The season of 2011-12 saw the rise of the noisy neighbours as so famously tagged by Sir Alex Ferguson. City for so long had been very much in United’s shadow, the derby had been relegated below the Liverpool fixture as the most anticipated and City had even dropped down into England’s 3rd tier. However, since the arrival of Sheikh Mansour in 2008, they had threatened to topple us as not only the biggest club in Manchester but the biggest club in England and Europe.
The season saw our closest rivals mount their most serious threat yet, once more spending big money in order to do so. In house, we waved goodbye to some United legends and long term club players, no bigger than Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar, both making the decision to retire. We also saw the departure of Owen Hargreaves following his failure to win his battle with long term injury along with John O’Shea and Wes Brown both leaving for Sunderland after great service to the club.
The loss of van der Sar once more provided a headache to Sir Alex to find a top quality replacement for a top quality keeper. It took a while and many attempts to adequately replace Peter Schmeiche all those years ago but on this occasion Fergie had already lined up his next number 1, a young talent from Atletico Madrid called David De Gea. At first glance his size and build was not one you come to expect for a Premier League keeper and his early performances proved this. But we all know how this one turned out. Other signings included a big money buy for Phil Jones from Blackburn who had many admirers and looked the potential replacement for Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic and the arrival of Ashley Young from Aston Villa.
Let the battle commence.
Ironically our first game of the season came at Wembley in the Community Shield following out 19th league success and City’s triumph on the FA Cup, their first success under the new owners and sign of their intent. Roberto Mancini’s men would go into a 2 goal lead before half time, only for us to come roaring back in the second half, playing some brilliant football. Nani’s equaliser for the highlight as he completed a great passing move, including a key input from Tom Cleverley. Nani would complete the comeback late into the game to once more hold onto the bragging rights in the City.
We took the confidence gained from the comeback into the league season, winning the first 5 games and in some style. Games included Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea at home, but we were really in full flow after sneaking a 2-1 away win at West Brom in the opening fixture. We would eventually easily see off Tottenham with 3 second half goals and then came the visit of Arsenal. Before the game much talk was about the injuries for the away side and how they would struggle to cope with our attacking displays so far. Up to this point City were already stamping their own authority on the league, earlier the same day dispatching Spurs 5-1 at the Lane, but we were to show our closest rivals that we were not about to be overshadowed. The game needs little said about it as would be stuck in many United fan’s head for years to come, it’s not too often you beat another title contender by 8 goals to 2. Rooney scoring a hattrick and Ashley Young showing why Fergie had bought him by scoring a quite brilliant double of his own. The win would take us top on goal difference. A 5-0 drubbing of Bolton and a further 3 goals at home to Chelsea would continue one of the best starts to a season I can remember.
October 15th saw the first tough away trip of the season at Anfield, with a Javier Hernandez late equaliser continuing our unbeaten start and took us into the next derby game a week later, still on top and high on confidence. Following the high quality and entertaining community shield, anticipation was very high across the country. It was becoming clear the title race was a 2 horse race with both Manchester clubs involved. Unfortunately, much like the Arsenal game earlier in the season, the game needs little description, only this time the roles were reversed as we were on the end of a 6-1 drubbing. The result was painful, but the result was mainly caused by our desire to win games at all costs. Having been reduced to 10 men and chasing a game, we were asking for trouble to try and take something. Unbelievably this painful memory of the 2011/12 season would be hugely gazumped by how the season would end.
Away from the league, we would draw our opening 2 Champions League games away at Benfica and home to Basel in a high scoring 3-3 draw. We faced the unknown Otelul Galati in the middle 2 fixtures picking up 2 wins leaving us with a good chance of qualification. However, we entered the final 2 games needing to finish strongly, however disappointing 2-2 draw in the Benfica reverse left us needing a win away at Basel. It was evident confidence was still low following the City defeat and we would lose the game and our place in the competition, instead dropping into the Europa League. We would face Athletico Bilbao in the knockout rounds only to be blown away over legs ending our interest in Europe for another year.
How would we recover?
We finished October in the league with a trip to Goodison Park, a really tough fixture following the 6-1 defeat to City a week previous. There was a sense of knocked confidence and further emphasis on defence as we secured a 1-0 victory with a scrappy and disjointed performance. Over the following 4 games we failed to score more than a single goal in each of them, but pick up 3 wins and a draw in that run. We would start to hit top stride again over the Christmas period following a 4-1 demolition of Wolves closely followed by 3 clean sheets on the bounce scoring 2 at QPR and 5 at Fulham before a further 5 in the home boxing day fixture at home to Wigan courtesy of Dimitar Berbatov’s hattrick. The momentum was back in our play and we entered the New Year joint top with City following their 0-0 draw with West Brom.
We would entertain a struggling Blackburn at Old Trafford for the New Years eve fixture but carrying a few injuries. Sir Alex, on his birthday, decided to play a weakened central midfield duo and infamously leave a young Paul Pogba on the bench. We would go on to lose to a late goal and follow it up with dismal 3 goal defeat at Newcastle to open up 2012 and very much lose momentum and ground in the league. The following fixture was the 3rd round FA Cup tie vs Man City, the third contest that season. The game would be remembered for the return of a legend, Paul Scholes surprisingly came out of retirement to start the game. The game itself was once again hugely entertaining, United going 3 goals up inside the first half following a sending off of Vincent Kompany. I remember how rampant we were up until half time, I was hoping we would avenge the humiliation from earlier in the season. But due to a little bit of caution and City refusing to go down without a fight the game ended being close, eventually seeing us run out 3-2 victors. We would only go one more round in the cup that season, following a narrow defeat at Anfield.
One hand on the trophy.
We were very much back in rebuilding mode following the 2 unexpected defeats either side of New Year but a kind fixture at home to struggling Bolton helped gain a much needed confidence boosting win. Even more important as the following fixture saw us travel to the Emirates with us once more coming out on top. City had gained a slight advantage at the top so it was imperative we kept the pressure on. At the start of February we travelled to Chelsea in another potentially tough battle and so it proved after Chelsea fired into a 3 goal lead. But we would show some spectacular resolve and hit back thanks to 2 penalties from Wayne Rooney and a late Javier Hernandez strike. The point felt like a win and really carried our momentum through an 8 game winning streak, defeating Liverpool and Spurs along the way and resulted in us hitting the top of the league once more following a 2 goal win vs West Brom at Old Trafford. In fact we would go on to build a 8 point gap to City by the time we travelled to Wigan in mid April. The title was very much ours to lose, but that night at DW stadium saw a slight blip in our title run with a shock 1-0 defeat coupled with City beating West Brom the same evening. A 4-0 home win against Villa seemed to suggest the Wigan loss was not a sign of pressure, but then came the game that changed the entire Premier League balance that season and another one of those games that sticks in your mind that season.
Everton came to Old Trafford on 22nd April with us 5 points ahead of City with the fourth and last derby of the season next up. If we could defeat Everton, the final 2 fixtures were kind on paper meaning the City game should have little significance in our pursuit of the title. We moved 3-1 up with some great football and goals, but for Everton to reduce the deficit to 1, only for Rooney to hit his second of the game putting the game seemingly out of sight. I remember not being able to see the end of the game but had no doubts the game was over, only to be told that we had conceded 2 late goals and managing to lose 2 points. City would take full advantage and cut the gap to 3 points going into the derby.
The league was still ours to lose with a draw being good enough. But the game was unlike the 3 previous encounters, it was much tighter and the result proved it with a single Kompany goal settling the contest late in the first half. For the first time in months City had hit the top and the title destination was no longer in our hands. We defeated Swansea at home to keep pressure on going into the last game of the season, and what a finale it was. Like the Everton game I knew I would not see the end of the game due to a flight, but had already given up any hope with lowly QPR going to City. However, as I boarded the plane we were winning 1-0 at Sunderland and Jamie Mackie unbelievably fired QPR into the lead. As I took off we were Champions, unfortunately as I landed we were not, losing the league on goal difference. Although we lost the title due to a late City goal, the damage was done a few weeks earlier at Old Trafford after failing to see off Everton.
I am actually very thankful for missing the end to the 2011-12 season. It is hard not hearing that very famous commentary of Aguero’s winner but I am glad I didn’t witness it live as I’m not sure how I would have reacted. We threw the title away that season and handed it straight to our nearest rivals. Ever since their takeover I dreaded the day they would become a big player for major honours and in 2012 it became a reality. The noisy neighbours were as noisy as they had ever been and unfortunately looked set on keeping the volume up for some time