Back then, Premier League title aspirations were confined to Old Trafford, whilst City’s derby optimism was kept firmly in check after two decades of United dominance.
How times change.
Pep Guardiola’s side go into the latest meeting with our local rivals as the in-form team in Europe and remain in the hunt to lift four trophies this season.
It is a far cry from our 15th place finish in the 2005/06 campaign, when an FA Cup quarter-final defeat to West Ham United was the closest we got to silverware.
That meant the 3-1 win over United in January 2006 was the game in a season which gave City fans little to shout about.
Boyhood Blues Nedum Onuoha and Trevor Sinclair understood that better than most and the victory proved to be a landmark day for two players at opposite ends of their careers.
“The lifelong Manchester City fan has scored the goal he must have always dreamed of scoring,” roared the Sky Sports commentator as what was then known as the City of Manchester Stadium erupted following Sinclair’s opener.
It was Roy of the Rovers stuff.
Having grown up in Whitefield, the former England winger was, by his own admission, more of an armchair fan in his youth but can vividly recall watching the Maine Road Massacre in 1989 and hoping one day he’d get his shot at derby glory.
It arrived in 2004, when he came off the bench to score as City won 4-1 in the first derby held at the Club’s new stadium.
Short of confidence and desperate to succeed, Sinclair prayed for a performance in the toilets before Kevin Keegan sent him on that day and whilst it was a moment to savour, it was eclipsed when history repeated itself two years later.
“It was something that I always dreamed about doing, especially as soon as I knew I was leaving West Ham and joining City,” he tells mancity.com.
“I was delighted and probably one of the only reasons I would have left West Ham at the time was to come back to City. You start thinking about what you want to achieve and what you want to do while you are at the football club.
“Something that came into my head was that I really wanted to score in a derby. Not just because I knew how big the games were but because I knew how City were usually underdogs.
“I had turned professional when City beat United 5-1 in 1989. I remember watching that game in the changing room – it was either the early kick-off or we were the late kick-off – and I was so into it. I couldn’t believe how well City played and I thought I’d love to be in that situation one day.
“That’s probably when I first started thinking it would be great to play in a Manchester derby for City and to score would be incredible.
“When I scored in the 4-1 win, I took my shirt off and I can’t even remember doing that. I’ve never even thought of doing it in a professional game. I don’t know where my head was.
“2006 was quite similar. I think it was even better because I felt more important to the team. I started the game, it was a packed house and there was a lot of anticipation from the fans after what we had done in previous games against Manchester United.
“I just felt valued to the team when I scored that goal. That’s all I wanted to do as a footballer. I wasn’t bothered about being the star player, I just wanted to contribute and play my part for the team.
“To score the opening goal in such an important game meant everything.”
For Onuoha, being part of a victory he prized above all else was enough.
Having turned 19 just two months prior, the Academy graduate was handed his derby debut when he replaced Richard Dunne with 21 minutes remaining.
A lifelong fan who was at Wembley for the 1999 Division 2 Playoff final, he was an unused substitute in the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford earlier that season and his first appearance in the fabled fixture was a seminal moment.
“It was huge because I had grown up a City fan,” he explains.
“If you’ve been a City fan throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, you’ve probably felt a lot of stress that United didn’t take the derby too seriously because it always felt like an easy three points for them.
“It was always a huge day for City fans, but United, whilst they’d be up for it, they’d always say the game to watch was against Liverpool or Arsenal.
“To get the opportunity to play in a derby was really exciting. To be part of the build-up to a derby game and not be someone on the outside hoping it goes well was an incredible feeling.
“I didn’t expect to come on but the way the game was going, they had bits of pressure and Stuart [Pearce] made the decision.
“As a young defender coming through, you do love playing, but there is so much uncertainty. You’re looking and thinking is someone struggling? Does this mean I am coming on? How long is left? What’s the state of the game?
“All of a sudden someone turns and wags their finger at you and says you’re going on. I remember being quite nervous when I got the call but then really excited as I went onto the field.
“Looking back, it was probably one of the highlights of my career coming on and then to be able to walk off having beaten them when nobody expected us to was outstanding.”
City were in derby dreamland by half-time as Sinclair’s strike was quickly followed by Darius Vassell’s composed finish and the situation improved when Cristiano Ronaldo received his marching orders for a wild lunge on Andy Cole midway through the second period.
Ruud van Nistelrooy pulled one back 14 minutes from time, but, with United chasing the game, a 90th minute counter-attack saw Robbie Fowler seal the win, which allowed the celebrations to begin in earnest.
It was only our fourth derby victory in 30 attempts and City’s form in the build-up had hardly inspired confidence, winning just two of our previous 10 league games, whilst United were on an 11 match unbeaten run.
“We were concerned,” admits Sinclair. “Our form was poor.
“It’s pride as well. You don’t want to go into a derby and get smashed off the park. There was a bit of a fear factor, for sure.
“The fact we had a lot of English players helped us understand how big it was and if we didn’t start well how uncomfortable things could get quite quickly.”
Onuoha saw things differently.
Whilst the odds were stacked against City, the defender had very much bought into the old cliché that ‘form goes out the window in a derby’.
“My outlook was 100% youthful,” he says 15 years later.
“I didn’t have the experiences of being involved and being destroyed. It was a new experience.
“It was and still is for me, the game you look for when the fixtures come out. That game was one I was looking forward to.
“All the stuff that came before in terms of how we were playing, it matters, but you are still thinking about the derby because it is such a huge game in the city.
“We weren’t in the best run of form, but we had a chance at redemption in a derby game when you can throw form out the window because it is a game that would be won on desire.
“We were quite focused in the build up to it in making sure we knew the game itself was not a normal game. It was going to be one that could be won through passion and making the right decisions.
“With the team and the manager we had, we were never going to outplay United in possession, but it was a derby game and we had to make sure we were up for that occasion and going into it we definitely were.”
City boss Pearce prepared his side to deliver a performance in his image.
As a player he had thrived in the blood and thunder of the game. He was uncompromising, committed, someone you would want alongside you in a battle and that’s what he expected from his team that day.
"Our players were the ones who were up for a derby match, up for a real scrap,” he said afterwards.
Despite his pre-game concerns, Sinclair admits the manager’s approach had given the players belief they could spring an upset..
“Stuart Pearce understood the importance of the game. He got us right up for the game. Almost like lads in the trenches. We fancied it. We felt like underdogs, but we actually believed we had something about us.
“I thought when everyone was fit, that side was good. We had Sun Jihai who was playing excellent football at right-back and was really underrated.
“Dunney and Distin at centre-half were as solid as they come, with David James in goal and I thought we had a bit going forward with myself on the right, Albert Riera on the left and Coley and Darius up front.
“We were really up for it and we were on top right from the start. We got in a good groove and I think we were all over them. The belief didn’t wane and we scored a couple of poachers goals.
“I just think we were a little bit hungrier. They might have looked at the team sheet and thought, ‘not much to fear there’, but we had that desire.
“We had that hunger and the belief that we could cause an upset if they weren’t quite at it and that is how it panned out.
“We won the first and second balls all over the pitch and asked questions of whether they could defend against the intensity we were putting on them. On the day, they couldn’t handle it.”
One man in particular endured a torrid afternoon for United.
Having signed for the club four days prior, it was a debut to forget for Patrice Evra, with Sir Alex Ferguson admitting afterwards that starting his new recruit was a gamble that failed the pay off.
The French international went on to enjoy a successful career at Old Trafford but that day, he had no answer for the 32-year-old Sinclair.
“When you played United, they were probably going to have possession, but you can win games by winning your individual battles,” Onuoha recalls.
“I think that’s what got us through on that particular day because when you stepped off the field and looked around most of our players won their battles against the opposition.
“The big one for me was the way Trevor was with Patrice Evra because he bullied him for that whole first half.
“Trevor absolutely destroyed him. I remember that clear as day, to the point that Evra had to come off at half-time. That’s a great memory for me and something that really set the tone for the day.
“He could go past him whenever he wanted, he was beating him in the air and it was great to see. We were just putting them under pressure whenever we could. It wasn’t a case of playing total football.”
Evra has since revealed he was sick on the morning of the game, whilst at the same time, acknowledging he was unprepared for the intensity of the occasion, which Pearce had tasked Sinclair with exploiting.
“I think Pearcey said, ‘He’s new to this league. Make sure you let him know what it is all about, crank up the intensity, run at him when you get the chance and make sure you dominate him in the air'.
“He didn’t start well against me. He seemed a little bit shocked to the intensity and the speed the game was being played at. Rabbit in the headlights, I would say.
“It was one of those games were you feel good about yourself. Most of the players felt fit and ready for it. We took that confidence into the start of the game and I thought we blew them away for the first half.”
The sight of Fowler slamming the ball into the back of the net for City’s third gave Onuoha a sense of relief that was rarely matched during his 16-year career.
Winning a derby was the highlight of that campaign and it meant he, like the rest of the fanbase, could walk around Manchester with a smile on his face and his chest puffed out in the week that followed.
Fast forward 15 years and beating United is no less significant, but Onuoha believes the best example of how much things have changed since he made his derby bow is the fact that this season’s success will not be judged on the outcome of Sunday’s clash at the Etihad Stadium.
“The derby does matter for bragging rights, but at the end of the season it matters more where you finish in the league and what happens in the cup competitions,” he concludes.
“You know deep down they’ll want to win on Sunday, but City have earned the right to not have to win a derby to be successful.
“Whereas in years gone by fans and players loved the moment because it was so rare, I think now if City win, the players will love it, but they’ll move onto the next game. That’s who they are, business as usual.
“For my generation you could enjoy it for two or three weeks. These guys are so relentless with their approach and their success that a derby win is huge, but only until you start getting ready for the next game. That’s ultimately where we were and where we are now.
“As time has passed it has become a huge game in world in football. Hopefully City will continue winning because as a Blue it is far easier watching games now.”