It is very easy to find the date that the Manchester football landscape changed largely because there’s a big billboard you can point at, but there are also lots of other significant dates along the way as well.
Like March 29.
Because if you head back to that date in 2008 you’ll see Manchester United doing what came naturally to them, and had done so for the previous decade-and-a-half.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s swashbuckling outfit, perhaps his finest United side to watch and still the club’s most recent truly great team, swept aside an overwhelmed Aston Villa 4-0 in the driving rain at Old Trafford to move six points clear at the top of the table, and even closer to a title they’d eventually win.
And it was all very Manchester United. Emphatic but expected. ‘Twas ever thus.
There was Cristiano Ronaldo, in his season of seasons, opening the scoring with a remarkable flick through the legs of Martin Laursen and past Scott Carson.
Ronaldo then turned provider for Carlos Tevez to nod home a second, and the Portuguese would tee up two goals for Wayne Rooney in the second period as United’s superb attacking trio – an “out of this world” three-piece even better than Liverpool ’s famed attack in their pomp, according to Gary Neville – all got on the scoresheet.
Fast forward exactly two years to the day though, and Ronaldo was nearing the end of his first season at Real Madrid, Rooney was eyeing his own big-money exit and Tevez was scoring a hat-trick for Manchester City.
What had happened in that intervening two years didn’t immediately appear to be impacting the football hierarchy in Manchester, but it would certainly lay the groundwork for what was to follow.
Blue moon rising off the pitch, if not on
Wigan were the opposition at the stadium then called Eastlands on March 29, 2010, with Gary Caldwell’s red card for a robust challenge on Tevez the precursor to a 12-minute treble from the Argentinean.
“We improved in the second half and then after the sending off it was too easy. The red card changed the game,” admitted City boss Roberto Mancini, four months into the job as the first manager appointed by City’s Abu Dhabi owners since the 2008 takeover.
“Carlos is a fantastic striker and I hope he continues like this in the run-in. If we fight like we did in the second half, we will probably finish fourth.”
But they didn’t.
City weren’t the complete package just yet, with their win lifting them above Liverpool and into fifth, still some 16 points behind leaders United, but the seeds were beginning to grow.
Days later Ferguson would be left furious as a clearly offside Didier Drogba winner was allowed to stand at Old Trafford, swinging the title race decisively in Chelsea ’s favour, and although City would miss out on the Champions League after a final week defeat to Tottenham, the sense of a threat emerging to United from under their own noses was a real one.
And no-one typified that more than Tevez.
By wrestling him away from United the previous summer City had laid down a marker that, at that stage, they would feel was bigger than any result or league finish.
It was headline-grabbing, and viral, disruptive marketing at its best.
And Ferguson did not like it.
The noisy neighbours
Fresh from the ugly summer transfer wrangle, the Manchester United boss was in a buoyant mood when his side had beaten Tevez and City 4-3 in a pulsating derby in September 2009 thanks to a late winner from Michael Owen.
In the manager’s eyes, the result had confirmed that City were back where they always were during his time at Old Trafford, in United’s shadow.
“Sometimes you have a noisy neighbour. You cannot do anything about that. They will always be noisy,” he said while grinning at full-time.
“You just have to get on with your life, put your television on and turn it up a bit louder.”
But while the feeling that City were just the loud upstarts intent on causing a fuss was a real one at Old Trafford, elsewhere their potential was beginning to be noted. While traditional powers such as Arsenal and Liverpool saw the looming threat and the challenge to their European spots, United were banking on their room at the top being reserved.
Ferguson, perhaps insulated with the knowledge that he wouldn’t have to directly deal with the City threat for much longer as he eyed retirement, was clearly fond of that “noisy neighbours” line, and trotted it out again before the Community Shield in the summer of 2011.
Yet the mere fact that City were playing in that match had indicated that they were on the rise.
Captained by Tevez, they had beaten Stoke in the previous season’s FA Cup final, a result still seen as pivotal to the club’s future successes by many of their fans, while their third-place Premier League finish had earned them a spot in the Champions League.
United were too busy enjoying the view from the top to notice though, with Ferguson revelling in the club’s record-breaking 19th league title as Liverpool were knocked from their perch.
The FA Cup win and Champions League qualification celebrations in east Manchester would barely have registered on Ferguson’s radar, but they were in many senses the end of the beginning of the modern City.
Tevez had been a keystone of that building project, and looking back now it is that transfer more than anything which sealed the shift in power.
“Fergie, sign him up”
Of course, Tevez was never really Manchester United’s player in the first place.
He had arrived at the club on a two-year loan deal from his third-party owners in the summer of 2007, and it hadn’t taken United’s fans long to take to the bustling Argentinean.
Chants of “Fergie, sign him up” could be heard throughout his first season at Old Trafford, when he scored 19 goals and played a key role in the Premier League and Champions League double.
By the following year though Ferguson had started to have his doubts.
The summer of 2008 had seen Dimitar Berbatov join United on the very same day that City’s takeover went through, bringing Robinho with it, and with Ferguson often seeing the Bulgarian as a better option than Tevez, doubts began to form over whether or not the loan deal would be turned into a permanent transfer.
The fans wanted it to happen though, and there was a real sense that what Ferguson said was an agreed £25million deal would go through.
But then nothing.
Ferguson wrote in his 2013 autobiography that he’d felt Tevez had begun to “play for himself” a little, citing a lack of impact after coming on at half-time in the 2009 Champions League final defeat to Barcelona, which would also be Ronaldo’s last appearance for the club.
Indeed, an “impact player” was exactly how the Scot saw Tevez, and he’d also suggested that the forward had made it known that he intended to retire in 2013, making a long-term contract offer futile.
“Tevez told us he was only going to play for four more years,” said Ferguson in 2011.
“If we had signed him on a five-year contract knowing that he was going to quit in four, there would have been no resale value for us.”
Ferguson would also go on to suggest that City paid almost double that agreed £25million fee to sign Tevez in 2009, with fees spiralling as his third-party owners handed over full control.
There was a sense that Ferguson was happy that United had got what they wanted out of the deal, and with Ronaldo leaving too, the manager saw this as the clearing of the decks.
But what he’d also done is leave the door open for City to create a stir, and to put a Red Devils fan favourite in sky blue.
To a club where money didn’t matter, it was an open goal.
Welcome to Manchester
“There are two sides to every story, I understand that and football can be complicated, but I didn’t like it when he was on the banner saying ‘Welcome to Manchester’ after he signed for City and I told him so,” said Patrice Evra in 2016.
Ah yes, the banner.
Again, as far as an attempt to antagonise neighbours who had little choice but to hear them, City had played a blinder here.
After the signing, a giant billboard depicting Tevez in a City shirt was placed on the edge of the city limits by the borough of Trafford and next to Salford, both United heartlands. The ‘Welcome to Manchester’ message also reinforced the idea that City can rely on local support, with much of United’s coming from out of town.
While Ferguson would no doubt have hoped that the attention would focus on the huge fee City had paid for Tevez, a new kind of transfer rhetoric was being established.
This was now the age of viewing a transfer as a win, regardless of cost, and with United also suffering the blow of losing Ronaldo they seemed ripe for the kicking while they were down.
City and Tevez weren’t going to pass up that opportunity.
“I was there for two years and Sir Alex never called me or sent me a text,” said Tevez at his City unveiling, laying on a dollop of drama.
“The only time he ever spoke to me was after the game with Roma when I needed to discuss my involvement with Argentina. I don’t think that’s a great way to treat a player.
“I didn’t leave United because of the fans, I felt Ferguson didn’t do enough to keep me there.”
Years later Tevez would claim that Ferguson had promised him he would sign him on a permanent deal before going back on his word, and it was clear that his defection to City had angered the legendary boss.
“We stayed close friends and Mr Ferguson didn’t always like that, especially when he saw us pictured outside a restaurant in a newspaper,” continued Evra in that same 2016 interview.
“He didn’t want his players associating with those from City, who were becoming a much stronger team, but I am not just a footballer, I am a man who is loyal to his friends and Carlito was my friend.”
He certainly wasn’t Ferguson’s.
Tevez’s first season at City was his most prolific in league football for any of his clubs as he hit 23 Premier League goals, following that up with 20 the following campaign as a Champions League place was secured, despite mid-season drama as he handed in a transfer request in an attempt to get an improved contract.
You always got the sense that Ferguson was watching such developments closely as he insisted United had dodged a particularly disruptive bullet, and early in the following season he got more ammunition.
In a Champions League game away at Bayern Munich in September 2011, Tevez had appeared to refuse to come off the bench with City 2-0 down, prompting a furious Mancini to declare that the forward would never play for the club again.
Tevez claimed that there had simply been a misunderstanding, but still gratefully accepted City’s offer to place him on gardening leave pending a future transfer. He returned to Argentina and would seemingly never come back to the club. Ferguson was in his element.
“I am not saying this to have a go at Carlos,” he said shortly after the incident, perhaps with a straight face.
“There will be cynics who say I have it in for him because of the circumstances through which he left Old Trafford under something of a cloud.
“I never had a problem with Carlos and I am speaking critically of him now only because of my understanding of the difficult jobs managers face.
“The City boss’s reaction was spot-on and sent a clear message to the rest of the players, not just at Eastlands but throughout the game.
“His handling of the situation distinguished him in managerial terms. I always admire the courage to do right, and that is what we are seeing here.”
Tevez wasn’t going to be silenced though.
After five months away from the first-team, the forward surprisingly returned in the March, going on to play in 10 Premier League matches as City snatched the title from United in dramatic fashion.
He started the famous game against QPR on the final day of the season, being withdrawn for Mario Balotelli in the 76th minute.
Balotelli would go on to tee up the winning goal for Sergio Aguero, the new Argentinean darling of the City fans, but Tevez wasn’t to be denied the limelight.
At City’s title parade he was seen holding aloft a banner that said ‘RIP Fergie’, which might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but had to draw a response from the club.
“The creation of the tasteless material is in itself reprehensible and in accepting and brandishing it, Carlos has made a significant error of judgment,” said City.
“The club wishes to express its sincerest apologies to Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United Football Club for any offence or distress caused.”
For a man who had once said United would never be underdogs to City “in my lifetime” the sight of Tevez rubbing in the title victory would have been hard to take.
But then the relationship between the pair never was a calm one.