‘Love our bald man, he’s genius’
Arjen van der Horst
correspondent United Kingdom
Arjen van der Horst
correspondent United Kingdom
Manchester residents have been looking forward to it for weeks. This afternoon at four o’clock the two city rivals take on each other: Manchester City and Manchester United. Never before have the two Manchester teams faced each other in an English Cup final.
It is also the match of the mentor, coach Pep Guardiola, against his old pupil, Erik ten Hag. And the team that can call itself the best team in the world versus the club that has begun a resurgence under the former Ajax coach.
When Guardiola celebrated successes at Bayern Munich, Ten Hag trained the German club’s second team. The Spanish coach praised his Ten Hag ahead of the final game. “I think United have an exceptional manager for many, many years. With a manager, I look at how his team improves,” Guardiola said.
“When you see a team getting better and better, in a league that is not easy, you see a really good manager. He represents our profession in the best possible way.”
Little brother now big
For decades, City (anno 1880) was considered the small, underperforming brother of Manchester United (anno 1878), which, with 20 league titles, is still the most successful club in the English league.
Especially under coach Alex Ferguson (1986-2013), United went through a period of glory, while City was relegated from the highest division of English soccer in the 1990s after a period of sporting and financial decline. It was not until 2002 that it returned to the Premier League.
But with the arrival of Pep Guardiola in 2016 to City (not to mention oil dollars from the Emirates), the roles are reversed these days. City – with superstar Erling Haaland – already have the national title in their pocket, the seventh already from the past 11 seasons.
The club thus has the prospect of a rare three-way tie. In addition to the FA Cup, it can also win the Champions League next week against Inter Milan. Only one English club so far managed to win the famous Treble up for grabs: Manchester United (in 1999).
City fans have not forgotten that for years they were regarded as Manchester’s ugly duckling.
“We have changed from a humble club to a world-class super team,” says soccer commentator and City fan Steven McInerney:
This is how fans in Manchester are living towards the City-United derby
“I never expected it. Nobody thought the club would be taken over in this way. We have been very lucky. We City fans are by no means stupid. We also know that the huge investments of the new owners have turned the tide.”
While City began a rise in English soccer, United fell into decline. With the departure of Alex Ferguson, the club -despite investing millions- entered a downward spiral. One coach after another took over the helm, but even top coaches like Louis van Gaal could not turn the tide. It has now been 10 years since United last won the national title.
Expectations were not too high when Ten Hag was appointed head coach of Manchester United a year ago. He struggled to bring in new players. Among others, Ten Hag was aiming for Frenkie de Jong, but he preferred to stay at Barcelona. Nobody felt like joining a club in decline that did not even compete in the Champions League.
Ten Hag’s start was abysmal. The first two league games were lost (1-2 against Brighton and 4-0 against Brentford). There was early speculation in the British media about an early departure of the Dutch coach.
But Ten Hag soon managed to bend the team to his will. With better discipline also came fun back into the game. Jammers like Cristiano Ronaldo he let go and he got the talent Marcus Rashford scoring again.
‘Our bald man’
It is going too far to call Manchester United’s resurgence complete. Certainly, Ten Hag achieved successes by winning the League Cup, among others. His team again edged into the top-three of the Premier League, giving it access to Champions League.
But Ten Hag will be the first to keep emphasizing that the road to the absolute top is still long. Success was accompanied by blamages, such as the 7-0 defeat against Liverpool in March and the hopeless elimination in the Europa League by the later winner Sevilla.
But the British sporting press and fans are in full agreement that United has regained luster under Ten Hag. For the first time since Ferguson, the club again has a coach competing at the highest level and winning prizes.
Duncan Drasdo, chairman of the Manchester United Supporters Trust, interprets the sentiments of many United fans who hold Ten Hag on their hands. “We love our bald man. He is brilliant. I have never felt this good about a coach since Ferguson. We think we finally have the right coach now.”