by Liz Tray
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. 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. 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 90s (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 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 feel 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 the 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, providing a distraction during unimaginably tough times last year, in my case. 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. For you. For me. 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 dividing line of the match and what happens before it – the white line of the pitch, and what goes on before it is crossed. 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 (that’s a lot in England!). 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.
I cannot even think about our 2012 title win without blinking tears from my eyes. We who had been let down for decades were finally going to win. And we very nearly ruined it. We choked, and then remarkably, United choked. And then, with one kick of a genius boot, I felt like I will never feel again. Because whatever happens next, it will not feel like that day did. That utter darkness until the goal went in:
This clip from that day is a moment that dad and I still talk about, as everything we felt is encapsulated in this few seconds of sheer relief and exploding emotion. Where a huge, shaven-headed burly City fan sinks to his knees and weeps for everything he’s been through, before being picked up and hugged by another man – a friend? A total stranger? It didn’t matter. It never matters during a match. You’re all friends, you’re all in it together:
Winning the FA Cup the year before had been lovely and a relief but was tainted by Tevez having been on strike for 6 months, abandoning the club. A ridiculous situation caused by the over-emotionality of Roberto Mancini as much as by poor player behaviour. When Tevez, and not the rightful captain, Vincent Kompany, held the cup aloft it left a sour taste. Winning the league was as pure as it gets. It will never feel like that again. I wished I was in Manchester that day – as soon as the game ended I got on a train and made it up in time for the TV highlights. Dad and I watched it and wept. The day after we went to a parade with about 100,000 other people. Two weeks later my mum was gone. That’s why it’s all so important, that’s what football gave me. Something else to think about that, along with support from friends (including the very owner of this blog) and family, saved my sanity.
When I get to the 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. 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, 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.
Thank you, Liz, for this wonderful article.