Back to a time when Manchester City and Manchester United were equals

Joe Mercer won the league but then Matt Busby won the European Cup to overshadow their neighbours once more

The spring of 1968 was not short of bad news. There was a global financial crisis and a rush for gold. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, died in an air crash. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Students and riot police fought on the streets of Paris.

Football, then as now, offered an escape from reality and fans in Manchester gleefully packed up their troubles as United and City gave them all something to celebrate. Manchester City won the championship and Matt Busby's Manchester United became the first English side to win the European Cup.

On Saturday the teams will meet at Old Trafford with City leading the Premier League by two points from United, which was the way it finished in the old First Division in 1967-68, albeit under the two points for a win system. Roberto Mancini's City are well equipped to win the title this season although the likelihood of United winning the Champions League is still tempered by doubts about Sir Alex Ferguson's players being able to beat Barcelona should the need arise.

At the start of the campaign 44 years ago it was the other way round. For United, champions in two of the three previous seasons and with Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best in their prime, a European Cup triumph was overdue. City on the other hand had been back in the First Division for a season, finishing a modest 15th out of 22.

Joe Mercer, the City manager, had not made any big buys although he did sign Tony Coleman from Doncaster late in the preceding season and added Bolton's Francis Lee to his squad in October. Coleman had a reputation for wild behaviour off the field but Mercer's assistant at Maine Road, Malcolm Allison, convinced him that City needed a player he had once described as "the nightmare of a delirious probation officer".

In fact City's success that season owed much to Mercer's ability to curb the wilder ideas of Allison, whose possession of one of the shrewdest brains in the game was accompanied by a massive ego. Ego or not Allison introduced new tactical ideas and training methods that had City playing something approaching the "total football" with which Holland were to stun the world in the early 70s.

Mercer's Manchester City were almost entirely local products. An exception was Tony Book, the team's 33-year-old captain who had played under Allison at Bath City.

The idea of a recent non-league player winning First Division honours in his thirties was far-fetched but Book was a good leader and took some credit for City's best performance in their championship season, a 4-1 win against Tottenham on a frozen pitch at Maine Road. Book had suggested a modification to the players' studs and afterwards one of the Spurs team remarked: "It was extraordinary, City moved like Olympic speed skaters while we were falling around like clowns."

City lost the Manchester derby 2-1 at home in September but, more crucially, beat United 3-1 at Old Trafford in March at the start of the run-in. In their last game, Mercer's side, leading United at the top on goal average, needed to win at Newcastle to stay ahead although both could be overtaken by Bill Shankly's Liverpool, who were three points behind with a match in hand.

City won an enthralling and fluctuating match 4-3 at St James' Park while Manchester United lost 2-1 at home to Sunderland. Liverpool lost one of their two remaining fixtures and so City were champions for the second time in their history, their initial success in 1936-37 having been followed, with typical perversity, by relegation in 1937‑38.

Little more than a fortnight after City celebrated winning the league the nation rejoiced as United beat Benfica 4-1 at Wembley to win the European Cup. Maine Road fans were miffed at seeing their thunder stolen so soon but Allison was confident that what United could do in Europe his side could do better.

"There is no limit to what this team can achieve," he boasted. "We will win the European Cup. European football is full of cowards and we will terrorise them with our power and attacking football."

So much for the hype. City went out to an unterrorised Fenerbahce in the first round. Yet for a season in the English league theirs was the true glory and nobody will ever be able to take those memories away.

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