Football is a game for men. They play it, they run it, they attend it. The few women working in football are often marginalised, patronised, ignored, abused and/or disrespected on a daily basis. Women do actually play football as well but nobody really cares. When the England team are on TV the BBC broadcast (it’s always the BBC – a commercial channel would never put it on because they can’t make money from women playing football) is treated with the same respect as men’s games but the stadium is usually half-empty, even for a World Cup qualifier. The attendees are families and local schoolchildren: the straight, white men with season tickets across the land, who turn out in their millions to watch the nation’s favourite sport every week, largely do not attend and are not interested in doing so. Before Hillsborough, women rarely attended football matches. The all-standing terraces were not a welcoming place, unless you wanted to be pressed up against male strangers. Children were taken, but only boys of course. After the Taylor Report was published, post-Hillsborough, which recommended all-seater stadia in order to avoid such a tragedy recurring, gradually women started to attend matches.
According to these 2009 figures, 19% of Premier League attendees are women. It feels like less when I go, I must say, perhaps because I mostly go to away games. It feels like a few dozen women and about 2000 men but being entirely outnumbered doesn’t remotely enter my head when I go to a match. It’s just the way it is when you’re female and you love football. However, a cursory Google search of women + football brings unsurprisingly depressing results – reams of articles, blogs and message board posts on why women don’t like it, don’t understand it, are not welcome at it and so on. Largely, football is something that men both watch and do. And they want to do it with each other, oblivious to its homoeroticism of course (oh the irony of worshipping its perfectly coiffed, manscaped, buffed, vain and sculpted players, who kiss and cuddle each other frequently), and they do not want women there. It used to be the one place where they could escape from the nagging shrews and harpies they married. The women who won’t shut up. The women who are interested only in shopping and spending the money their men earn. Yes, the universe of football still exists in the 1950s. The spouse of a football player who dares to publicly express her opinion about where he should live, who he should play for, what city they should live in and what schools they should send their children to are called gold-digging slags who should shut up and take their husband’s money. Sadly, most of the women that surround footballers, the famed WAGs, are perma-tanned, pneumatic airheads; though a few are the childhood sweetheart type, the girl next door who doesn’t like football anyway. Bagging a footballer – either as a husband so these women don’t have to work or so they can sell a tabloid tale – is a commonplace sport in itself in nightclubs up and down the land every weekend and women like that are not helping themselves or the rest of us. However, the notion that not all women are the same is an alien concept to men who resent having their personal football space invaded. Virgin, mother or whore: the three eternal categories into which we all fall, right? The spectre of women attending, watching or speaking about football is largely unwelcome and any woman who likes football has an endless supply of tales to tell about being disrespected by men.
My own experience of this, until yesterday, was rather typical. Before the days of watching online, I might have gone to pubs to watch my beloved Manchester City. I would chat happily with non-City supporters about the game. More often than not they would express surprise that I knew so much, or anything I suppose, about the sport, beyond liking fit players and their thighs, which is what women who like football are supposed to comment on or care about. Recently on holiday in Rome, a taxi driver expressed shocked bemusement that I knew anything about football or even liked it at all. Musings on what life is like for female football fans outside the UK are for another time. It’s difficult to be a black man playing football on the continent, so let’s not even wonder about what it might be like to be a female in football’s general area.
On non-football message boards I have over the years encountered fairly tame comments that men think are funny (sometimes they are, if from the right person) telling me to get back in the kitchen and stop watching the match because women don’t even understand the offside rule (that old chestnut), let alone the intricacies of tactics, team selection, transfer windows, zonal marking systems, high line defences and how goalkeepers should cover their angles. I’m used to being disrespected, constantly. However, I should mention that this treatment has never, not even once, been meted out to me by my own people, by other City fans, either in pubs or at our games. We’re all in it together and the men who have sat either side of me at the matches I’ve been attending for over 25 of my 37 years could not give any sort of shit about whether I’m female or not. I shout at an underperforming player the same as them. I cheer the same as them. I bite my nails just as much as them. We cry together and we celebrate together.
About two weeks ago, I read this story. TalkSport is a radio station, fairly well respected, but its website is not something I have any knowledge of. If a rumour appears on a website I tend to pay no attention. If it appears on a broadsheet newspaper’s website I will certainly pay attention. And if it appears on the BBC it is true. That’s how it goes. So that story, about Manchester City’s brilliant keeper, England’s number 1, Joe Hart being swapped in the summer for Tottenham Hotspur’s French goalie Hugo Lloris received a little attention, though not as much as if it had been reported on a respected website. I don’t think Lloris is very good. At the Crystal Palace game last week, which I attended, the City fans made their feelings known about the article. It was good-natured, a tune of support to ‘super Joey Hart’ (comically, sung to the tune of Achy Breaky Heart!), with an ending salvo of ‘if you sell him you’ll have a fucking riot on your hands!’ The report seemed ridiculous. We have one of the best goalkeepers in Europe and if he ever did leave he’d go to a team in the Champions League anyway. Spurs aren’t a bad team at all, I should say. They’re top 6 and have their moments of brilliance. This season, however, they’ve had a bit of a disaster. They keep switching managers (in fact, they’ve had 6 in 10 years, an approach which my own club are also guilty of) and had to sell their best player for £100 million but then pissed away the money on seven very average players (far too many to integrate into a squad at once and only one, Eriksen, looks any good at all). Their last manager was fired partly because of those transfer failures but mostly for presiding over some poor results and their current manager has recently had to comment on the club talking to other managers behind his back. They’re not in great shape, but they’re still one of the best teams in the country.
City and Spurs have some previous, going back decades – football fans have long memories, as often that’s all we have. There’s no love lost between the clubs. And while this is technically off-topic, I find the section of their fans who revel in chanting anti-semitic hate speech to be worthy of only my contempt. If the few Jews at White Hart Lane want to chant Yid Army, incidentally, that’s fine by me. It’s the non-Jews chanting it that I object to. It ain’t their word to reclaim… imagine if I’d told the Twitter hordes I was an actual yid, as well as being a female with an opinion, yesterday. I shudder to think of what might have transpired. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We’ve played them twice this season. They came to our place in November and got pasted 6-0. Lloris was responsible, as you can see here, for two of the goals through egregious errors. We went to their place at the end of January, tore them to shreds and won 5-1. Just before then, on New Year’s Day, I sat with my uncle and dad and we watched Spurs play at Old Trafford. Incredibly, they won 2-1, but with no thanks to Lloris, whose blunders nearly cost them the game. The three of us laughed at him throughout, remarking on what a poor keeper he was. Since then, he’s improved and hasn’t made any really big mistakes for a couple of months. He is a truly fantastic shot-stopper and can make wonderful saves when called upon. But that is only a part of the goalkeeper’s job – he must anticipate attacking danger, be ready for it; he must come out to get high balls, or stay back if he can’t get there; he must come for corners if he can, or know when he can’t; he must give confidence to the defence in front of him and set them up correctly (following the manager’s instructions); he must make sure the wall in front of him for free kicks is exactly where it needs to be so they can cover one side of the goal while he covers the other. And so on and on. Simply stopping a fired shot is only one part of the job and Lloris is excellent at that, but he’s not that great at a fair amount of the other stuff. Of course, I do not watch Spurs every week. I only watch my own team every week. So I will defer to the knowledge of any fan over my own regarding their own team. While I only watch Spurs in highlights packages (though I have seen perhaps 10 of their games in entirety this season), I’ve not been very impressed with Lloris. He is not physically imposing, he comes off his line obsessively quickly and often wrongly, he parries shots in front and has let goals in because he failed to turn a shot around the post. For example, he failed to arrange his wall properly yesterday and caused Spurs to concede a second, crucial, goal away at West Ham, though arguably that’s the fault of the gutless Paulinho and (here’s a surprise) Adebayor.
During the game I posted, as I have done many times, a Tweet that I hashtagged to #bbcfootball. I’d never had a Tweet chosen before for their football updates page, which is viewed by millions of people. It said:
Lloris, like most keepers, is a good shot-stopper. But he's truly a dreadful all-round keeper! Worst in the PL by a long way. #bbcfootball
And then I went to make my lunch. Of course, he’s probably not the worst Premier League keeper. That was a bit of hyperbole! The rest is something I believe. I came back from the kitchen and that’s when it started. A Favourited Tweet. A Retweet. And then another, and then another. I thought, oh my, the Beeb must have put it up, how exciting! I checked the page and, sure enough, they had, with a live link to my Twitter page. My excitement was short-lived.
Soon a trickle of Retweets turned into a stream of profane and abusive replies, the like of which I’d only read about women receiving for suggesting, how dare they, that a woman should be on a £20 note or something. It soon overwhelmed my email and Twitter page. Comment after comment after comment. Here are the best ones (and you will notice the word yid in several of their usernames):
And here’s one apology from a sane person.
I replied to a few of the non-idiot respondents and we had a nice chat about football. I ignored the trolls (you can’t engage with crazy, nothing good ever comes of it). By the end I had 26 Retweets – all of which had been made by furious Spurs fans to other fans and forums so more people could see it and visit my page to abuse me. The respondents were 99% male. 95% of the comments were abusive. My heart was thumping as it was all happening. After two very long hours it had all calmed down and, fortunately, did not reach the levels of rape and/or death threats that so many women have had to tolerate.
So here’s the thing. Every week people say mean things about my team. Every single week, and often on that very BBC Football page. Awful things. I have never sought out anyone who has said terrible things about my club or my players. What would I do that for? What purpose would it serve to start an argument with a stranger? I love, I LOVE, a good argument and I’m pretty good at it. Perhaps when I was younger I was more likely to lose my temper (I do have a bit of a temper) at someone saying something stupid. But now… unless it’s something really out of order (like a racist attack on a player, a bigoted comment, that type of thing) I won’t weigh in. And I certainly wouldn’t have a go at a stranger on Twitter, the world’s toilet wall.
How can people be riled to the point where they felt they needed to click on my Twitter link and head over there to call me names? Would they do it in real life? If I’d been sitting in a pub and had said to a Spurs fan that Lloris was poor would they have smashed a glass in my face? Probably not. If I were male would that abuse have happened in that form anyway? Certainly not. A football fan can often be rational if engaged one-on-one. But en masse, it takes very little to turn what I hope are usually reasonable people into an incited, angry, hateful mob, either online or at a match. The power of numbers. And in this particular case, the power of numbers plus anonymity. There’s something about collective anger multiplied by mob mentality that allows the anonymous nature of the internet to amplify people’s darkest sides. I don’t mind Spurs fans telling me that I’m simply wrong and that Lloris is a great keeper, that’s fine (and when you’re told by 50+ people that you’re wrong about a player’s qualities you can’t help but doubt what you thought in the first place). He’s their keeper, not mine, I don’t have to like or care about him and how he plays. I’m glad they like him, good for them. But who am I to a Spurs fan? Absolutely nobody. Why does my opinion matter at all? Why take the time to come over to my Twitter page and its 116 followers and tell me that I should go back into the kitchen, where women belong? Why are men so obsessed with women being in kitchens anyway? If only they knew about my terrible cooking and lack of interest in anything remotely domestic.
To elicit such venom from strangers is a most bizarre thing to be on the receiving end of. I’m sure the BBC don’t care (but did know) that posting my comment would have caused angered responses. I don’t think my Tweet was incendiary; it’s not like I said he’s a dirty frog who fucks his sister or something, in which case any abuse coming my way would be justified. I would have been happy to further explain what I meant by the comment in calm tones, but the internet, and Twitter in particular, doesn’t work like that. I didn’t think the BBC would put my fairly flippant Tweet (all of my Tweets are frivolous really) on their page. I didn’t think much about it at all in fact when I posted it. I certainly didn’t think it’d cause me to become an online hate figure and punching bag during an afternoon that I wanted to go quickly while waiting for an important City game to start. While it was going on I called my dad and he unhelpfully said that I should stop Tweeting at all. He was supremely stressed about the Everton game and we’ve talked about it since, he realises now how upsetting it all was for me. But really, why would he understand? He has never been attacked or devalued or discriminated against because of his gender. He has never been told, nor will he ever be told, that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he’s a man.
Incidentally, I have never been told that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m female on any subject other than football and nor would I be. Because if I express an opinion about, for example, a form of media – a book or film or piece of music or concert – or a thesis or a piece of marketing collateral I’m not responded to in that way. I’m actually paid every day (knock on wood) to give my opinions, it’s how I make a living, such as it is. This only happens in sport. And while I can only speak for football I’ll wager my music collection that the same shit happens to women who like American NFL or hockey or rugby or basketball or any other male-dominated sport where men are (straight) men and women are not welcome. And what we face in sport is, of course, just a sliver, a thimble, a tiny little almost non-existent fraction of the daily horror that men subject women to.
The people who abused me online yesterday will have forgotten about it almost instantly, I’m sure of that. Today they’ll forget that they called a complete stranger a fucking bitch and a mong and a retard. They’re just normal people, who love their team and go to work and make their dinner and live their lives and happened to take umbrage against something a girl said about a goalkeeper. The internet, as a mechanism of communication, goads people to behave like animals on a daily basis. They didn’t like what I said and they sought me out to tell me so, but not in normal terms like a person would if they knew me and disagreed with me (like the friends I have who support Spurs might) because they don’t know me at all. It was precisely because they didn’t know me that they lashed out.
This is where we are now; the facelessness of the online world has fostered a basic lack of humanity, whereby we’re all connected and yet we’re further away from kindness, understanding, respect for others’ opinions and acceptable social behaviour than ever. Where how much men truly hate women can be venomously expressed with a few typed words and a mouse click without anyone being identified or held to account. The internet is meant to connect us and often it does. It’s certainly changed my life for the better and continues to do so. It is a wondrous thing and I am not only grateful it exists but feel privileged to have witnessed it be created, adopted and affect worldwide change beyond estimation. Yet more often than not it creates worlds where, without face-to-face interaction, any remnant of humanity is absent. The world really is moving too fast for some people.
The other week I went to Upton Park to see my beloved Manchester City play West Ham in the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final. I had asked for the ticket (I’m a member of the Supporters’ Club, a benefit is requesting tickets) before we won the first match 6-0 but I grab any chance I can to see my team – having moved to London in 2000, away games are pretty much my only chance to see us play. I average a home game a season (this time it’ll be Fulham in March) when I go home to visit but away matches are rather unique. It’s a constantly singing, buzzing, boiling cauldron of intensity. It’s not like that at home, where the size of the stadium dissipates the noise – away fans are the real deal, a devoted band of travellers who follow the team home and away, across not just England but Europe (to think of the days when we were a million miles away from even playing in the Europa, let alone the Champions League). It ain’t cheap (£50+ a ticket – when I moved here it was £35; better team now, they charge fans more: so the club is rich, we are too?) but I can’t complain as most of the away fans have come down from Manchester, and the costs in entirety must be astronomical. Mind you, there are a few ex-pats like me, and I even meet fans from London and the south who started supporting us decades ago (why, I wonder, what did we have to offer then?! I inherited City from my dad, and he from his, whereas they picked us quite randomly).
The vibe at Upton Park was unlike any I’d experienced because of the bizarre scoreline (already 6-0) before we even kicked off. It was an odd atmosphere, with us virtually certain of getting to the final. I’m usually a bag of nerves and stress, as you’d expect, but here we were, one professional display away from our first League Cup (as opposed to FA Cup) appearance since 1976, the year of my birth.
Near the end a bad tackle, ludicrously unpunished by the referee, brought down our new Spanish striker, a complete player if ever I saw one, Alvaro Negredo. He fell very awkwardly and grabbed his shoulder in agony. Anger at the non-award of the free kick fell away quickly, to be replaced with genuine concern, as fans held their heads and covered their mouths in hope that he’d be ok. At worst, it could be a dislocated shoulder, we all thought. The medical team attended to him and he went back on, holding his arm, refusing to go off the field for the last 5 minutes. Tough lad, that one (he left the stadium later with his arm in a sling). Then, the sound of what a TV audience must think is booing filled the night air. In fact, it was the low hum of the City fans chanting his nickname: Beast. In Spain he had come to be known as La fiera de Vallecas: the beast of Vallecas (a tough, working-class Madrid neighbourhood where he grew up). Certainly, some of the worry was about the possible loss of such a fantastic player to injury but mostly it was of simple concern that a person was hurt. It made me think about what these men mean to me, and it’s why I chose to write this blog.
During the match we pulled out our full repertoire of songs, this is my favourite:
‘Oh Pablo Zabaleta, he is the fuckin’ man, he plays for Argentina, he’s harder than Jaap Stam. He wears the blue and white, for Pellegrini’s men, and when we win the league we’ll sing this song again’.
A little hubris at the end, possibly, but rather said with a wink. We sang songs about Kompany, Touré, Silva, Aguero, all stars of this team that we’re lucky to have. There’s still a disbelief that such talent turns out in the blue shirt. We even found time to have a little chant about one of our only good players of the 1990s (Georgi Kinkladze and Ali Benarbia are the only other good players that spring to mind of that era) – a German called Uwe Rösler (now the Wigan manager; his 13-year-old son is named Colin, after City legend Colin Bell, and he’s at the City Academy). It ends with the line: ‘Uwe’s granddad bombed the Stretford End!’ Old Trafford, you see, was bombed during the Second World War and from 1941-49, if you can believe this, United shared our ground. It might be a bit of a sad testament to the nature of football now that that would seem so unbelievable but until a few decades ago many in Manchester supported both teams. My dad’s dad, Eli, was a diehard Blue but my mum’s dad, Cyril, went to City one week and United the next. In the end, though, I like to think that his heart lay with City, as he and dad went to matches together for over a decade until he passed in 1990. Dad marvels now how he dragged himself to watch terrible football on cold, wet Manchester nights when he had a season ticket (1977-1995). As we sang the Rösler song I thought back to what seemed like only a few years ago, and how we barely had any players worth composing a song about. How on earth did this happen to us?
For my own part, I moved to London the year after we were promoted out of the old Division Three in 1999 (now called League One, and just to confuse you it was called Division One then). At that time we were playing in our charming but crumbling home since 1923 – Maine Road. My grandfather Eli, who I sadly never knew, had been to the very first match there. My father’s first game was in 1960. Mine was in 1988. It has been a long family road. A story from the 1990s goes that the Maine Road groundsman wasn’t able to even paint the white lines on the pitch without handing over cash into the hand of the local paint suppliers. That’s how broke we were. Two decades of financial mismanagement had brought the club to its knees. When I was a kid in the 80s a local businessman called Peter Swales, a diehard Blue with a spectacular comb-over, was the chairman. He was a passionate man but an utterly hopeless businessman and we lurched from one crisis to another. The fans revolted and he was ousted in 1994 and replaced as chairman by Francis Lee, a legendary former player of ours. Unlike most players of that era, who were paid little and ended up getting real jobs after their playing days were over (very few went into management and punditry as it is now didn’t exist then), he had become a successful, wealthy businessman. He had made his fortune recycling paper, primarily toilet rolls. I, literally, shit you not.
He was another terrible choice, as it turned out. Ex-players put in charge at the higher levels always want to run the team and he undermined the many managers he hired and fired. His friend, the late great Alan Ball (brilliant player, World Cup winner) was a hopeless case and relegated us in 1995. And then the managerial merry-go-round started. Let me put this into perspective with a statistic: during Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford reign of 27 years, we had (excluding Cup and League-winning captain Tony Book’s brief caretaker manager reigns) 17 managers. From August to December 1996 we had 3 managers. In 5 months. That’s what it was like in those days. We were relegated 3 times, up and down, up and down. During our tenure in the 3rd tier in 1998/99 we lost 1-0 at home to Bury. A local team now in League Two (the 4th tier) who, on average, draw 3,500 fans a home game. Even in the 3rd tier we averaged 28,000, over twice as many fans as any other club. I have several friends who are Bury fans; I tell you, they’re real fans, schlepping to watch a team that will never win anything, home and away. I was at Bury College at the time of this defeat. You can imagine what Monday morning was like.
In 1998, finally, a good man took charge and, essentially, fixed everything. He is responsible for where we are now (as is Paul Dickov, but that’s another story: this goal changed the club forever). David Bernstein (a very clever and rich man, the then-CEO of fashion retailers French Connection and an accountant by trade) was a lifelong Blue and couldn’t bear the disaster any longer. He transformed the club from the ground up, securing financing and doing the deal that got us, at a nice price thank you very much, the 2002 Commonwealth Games stadium, which we moved into the year after. Later, Bernstein was appointed as FA Chairman (he just retired – you have to at 70 – and has been replaced by the very stupid TV mogul Greg Dyke) and he just received a CBE for services to football.
But still, even then, we stumbled around for a while, though we were now financially on better footing, and were unfortunately bought by a Thai crook (a former PM and oppressor of his people, a murderer, some say) called Thaksin Shinawatra. Like many fans, I was deeply unhappy with this ownership, and it enhanced the geographical distance somehow. I felt disconnected from the team for the first time in my life and I hated it. Then, the unimaginable happened. In 2008, thanks to the beauty of the stadium apparently, the ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mansour, saw us as the perfect investment. A sleeping giant, as they say. Five years later he’s spent £1 billion and transformed us into a club that can compete at, we hope, the highest level. He has hired smart football people: our Spanish lynchpins, CEO Ferran Sorriano and Director of Football Txiki Begiristain, were both, essentially, poached from Barcelona. He installed our chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak, his main connection to the team, who visits Manchester often. Khaldoon has an American accent thanks to his degree, in finance and economics, from Tufts in Boston and is a very clever, tough but likeable man doing a spectacular job – he is supportive and does not interfere in football matters, as so very many idiotic chairmen do (central casting Disney villain Vincent Tan at Cardiff and the moronic Assem Allam at Hull, I’m looking at you). Our manager, Manuel Pellegrini, another shrewd appointment, is now giving us the stable, drama-free, leadership we need. In personality, he is everything the over-emotional, difficult, passionate and impatient Roberto Mancini was not.
Only five years ago I was going through a period of feeling totally disconnected from my team. And now, that feeling is a world away. I still can’t quite believe what’s happened.
Those players are working for me. Yes, for themselves, for the manager, for their money, but when you’re there watching a game live, you can’t help but marvel at how they’re toiling in the cold, getting kicked all over the pitch, working their backsides off, for you. For all of us. There’s a giddy glee now to City fans, after years of longing and disappointment and being kicked in the teeth. Yes, there’s still a fear, which really is unfounded, that it may all end tomorrow… but it could go on forever, as the Smiths song goes.
Nothing stays with you for life like football does. You lose jobs or move houses, or cities, and your team is still there. You lose family members and your team is still there… in my case they were able to provide a distraction during unimaginably tough times last year. I know that these men are highly paid but none of that matters during a game, when you dream and fear and wish and want and they work to try and please you. To gain your love. These men are not machines, devoid of sentiment. They were kids once, who stood on a terrace like the one you’re standing on, cheering their team, worshipping their heroes. They get to do it, for real, they get to be the guy they dreamt of being. Most people have a rather craven view of money. That it fixes everything, that it’s all that matters. I know someone who loves his team but cannot stand any football players. He says they are all yobs. He constantly talks of how they’d rather be paid a ton and sit on the bench than earn less and play every week. He cannot see their humanity. He cannot see past the 5% who are pictured with women not their wives or get into nightclub brawls. I feel sorry for him. These are human beings, with families, and they work hard every day. If anyone doubts that take a look at a feature on our website called Tunnel Cam. We are, it would seem, the only club that does it.
As an example of anthropology it is fascinating. It shows in the clearest way I have ever seen the complete mental and tonal shift that the players experience and what happens before they go over the white line. We all know what happens after. But before, players greet each other as friends, as on each team there are connections: the same nationality, a player who used to play with you at a former club, a player who you play with for a national team. It’s all cordial reunions and hugs and European cheek-kissing and shirt-swapping. Lines of mascots (kids aged between 4 and about 10 who accompany the players onto the pitch) stand in the tunnel, holding their hands out to be high-fived by the players, who are charming and kind to them. Sometimes players will have their own children as mascots. These big, tough, tattooed men, gently picking up and kissing their tiny toddlers, who are wearing matching strips to them. You’d have to have a hard heart not to be touched. It’s important to humanise players, not least because it lets you feel connected to men who, in my case, play 200 miles away from where I live. Additionally, our dual fandom is one facet of my relationship with my dad; it’s an unbreakable bond with him as much as the team.
When I go to away games, I am consumed by joy, win or lose, in being able to be with my people, my fellow Mancs: in all their happy, sad, angry, thrilled, hilarious, nervous, anarchic, relieved, sometimes disappointed foul-mouthed glory. This is football. At its core, this is what it is. You belong, for life. You love them and they love you. They never leave you, and you never leave them, even if and when they let you down. At the end of the West Ham game, after 90 minutes of brilliant banter (We sang: ‘You’re getting Moyes in the morning!’ They sang: ‘We only need 10!’ (we were 3-0 up by this point, 9-0 on aggregate) and when Stevan Jovetic, a new player who has been unlucky with injury came on, we sang: ‘Who the fucking hell are you?!’) the Hammers fans did a little Poznan (our backs to the pitch, arm over arm, jumping goal celebration) and we did one back to them. Then we all did it together.
The brave, hardy Hammers were 9-0 down and those fans love their team as much today as they did yesterday, as they will tomorrow. That is football... and that used to be me. I remember one week in the early 2000s where we played Liverpool twice in a week, Cup and League. We lost 6-0 and 4-0. Times change but people do not. I’m stuck with this club for life.
When I was growing up, Manchester was a very tough place to be a City fan. In my school year, of 100+ girls, I was one of three Blues. Not everyone supported a team of course but there were probably 60 or 70 United fans. What will that number be in a decade? I see kids now at the matches who won’t remember how bad things were. Talking recently with a United fan friend, he told me I was willing to pay any price for success – meaning, in reference to our owners and where their largesse is derived from, I’m turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights conditions in Abu Dhabi in exchange for, one hopes, trophies. If I’d experienced 20+ years of unrivalled success, like he had, and my club was bought by people who treat their citizens like crap would I abandon the club? United may be owned by people sucking the financial life out of the place but at least they’re not human rights abusers. Do I turn a blind eye because I’ve toiled and loved and, through thin and thin, supported a club that let me down every week? Do I think I deserve some success now, at any cost? I wish I was stronger, and I admire people who have turned their backs on the club, in a way. They’re better people than I. Why do I continue to support a club run by people who treat women and gays and immigrant workers like shit in their own country? A regime that if City had a Jewish player he would not be allowed into the country. I cannot defend that, and thus I cannot defend myself. It’s a complicated issue and one I have no answer for. All I can say is that, in daily life, we are all complicit in demeaning others, whether we want or intend to or not. We all own clothing from sweatshops, we all buy computers (and TVs and DVD players) made by Chinese slave labour. I’m just trying to do my best, every day, like everyone else. Unless you live in a tree and wear clothes made of hemp and forage for food you’re complicit too. So I take a little bit of pleasure when I can from football, because it took and took from me for so many years and hardened me to misery and now finally I’m getting something back. What can I do about it except cut my nose off to spite my face? I’ve mostly, though not entirely, made my peace with it.
Some City fans take more pleasure in United losing than City winning. I never understood those people even when I was living in Manchester and taking shit from United fans every single day. They pitied, bullied, patronised and laughed at us. And we were pathetic – I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it does feel a little nice that they don’t get everything their way now. But, I always say to dad – I don’t care about what other clubs do, who they play, who they lose points to; we can only control what we do, how we play, and do our best. These players are the best that City have ever had. Sometimes I can’t believe what I’m watching. It’s like a gift. Like someone decided that we’d taken enough shit one day and said: it’s your turn. I’ll take it.
By anyone’s standards, the last few days have been groundbreaking and historic. Where to start? I see I haven’t written anything in this blog for a year, I can’t say why really, perhaps I’ve just not been feeling the writing since last summer. Anyway, doesn’t matter: this one is certainly full of incident. So, it’s a football blog, but it’s really more about family, as football always is. It’s about my dad, my team, civic pride, community, togetherness, and feeling connected to total strangers. Best of all, it has a happy ending.
How many years have I had to take shit from Manchester United fans? It started when I was a kid, one of three City fans in the school. At least it seemed that way, there may have been a few more, but they wanted to avoid being mocked so they probably kept quiet. This was in the late 80s through to the late 90s, a period where the reds had started to win every trophy going and the blues were hiding in the corner, with a collection of comical mishaps in our recent past – awful players, inept management and increasingly bitter fans. The United and City paths had been similar, pretty much, and then started to diverge wildly in 1990 when United won the FA Cup, then bagged a European title in 1991, and then in 1993 collected their first Premier League trophy for 26 years.
And the years came and went and City got worse and United got better (and spent plenty of cash on players incidentally, throughout) and the jokes became more painful and the relegations started. The phrases ‘Typical City’ and ‘Cityitis’ were invented, to describe our state, which you had to laugh at, otherwise you’d cry. We were a laughing stock, a once-great club reduced to rubble, patronised and ridiculed in our own town. On the rare occasions where we’d play United we’d take our beating in good humour and go slinking back to our corners. This was my life: my youth, my school years, my teens and my twenties. The final indignity came in 1998, when we were relegated to League One (the third tier of English football) and scrambled for points at teams with tiny followings, who welcomed us with glee to their grounds like it was their cup final. Humiliations aplenty followed, which included a defeat to local club Bury, who got the result of their lives by beating us 1-0 at Maine Road. As a student at Bury College, at the time, I don’t have the words to describe how painful that Monday morning was.
But we fought, and with an inspirational captain and leader, Andy Morrison, whose book I later edited, we ground out results and got to the play-off final, where I witnessed the single greatest football moment of my life in my friend Aron’s living room. Aron, a rabid United fan, cheered right along with dad and I, never thinking I’m sure that this lowly team would ever rise up to challenge his. A few days earlier United had won the treble of course (Premier League, FA Cup, Champion’s League) and held a victory parade through the city centre, where they flaunted their hard-won trophies. City were too embarrassed, understandably, to make much of a fuss about winning the third tier play-off final and shuffled off to toil some more. I remember thinking: what would it be like to go to such a parade? To be so proud of your team, instead of having them disappoint you all the time?
Our League One support had remained strong, with average crowds of 28,000 in that season, but we all knew how important Dickov’s goal was – it changed the future of the club forever. We got promoted again the year after into the Premiership, and then relegated again the season after that. I resigned myself to forever loving, unendingly, with passion and heart, a team who might escape relegation, or even become Premiership mid-table, at best. After the Commonwealth Games in 2002 was over we leased the newly built stadium in East Manchester and made our move. At first, the place was cold and empty, and even now suffers from atmosphere issues, as all big new open stadia do. It had no history. But what were we mourning? We hadn’t created anything at Maine Road worth remembering since the 70s. We bounced up and down between Premiership and Championship (second tier) and then finally attained some kind of stability, thanks to a shrewd businessman, and lifelong City fan (and now FA Chairman), David Bernstein. We got so desperate we let a former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was a criminal, take control of the club in 2007. He spent a few quid, and we did ok with Eriksson as manager, but it was always doomed to fail. And then, somehow, in what might be called the greatest bit of tourism PR in history, an oil-rich sheikh went and bought the club in September 2008. This fella, Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi, a member of the royal family, just suddenly decided he wanted to put his country on the global map, having seen Dubai start to dominate as the Middle East destination of choice. Apparently, he fancied Everton but lost interest as soon as he saw their stadium. But ours, yes, he liked it. So, we became a billionaire’s toy.
And believe me, no-one gave a shit about the money, the issue of so-called ‘selling out’ – partly because we were desperate, and partly because the owner was a crook and we wanted rid of him. It became clear very quickly that Mansour was a very different person from Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich, the previous big-bucks club owner, who had spent half a billion on Chelsea. The sheikh lived in Abu Dhabi, didn't move to England, didn't interfere in transfers, didn’t tell anyone how to run the team (Abramovich, it should be noted, does all of these things and more) and in fact didn’t even come to games (though we’re told he watches every minute of every match). Instead, he gave the Thai villain’s managerial choice, Mark Hughes, a chance and installed a very smart, Boston-educated businessman called Khaldoon al Mubarak to be the chairman and run things. Hughes wasn’t up to the job, we all knew, and sure enough he made a right mess of things, spent wisely on only half of his targets, and was replaced (in a badly handled transition) by Italian Roberto Mancini, a ruthless but fair tactician who, following a glittering career as a striker, had built teams at Fiorentina and Lazio before assembling Inter Milan’s side, which went on to win three scudettos in succession. Mancini is, one might say, a control freak: he does it his way or out you go. With his players - he’s not their mate, like Keegan was; he’s not there to kiss their arses or hug them if they’re feeling down; he’s there to win, and if you don’t like it you can leave. Or, if a player behaves badly and apologises, he’ll wait for them and then wipe the slate clean. Hard but fair, always. In his first full season we won the FA Cup. I never thought I’d be so happy again, and then came Sunday May 13th 2012.
We’ve been the best team in England this season, and we’ve scored more and let in less than our nearest rivals, who just happen to be our lifelong bullies Manchester United. We’ve spent money wisely, we’ve weathered storms of all types (including player misbehaviour, to put it kindly) and we came back when it looked like we’d bottled it in March. After the Arsenal defeat on April 8th, at which time we found ourselves eight points behind United, all I heard was how they’ve been here before, they’ve got the experience coming into the final month, and that they’d see us off just like they had everyone else. Well, not this time. While they are still a very very good team they are not the force they once were. They saw the whites of our eyes, coming up fast behind them and, like their fans, they didn’t know how to handle it. So, they panicked while we won six in a row. We won't be brushed off so easily now. We spent money fast and improved faster and they aren’t going to have everything go their own way any more.
We started to eat away at those eight points. And again, I heard about their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, being the master of the mind games, letting no other manager best him. And then he went up against Roberto, he cracked up on the touchline at some perceived slight and got up in his face at the home derby and, instead of backing away, as all managers do when confronted with the red-faced grandfather of them all, the greatest club manager of all time, our fiery Italian manager went toe-to-toe, snapping back at him. It was a watershed moment – you will not push us around anymore. You will not bully us. Everything will not go your way. We are not your inferiors, your rivals to be patronised, no longer. We won the derby and our celebrations were muted – we did a job we had to do, we have more in our sights now than just beating United. By then, United had already crumbled to a defeat at fighting Wigan (which I predicted) and slipped to a crazy home draw with Everton after leading by two goals, twice (which I had not). After a sleepless night I watched us play like champions away at Newcastle last weekend, the goals scored by the colossus that is Yaya Touré, who had also scored the winning goals in the FA Cup semi and final last year.
And so, to the final game of the season: home to QPR, managed by Mark Hughes, the man shifted out. He held grudges, it was said, he wanted revenge, which he denied, and he was an ex-United legend. It was all set up for Cityitis, for Typical City to screw it up. We very nearly did. We should have won the title a month ago, but we choked, and then United choked, and now it was all down to this one game. We couldn't win it 5-0, that’s not how we do things. We must drain out the last drop of nerve-shredding stress from every fan that has waited 44 years for this moment. In 1968, the last time we won the league, my dad was 17, and he missed the winning game because he was working and had to read about it in the Football Pink (a Manchester Evening News supplement printed one hour after the match ended). He’s now, he won't mind me saying, 61. When I was a kid, I would run down the street to greet him as he returned from every miserable home match. One year I said, ‘dad, will you shave your beard off if City win the title?’ I’d never seen him without a beard, which he grew after his father died in 1979. He laughed and said yes – I promise you; it was a safe bet back then. He said to me yesterday that he’d said yes because at that time there was more chance of him becoming Pope than us winning the title.
Both he and I had been more than nervous before the QPR match – for a week, I’d barely slept. We were both totally out of our minds. We had put so much into this. Just one win against struggling QPR was all we needed. We had the same points as United and they’d need to win by 10 goals if we both won. Considering how much better we’ve been than everyone, United included, this season, I wasn’t thrilled about it going to goal difference but never mind that, I was ready to take it. It’s said that City fans are obsessed with United. This is true. I guess it’s to be expected if you share your lives, your workplaces and your schools with them every day. I’ve been outside of that for 12 years now, having left Manchester in 2000, and I care far less about United than most blues do. It’ll always be that way back home, I suppose, since we share the city. But now they’re wondering if they’re looking at a coming era where they’ll soon feel how we’ve felt for the last 20 years.
The match was tense, and we had all the play but couldn’t break through. Yaya Touré’s last act of the season, before leaving the pitch at half time with an injury, was to set up Pablo Zabaleta for the opening goal. I was cautiously happy but I feared what was to come, without our midfield lynchpin. The second half began and the fans roared but the Cityitis tension grew, and then QPR scored twice. Doom enveloped us all, overwhelming crushing darkness. For 25 soul-flattening minutes we all just stood/sat where we had watched/listened to the matches all season, gaping in horror: the fans in the ground, dad on the bed listening to the radio (where he can see the stadium from the bedroom window) and me watching the match illegally on my laptop. We were going to screw this up, consign ourselves to a tag of history’s greatest chokers: we would never recover from this. United, despite being an average team, and desperate enough to have a midfield three with a combined age of 108, were going to win a 20th title. Worlds turn on such moments. I would have cried if I hadn’t been so numb. I got up from my chair and went to lie down on the bed. I stared at the ceiling. After all this stress, we weren’t going to do it.
But much like in that Gillingham game, when Dickov scored that club-saving goal, the universe realised that we had had to take enough of being shit, being maligned, being lesser than. In the 92nd minute our hard-working and determined striker Edin Džeko scored to equalise. But I didn’t move, it felt even crueller, to be one goal away from the title. United’s game finished, they had won their match and were ready to start celebrating. Thirteen seconds passed between the end of United’s game and what happened next. Before another thought could even get into my messed-up head, the commentator started screaming. AGUERO!!!!! GOAL!!!!! With the last kick of the season our handsome, talented, absolutely no trouble, striker Sergio Agüero , the son-in-law of Maradona no less, made time stop as he skipped round Nedum Onouha (QPR defender and lifelong City fan) and decisively blasted the ball into the net. Off his shirt came and absolute hysteria erupted . I jumped off the bed, sank to my knees and started to cry, simply praying for the final whistle. One long minute later, we were champions of England.
My phone lit up like an Xmas tree, and I talked to some friends through sobs. I called my dad. We shared our total disbelief of what we had just heard/seen. We were simply and genuinely in shock. This doesn’t happen to us, this kind of blinding triumph. We’re famous for getting it wrong, for falling down, and we always lose. United always have the last laugh. I was delirious. Without thinking, I booked a train ticket to Manchester, after calling the local radio station and confirming that the victory parade was on for the day after, and just floated to Euston. I was home in time for Match of the Day, which we watched half in joy, half in tears. I met dad at 4pm the day after in town and we got a spot among our fellow blues in Albert Square, in front of the Town Hall, a most stunning building. We were with our people. I’ve never seen so many scallies in all of my life. Yes, they’re chavs, but they’re my chavs! There were babies, toddlers, little ones, teenagers, students, mums and dads, middle-aged couples, pensioners – to a man, woman and child they were in joyous shock. Everyone had their match-day tale. For the players, it looked like this . To my eyes, it looked like this:
Truly, it was one of the best days of my life, of our lives – to share this with dad was unimaginably special and momentous. We dragged ourselves home, and I was so excited I actually tripped and fell up my own front steps. But that was it, the day that marked the end of Cityitis, the day that consigned Typical City, always screwing it up, to history forever. And yes, dad is going to keep his word on the beard bet.
So, exhausted, I got the train home this (Tuesday May 15th) morning. But that’s not even the end. I had a reserved seat, but for some reason kept walking and sat one coach down, for no particular reason. With 10 minutes to go of the journey, I got up and turned towards the rest of the carriage.
My gaze alighted on two very handsome men sitting two seats behind me. And then I had this moment. My City shirt registered on his face, which broke into a warm smile of recognition, my brain registered that I knew him and in a split second I realised that it was Kolo Touré, the City defender, who was looking back at me, sitting next to his youngest brother Ibrahim. Not all footballers are the same, and from the press you’d sense that most are boorish drunken hooker-shagging oafs. This guy, from the Ivory Coast, a civil-war-torn country, has always been different. He has always been a model professional, and he has always behaved in the correct way. Last year he made a mistake: he was so worried about his weight (despite looking like a Greek statue) that he took his wife’s diet pills, failed a drug test and was banned for six months. He took it on the chin, apologised (even though the team doctor had told him the pills were fine to take), never complained, and worked his arse off to stay fit. After his ban ended, he returned as a squad player, and was welcomed back with open arms. Fellow defender Joleon Lescott had usurped him in the team, taking his place in his absence, and he never complained. His younger brother Yaya had become the team’s heartbeat, totally overshadowing him, and he never complained. He never went crying to the press, and he never banged on the manager’s door demanding why he wasn’t in the team. When our majestic captain Vincent Kompany was banned for four games he slotted into the team and held the defence together. When Kompany returned he again went to the sidelines, and he never complained. When Lescott was injured, without a word he took his place and played superbly. When Lescott was fit, he lost his place again and he never complained. He is a team player.
So when I saw him, it didn’t occur to me to do anything but what I did. We exchanged a look of two people who, despite not knowing each other, had been through something together. I held my hand out, and he shook it. I burbled something – I think I told him how long we had waited for this moment, how old my dad was when we last won the title, how old I was and how I thought this day would never come – and I looked him in the eye and just said thank you. You don't know what this means to me, to my family, to all of us. He was kind and gracious. I shook his hand one more time, thanked him again, and walked down the train. Imagine that, to get a chance to personally thank a hero: I will never forget it. I called dad immediately, who was incredulous that I’d met him and that he hadn’t been sitting in first class. I then bumped into a guy who said ‘Did you see Kolo? He’s in that carriage, in standard class?!’ Footballers are reviled, honoured, worshipped, envied and hated. They’re millionaires, and we’re surprised when they behave like human beings. This last couple of days I’ve seen players strain every sinew to do something for fans like me. I don’t give a fuck how much they’re paid or how much we’ve spent. They did this for us. And today, the city is ours.
I'm a 3rd generation Man City fan. My late grandfather, Eli Tray, went to the first ever game at Maine Road, in 1923. We won the FA Cup in ’56 but dad never saw it – no TV! My grandfather took my dad, aged 10, to his first match in 1960. Due to having to leave school to help support his family, he got a job in Burton's Menswear in Deansgate, Manchester, in 1965, working 6 days a week, including Saturdays, and almost never got to see the great City teams of the late 60s/early 70s. He'd go to the odd away game but missed the glory years, including our title-winning season of ’68 and our last FA Cup win in '69 against Leicester.
I’ve seen the old footage; the scorer, Neil Young (no, not that one, he didn’t moonlight between CSNY gigs!) fired in a Summerbee cross and won us the cup. Neil, Manchester born, was of the old brand of players – he never earned much money and when his career ended he battled alcoholism and depression, finding work as, variously, a milkman, a supermarket worker, sports shop manager and insurance salesman. Diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2010, the club stepped in to pay his medical bills. He died in February. The cup run was dedicated to him, including a poignant match against ’69 Cup finalists Leicester where the thousands of away City fans held a banner and stood in silence in the 24th minute – the minute he scored the ’69 winner.
We won one more trophy after that, the League Cup in May 1976, 5 months before I was born. After years of missing the games, in 1978, 2 years after I was born, dad stopped working Saturdays and bought a season ticket. He tried to shield me from the misery of being a City fan, and who could blame him? His dad passed in 1979, so I never got to know him or what a proud Blue he was. His season ticket purchase heralded the start of a pathetic decade for the team but I had the bug, I had the genetics, and that was that. In the early 80s I found my first favourite player, Paul Power, now one of our Academy managers. Dad went to the FA Cup semi against Ipswich at Villa Park in ‘81, and watched us win. He went to the final shortly after, standing behind the goal, as Hutchison's own goal took it to a replay. The replay was on a Thursday night, and he couldn’t get the day off work. But he couldn’t bear to miss it either, so, despite having Springsteen tickets for the night of the game, he stayed home while mum went to see Bruce and watched us lose to Spurs. He said he’d stayed in because he didn’t know when our next final might be. He was right – it was 30 years.
Despite the 80s being a shocker of a decade for us, I persevered, my youthful enthusiasm trying to pull him out of City darkness. He tells me that every second Saturday I'd see him at the bottom of the street, coming back unhappy from Maine Road, and I'd run to him; he’d pick me up and I’d say 'don't worry dad, we'll win next week!' I had no idea of the decades of misery that I was, that we were, to endure. In 1988, when I was 11, my grandfather, Cyril Clark (mum's dad), who had been both a United and City fan in the 60s, which was possible then, took me to my first match at Maine Road, a reserve game against Liverpool. His split loyalty went back decades. He’d lost a friend in the Munich crash, a factory (and racecourse) owner who his dad had worked for, and started going to see the blues one week and the reds the next, though his heart lay with City in his final years. I can still remember that day, walking up the steps to be greeted by the huge green expanse of pitch; it felt so special, like I was where I was meant to be. In the early 90s, my dad’s best friend, Martin, a United season ticket holder, took me to their training ground to meet the players, including Hughes, Ince, Giggs, Bruce, Pallister and Schmeichel. He tried to convert me! I did quite enjoy the trip and felt a little confused for a short while (maybe a week!). A couple of years later he took me to Old Trafford and I started to wonder. What if I felt something? What if I loved it? I needn’t have worried. I sat there, feeling like an outsider. I felt nothing. These were not my people.
By the early 80s, grandpa had gotten a season ticket too, so he and dad went together – with a flask of coffee, they braved the terrible quality on show and stuck with the team, as you always do. We were relegated in ’82. In those days, if my grandfather couldn't go, I might even get his ticket. He passed in 1990 and going to the match without him just wasn't the same for my dad. He stuck it out for another 5 years, during which we went many times together, including on my 21st birthday where I was overjoyed to have my name read out by the stadium announcer. But he gave up his season ticket, because of price and because getting those two buses to Moss Side from our house in Crumpsall just got too hard. I'd always said to dad, when City gets to Wembley we'll go together! What did I know? We were never good enough to get there. Then, when he gave up his season ticket, he couldn't bear to tell me that even if we did get there we'd never get tickets because only season ticket holders get them. We were relegated in ’96, then again in ’98, dropping to the 3rd division, a new low. The game that sent both our opponents and us down was, ironically, against Stoke, who we beat to no avail. We lost games to Lincoln and, worst of all, at home to Bury and scraped past teams like Wrexham and Mansfield in little provincial grounds. It was depressing and humbling. I was at Bury College at the time and, I can tell you, that was a long Monday after we lost to Bury. Even at that level, we were getting an average gate of 28,000 at home. The next highest gate was, ironically again, Stoke, with about 10,000. It took them a few years longer than us to get out of that division. This was the same season that was United’s most successful ever – it was tough to watch them win the treble while we toiled in the lower leagues.
After a hard season, we made it into the play-offs. On Sunday May 30th 1999 dad and I watched the game against Gillingham, the 3rd division play off final, in United fan Aron’s house. Despite our differences, the fans of both teams are always connected – at work, at home, at school. Aron cheered and I wept as we clawed our way out of the division, Dickov and Weaver the heroes. Dad leapt dramatically off the sofa when we equalised in the 95th minute and then won on penalties – a game that changed the future of my club forever. The year after that I moved to London. I go to as many London away games as I can and, once a year, on Boxing Day (or the 28th), dad and I attend our annual City home game together when I visit for Xmas.
It's all I've ever wanted – to walk down Wembley Way with my dad. I don't dream of winning the Premier League and I never dream of winning the Champion's League. Just a Wembley cup, that’s my dream. Disappointment is such a familiar feeling to us, it's what I've had my whole life. When we got to the final I knew we’d never get tickets and dad said it was ok, we hadn’t watched any of the cup run together and he didn’t want to jinx it. We get a bit superstitious with football! In the week leading up to the final I didn’t sleep much. How would I deal with losing? Up to that point I’d just been happy, thrilled actually, to even be in the final but now the game was a few days away I wanted to win it. It could have been worse, we could have been playing Chelsea, but our record against Stoke was really poor. By 2pm dad and I had been on the phone half a dozen times, winding each other up in nervousness. It's the build up that kills me, I just wanted it to start. Matt arrived just in time to calm me down before the game started and we settled in to watch it upstairs – couldn’t watch it in the living room, since I’d watched the semi in my room. No tempting fate for me. Having him there actually chilled me out; I was a bit frenzied but didn’t want to appear like a total nutter so dialled it down a bit. No calling dad during the match, that’s our deal, unless we’re losing.
Amazingly, we were playing really well. Couple of great saves from their keeper. But I’ve been there before. Seen us play well and lose, more times than I can count. Half time, glasses of whisky, the cigarettes started piling up in the ashtray. We talked about football, work, a gig I’d seen the night before, the Olympics, and a hundred other subjects and it was just what I needed. Second half and the same pattern, one chance for Stoke; Hart did his job and closed the striker down. Nerves were rising again, and then in the 74th minute a neat little move – Tevez to de Jong to Silva to Balotelli, a neat back heel, a blocked shot and then… the semi-final hero, Yaya Toure, appeared and smashed the ball into the net in a flash. No stopping that. We exploded! The fans were going mental; I was punching the air, and that most pure feeling, the scoring of a goal, knocked me down. What feels better than that? But of course that meant 15 minutes of nail biting and, I tell you, those 15 minutes felt like years. The slowest ticking clock of all time. Three minutes of injury time. Please please please, let me get what I want, this time.
Whistle. All over. The room started spinning. Tears came to my eyes. We hugged, we shouted, the screen was a blur of blue happiness, crying fans. There were little kids who’ll never know what it was like to want and need and desire and beg for years on end. There were teenagers who joined up hoping for more than their dads had received. Their mums and dads, my age, wept after 30 years of getting nothing in return for their devotion. The guys in their 40s who just about remembered the ‘81 Cup Final couldn’t believe how long ago it felt. The fans my dad’s age – priced out of their season tickets 15/20 years ago – this was for them. We had to sit and watch while United won a dazzling array of trophies, while our team descended in relegation after relegation. The older fans who remembered the good times; the ones my age who’ve never known them; the kids for whom this will cement their love of the blues forever. I called dad, both of us in tears; I had to give Matt the phone because I couldn’t talk.
My team. My shitty team went and won something. The first trophy is the best. Who knows if there’ll be more, but these players and this manager have changed the club’s history forever.
But were we ever able to leave kick and rush? In reality, how many players really does Capello have to choose from to make his squad? No-one doubts that he has picked the best 23 players to take to South Africa. And no-one doubts that most of the first 11 would walk into any Champions League team - individually. Collectively, they're not up to much. Of that reported 38% how many of those should be considered good enough to play for the national team anyway? Many of the poorer, in terms of ambition, talent and finance, clubs in the PL have no choice but to employ average English players. Bolton, Blackburn, Wigan, Sunderland, Fulham even. These are teams who have English players but ones that no-one would argue are good enough to grace Capello's squad. It's hardly like he has 50 or 60 players to choose his 23 from. It's more like a good 35 and decent enough 28 leading to a very good 23.
So let's blame the ball. The Jabulani, the perfectly round (what were balls before?) Adidas made ball that is now being used at the WC has been steeped in controversy. England cannot use it in the PL - a deal with Nike prevents it. England cannot use it in internationals, a deal with Umbro prevents that. But for those nations with Adidas sponsored leagues and teams - Switzerland, Argentina, France and Beckenbauer's Germany - have all been using it since February. I've watched goalkeepers fumble that ball for the last week and the ones that survived did so because of their positioning. Get your body behind the ball and you can fumble it, you'll still probably be alright. Crucially, Rob Green didn't do this. And he's been doing it all season for West Ham, his positioning is to blame - not the ball. We're even getting desperate enough to blame the altitude though I cannot figure out why the Germans, the most impressive team so far in the tournament, are training at sea level and England are training nearly 1400 metres above it. Their first match, at sea level, was almost perfect. If we're training above sea level to make later tournament games easier that's all very well but what if we're knocked out before then?
We fear heartbreak in England and history tells us it is coming. It's our own fight, our own stubborn resistance, our own uniquely English attitude to being beaten by the better teams that has actually harmed us in tournaments. We never just lose 2 or 3-0 to Portugal, Argentina, Germany et al. It might help if we did. It might force us to confront the deep seated issues that have damaged English football in the last 20 years. Is it any wonder that managers such as Wenger are claimed as geniuses? His professorial approach to training and living has changed Arsenal forever - but he chooses foreign players to carry out his visions and this cannot be a coincidence. English players, from childhood, are trained with outdated methods. Commerce rules in the PL and the expensive foreigners have been brought in to make our league the greatest in the world - precisely because the cloggers and bulls who populate the Bolton's and Blackburn's aren't going to put bums on international TV seats.
But we are English, we fight harder than anyone else. Surely no-one can claim that no less than five major tournament exits of the last 20 years via penalties are down to coincidence? We have not been beaten easily, we have fought until the last seconds against better teams and taken them to penalties. And then we lose, the nation weeps and bemoans nothing more than bad luck. It's this failure to lose fair and square, this peculiarly English desire to fight until the last penalty has been taken, that has led to our failure to truly assess why we keep failing at tournaments. It's because of bad luck, people cry. No, it's not. The penalty strewn, heartbreaking exits are the real smokescreen.
We are a nervous nation that awaits our World Cup 2010 fate. We know it will happen again. We know we will scrape to the quarters, play a decent team, fight with all our might, defy the odds with passion and hunger, bely the greater skill of our opponents and lose in some heartbreaking fashion. And rather than blaming the PL, the FA, the training of kids playing football from youth, the manager (we now have a good one, can't blame him) we will throw up our hands and say what bad luck! Again! And we'll go right back to our expensively assembled PL teams, who, if we're all honest, we care far more about than our national team. We'll just accept our failures, with a catalogue of excuses about cheating opponents and bad luck. The PL is worth so much money it's too far down the road to change, despite the cap being brought in on homegrown players. That won't change the infrastructure, how they're trained. Our first 11 might be able to walk, individually, into any CL team. But they aren't up to much all together. How will we exit the WC this time round? Who will be the villain? As ever, we will blame the penalties and close our eyes to the real reasons.
It had been somewhat of a strange week in Manchester. With the services to commemorate the Munich air disaster 50th anniversary hanging over the proceedings like a grey, sad cloud the match almost didn't matter. But they still wanted it to be perfect, and so they should. Perhaps the occasion got to Man United a little - or perhaps saying that is just a way of taking some credit away from my magnificent team. A team I have been so rarely proud of like I was yesterday. I've spent my entire life being disappointed by my team, Manchester City. They have consistently failed to do anything matching our richer, more popular neighbours, Manchester United, for nigh on 20 years now.
You can trace the history and traditions of the city of Manchester through its football teams. In the 50s, when both teams were good and one was struck by tragedy. In the 60s and early 70s when both teams were excellent, as good as each other. In the 80s when both teams were pretty poor. And then, a turning point - September 1989. A Maine Road hammering of United by City, scoreline 5-1. The United fans shouting 'Fergie out' at the hapless manager. But from then it turned. They won the then Rumbelows Cup in 1990 and capitalised on that with the European Cup Winners Cup in 1991. And from that point City have descended while United have prospered. They have become the biggest, richest, best supported team on earth while City have struggled in the doldrums. Now, with new investment we have started to rise, very slowly, from the ashes. I can't say where it will all end. I'm quite sure we will never be as famous or popular as them and nor would I wish to be. They're welcome to their overseas superstores and lucrative Dubai trips. I care about my team first. I'm a City fan, not a United hater.
At first it seemed like having the Old Trafford derby the weekend after the Munich anniversary was a pretty poor idea. Both clubs had the chance to object and, for reasons unknown, didn't. Rumour flew that some City fans (not really fans – United haters first, City fans a distant second, I have no respect for those people) were planning to disrupt the minutes silence before the game. The machines of both clubs swung into action. Warnings were given to the fans from both clubs, the media and even, in a very ill advised and idiotic last minute attack, a United player (Scholes). City were under the microscope and I feared the worst. A few boozed up louts might shame us all. I half expected to hear a few lone yelps followed by a thud as the City fans surrounding the offenders gave them a well-deserved smack in the face. I had been dreading the game and it dominated my thoughts all last week. In recent years our home record against United has drastically improved. After that famous 1989 win we didn't beat them again until 2003 - in the last Maine Road derby before the stadium move, Shaun Goater scored his 100th City goal to beat United. In the list of great footballing days of my life it was right up there with the Cup win at Spurs (3-0 down with 10 men, won 4-3) and the 1999 play off final against Gillingham (still the single greatest City related day of my life). After that we'd beaten them at home in the first derby at our new stadium, 4-1. We'd even beaten them, undeservedly, earlier this season at home.
But away from home, at Old Trafford? No wins in 27 games. No win since April 1974. Yes, 1974. My parents had been married for only a few weeks then. We hadn't beaten United away in my lifetime. I have seen all kinds of derbies there - robbed by a ref's whistle a few years ago of a perfectly good Goater winner, the draw following thug Roy Keane's career-ending assault on City player Haaland, a thoroughly depressing 5-0 hammering and so on. It's miserable playing there and on the very rare occasions we have scraped a draw I've greeted it with happiness and relief. It's just not a place anyone wins. United lose about once or twice a season at home, if that. Even teams ten times better than us like Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool often come away with little or nothing from a trip there. They have a home record that is the envy of most clubs on earth. They expect to win every home game and so they should. With four important players, all suspended, missing (two each – Rooney/Evra for them, Corluka/Elano for us) I thought the playing field, Ronaldo excepted, was relatively even. Though an excellent player I knew Tevez would find it hard to outplay man mountain and club captain Richard Dunne. The tactics had to be spot on or we'd be on the receiving end of an emotionally charged beating.
I tried to walk calmly to the pub with my iPod on. I switched it on and grinned as Don't Look Back In Anger came on random play. Oasis are the City band, always have been. I was a nervous wreck. The stadium was awash with red and white scarves, specially made for the day and given to each fan. The 3000 City fans in one corner had the same scarves, though blue and white of course. The managers walked with wreaths to the centre of the pitch and laid them down in remembrance as I felt tears welling up. And then the moment came, the silence. I held my breath and stood up in tribute in my local, a sparsely populated Arsenal pub. I blinked away tears as the fans held their scarves high and the players stood immovably. You could have heard a pin drop. Some fireworks were let off outside the stadium during the minute, which briefly confused me, but no-one batted an eyelid. They knew what they had to do. One might say, why should fans get praise for behaving properly? To say that is to underestimate the hatred that has grown between United and City fans in the years since the Munich disaster, back when many fans supported both teams. That was the 50s, things were different then. A nasty, greedy, Thatcherite veil has come down across this country in the last 20 years. Mean-spiritedness is the norm at football games. As well as good natured banter there's a nastier edge to football now, which no doubt partially comes from the increased corporate image of the game. It started when fans stopped being called fans and became consumers.
Well not this time. In that stadium were 76,000 people who felt it together. As one entity, as one city united in grief. I feared the worst and my faith in the best of people was restored. That was really all that mattered yesterday, the silence. The demonstration that for one minute people could reach out to each other and hold hands when usually they would hurl abuse. Football became honourable and pure and untouched by corporate greed, local rivalry and mean-spiritedness in that moment. It was one of the great moments I've experienced and I only wish I had been at home with my dad to celebrate it. So with the blown whistle came the sigh of relief across the 1 million-plus Manchester inhabitants who knew the world was watching. And now the usual United win could commence even with United without Rooney, City without Elano - arguably the two clubs two most important players. In the first minute Ronaldo got the ball and no less than three City players surrounded him, snapping at his heels. The tactics were clear - stop Ronaldo, stop United. How simple is that? But my god, it worked. He barely had a kick - not because of his own bad play, because he was not allowed to play. Not given the room and space that other teams give him and live to regret. He was crowded out, pushed, harried and, every so often, kicked. His own frustration, which led to typical petulance, came bubbling to the surface a couple of times. He never had two yards of space around him. And thus, United were impotent.
Tevez and Giggs were shackled by the tenacious, determined and tough Dunne and Richards. Scholes was not at his best and was repeatedly embarrassed by the talented Swiss youngster Gelson Fernandes. In the first half the best United player on the pitch, Anderson, walked all over City's Stephen Ireland. In the second half that was reversed. Hamann, who I only wish was a decade younger, was in complete control of midfield, his brain working a hundred times faster than his ageing legs. United looked dangerous going forward as they always do. But they ran into brick walls time after time. And when they got past the hard working Ball or England U21 international youngster Onouha they bumped into his England U21 team-mate, keeper Joe Hart, whose decision making still needs work but looks the real thing. And leading the line, our new signing Benjani. This guy looks the real deal. Thank you Jermain Defoe - if you hadn't settled for an easy life in Portsmouth instead of fighting for the Big Four place your talent deserves Portsmouth would never have sold Benjani. He was powerful, intelligent, did the simple things well, didn't give the ball away and held it up like the complete 29-year-old striker he is.
The first half was even. United weren't allowed to get going so they struggled. One man's poor home performance is another man's great away display. In order to win at Old Trafford you have to take advantage of weakness and we smelled blood. With two wins in twelve games for us and United going for fourteen wins in a row at home the odds were stacked against us but something happened - we scored. A United style counter attack, a jet speed break up the field and, after a poor initial shot, Vassell fired the ball home and ran towards the barely believing City faithful in the corner. And then, we started to believe. From that point onwards, despite my palpitating heart which lasted until the final whistle, we were taking punches and hitting back. We were standing up to the biggest boy in his own backyard. They found limitless heart and strength on a day where United should have won easily. A minute before half time a wickedly whipped in cross from Petrov was flicked into the net by Benjani. How could I ask for more? A goal on his debut at Old Trafford. Half time. Dazed, I exited the pub to buy some fags to calm my nerves. My stomach was churning, my head spinning. It felt like I was asleep and having the footballing dream I couldn't imagine - 2-0 up at half time at Old Trafford. But I'm no fool. I remembered a mid 90s game where we went 2-0 up by half time, with a Niall Quinn brace, and lost 3-2 to a late Giggs winner. And that was at Maine Road, not even an away derby! No chickens would be counted.
I settled into my seat for a heart-thumping, nervy, hand-wringing second half. The Arsenal fans in the pub couldn't understand it. 'You're winning, you should be thinking of 3-0, you're so defeatist'. I attempted to explain that I had been kicked in the teeth so many times that I couldn't bear to assume anything. Emotional insurance, I call it. 'You're mad, that's why you never do well, you defeat yourself'. I took a breath and replied, 'When you've been in the third division tell me that again. It's called humility. It's something that hasn't reached the south yet'. He didn't reply. I hope, no matter what happens to my team, I am never like that. That sense of self-entitlement and arrogance is why I've never liked Londoners much. My mind was racing. We were holding them off and playing well but United are known for late goals. The crowd roared the team forward as the City fans, who could barely believe what they were witnessing, sung their hearts out. There was no complacency here, no certainty that we would win and no taking for granted how hard getting to the finish line would be. I bit my nails until they were invisible. I fidgeted and chatted distractedly with another Arsenal fan next to me. He told me to keep calm. I resisted the urge to glare at him. A little late for that I'd say.
With a few moments to go I started to relax and realised we might actually do this. As the clock ticked past 90 mins into 3 of injury time I allowed myself a smile - and then United scored. Just shows, you should never celebrate before the whistle. Talk about tempting fate. But even then, when the team could have had a last minute panic, they didn't. They stood firm and tall and batted away every desperately lofted ball. The goal kick sailed high into the crisp Manchester air and the whistle was blown. We had won at Old Trafford. I'll say that again - we had won at Old Trafford. I confess, I thought it was a day I might never see in my lifetime. There's nothing quite like breaking a decades old hoodoo. I felt like this when we won the last derby at Maine Rd/first derby at the COM stadium. I punched the air as a huge beaming grin spread across my face and I've been stuck that way ever since. I'm quite sure I've freaked out random passers-by with my plastered immovable smile today. I almost felt sorry for United, doing this to them on their most sacred of days. After the game their manager fled the country. No really, he did. A pre-planned trip to South Africa - but he left without a word to the press. He'd once confessed that when we beat them 5-1 all those years ago he went home, put his head under a pillow and didn't come out for 24 hours. He's a bad loser and all the best managers are.
United assistant manager Queiroz tried to blame the international call-ups the week before for the lacklustre performance, saying many of the United players had been tired. Perhaps he forgot that just as many City players were also called up and played 90 mins midweek for their countries? It wasn't like the home win in August when we were hugely fortunate to win. This time we deserved it - and not because United were bad, but because we were good. And once we scored we believed we could win. And when it comes to beating United, or indeed any team or foe better and bigger than you, belief is half of the battle. United were surprised to not have an easy derby game, like they have often had in recent years. We surprised ourselves. And we got our karmic reward for every single City soul in that stadium showing our respect to United and their loss in a very difficult emotional week for them. I walked on clouds out of the pub as the emotion overwhelmed me and tears welled in my eyes. When we win, I call home and shout loudly down the phone. This time I called home and my dad talked while I stayed silent for a while - I had no energy to speak. He told me he was drained. My emotional and mental energy had been sapped too. But hearing his voice, his glowing happiness over the phone, gave me my energy back and we talked animatedly about the players and the game. None of this felt real. I watched the highlights just to make sure it was.
Getting to a game in London is frustrating. Unlike many other stadia, which are often set in industrial areas with helpful additional public transport, the stadia in London are almost all situated in residential areas. There are no extra Tubes, trains or buses (unlike in Manchester where dozens of special 'match buses' are put on) so you struggle with the regular commuters, poor bastards, who are not that happy to be stuck on a Tube with a ton of football traffic.
Add to that the Fulham ground, Craven Cottage, is quite a way from home for me and it made for an interesting, if annoying, journey. Tube from Finsbury Park, change at Victoria. Infrequent Tube meant another extra journey - Victoria to Earls Court. Then finally a few stops to Putney Bridge. The train was so packed you didn't need to hold onto anything and I was surrounded by 'Is it the next stop?' kids eager to get there. Once off the Tube I was struck by the gorgeous surroundings of the stadium and the 15 minute walk to it. It's rare that a stadium can be reached by a leisurely walk by the side of the Thames, it was quite beautiful I must say. The stadium itself is small, one tier only all sides and not very Premiership friendly! In short, it's a stadium that belongs in the league below.
I took my seat - 8 rows from the pitch, a few feet to the left of the goal, just behind the delicious City keeper David James (who had a bit of an 'England' game for us). We saved our worst performance of the season until Saturday, typical. I go and *that's* when we play like shite. We deserved to lose and we did, 2-1. But despite that I enjoyed being with the City fans and I enjoyed singing the songs, I enjoyed abusing the incompetent adjudicators with profanities and I enjoyed cheering our goal. It was a primal scream, a release and just what I needed to do.
I find that it takes me longer to get over a defeat when I've attended than when I've listened online or watched it on Sky. It's just harder, normally I'm angry and pissed off and miserable and cantankerous for about 90 mins after a defeat, maybe an hour. After I've actually witnessed a defeat... well, I didn't start to feel like I wanted to talk to anyone for at least 3 hours! Maybe it's worse because there's a 2-week break now before the next game. No matter, the match served its purpose - £29 is a lot cheaper than going to a shrink, ha!