Friday, 13 May 2011

Musings under a blue moon that's rising

In the course of a massively important week on the football front, I've found myself musing, not for the first time, on the whole business of being a fan.

Not on being a fan of the game in general, but on being a fan of a particular club. Note that I didn’t say ‘team’, because the team changes. What we attach ourselves to is the club and whatever that club represents for us.

I have vague memories of nailing my colours to Manchester City’s mast. It was the early ’70s and my new school (all girls) was divided along sporting lines. You either liked speedway or football and, if the latter, then it was City or United. For some reason, I plumped for the Blues.

My mother had little interest in football, preferring rugby league and cricket – her sole concession being a soft spot for Liverpool when they’re winning.

My father is a lifelong Plymouth Argyle fan. During his training for the church, he lived in both London and Manchester, and watched Arsenal, Tottenham, City and United.

So my own allegiance didn’t come from any family commitment.

My choice itself – which followed brief spells as a Chelsea fan (when we lived in west London as the ’60s came to a close) and later as a Leeds fan during the Revie days – holds no surprise for me.

What does surprise me, even now, is how that has lasted; how it has stuck with me, when so little else of my past has stuck. But I could no sooner change that allegiance now than I could the colour of my blood. In fact, dying my blood would probably be easier.

There have been moments – more than a few – where I’ve declared myself finished; that I’ve had enough of watching ‘typical Citeh’ – a well-worn complaint as, over decades, we developed a capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (or at least a draw).

It’s been more than an ability – a psyche, rather, of failure and low expectation that seemed to infect the entire club and every player who ever pulled on the sky blue shirt. If we went a goal down, you could walk out in the sure knowledge that heads would drop and we'd have no chance of getting back into the contest.

And yet in the face of such consistent failure and disappointment for 30-odd years, there was no mass desertion of the club, but a development amongst the faithful of a self-deprecating, gallows humour – and the sort of total bonkersness that revealed itself years ago when inflatable giant bananas were first waved above the terraces at Maine Road, and now has a new form in the Poznan.

This was learnt from Polish team Lech Poznan when they visited Eastlands last autumn for a Europa Cup tie.

In essence – well, this is what the instructions on my t-shirt say – turn around, link up with the people on either side of you and “bounce”.

At Wembley last month, shortly before the semi-final against Manchester United, the teams were being announced over the tannoy.

As the nominally ‘home’ side, the Blues team was named first.

We applauded and cheered, as is the norm. But the norm also usually means booing the opposition players when they’re named.

Something else happened. I don’t know how, but it was almost as though it was the result of a mass telepathic episode: we turned our backs on the stadium, put our arms around our neighbours’ shoulders and, as one report put it the following day, “turned Wembley into a blue bouncy castle”.

The United fans booed. They stopped cheering their own players and booed us. In retrospect, it was the first psychological battle of the day – and we’d won it.

We did it again, later, after Yaya scored and after the final whistle. The players and coaching staff did it too as we celebrated.

If Manchester is a party city, then City can be a party club.

And if you think the Poznan sounds mad, then it gets madder when you realise that, as a shortarse between two very tall blokes, my little feet were pretty much off the floor for the entire time that we bounced.

I’d seen City at Wembley before, in May 1999, when we – very unusually at the time – managed to snatch victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat in the Division II play-off final, going from 2-0 down against Gillingham, with just six minutes left on the clock, to 2-2 after a remarkable six minutes of ‘Fergie time’, and then winning on penalties after extra time produced no goals.

It was in my days as a sports hackette, so I was in the press box: no colours, no shows of emotion; everything that I was feeling hidden under the desk as my legs couldn’t stay still, while I attempted to make professional notes above it.

When Nicky Weaver saved the final penalty, at least two thirds of the press box were revealed to be Blues in disguise. At the end of my row, an elderly man in a flat cap and raincoat suddenly hauled open his mack to reveal a City scarf.

The young man next to me – I have no idea who he was – jumped up and we hugged. It was crazy. Later, I slipped into the ladies, changed into a City t-shirt and marched down the road until I hit a bar, overflowing with fans, where I was welcomed as one of the family. It was rather late that night when I eventually wended back home.

On Tuesday night, we came out on top at the end of a cagey encounter with Tottenham, guaranteeing us a place in next season’s Champions’ League for the first time in the club’s history.

Tomorrow afternoon, we're back at Wembley to play Stoke City in the final of the FA Cup.

I can barely think about that: we’ve not won a pot since 1976 and I’m light years from being overly confident. It’ll be a tough, tough game against very difficult and competent opponents, who’ll want it every bit as much as we do.

It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be there in the flesh. All hope has not quite been extinguished – I’m still clutching some straws – but the ticket allocation from the FA for the match was 10,000 less than for the semi-final – and for some reason, Stoke have received a larger ticket allocation, even though they have fewer season ticket holders than we do.

I’ll certainly be there in spirit, though – and possibly watching somewhere with other fans, where we can ‘do the Poznan’ if the opportunity arises. A City-supporting friend told me today that, on Tuesday night, he had a text from a friend who'd been watching in a pub and doing the Poznan all on his own. Did I tell you we were mad?

In the last decade or so, I’ve shed labels and badges, and refused to be locked into any pigeon hole. The only tribe that I happily declare myself part of is City.

I arrived at the stadium for the semi-final early and decided that, rather than stand outside for an hour, I’d get through the gate and have a drink in one of the bars inside.

As soon as I’d got a beer in my hand, I was ‘adopted’ by other fans. It is extraordinary, this sense that on some strange level, we’re a sort of vast family.

I’d been incredibly nervous, but the atmosphere eased me. By the time I took my seat, I was more relaxed – and had realised something more than ever before: I had a role to play, a responsibility, as we all did, to be that 12th man for the players on the pitch.

I’d never felt that so strongly before. Of course, winning makes everything feel better, but it was a glorious day and experience.

And one of the things that that attachment to a club gives you is the chance to let off steam in a way that is not particularly the norm in our society these days. I was hoarse after the semi, but a sense of relaxation lasted for days.

Whatever happens tomorrow, there’s a blue moon rising. My eyes were a little moist at the end of Tuesday night’s game. I have no idea, if we lift the FA Cup tomorrow, just how I’ll react, but – fingers crossed – it could be fun finding out and I make no promises that it wouldn't be bonkers.

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