each other these days. It’s scary. The rules and intensity in football have changed.”
Loyalty is a theme Greenhoff returns to frequently. He was, after all, a player who “never had an agent” and would receive each contract offer via letter from the club. Today’s players, Greenhoff says, are too often in it for the money. It gives the derby a different edge.
“When I made my debut I was only on £35 a week,” he adds.
“Tommy Docherty said ‘we’ll give you a rise every year as long as you’re in the side’. He kept his word, although it was never a lot because United were poor payers in those days.
“I do think modern players are mercenaries, but they’ll never admit it. Look at somebody like Nasri – it looked like he was signing for United, but then he was offered 75 grand more a week and went to City.
“Sir Alex had it right when he was talking about Pogba – when you play at Manchester United the money will come. Look at Welbeck, he’s in the papers today, and is going to earn 45 grand a week. That’s not bad for a 20-year-old is it? As a young lad you can see the rewards will be there if you dedicate yourself.”
Money remains a theme in Manchester though, with United seemingly burdened by debt, and City able to spend lavishly in the transfer market since the 2008 takeover by the Abu Dhabi royal family. The contrasting financial fortunes threaten United’s hegemony not only in Manchester, but the Premier League too – it’s a crown United will be fighting to retain on Monday night.
“City will be successful for the next 10 years, but will old Sheikh big pockets keep on subsidising the club or will he pull out?” asks Greenhoff.
“They’ve got to get the infrastructure correct – if they don’t do that it could fall apart quickly. It all depends on the Sheikh and if he keeps pumping money in. But if he makes them stand on their own two feet then they’ll have to look to the academy. And who would send their kid to that academy when they’re never going to get a game?”
Even if City’s strategy is based on trumping all in the market, Abu Dhabi’s investment looks likely to be long-term, with the Royal Family having ploughed more than £400 million into the club already. It makes Ferguson’s ability to shape a side from youth, while coping with injuries this season, all the more impressive says Greenhoff.
“City have got a bottomless pit of money. They’ll spend until they win the prize. When you look at what they’ve spent already, for United to stay with them could be the greatest achievement, and with the amount of injuries it’s incredible.
“I’m sure the fans will blame the Glazers if United don’t succeed, but Sir Alex is always building for the future. He knows if players can still offer something to the game, and he buys players at a good age.
“United try to get players through from the academy all the time. Not just into the first team, but also think of all players they’ve sold from the academy.”
Greenhoff was eventually sold on to Leeds for £350,000 in 1979, but his affection for the club he calls “the greatest in the world” is undiminished more than 30 years on. After three years in Leeds he played in South Africa and then Finland before winding up a fine career alongside his older brother at Rochdale.
In retirement Greenhoff worked for a local sports wholesaler before spending several years living in Spain. Now back in the north-west, his focus is again on football, and the big derby match next Monday. And while some Reds may be nervous of City’s vast wealth and new-found power, Greenhoff isn’t.
“United won’t go away. This is what I say to the City fans. Whatever happens, United are still going to be there.”
It’s a message with which fans can concur, whatever Monday’s result.