Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 21 March 2012.
It’s quite amazing how two football clubs from the same city, with stadia only miles apart, can engender completely different feelings from fans of other clubs. On the one hand, Manchester United, the club of the non-attending glory hunter, the club of crass commercialisation boasting the largest support base in the world with fans from everywhere and beyond. If United didn’t exist, you’d have to invent them. And on the other hand, Manchester City, the under-achieving club with a much more localised support base and an almost fatalistic desire to fail again and again, but now lurching from a history of laughable failure to a possible future of gleaming success. The only common bond is geography and a mutual hatred of each other.
Amongst other things, City call United fans “Munichs” because of the fact that City were the biggest of the two clubs until the tragedy of 1958 turned a nation’s gaze towards the scarlets of Old Trafford. United fans call City fans “Bitters” because of the alleged – and in City’s eyes unproven – perception that City fans are bitter and twisted with jealousy about United’s successes.
So, there is a gorgeous sub-plot to the title race this season and, despite the fact that City are “doing a Chelsea” and assembling a talented squad at break-neck speed, there is no doubt about which of the two Manchester behemoths I want to see suceed.
Once a blue…
Into this local rivalry comes Chelsea Football Club, eager to continue the fine run of form under the temporary tutelage of Robbie di Matteo. Four wins out of four, bubbly and buoyant. A month ago, I was dreading the visit to Eastlands and the home game with Tottenham. Not anymore. I had booked a half day holiday for Wednesday 21st March and I left work at 1pm. It had been a messy morning and I was glad to be on my way. I headed south for ten miles to collect The Laird of Porknockie and we were on our way. Porky’s partner Jill had provided the food and drink; as I turned north at Bradford-on-Avon and up past Bath, I knocked back the first Red Bull of the trip.
Parky was full of chat and the weather was bloody gorgeous. Despite heavy traffic, I ate up the miles. On the packed M6 motorway, we spotted two instances of bad driving which were only spotted late by other road-users. Luckily, drastic swerving averted any danger, but it brought home to me how dangerous our roads can be. At Stafford services, we thankfully had a little respite and merriment from the afternoon’s travails.
We pulled in for a McDonalds coffee just as three coach loads of Arsenal fans arrived, en route to Everton.
And there they were in all of their nerdy and sweaty glory; 150 of North London’s finest, the majority of whom were bedecked in the shiny nylon of the latest Nike replica shirt and assorted accessories. As we entered the main hall, we could hardly believe our eyes. An Arsenal fan of around 50 years of age was wearing the meshed-together shirt, shorts and socks of the Arsenal home and away kits, spliced down the middle, with one red trainer and one yellow trainer for good measure; a Harlequin in contrasting colours. I lamented to Parky that I wished that I had my camera. However, take my word for it, he looked a complete plum. It seemed that Stafford Services was momentarily taken over by a train spotter’s convention. Parky and I were bursting into a fit of giggles and laughter. In my eyes, this was proof again that there seems to be a different dress code for us and Arsenal on away trips. Chelsea have always tended to dress up for away games – or dress down, depending on the viewpoint – with very few away day regulars boasting anything from the Chelsea Megastore catalogue. Chelsea only really wear replica shirts en masse at Wembley and only then, really, in moderation. We’ve always tended to go the casual route; toned down now of course, but you’re still more likely to see a Lacoste polo and a Barbour jacket in the Chelsea away pen than you are with Arsenal.
As we supped at our coffees and pulled back onto the M6, we left the Arsenal scarfers to themselves, playing “I Spy” and pressing their noses against the window, looking at the “big trucks.”
The traffic was heavy between Stafford and the Manchester exit. I headed along the familiar approach roads south of the city and then ploughed straight through to the centre. I zipped past Didsbury and Whalley Range and soon found ourselves in Moss Side, the infamous former heartland of City’s support. The old ground at Maine Road was just a few hundred yards to the east. I remember stumbling upon a superb photograph of the old Moss Side, looking north to the city centre, before the slum clearances of the post war years. Hundreds and hundreds of terraced houses leading up to Hulme and the city centre.
All those people all those lives, where are they now?
The traffic stalled as I slowly headed through the grid-patterned streets around Piccadilly. Jesus had arrived on a train from The Smoke and we had planned to meet him for a beer. As I turned into a side street, the fading sun struck against the red brick of an old Victorian building, making the whole block come to life. The sky blue overhead and the glowing red of the brick. It was a gorgeous sight. I’ve always thought that the historic centre of Rain Town is an architectural delight.
I parked up at about 5.45pm, almost five hours since I left rural Wiltshire. We soon found Jesus (insert punch line here) on the corner of Newton Street and we dipped into a local boozer for a few quick beers. Parky was unleashed on fresh meat and poor Jesus had to stand there and withstand a barrage of “witty” Parky jokes. We were soon suffering from Porkinson’s Disease; death by a thousand quips. I spoke to a couple of local City lads. Their hearts were torn over the Tevez situation. We shared a few laughs and I wished them well for the rest of the season.
Oh boy, the two pints of San Miguel went down well.
It was approaching 7pm and I had to tear Parky and Jesus away from their pints. As I drove the two miles to Eastlands, New Order were playing on the CD player in the car and we quickly gave Jesus a crash course in all things Manchester; New Order, the 2000 Commonwealth Games, City and United. The England / New Order song from Italia ’90 was playing and everything was good with the world. Parky explained to Jesus about John Barnes’ rapping as I steered my car past the canals and warehouses of Ancoats, with the sky blue lights of the Etihad on the near horizon.
“You’ve got to hold and give.
But do it at the right time.
You can be slow or fast.
But you must get to the line.
They’ll always hit you and hurt you.
Defend and attack.
There’s only one way to beat them.
Get round the back.
Catch me if you can.
‘Cause I’m the England man.
And what you’re looking at.
Is the master plan.
We ain’t no hooligans.
This ain’t a football song.
Three lions on my chest.
I know we can’t go wrong.
We’re playing for England.
We’re playing the song.
We’re singing for England.
Arrivederci it’s one on one.”
Jesus was lapping up the local colour and we were all buzzing. I joked with Parky that the Arsenal fans had arrived at Goodison Park and were being advised by the coach driver to find a partner to hold hands with on the walk to the stadium.
“No Kevin. Leave your Mars bar on the coach. You know you’ll be sick if you take it with you to the game. You know how excited you get.”
We paid £5 at a local car wash for secure parking and then headed off to the stadium by foot. Several CIAers will remember the piece if public art called “The B Of The Bang” from a visit in Spring 2008, but they will be dismayed to know that the striking sculpture is no more; it was found to be unsafe and had to be dismantled. In its place are a bizarre selection of multi-coloured shapes, but I did not have the time to ask what they referenced.
A few photos outside. Parky was in the lower tier, Jesus and I were up top. Both in the city centre, in the pub and outside the stadium, I did not hear a single City fan with a foreign voice. In fact, the only voices I heard were broadly Mancunian. I was inside with a few minutes to spare.
I was very dismayed to see many empty seats all of the way around me. Damn. That won’t look good on the TV. Alan mentioned that around 500 were unsold. I’d imagine that the pushing back of the game from the Monday to the Wednesday deterred many Chelsea fans from travelling, but it still gnawed at me that this was a disappointing show. Elsewhere, the stadium was almost full to capacity. It didn’t take long for the citizens of Rain Town to spot the empty seats –
“Sell all your tickets, you couldn’t sell all your tickets.”
Sure, we had gaps in our 3,000 allocation.
But Manchester City have never brought more than 1,500 down to Chelsea in the past 15 years.
It was time to think about the game. It had hardly been mentioned all day. I was more than happy that Fernando Torres was starting. No JT, but happy with David and Gary. Let’s go.
To be honest, City were all over us in the first twenty minutes and I soon realised that the match was starting to resemble the match at our place on Monday 12th December. We simply couldn’t live with City’s strenghth, pace and movement. Yaya Toure was everywhere. He is some sight when he has the ball at his feet.
The North American Sporting Reference : –
I soon spotted a Chelsea fan in the front row of the lower tier wearing a New York Yankees shirt with “Mantle 7” on the rear. He appeared to be carrying on the fine traditions of The Mick by gesturing to the nearby City fans with both hands. A fine piece of switch hitting mate; well done.
The bantering was up and running –
“Channel Five And You Fcuked It Up.”
“You’re Just The Third Team In London.”
“You’re Not Fit For Channel Five.”
“Champions League – You’re Having A Laugh” (bizarrely sung by both sets of fans at the same time, but with valid reasons for doing so, too…)
“One Team In Europe.”
Tuna came and joined Alan, Gary and myself in row H. I didn’t recognise too many familiar faces, though. Despite City’s dominance, the home fans were relatively quiet. All around the balconies were the City banners.
“City Are Back. City Are Back. Hello. Hello.”
“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Joe Mercer And Malcolm Allison.”
“We’re Not Really Here.”
“Making History. The Mancunian Way.”
“And On The Sixth Day God Created Manchester City.”
Gary was at his vehement best, uttering fury and swear words in equal measure. He warranted a PG certificate of his own. I was laughing one minute, blushing the next.
Nasri hit the bar. A terrible pass from Lampard set Mario Balotelli on his way and we all expected a goal.
Miraculously, the Italian enigma tamely shot at goal and Petr Cech ably palmed it around the post for a corner. It was all City in the first half an hour but we had weathered the storm. This was my seventh visit to City’s new pad and I knew it would be a tough game. The first six games had resulted in three Chelsea wins, but three City wins, too. We were looking to avoid a third straight defeat. I remember only too well the missed Frank Lampard penalty in 2009-2010 and the Carlos Tevez strike in 2010-2011. We had offered little upfront though, despite the determined play of Torres. If only the others were as industrious. Despite Bosingwa taking over from an injured Ivanovic, the defenders were solid. I just wished for more invention from the offensive six.
And yet…and yet…let’s not fool ourselves, City and United are the best two teams we have come up against this season. We were in Manchester on a Wednesday night. Let’s take the 0-0 draw now.
And half-time, I met up with Jesus. He was chatting with two lads he had met in Naples. One of them, a chap from Scunthorpe, I had met in Kuala Lumpur in July. Nearby was a Facebook acquaintance, Oscar, from Sweden, who I spoke to for the first time. He is at university in London for three months and loving every minute of it.
Mexico, Kuala Lumpur, Naples, Stockholm. Manchester.
There we are; the Chelsea Family in a nutshell.
Jesus joined our row in the second-half. I love the way he has adopted a Mockney accent during his chanting in support of the boys :
“COME ON CHOWLSEA.”
I remember Peter Cech tipping a ball onto the bar and I wondered if it would only be a matter of time before we conceded. Well, to our amazement and delight, none other than Gary Cahill scored after a corner wasn’t cleared. I was right behind his strike and how beautiful it looked; that deflection left Joe Hart completely stranded and helpless.
I whooped with delight and watched as he reeled away to completely the wrong corner of the ground once again. He needs to buy a Sat Nav that boy. He was giving it large to the City fans and I wondered if he had scores to settle or something. Try as I might I just couldn’t quite get my camera focussed for his celebrations; I was being jostled and tugged, then fell over the steps. Never mind.
Alan, with hands behind him, a la Liam Gallagher ; “They’ll have to come at us nooooooooow.”
Chris, ditto ; “Cum on my little diamondsssssssss.”
Torres was substituted by Didier Drogba. The repugnant Tevez came in to a muted reception. Our attacking thrusts tended to die out. I won’t dwell on the two goals which killed us. The Essien handball was so frustrating; hands raised will always result in a penalty. Aguero calmly dispatched it. At last the home fans came to life. With five minutes remaining, we were hanging on. A reverse pass from you-know-who inside the box found Nasri and the ball was tucked inside the far post.
The place really erupted now and I couldn’t stop myself looking over to the flailing limbs and ecstatic faces of the City fans to my right in the lower tier. To be honest, it was quite a sight. That split second of pure adrenalin when the body spasms into ecstasy. The biggest compliment I can pay those City fans is that the whole lower tier looked like an away end. They were going mental.
At the final whistle, the night’s misery was compounded when we heard the City PA play “One Step Beyond” and I just thought that was below the belt. Maybe it was ironic payback for December. I’d like to know of City play that after every home game or if they were saving it for us. City have now won every single one of their fifteen home games this season. That’s quite a record. Since our win at Old Trafford in 2010, we have now lost five games in a row in Manchester.
As if a late defeat wasn’t enough, we then heard that Spurs had equalised at home to Stoke in the very last minute. Very long faces.
“See you Saturday.”
Outside, the locals were full of song as Parky and I walked back to the car. More Manc faces, more Manc voices. The only foreign voices I had heard all night were those of Jesus and Oscar.
There are new tram lines being built in many of the streets around Eastlands at the moment and there was some slow-moving traffic as a result of this. We slowly headed east past an unending array of fish and chip shops, pubs and pizza parlours. We stopped for an Unhappy Meal at the Droylesden McDonalds and eventually joined the rest of the Chelsea traffic heading south. Parky was soon asleep, but I was listening to more songs from New Order as the M6 traffic grinded to a halt. The motorway was closed at Stoke and we were delayed further. It was turning into a nightmare trip. The only good news was that Liverpool had lost at Loftus Road. Big deal, eh?
Eventually, after another McCoffee stop at Strensham, I dropped Parky off at 3am and I was home by 3.30am, some five and a half hours after getting into my car in Manchester.
It had been a long night.