I don’t know what it is about the troublesome behaviour that football exhibits, but I just can’t stop writing about it. Last week I gave my take on the Calciopoli scandal and the impact it had on Italian giants Juventus. This week, I look a little bit closer to home, at a scandal known as ‘Fergie time’. It was never proven, nor was it ever investigated; however, we all knew it existed.
If you’re from the red half of Manchester, just the mere mention of Sir Alex Ferguson will pull on the heartstrings, especially given the recent struggles. For the rest of us outside of Manchester, and the eight City supporters that were there before the oil money, Sir Alex was one of the most infuriating managers around. Although, no matter how much you despised him when he was in charge of the Red Devils, you can’t help but respect what he has achieved in the game now that he’s no longer in the dugout. With two Champions League medals, and 13 Premier League titles, Fergie retired as the most successful manager in English history.
The reason he was so infuriating had nothing to do with what he said in press conferences, in fact in comparison to Jose Mourinho he was actually quite likeable. It was the seemingly invisible choke hold that he had all of the Premier League referees in, leading to conspiracy theorists accusing referees of extending the added time at the end of the game when Manchester United weren’t winning, thus earning the label ‘Fergie time’.
English fans had to wait less than two hours to first see it in action, as Steve Bruce nodded in a 97th-minute winner in a 2-1 victory against Sheffield Wednesday in the inaugural game of the Premier League era. Whilst it has happened on too many different occasions to list, one example of Fergie time that sticks in the memory is the 2009 Manchester derby.
I don’t exaggerate when I say this game will be a fixture in every ‘Top 10 games of the Premier League era’ article you read, as it really epitomised everything that we had become accustomed to in the English top flight. Ryan Giggs pulling the strings in midfield, Darren Fletcher cashing in his annual world-class performance against a big rival, Ben Foster, well just being Ben Foster, and more importantly, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side scoring an injury-time winner.
At the time of writing this article, it is exactly 13 years to the day that Manchester’s two biggest sides played out an absolute classic. In this article, I will attempt to dissect the absolute chaos that occurred in Old Trafford on the 20th of September 2009.
Turning the Tide – Welcome to Manchester
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the actual game, it is important to understand the context of the fixture. This seven-goal thriller was the 153rd Manchester derby in history and the first of the 2009/10 season. Both teams had made an excellent start to the campaign, level on points at the top end of the table. Almost a year on from Sheikh Mansour’s takeover, Manchester City had just gone big in the summer transfer window, bringing in a whole host of talents.
Joleon Lescott, Slyvinho, Gareth Barry, and Roque Santa Cruz had all joined Mark Hughes’ Abu Dhabi revolution at the Etihad. They also managed to prize both Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure away from the Emirates, raising a few eyebrows from an angry entourage of Arsenal fans.
This wasn’t even their most controversial signing of the summer, as Carlos Tevez did the unthinkable, becoming only the second player in history to make the cross-town move from the Red Devils to the Cityzens. After being accused of being a “small club with a small mentality” by Sir Alex, City fans made sure to antagonise the veteran Scotsman as much as possible, plastering Tevez’s face on every available billboard in Manchester.
Tevez’s arrival signalled a statement of intent. After years of watching their neighbours dominate English football, Manchester City were finally in a position to compete with Sir Alex’s side. In contrast, Manchester United had a weakened squad, with the record-breaking sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid leaving a massive void in their line-up. It set up a fascinating encounter, one of the most eagerly anticipated derbies in Premier League history.
When there’s an overload of pre-match hype, the game often fails to flatter. Boy did this game live up to the hype. Just two minutes in, the Old Trafford crowd was in pandemonium. A quick throw caught Micah Richards out, allowing Patrice Evra to dart into the box and square the ball to Wayne Rooney, who floored two City defenders before slotting the ball through the legs of Shay Given. Advantage United.
Ten minutes later and the game was all squared. Foster mastered the art of the mannequin challenge, completely freezing on the ball and allowing former teammate Tevez to nip in and steal the ball from him. With the former England keeper miles off his line, Tevez unselfishly laid the ball back to Barry, who caressed the ball into the bottom corner to equalise.
Like all good derbies, tackles were flying in left right and centre. Tevez landed a late tackle on Rio Ferdinand, Anderson then repaid the favour, leaving his former teammate in a heap on the floor as he walked off trying the classic ‘don’t make eye contact with the referee in the hope he won’t book you’. It didn’t work. Seconds later, the Argentinian almost got the sweetest of revenge, clipping the outside of the post after a good bit of team play.
The half time whistle sounded, and the Stretford End made their views of Tevez heard, serenading him off the pitch with a chorus of boos. Spaniard Javier Garrido even took a coin to the back of the head on behalf of his teammate after the former United man provoked the hostile fans further, sarcastically clapping their jeers on his way down the tunnel.
Both teams had good chances in the first half, but the score remained level going into the interval. I remember watching the game live on Sky Sports, thinking to myself there is zero chance that it was ending 1-1. It had been built up too much to end as a draw – all the pre-match hype, all the taunts, and the mind games between the managers. You knew neither would settle for a draw. It made for a thrilling second half.
Second Half Superiority
Let’s not forget, Hughes was a former United player under Sir Alex, and their relationship was already strained when the Welshman was deemed surplus to requirements ahead of the 95/96 season, and eventually sold to Chelsea. Whilst the pair had been opposite numbers since then, this was their first meeting in a Manchester derby.
As the teams reappeared for the second half, it was Manchester United who grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. It took just four second-half minutes for the Red Devils to restore their lead. A trademark Giggs delivery was met by Scotland midfielder Fletcher, who towered over his midfield opponent Barry, guiding his header into the bottom right-hand corner of Given’s net.
Just minutes later and the game should have been all over. Giggs himself squandered an excellent chance, whilst Park Ji Sung was also guilty of missing a gilt-edged opportunity. In the 52nd minute, they were made to rue their misses. After picking up the ball on the left wing, Craig Bellamy powered his way to the edge of the box, twisting and turning his way past the oncoming challenges before rifling a venomous shot into the top corner. A fantastic goal yes, but the defending was very poor. John O’Shea looked like he was struggling with vertigo following the goal, as Bellamy twisted him inside out like a pretzel. All square again.
United continued to dominate the overall flow of the game but Given was in fine form for the Sky Blues, somehow keeping out a Dimitar Berbatov header from approximately six yards out. The overall intensity of the game was up there with the highest I have seen in the Premier League, it was just the finishing that was lacking from both sides. Eventually, the Red Devil’s onslaught paid off, as Fletcher nodded home his second of the game following another Giggs pinpoint delivery.
Now I could be very wrong here, but Fletcher wasn’t exactly renowned for his aerial prowess, was he? To answer my own question, no he wasn’t. In 341 Premier League games, the Scotsman scored 23 goals, only seven of them coming with his head, two of them in the Manchester derby no less. I seem to recall him also scoring a headed winner against Chelsea, ending their unbeaten run under Mourinho. No wonder Fergie loved him, clearly the man for the big occasion! There are three certainties in life: Death, taxes, and Fergie deploying Park and Fletcher in his midfield ahead of a big game.
Brace for Bellamy
Hughes’ men were running out of time to get the equaliser, with just 10 minutes left to play. City had already come from behind twice in the game and were pushing desperately in search of the much-needed goal. Academy graduates Shaun Wright-Phillips and Richards both had half chances to score in the final minutes but saw their efforts either sail wide or blocked by a United defender. The game was slipping away from the Sky Blues and surely it would take a huge error on United’s part to invite them back into the game.
Cue Ferdinand’s moment of madness.
Widely regarded as one of the best ball-playing defenders of his generation, ahead of the current curve I guess you could say, but Ferdinand’s elegant and graceful playstyle proved costly to United in the 90th minute. Instead of doing what most defenders of that era would have done, which would be to punt the ball into row Z classic Sunday league style, the former England international attempted a ridiculous scooped pass on the halfway line. The recipient of his casual flick, Man City substitute Martin Petrov.
Some quick thinking from the Bulgarian set Bellamy away down the left, as he blitzed past a regretful Ferdinand. It looked like the Welshman had taken the ball too wide, but the ball somehow found itself trickle into the back of the United net. The angle it was originally broadcasted at made it look like it got a deflection, but other perspectives showed it was just Foster’s atrocious positioning.
There is a reason he has conceded the most goals in Premier League history, and this is it. At fault for the first goal, and partially to blame for Bellamy’s second, it was a night to forget for the former England number one. Only playing because first-choice keeper Edwin Van De Sar was injured, this turned out to be one of Foster’s last games in between the sticks, as Sir Alex rather ruthlessly sold him to Birmingham at the end of the season.
Bellamy’s goal sent the travelling City fans into raptures and the Stretford End into complete silence. United had really stamped their authority on the game in the second half, to the point that a draw would have felt like a defeat in the dressing room. A 90th-minute equaliser is a real kick in the proverbial for any fan in world football, unless of course your team is managed by Fergie.
Zero to Hero
One of the fiercest rivalries in world football, it would be fair to say that Manchester United and Liverpool aren’t the greatest of allies. A derby that has graced English football for the best part of 120 years, there is certainly no love lost between the two sets of fans. Whilst loyalty is a bit of a dying breed in the modern game, no amount of money could persuade a Liverpool player to play for the Red Devils, and vice versa. There have been a few examples over the years, Paul Ince being one of them, but they’ve never quite been welcomed in as one of their own.
So, when Sir Alex announced Kop idol Michael Owen as Tevez’s replacement and handed him Ronaldo’s number seven shirt, shockwaves were sent around the entire nation. His arrival was heavily maligned by the United faithful, not just for his Liverpool connections, but also for his career status at the time.
Electric on his day, but many felt his ‘day’ was a distant memory following multiple serious injuries. The Red Devils weren’t signing the Ballon d’Or winning version of Owen, instead, they were signing an injury-stricken, unwanted free agent looking for a final payday. He had even begged Rafa Benitez to take him back at Liverpool, but the Spaniard didn’t want him. The two-time Premier League Golden Boot winner was rejected by a man who employed David N’Gog, which says it all really.
In the 78th minute of the game, with the scores level at 2-2, Sir Alex gave Owen his first taste of the Manchester derby in the hope he could produce a moment of magic. Following the wild celebrations that accompanied the Welshman’s last-minute equaliser, the fourth official signalled for four minutes of injury time to be played. As the four minutes passed, Martin Atkinson neglected his whistle, opting to play an additional two minutes. We all know what happens next….
Giggs picked up the ball in acres of space in the Man City half, despatching an inch-perfect through ball to Owen, who instinctively toe poked the ball past his former Newcastle teammate Given. Not a bad time to score your first Old Trafford goal, a 96th-minute winner in the Manchester derby. The final whistle sounded just seconds later – the home crowd were in complete jubilation, the Manchester City players were in complete bemusement, and most shockingly Michael Owen was Manchester United’s saviour. Strange times.
Once a beneficiary of the infamous Fergie time, Hughes found himself on the receiving end and didn’t take too kindly to it. The Sky camera panned toward the City dugout, where the furious Welshman could be seen chewing fourth official Alan Wiley’s ear off. To be fair to Hughes, I completely understand his frustration. Where exactly did the extra two minutes surface from?
In his post-match interview, Hughes claimed that his side had been “robbed”, also making an official complaint to the FA about the injury time incident. Atkinson was investigated by PGMOL, the governing body for Premier League referees, but nothing came from it. By the letter of the law, there isn’t actually any ruling when it comes to the amount of time added on. The general rule of thumb is that a goal or substitution is equivalent to 30 seconds of added time, but it is completely up to the ref’s discretion. Quite odd when you consider that every other decision a referee makes uses the tiniest of margins or measurements.
Manchester City got their redemption three years later, in the final game of the 2011/12 campaign. Sergio Aguero scored the most iconic goal in Premier League history, stealing the Premier League title away from Sir Alex’s Red Devils in the dying seconds of the season. That Martin Tyler commentary for the goal still gives me goosebumps to this day, and I’m not even a City fan. Fergie’s “noisy neighbours” had beaten him at his own game. Rooney and Co were already shown on TV celebrating their title triumph before hilariously being informed of Aguero’s late winner whilst the cameras were still rolling.