Pep & Jose Chronicles

Chapter 2: Do or Die on Derby Day

By Andy Mitten / Photography by Kevin Cummins

October 11, 2016

Bleacher Report

“Meet in that Abel Heywood at nine,” says Pat Euston, a lifelong Manchester United fan. “It’s one of those pubs in the Northern Quarter where the regulars have beards, but it does a good breakfast, and it’s handy for getting to Old Trafford. The Blue will come too.”

It’s Sept. 10, derby day in Manchester, and the early kick-off necessitates a prompt start. The Abel Heywood is billed as a modern take on a Victorian gin pub. It’s named after a former mayor of Manchester who published penny travel guides to nearby seaside towns for the city’s working class.

The doors open early, and there’s soon a queue for what the menu lists as “The Manchester fry-up.” For £7.95, a plate is filled with “Manchester sausage, bacon, eggs, smashed potato hash, baked beans, Bury black pudding, tomato and toasted rye.” Some wash it down with a tea or coffee; others get straight on the beer.

Manchester’s Northern Quarter, a gentrified area beloved by football hipster Juan Mata for its independent record stores, alternative clothes shops, bars and coffee houses, has long filtered into the mainstream and style bibles, but the early morning doesn’t show it in its best light. As the shop shutters rise and street cleaners make headway into plastic bags of rubbish, hollow-face addicts check parking machines for any leftover change.  

There’s the usual mix on this bright September morning, four hours before kick-off. Twenty-something men in casual designer clothes buzz about in twos and threes, many making their way to the Abel Heywood through streets of old brick buildings that have been brightened up with murals. Once the backside of Manchester city centre, it’s still earthy and authentic.

Keeping a close eye on the activity are police officers in unmarked cars. The security operation to police the most eagerly awaited Manchester derby in history has also kicked off early. Euston has no interest in trouble, nor does his Manchester City-supporting friend David ‘Sykesy’ Sykes, but the Heywood fills up with wily casuals, many of whom are known to the police.

“Young United,” one explains. “They say nothing is planned today, but once they’re on the gear [cocaine], the calls will go in [to rival hooligans].”

Hooliganism, once the scourge of British football, has long been tamed by effective policing. English football grounds are largely safe, families are welcome and bans are severe for troublemakers, but a tiny hardcore of mostly younger lads looks for the perfect buzz they think fighting can provide.

Their shelf life is often short; the closed-circuit television, three- and five-year bans and effective policing see to that. There’s no mass rampage through quaint English towns as happened every week in the 1974-75 season, when United played in the second division.

It’s hard to imagine United playing outside the top flight, but they did for one post-war season. Hard too to imagine City not being among the best teams in England’s Premier League, but the Blues have played across all three tiers of English football since 1999. 

David Sykes, 51, is a hardcore Blue who has been there for almost every game. Born in Crumpsall, the same working-class north Manchester district that gave the world Mani from the Stone Roses and Take That’s Jason Orange, he’s long been a resident of Bury, 10 miles north of Manchester.

When City played a game behind closed doors in Moscow or a friendly in Abu Dhabi, where their owners are based, Sykes was there, along with 10 other fans. A former British army combat medic who did two tours of Afghanistan, age has mellowed him, and he’s become close friends with United fans like Euston. They respect each other because they support their teams home and away, but their fortunes have contrasted sharply over the years.

Sykes swipes his phone to reveal a photograph of a postcard he received from Italy from his United-supporting mates in April 1999. “To Sykesy,” it reads, on the reverse of a shot of Juventus’ Delle Alpi stadium. “You were at Port Vale last night. We’re in Turin tonight. Wish you were here. Best wishes, Bryan Robson.”

The legendary Manchester United midfielder signed the card, but he didn’t write the message. That night, United came from 2-0 down to beat Juventus—widely regarded as the best team on the planet with Zinedine Zidane and Edgar Davids at their heart—3-2. Victory saw Sir Alex Ferguson’s side reach their first European Cup final since 1968, and, at Barcelona’s Camp Nou, they again came from behind to defeat Bayern Munich 2-1 with two goals in stoppage time.

“When United lifted the treble that night, we were in the Third Division, and I thought: ‘We’ll never get a sniff of something like this,'” Sykes says over his Manchester breakfast. “But I also knew that every dog has its day. I never gave up hope that one day our luck would turn. And it did. It’s hard to believe what’s happening at City, that I'm watching world-class players like Sergio Aguero. That man gave me my greatest moment as a Blue in May 2012.”

That moment—the “Aguerooooooooo” moment—came after City had gone down and down the leagues and were on the verge of bankruptcy.

“York away on Dec. 19, 1998, was the worst,” Sykes says of City’s season in England’s third tier.

The same year is known by United’s support as “the treble season,” when United lifted the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League trophies.

“Our loss to York [now a non-league team], was our sixth league defeat before Christmas. If you speak to City fans now, 50,000 of them will claim they were at York, but there was only a couple of thousand of us behind the goal, and it was grim.

“We could have gone further down at Wrexham [also now a non-league team] a week later, but our goalkeeper Nicky Weaver was brilliant and we managed to get a winner, 1-0. Things looked up after that, and we reached the play-offs as United were winning the treble.”

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Four days after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s extended toe helped United reach “the promised land” in Barcelona, City beat Gillingham in a dramatic play-off final match at Wembley—via a penalty shootout—to escape England’s third tier. They never went back.

“If we hadn’t gone straight back up that season, I think we could have become another Leeds—struggling and going nowhere,” Sykes says as the pub continues to fill and police in fluorescent jackets peer through the windows to see the raffish clientele inside. There are no colours that would identify any of the occupants as Red or Blue.

City kept up the momentum of that 1999 promotion. They won a second promotion in 2000, confirming a return to the Premier League with a 4-1 victory at Blackburn Rovers on the final day of the season. They filled the 8,000 seat Darwen End at Ewood Park that day and had fans around the stadium. Hundreds more were on a hill overlooking the ground.

Before long, United fans were satirizing their City counterparts’ claims about the size of City’s support that day, with a quarter of a million Blues standing on a small grassy knoll in Blackburn.

United fans heard so many new City signings refer to the club as “massive” that they hijacked the phrase to mock their neighbours. And because City didn’t win anything, they bestowed fictitious awards on them for having the tallest floodlights, the widest pitch and the most energy-efficient under-soil heating system.

In the absence of trophies to justify arguments of supremacy, City stressed their authenticity as the Manchester club in contrast to United’s near-global reach. Their fans were cast as down-to-earth, self-effacing, humble Mancunians who sneered at those dirty RAGs (Red Arrogant Gits) from Trafford (since the 1974 creation of Metropolitan boroughs, United’s ground sits outside the City of Manchester boundary) who only started watching United when they won the 1999 treble.

"When United lifted the treble that night, we were in the Third Division, and I thought: ‘We’ll never get a sniff of something like this.'"

City fan David Sykes

For their part, United fans long claimed that most City fans were from Manchester satellite towns such as Rochdale and Stockport and didn’t need a passport because their team never played abroad. But that was all before 2008 and the arrival of the Emirati millions.

“I thought the takeover was a bit of a jamboree at first,” Sykes says. “We’d been taken over by a Thai owner a couple of years previous, and not that much had changed. I only realised how serious the new owners were when we signed Yaya Toure from Barcelona. Here was a star, a big-game player good enough to get in any team in the world.  

“Roberto Mancini was a great appointment as manager, too. We wouldn’t be anywhere without him.”

There have been growing pains.

“We used to call you lot ‘glory hunters,’” Sykes says as he looks across the table at Pat. “Now we attract loads. There’s some tension between new fans and old, but we all know who is who, and a lot of the hardcore fans were there well before we were successful. I’ll be in the away end today and I’ll see people who’ve been going to City for five minutes and think, ‘How did you get a ticket for the derby?’ And that frustrates me. You can buy loyalty now and access to the most expensive season tickets where you have a better chance of getting away tickets.”

As we talk, Euston, a 42-year-old who has watched United in 40 countries, rolls his eyes. Listening to a man extolling Manchester City’s success is not his idea of a good Saturday morning, but he’s known Sykesy since 1990 and toleration levels are high.

“I respect him as a fan, and I’d rather talk to a Blue who goes to the game than a Red who doesn’t,” he says. “I despise City, but I have total respect for the proper fans of any club.”

Pat Euston and David Sykes have history at derby matches.

“Beating them 5-0 in ’94 was one of the best,” Euston says as he looks at Sykes. “Especially because it ruined his 30th birthday. The year before, I came back from an away match at Galatasaray and couldn't get a ticket for the derby. Sykesy got me one, and I sat with him in the City section. City fans were throwing bars of Turkish Delight at the United fans because Galatasaray had knocked us out of Europe.

“Then City went 2-0 up by half-time. United stormed back to make it 2-2. I celebrated when [Eric] Cantona’s equaliser went in, and City fans rightly had a go at me. Sykesy sided with me, his mate, which is more than I could have expected him to do given where I was sat. The police threw the pair of us out, but I managed to see Roy Keane’s winner from the top of the steps before I went.”

And what about the low points?

“The 1-6 was the worst,” Euston replies without pausing. “I don’t even want to talk about it. Change the subject now.”

But the pair share far more common ground.

"I respect him as a fan, and I’d rather talk to a Blue who goes to the game than a Red who doesn’t. I despise City, but I have total respect for the proper fans of any club."

United fan Pat Euston

“For us, supporting a team is a way of life,” says Euston, a window cleaner in Newton Heath, where United started life in 1878. “It’s so much more than watching a game; it’s your community, your mates. The 90 minutes is only a small part of it. My mum and dad have been going to games since they were kids and still go to every game, home and away and in Europe. Dad is 70. Mum 69.

“Watching Manchester United is what I do, and it’s the same for him with City,” he concludes. “We still hate them, though, but we’ll probably meet for a drink after the game.”

It’s time to leave. Outside the pub, police are asking one fan to confirm his name and address.

Nearby and going against the grain by wearing a red Manchester United shirt under a leather jacket, David Feare, 22, is waiting at the junction of Oldham Street and Hilton Street. Footage of rival fans fighting by this very junction will be broadcast online the following day. The numbers are not big; the online audience—fascinated and appalled that men will risk serious harm to each other because they happen to support a different football team—is.

Police make 11 arrests on derby day but report no major incidents.  

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A United fan from Manchester, Jamaica, Feare has travelled overnight from London on a bus to see his beloved Manchester United for the first time and has been wandering around the empty city since the small hours of the morning. He doesn’t have a ticket for the game and hasn’t slept.

“I’m so hyped. I came here to be close to the atmosphere,” he says as we pass a road traffic sign warning “FOOTBALL MATCH TODAY. 1230. PLEASE PLAN YOUR JOURNEY” on the Mancunian Way, an elevated inner-city ring road.

Manchester’s ever-rising skyline is to the right. The city is undergoing another building boom of high-rise structures, including several hotels. All of Manchester’s hotels are full for the derby. They’re full for every United game, with fans pouring into the city from far and wide. Unlike Feare, most who stay overnight have a room.

“I started supporting United when I moved to the Cayman Islands and began getting into football,” he says. “I naively thought that they might be from the parish where I was born—Manchester, Jamaica. I realised that wasn’t the case, but by that time I had fallen in love with the club. David Beckham was my hero. We share the same name, and No. 7 is my lucky number.”

By the red, white and black Trafford Road Bridge across the Manchester Ship Canal, Feare joins the crowds of 75,000 moving towards Old Trafford and enters Sir Matt Busby Way. He is awestruck when the enormity of Old Trafford stands in front of him. Just being there is enough.

Much of the talk among United fans is of Wayne Rooney, whose form is dipping. They are worried about Rooney’s performances and question why he starts every game. The word on the street is that he could be dropped, that Jesse Lingard is set for his first start of the season with Henrikh Mkhitaryan. But then again, the word on the street is often wrong and rumours proliferate.

Feare is in luck today. A United fan offers him a ticket for the game for face value of £50. Ecstatic, he disappears into the crowds now packing the area outside Britain’s biggest club football ground.

Early on derby day, I was introduced to Manchester City fan Daniel Timperley, one of the men behind the popular Facebook group MCFC Just Sayin’. We went head-to-head on BBC Radio 5, the corporation’s main news and sport radio station.

After the chat, Timperley explained how he was feeling: “Derby day, I’m always nervous,” he said. “It’s a lot better nowadays because we have half a chance of getting something. In the 1990s, it was the worst day of the year for me. Today, I think it’s going to be a tight one, with a goal either way.”

Timperley has done his time as a match-going Blue and attended Manchester derbies for years.

“My best was the 6-1,” he says of that game in 2011, which still upsets Euston. City put six past United at Old Trafford and gifted their fans the rousing “It could’ve been 10” chant they still sing today.

And the worst?

“I went to the 5-0 (in 1994), but the worst one was the Michael Owen 4-3 (2009 at Old Trafford). We were still celebrating [Craig] Bellamy’s screamer, thinking we’d got a point, and for some reason they added on 70 minutes of injury time and Owen got that goal. You could either laugh or cry. I laughed. It was typical City.”

United fans would delight that so many things were typical City before 2008.

Timperley doesn’t allow the ticket for the Old Trafford game through his door.

“I give it to a mate, and he gives it to me on the morning of the game,” he says. “I won’t have the United badge in my house.”

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He recognises that United and City are the clear favourites for the title.

“If anyone finishes above United or City, then they’ll win the league,” he predicts. “I think it will be us. I think it’ll be City.”

Like Sykes, who says that the two previous seasons under Manuel Pellegrini were the worst since the 2008 takeover, Timperley is delighted that Pep Guardiola is in charge.

“He’s brilliant, a merger of the best bits of Pellegrini and Mancini,” he says. “Mancini was too hostile to players. It was his way. Guardiola has his way, but he’s an arm-around-the-shoulder guy. He’ll let you know if you’re doing bad, but he’ll give you a hug and make you feel a million dollars if you do good. He’s exactly the type of manager we’ve needed for years. He’s the best manager we’ve had. You can see already in our play the amount of chances and a massive difference from last year.”

"I won’t have the United badge in my house."

City fan Daniel Timperley

It’s not only Radio 5 Live showing an interest. Radio 4, the more intellectual BBC station beloved by the British political and chattering classes, are also doing a feature on Guardiola and new United boss Jose Mourinho.

Interest among the media is higher than it has ever been for a Manchester derby. Dozens of foreign correspondents from well-respected media organisations are surprised when their applications for a seat in the Old Trafford press box are declined. It’s nothing personal: The limited 90 seats aren’t enough to sate demand. The media area at Barca’s Camp Nou has 620 seats.

Not for nothing are United looking to expand the South Stand, the only side of the stadium that is still a single tier. The demand for more seats is there—for a bigger press box, too—and the development would make a statement about United’s position, moving them well clear of all the other clubs who’ve been playing catch-up with their own stadium redevelopments since United last expanded the capacity in 2006.

It would cost £150 million—the sort of money that so far the club have invested in buying new footballers and paying their contracts.

United’s four close-season signings are all about to start the derby, and a packed Old Trafford buzzes with anticipation. Both Guardiola and Mourinho have led their sides to three straight wins in their opening Premier League matches. Something has to give today.

“We are City, we are City, super City, from Maine Road,” 3,000 away fans sing to the tune of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing.”

“U-n-i-t-e-d! United are the team for me,” United fans in K Stand, J Stand and the Stretford End reply. “With a knick-knack paddy whack, give a dog a bone, why don’t City f--k off home?”

The City fans are in full voice, singing their “Blue Moon” anthem—“We’re not really here,” “Tra la la la City” to the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”—and finishing with the more crude but still heartfelt “F--k off, Mourinho.”

It’s easier to be organised, loud and defiant in a tight away end of hardcore fans, just as United fans are whenever they play at what they call “the Emptihad,” though Sykes sends a photo of some fans who he thinks have never been to a game before and are wearing the expressions of wide-eye tourists.

The tourists can be spotted from a distance wearing half-and-half United-and-City scarves—merchandise that no regular fan of either club would ever be seen wearing.

In the J Stand singing section, United fans hold up banners. One features Paul Pogba with the words “Young, Gifted and Back."

“From the banks of River Irwell,” they roar to the tune of “The Halls of Montezuma,” “to the shores of Sicily, we’ll fight, fight, fight for United, until we win the Football League. To hell with Liverpool, to hell with Man City, they’re s--t!”

And then they segue into another venerable favourite: “Hello, hello, we are the Busby Boys…and if you are a City fan, surrender or you’ll die. We all follow United.”

On the stadium’s public address system, Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” a famous folk lament to nearby industrial Salford, booms out. Before games, United now issue a generally well-received playlist featuring songs from mostly local groups. As The Stone Roses’ anthemic “This Is the One” pours from the speakers, Mourinho, United and City stride on to the turf.

This is the game the football world has waited for.

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Josep Guardiola emerges separately from the tunnel and walks alone along the touchline towards his bench. The Catalan is gently booed by United fans, but while Mourinho doesn’t afford City even a cursory mention in his match-programme notes, he waits for his rival, clasps his hand, and the pair briefly hug as 27 press photographers focus their lenses. Like their employers, the managers are keen to diffuse any possible tension.

“We’ve got Guardiola,” City fans holler in their version of the Dave Clark Five's sixties stomper “Glad All Over:” “Because we’ve got Guar-dio-la, we've got [clap, clap] Guar-dio-la, we've got [clap] Guar-dio-la. So glad you're mine."

The City boss likes his new song, and he soon likes the way his charges start against United.

Kevin De Bruyne, the game’s best player, scores the opening goal after 15 minutes when Kelechi Iheanacho, a surprise selection, heads the ball towards the Belgian, who has nipped in front of Daley Blind.

"Hello, hello, we are the Busby Boys…and if you are a City fan, surrender or you’ll die. We all follow United."

United fans

The Dutchman is considered the most intelligent reader of the game among his peers at Carrington, but his anticipation is poor as City take the lead. This isn’t a good moment for United fans as City, whose Christmas has come early, sing the chorus to “Mary’s Boy Child:” “Hark, now hear the City sing, United ran away.”

United fans hit back with, “This City is yours, 20,000 empty seats, are you f--king sure?” It’s a play on a city-centre billboard the Blues paid for when they signed Carlos Tevez from United in 2009 with the slogan “Welcome to Manchester.”

But if they don’t own Manchester, City have taken control of the game, with David Silva at his balletic best. Even without their finest player—the suspended Aguero—City are dominant. They score a second after 36 minutes when a De Bruyne shot surprises David De Gea, hitting the post and falling for Iheanacho to tap in his fourth goal in his last four away games. It’s 2-0.

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“It’s only 6-1,” chorus the travelling fans with one of their favourite songs of recent times to celebrate their 6-1 win. “Sixty thousand empty seats, it’s only 6-1. It should have been 10, you lucky bastards. It could have been 10."

The giant sea of red is stunned, and the away fans even have the cheek to make a ssssh sound. “Fergie’s right, your fans are s--te,” they sing.

It’s not quiet when Zlatan Ibrahimovic puts United back in the game four minutes before half-time. The goal gives United hope as the players head down the tunnel at the break, which Mourinho utilises to substitute Lingard and Mkhitaryan, whose struggles to get into the game in their first start of the season were clear only 10 minutes into it.

United improve in the second period as they chase the game. Their fans shout “Attack! Attack! Attack!” A huge roar goes up followed by primal screams of “United! United!” when a board is held up to signal five minutes of added-on time, but City hold out.

“It’s only 6-1. Sixty thousand empty seats, it’s only 6-1. It should have been 10, you lucky bastards. It could have been 10."

City fans recall their most famous Old Trafford derby win

They deserve their win, and Mourinho is quick to congratulate Guardiola at the final whistle—plus all the City bench. It was their fans who delighted in singing “Never felt more like singing the Blues, City win, United lose…” and then “We’re the pride of Manchester.”

As they sing, Guardiola urges his players to go closer and applaud their supporters in the wedge-shaped away end. John Stones celebrates as if he’s won the league rather than his first Manchester derby.

United’s players are despondent. Their best had been Ibrahimovic, who sources confirm later bemoaned his poor service to friends—joking that he’d only had one true ball all game, and that from City’s shaky debutant goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, which he scored.

As the fans drift away, the rival managers, in their neatly cut suits, don’t share a bottle of wine, which had been anticipated after the game. They say they’re too busy, with too many people to see, without a hint of animosity. Besides, Guardiola had family over to watch the game.

The Guardiolas and their three children are enjoying life in their new home. They’re used to switching cities, and the kids have already been educated abroad in Manhattan and Munich before Manchester.

One of their three kids has compared the historic school building in Manchester to just like something “from Harry Potter.” All eyes are on their father, but his family have also to adjust, with the same stresses of any family in a new city—like which room to put a visiting grandparent in because their current apartment isn't big enough.

Mourinho’s circumstances are different. He’s still living in a hotel, and his children are young adults who’ve not moved to Manchester. Guardiola lives in the same building as two of his most trusted coaching lieutenants; Mourinho lives in the same hotel as his coaches, whom he prefers to stay in the background with no public profile.

Coming after the first international break of the season, the derby win was the perfect start to September for City. They finished the month six points ahead of United in the Premier League, both clubs having played six matches.

After a 4-0 home win against Bournemouth the week after the derby, when City were again excellent, Guardiola said it was the first game his team had played exactly how he liked. The former Barcelona boss told the assembled media: “Bournemouth were the best team we have played until now. They could create more problems when they had the ball than other teams, who played long balls.”

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It was widely interpreted as a dig at Mourinho. Even Gary Lineker read the quote on the BBC’s Match of the Day that evening and asked: “I wonder who he could be referring to?”

A more relaxed Guardiola also started to take questions in Spanish in press conferences, pleasing the Iberian contingent who’ve made Manchester their home.

City closed September by beating Swansea City away from home twice in four days, first in the League Cup and then in the Premier League. But just as pundits were asking who could beat them, City drew 3-3 against Celtic in the Champions League, the first time they’d dropped points during the campaign.

When they were defeated 2-0 in Premier League action at second-place Tottenham Hotspur on October’s first weekend, it showed they were not infallible.

On the other hand, September was not a good month for United. The derby defeat was the first of three in seven days, with a 1-0 reverse against Feyenoord in the seething De Kuip stadium in the Europa League followed by a 3-1 defeat at Watford in the Premier League.

Mourinho had lost three games in succession, but he bounced back with three straight wins—though not always convincing—against Northampton Town in the EFL Cup, Leicester City in the Premier League and Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League.

He made a major decision to drop his captain Rooney, a player the fans have fallen out of love with but who retains a huge presence and respect among players in the side he captains. Rooney remained on the bench against Zorya, but club senior officials were fully supportive of their manager’s move to drop him after a run of poor form.

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While Mourinho cut a relaxed figure in most press conferences, at training the players noticed he was more up and down. Those who know him say he can be intense when he thinks work needs to be done, that he knows he can rub some people up the wrong way, but that he appreciates how different players react in different ways to his words, discipline and encouragement.

For now, the only addition he wants to his squad is a central defender. Southampton’s Jose Fonte was identified, and Mourinho’s compatriot was keen to join United but understood they needed to get an existing player off the wage bill. That still stands.

After their popular goalkeeper Joe Hart left on loan to Torino and Bravo arrived before the transfer window closed, City’s priority is now a new full-back, with Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin admired by Guardiola.

Guardiola has the privilege of leading from the front of the league; Mourinho has been trying to catch up ever since September’s big event, that derby defeat after which City established themselves as firm favourites for the title.

United have a quick chance for revenge, of course: The pair have drawn each other in the next round of the EFL Cup at Old Trafford on Oct. 26. It starts a bit late for breakfast in the Abel Heywood.

"Pep & Jose Chronicles" is a nine-part special series by Andy Mitten. Read Chapter 1, "The World Looks to Manchester" here. All sources gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated. Chapter 3 of Pep & Jose Chronicles will run on Thursday Nov. 17.

Andy Mitten

The Author

Andy Mitten is the founder and editor of United We Stand, a regular contributor to outlets including the Manchester Evening News, FourFourTwo and the Sunday Times, and the author of 11 books on football in Manchester. Andy splits his time between Manchester and Barcelona.