Wednesday, 6 June 2012

This is how it feels

Thirteen years ago last week, it was the Division II play off final at Wembley.

Manchester City, after a season at the lowest they’d ever been – but still pulling 20,000-plus crowds of loyal fans – faced Gillingham for a place in Division I.

We'd already messed up the chance of automatic promotion – this was a huge match.

With seven minutes left on the clock, the Citizens were 2-0 down.

Then Kevin Horlock grabbed one back. As the clock ticked mercilessly on, four minutes of extra time was announced.

With mere seconds to go, Paul Dickov hammered the ball into the roof of the net to write himself into the club’s history books and take the match into extra time.

That produced no further goals. Penalties beckoned – and ended with City ’keeper Nicky Weaver saving the final, vital Gills effort to take the Blues up.


Fast forward 13 years – well, just short of that anniversary, to be precise – and City were again in the process of contriving to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

All they needed to do was beat QPR on home turf and they would be the English champions for the first time in 44 years. To make things even sweeter, victory would be at the expense of the club’s arch enemy, United.

Unbeaten at the Etihad in the league all season, with just one draw to blot the copy book. Rangers were struggling at the foot of the table.

What could possibly go wrong?

A goal to the good in the first half, thanks to Pablo Zabaleta, the visitors leveled early in the second stanza. News had already filtered through that United were winning at Sunderland.

Joey Barton was sent packing for a series of violent attacks, and hope rose – only to be quashed by a second Rangers goal. The unthinkable was becoming a distinct possibility.

The 90-minute mark approached. It was still 2-1. United were still winning – and would retain the title.

Finally, the unrelenting pressure paid off as Edin Dzeko rose to head home David Silva’s corner. The fans lifted.

Rangers were just hoofing it away from their goalmouth. They need a point to ensure their own Premier League survival. Possibly, just possibly, they were distracted at hearing that results elsewhere have already seen to that.

But no matter. Deep into stoppage time, City were surging forward again. Sergio Aguero took the ball, played it on. Mario Balotelli somehow managed to stretch out his foot while on the ground and guide it back into Aguero’s path.

The crowd was rising; hoping, praying, pleading.

Aguero shot – and the ball went beyond Paddy Kenny into the QPR goal.

It was 3-2. It was mayhem. Bedlam. With almost the final kick of the game, deep into the sarcastically named ‘Fergie time’, City had won. City were champions.

City are champions.


That day at Wembley, 13 years past, I was in the press box. It was during my days as a sports hackette, so while I saw plenty of live football, I hadn’t watched a City match for years as a fan.

The press box was fuller than usual for such a lowly fixture. I’d bought a match day t-shirt and a flag on Wembley Way, stashing the latter in my bag alongside a baseball cap.

Colours are not permitted in press boxes. The flag was kept, furled, on a shelf in the press lounge for me by a lovely lady on the bar who knew me from previous visits.

Notebook, programme, team sheet and pen laid out on my desk as usual, I was professionalism incarnate. Beneath the table, hidden from view, my legs took on a life of their own, scarcely stopping in the only physical reaction to the unfolding drama on the pitch.

At 2-0 down, despondency. After Horlock’s goal, the consolation of thinking: ‘At least I’ve seen us score at Wembley’.

As Dickov equalised: ‘Keep calm, keep calm’, legs doing a jig in the dark.

When Weaver saved and embarked on his charge of delight around the pitch, the press box erupted. Three quarters were City; journalists calling in favours, pleading for the chance to be there.

An elderly man in a flat cap, a couple of seats down at the end of my row, stood triumphantly, opening his battered old mackintosh to reveal a sky blue and white barred scarf.

The journalist next to me, with whom I’d exchanged barely a word during the entire game, hugged me. I hugged him back.

Later, with the press lounge all but empty, I reclaimed my flag, nipped into the ladies to change into the t-shirt, and headed off into Wembley proper.

At the first bar I came to, I was welcomed by fellow Blues, and didn’t move for some hours.

By the time I did, the trains had stopped for the night. I managed to get a cab. The young, Asian driver asked if I fancied sticking my flag out of the window to fly it back all the way to Hackney.

It was a perfect thing to do as we drove through the drizzling night.

Getting in, I apologised to The Other Half. “Do you really think I expected you home early after that?” he said with a tone of amusement.


Back to 13 May this year. No longer a sports hackette, I made my way by train to Manchester in the morning, ready to do my best as part of the collective 12th man.

The nerves had been jangling for days. Chatting with other fans at the stadium, it seemed that I alone was a mess of internal butterflies.

Is it apt to say, here: ‘I told you so’?

I got my programme – and an extra one for safety’s sake. I had a pint, went to the loo at least three times, and then took my seat.

Tony, next to me, was earlier than usual too. In late middle age, with a wry Lancashire humour and a quiet, dry delivery, he commentates throughout games, talking to the players as though they were his sons and he was coaching them.

Zabaleta’s goal went in. The nerves stayed put.

‘Please, please could we have another to settle the nerves – please?’

Half time – another visit to the ladies.

And then the drama of the second half. Anger with Barton’s thuggery coupled with hope at the benefits of having a man advantage; then hope dashed again.

My head wasn’t quite in my hands, but I was slumped, physically and emotionally; dreading the journey home; dreading moving; dreading having to communicate with anyone, whether they were commiserating or gloating.

In 38 years, I have cried over relegations – and there have been a few – and laughed at the absurd, magnificent self-deprecating humour of my fellow fans.

But for so much of that time, dreams of winning pots had been distant. The space of a few years – and the investment of wealthy owners – had changed that. I’d learned to dream again.

It was almost tangible, the sense of belief that we could finally put paid to the decades of having our noses rubbed in it by Salford United. It was within our grasp – destiny entirely in our own hands …

But then we just had to go and rediscover being ‘typical City’.

Except that this turned out to be a different ‘typical City’.

‘Typical’ to make everyone suffer – to eke out the drama to the very last drop. But no longer ‘typical’ in that old losing mentality.

The pressure was almost constant.

The stats later showed that City had 62% of the possession, and 35 shots on goal versus QPR’s three. Of those, 24 were on target. We had 19 corners to their none.

The second half was played out at my end of the stadium. I was side on to the goal that Kenny and his teammates defended with such determination.

Silva stepped up to swing in his corner just below me. Dzeko headed home in full view.

Hope. A little bit of hope.

Tony’s wife, on the other side of him, had given up a good 10 minutes before.

Tony – god love him – had not.

The next attack came in. And then the next one. Nigel de Jong to Augero, to Balotelli and back to Augero; the skip past former City player Nedum Onuoha, and the shot rifled past two defenders and beyond Kenny’s outstretched hand.

We rose, almost in slow motion, as one. Tony, usually so quiet, was ebullient. Mass hugging broke out.

Arms aloft, I screamed. It was a scream of the end of frustration, the end of ridicule; a scream of utter and complete joy, and it was joined to 40 odd thousand other such screams.

The big screens at opposite corners of the stadium suddenly became a clock and counted down that 44 years. Another roar as they hit a great big, fat, fabulous 0.

Agony to ecstasy in three minutes flat.

If you’d scripted it, you’d have been told it was unreal; the stuff of Boy’s Own, of Roy of the Rovers, of fantasy.

But it happened. Legend was written, history changed. And I was there to see it and to experience it.

‘We won the league in Fergie time, we won the league in Fergie time’, was the song by the time fans started leaving the stadium after the presentation.

My voice was gone for two days after. It took the rest of the following week for it to fully recover.

After meeting friends outside briefly for a group hug, and photos in front of the #champions logo in the club store window. Then I made my way back into the city centre and to the station.

The train journey was hardly purgatory after seeing Vincent Kompany raise the trophy.

Indeed, it was more like a traveling party. And I was still home earlier – and closer to sobriety – than after the Gillingham game.

In the days that followed, congratulations flowed in from fellow football fans – and also from people with no interest at all in the game, but who had not failed to be caught up in the final moments of drama.

And that makes you realise why sport can be so momentous; because it’s drama – real, unpredictable drama, with the added dimension of a passionate attachment to your own team.

I was asked too whether I’d blubbed at the end. I didn’t: just that massive, massive scream.

Although I admit, watching the highlights since, that my stomach knots in the final minutes and my eyes prick – even though I know the outcome; can remember every miniscule detail.

It is the remembered emotion that returns. Remembered emotion the likes of which you so rarely experience.

Here we are, nearly a month on, and the buzz has not gone. In the terminology of these past few days, long may it reign.

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