We spoke to Michael Ball about Sven Goran-Eriksson’s season in charge of Manchester City and the day Darius Vassell and Benjani downed Manchester United on their own turf.
Manchester City head to Old Trafford this weekend knowing a win over United will take them 11 points clear at the top of the Premier League and surely remove any lingering doubt from anyone that isn’t already certain they will go on to claim the title. If there is anyone left.
Ten seasons ago, preparing for this same fixture in February 2008, City were a very different animal. Sven-Goran Eriksson was manager and Thaksin Shinawatra owner, and though the club had invested heavily on the likes Elano, Martin Petrov and Vedran Corluka, seven of their starting XI against United were either British or Irish.
At left-back for the visitors that day was Michael Ball, a man who at the start of the season was worried his City career was over but went on to make himself indispensable under Eriksson.
“It was a positive atmosphere when Sven came in,” Ball says, “but I didn’t know if I was going to be at the club or not.
“Sven was very honest with every player that was there, he said he was going to bring in a lot of new blood to improve us, to get us to the level he and the new owners wanted Man City to be at, but he did say I’d get opportunities. And if you get them you take them.”
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In their opening 12 matches of the season, City won 25 points, including a 1-0 home win over United, but in the preceding eight games ahead of the trip across Manchester they’d only been victorious once.
Elano had been a revelation in midfield and inspired City during the opening months of the campaign, but he and the other new signings could not maintain their form as life in a new country started to bite.
“Sven brought a new way of training into the club where we trained every day which was new for the English guys who were used to having a Wednesday off,” Ball says.
“We started off pretty well, the new boys started off really strong – Elano, Petrov, they were our key players.
“We expected him [Elano] to be our top performer again (in the second half of the season). But it was the first time these foreign guys had played so many games over the Christmas period. Normally they’d recharge the batteries, have a bit of a break and start again.
“I think there were a few reasons why we started dipping away: training every day, our key players travelling long distances for international games and still expecting them to be top level.”
City had strengthened in the January transfer window in a bid to get their season back on track, bringing in Benjani, Felipe Caicedo and Nery Castillo, but Elano had got his team-mates’ hopes up that a rather more exciting name was about to sign.
“We thought we had the money and we’d be strong in the transfer market,” Ball says. “There was talk of us trying to bring in Kaka. Elano was saying he was on his way. It was all good vibes around the place, it was exciting times.”
Kaka, of course, did not sign, but the Manchester derby presented City with the perfect opportunity to revive their fortunes.
However, the match was played on the weekend after the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, with each side wearing memorial kits without sponsors, and Ball remembers football being very much the secondary issue in the build-up to the day.
“The occasion was all about Manchester United, we just had to turn up and be focused and get on with the job as it was a derby day,” he says.
“We paid our respects and then there was a football match to be won against our arch rivals. What I was really pleased about was that the minute’s silence and applause before from both sets of fans was spot on.
“We laid the wreath onto the pitch, we showed our respects, but as soon as the referee blows that whistle, it’s game mode time.
“It’s a very strange feeling as a player to have an emotional attachment to what’s happened in the past and show your respects and then flick your mindset into match mode.
“And it’s not just a normal game, it’s your arch enemy across the other side of the city on their home patch, and you’ve got to come out and get a result.”
City did exactly that, executing Eriksson’s game plan perfectly to win 2-1 through goals from Darius Vassell and Benjani.
“It was a game we knew historically had been against us, getting results at their ground. We knew we all had to turn up and that’s what we did.
“Getting the goals at the times we did (after 25 and 45 minutes) certainly helped us, but we knew any set-pieces they’d be vulnerable.
“Also, if they passed the ball around the back, Stephen Ireland had that way that he could always read the passes from Rio Ferdinand; he was quick across the floor, he could read and intercept, and that’s where we kept catching them off-guard a little bit.
“When it’s into the final third you leave it up to your flair players to do a bit of magic and get us some goals. Darius (Vassell) got us the first one and Benjani got the winner on his debut.
“It was a strange one with Benjani as it was a long transfer saga. I don’t know what rumours were true, whether he missed the plane, missed it on purpose or whatever.
“But when he came to training he was great as he had a different style to what we had. You could see the bit of magic he had here and there. And there’s no better feeling than coming straight into the City team and get the winner against your arch enemy.
“It was a great day for us; every time I go into the city they talk about that game. It was good to be a part of it.
It was the first time City had done the double over United since 1969-70 and a clear sign of the club’s progress, even if Kaka never did arrive.
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