Tales From A Top Day In Manchester

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 3 December 2016.

It had been a truly horrible week for football.

There was the desperately sad news that the up-and-coming Brazilian team Chapecoense had been virtually wiped out after a plane taking them to a game in Medellin in Colombia had crashed. The football world was in mourning and rightly so. What sad news. The club will forever be linked to the names of Torino and Manchester United, fellow football clubs which also suffered air disasters; lives lost, teams destroyed.

Closer to home, there was the story involving the abuse of young footballers in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, which began with the brave claims by former apprentices at Crewe Alexandra, and continued throughout the week, ending with the gut-wrenching story of former Chelsea player Gary Johnson having suffered ritual abuse by a Chelsea employee, former scout Eddie Heath. I remember Gary Johnson well. He came in to the team around 1978/1979 and I can recollect seeing him score two goals against Watford in September 1979. To think that he had suffered years of sexual abuse while at my beloved club made me turn pale. Then there was the news that the club had seemingly tried to keep the news from going public by paying him off to the tune of £50,000.

These were two of the worst stories to hit football for years.

In the circumstances, our game at title rivals Manchester City seemed superfluous and of little relevance. However, on a personal level, I had just endured a tiring and stressful week at work, and certainly viewed the trip north as a gratifying distraction from the previous five days of toil.

As always, Chelsea Football Club often acts as a wonderful counter-balance to the humdrum of our daily routines.

At 6.30am I collected PD and we headed north. He too had endured a tough old week at work. We soon came to the conclusion that although a win would be unbelievably fine, a draw at Eastlands would suffice. I was under no illusions that this would probably be our toughest away game of the season. Manchester City are arguably the richest club in the world. They have one of the brightest managers in the world. And they are clearly blessed with some of the league’s star players.

This would be a tough nut to crack.

We picked up Dave en route at Stafford train station; the last time I did this was before the Gerrard “slip” game at Anfield in 2014. We reminisced and hoped for a similarly positive outcome. Dave was in agreement too, though; a draw would be just fine.

I ate up the miles, drifted around the Manchester orbital, and made my way through the red brick terraced streets of Denton and Gorton. We were parked up at about 11.15am. The weather was mild. The grey skies of Manchester were so familiar. The roof supports of the City stadium were away in the distance. It was a familiar walk along Ashton New Road, past the sparkling City training complex, possibly the most impressive sports facility of them all. Sheikh Mansour has certainly made his mark on this particular part of inner-city Manchester.

On every trip to the Etihad, there seems to be new décor splashed on the walls and spirals outside. City are no longer the club of locals; a display advertised supporters clubs from all over the world.

Timperley, Ancoats, Cheadle, Hyde but also Scandinavia, Malaysia, San Francisco and Ghana.

A quick chat with Kev from Edinburgh, and a few others, and then inside. There is the usual severe security check at City. I had to plead with the chief steward to allow me to take my camera in. I’d have to be a bit wary though; a game of cat-and-mouse would certainly take place.

We had heard that Cesc Fabregas was in for Nemanja Matic. It was our first team change in two months. We presumed an injury to Matic had forced Conte’s hand. It might have caught Guardiola by surprise; no doubt he was expecting the usual suspects.

There were many familiar faces in the middle tier at the Etihad. Everywhere I looked were friends from near and far. We may be – gulp – one of the biggest clubs in the world these days (this still sounds preposterous to me) but it is lovely that there is still a close-knit and homely feel to our support, especially at domestic away games.

Kev, Bryan, Julia, Tim, Tom, Ian, Kev, Tim, Maureen, Stan, Cathy, Dog, Becky, Fiona, Ronnie, Rob, Callum, Pam, the two Robs, Alex, John, Alan, Gary, David, Allie, Nick, Glenn, Karen, Alex, Adam, Nick, Paul; plus the supporters without names, those you only know on nodding terms. It’s great. The away club.

Last season at the corresponding fixture, there was Argentina ’78 style tickertape announcing the opening of the new third tier but as the teams entered the pitch just prior to the 12.30pm start, City’s support seemed quite subdued. The PA was loud and drowned out conversations. Down below however, in the shared lower tier, City flags were waved furiously. Elsewhere, empty seats were discernible. City’s support has always held strong, but it has been severely tested with the building of extra tiers. I have a feeling that the third tier at the other end, intended to bring a capacity up to around 62,000, might be shelved for the foreseeable future.

The minute of silence, announced in both English and Portuguese, for the dead of Chapecoense was perfectly observed.

What a tight and enjoyable first-half. City no doubt edged it but we played some super stuff at times. Very soon into the game, maybe after a quarter of an hour, I turned to PD and said “we’re doing OK here.” And we were. City were continually asking questions of us with their quick and nimble players De Bruyne, Silva and Aguera darting in and around our box, but we were able to hold firm.

Although the away support is split over three levels at City, we were all doing our best to rally behind the troops. There was even a raucous “OMWTM” up above, which we were happy to join in with.

I loved the way that David Luiz broke up many City attacks with an interception by head and foot; but not an agricultural hoof up field. Instead, a gently-cushioned touch to a nearby team mate. He was at his best. He has been tremendous since his two years away in Paris.

Eden Hazard came close from distance, with a low shot just missing its intended target. Our movement of the ball was pleasing me. We were keeping the ball, getting City to chase after us.

However, as the half continued, City caused us more and more problems. Aguero forced a fine save from Thibaut. Out wide, they were doubling up and exposing us. De Bruyne whipped in a few perfect crosses. We were getting edgy in the away end. Fernandinho headed home from a De Bruyne free-kick but was adjudged to be off-side.

“Phew.”

Aguero broke down below and Luiz challenged.

The home fans were incandescent with rage that the referee saw nothing. I bobbled nervously on tip-toe.

Another “phew.”

Victor Moses was cruelly exposed and Silva was able to run in behind him, but thankfully Gary Cahill threw himself and the kitchen sink at Aguero’s shot.

Another “phew.”

Just as the half was nearing completion, a Jesus Navas cross caused panic inside the box. This time, Cahill’s kitchen sink diverted the ball past Courtois and in to the net, a calamitous deflection. The City fans suddenly woke up. They had been ridiculously quiet – Everton standards – all game, but at last they were involved.

“We’re not really here. We are not. We’re not really here.”

Indeed.

At the break, I was praising a fine game, but others were surprisingly down beat. I thought we were in it. None of our players were playing poorly. I was hopeful for my predicted draw, but surely not much more. On the TV screen was former City goalkeeper Alex Williams, who was in goal back in 1984 for Pat Nevin’s infamous penalty miss. On the pitch was an inane competition involving Team Santa and Team Elf, but I can’t describe what it entailed as I avoided it. Such entertainment might go down well in American sports, but the cynical English avoid it and turn our collective backs.

The second-half began and for a while, City dominated. They broke at pace and caused us more problems. Sane fed in De Bruyne but Courtois saved well. Conte replaced Pedro with Willian, who soon shot wide. Some Keystone Cops defending allowed Aguero to nip in after a poor Alonso back-pass but Cahill was able to block. It felt we were certainly riding our luck. Everyone in the away end was standing. Who needs seats? The Chelsea support was good and earnest. We never stopped. Then, another moment of high drama, with De Bruyne striking the bar from only a few yards out. City were wasting chance after chance. Their fans were still pretty quiet though.

On the hour, Cesc Fabregas picked out Diego Costa with a sublime lofted ball that an NFL quarterback would have been happy with. Diego was one on one with Otamendi after he chested the ball in to space with a delightful touch. He advanced, sold Bravo a dummy, picked his spot and slotted home. We went berserk.

“GET IN.”

There was my 1-1.

I grabbed my camera – redundant all game – and took a photo of Diego pointing towards the skies.

Fantastic.

This resembled a heavyweight boxing match now, with punches being thrown by both protagonists. Moses was full of running, and so too Willian, who thankfully chose to run at his defenders rather than across the field, as so often is the case. Conte had obviously instructed him to test City’s leaky defence. The noise in the away end increased.

“Hey Jude” was sung by both sets of fans at the same time.

On seventy minutes, the ball broke for Diego Costa who out-maneuvered a pensive City defender before slotting a perfectly-weighted ball – with just the correct amount of fade – in to the path of that man Willian. We watched, on our toes, hearts in our mouths, expectant, waiting. He advanced and struck early. I was able to see the course of the ball elude Bravo, hit the back of the net, catch a glimpse of the Chelsea fans in the lower tier explode, and then lose myself as I was engulfed by fellow fans, grabbing hold of me, pushing me, screaming praise. The players swarmed below me. There were riotous scenes everywhere.

2-1.

Fackinell.

I photographed Willian and Luiz in a solemn moment of remembrance, holding up black armbands, no doubt thinking of their fellow Brazilians.

This was fantastic stuff, but there was still twenty long minutes to go.

I became ridiculously nervy. I watched the clock continually. I became obsessed by it.

Around me, one name was dominating.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Diego slumped to the floor and for a few odd moments, was sat behind the City ‘keeper midway in the City half as play developed at the other end. I presumed he had cramp. He was replaced, not by Batshuayi but by Chalobah. City rang some changes too; the spritely Iheanacho and Clichy, the bulky Toure.

The clock was ticking. We were almost there.

This was a superb performance. Moses and Willian had run their socks off throughout the second-half, aided by the masterful Luiz and competent Cahill. Diego Costa had produced one of the great attacking performances; he had been quite unplayable. And there was still time for one more additional Chelsea dagger to the heart of City.

A long ball out of defence from Marcos Alonso picked out Eden Hazard. With so much space around him, he easily swept past a lone City defender and advanced. My camera was out now for good. I focused on him.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

He swept the ball home and we exploded again.

I was grabbed by a million different hands, pushed sideways, forward and back, but was able – gasping – to capture the celebrations down below me. As always, the David Luiz leap of ecstasy on top of the pile of bodies, but also a Cesc Fabregas fist pump towards our fans.

Manchester City 1 Chelsea 3.

Oh my.

Soon after, a wild and reckless challenge by Aguero on Luiz left our defender sprawling.

Just as I turned to say to a friend that this felt one of the landmark away performances by Chelsea Football Club, all hell broke loose down on the far touchline. Players pushed each other, players swarmed around the referee, hands were raised. A Chelsea player appeared to walk back on to the pitch from the stands. What on Earth? As the dust settled, we counted up the players on the pitch. City were down to nine.

Rusholme Ruffians, indeed.

Alan whispered “can’t believe we didn’t get anyone sent off there.”

I agreed.

There was still time for Willian to drill at Bravo; possibly only our fourth shot on target all game long.

At last, the whistle.

Top.

We were euphoric. I waited to capture Conte and the team on their triumphant walk down towards us. Conte with a wide smile, hugging Cahill and Chalobah. The Chelsea fans were bouncing, breathless with joy. It had been a stunning performance. We slowly drifted out of the stadium.

A blonde, wearing Chelsea leggings, had been watching the entire game in front of us. She was one of the last to leave. I was just glad that Parky wasn’t with me.

Ha.

There were songs as we exited the stadium, and handshakes with many outside before we met up with Kev and Dave, who had watched all four goals from the very first row of the lower tier. We were all gasping for air. I bumped into Neil Barnett, the match-time host at Stamford Bridge, and I joyfully reminded him of the derisory comments that he had made about virtually all of the first team squad in Ann Arbor in the summer. For once he was silent.

We laughed.

We were both effusive with praise about our win – he agreed that it had been a landmark win – but also the ridiculous turnaround since Arsenal.

I was deadly serious as I looked him in the eye and said – “it’s a miracle.”

He agreed again.

“It is.”

We hugged and went on our way.

PD, Dave and I bounced back to the car. It was one of those moments. One of the great performances over the past few seasons.

This was not from the bottle; this was a special one.

It took forever to get out of the city, but the three of us were delirious. The Chuckle Bus had never been happier. We spoke of how wonderful football can be, and how lucky we had been to witness it.

“Bloody hell, it’s great when we go away from a game knowing that we will still be top tomorrow, even next Friday.”

“Superb.”

And with more hope than expectation I even said “you never know, Bournemouth might even take a few points off Liverpool tomorrow.”

We stopped off in Stafford for an amazing buffet at a Chinese restaurant, just a few minutes away from the M6. It topped off a brilliant day in support of The Great Unpredictables. We were so enamored by the place that we vowed to return. We began planning an FA Cup run involving away games against Stafford Rangers, Stoke City, Port Vale, Crew Alexandra and Macclesfield Town so we could keep returning.

What a laugh.

We said our fond goodbyes to Dave and I headed south, getting home at around 9pm, just in time for the first game on “Match of the Day.”

Perfect.

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