Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Never felt more like singin' the Blues

Vincent and the boys enjoy the win
Three days down the line and I’m still singin’ the Blues – the Blues in question being Manchester City, who triumphed in the League Cup final (or the Capital One Cup Final if you insist on the sponsored version) at Wembley on Sunday afternoon.

Yes, I know that it was ‘only’ Sunderland (which is massively unfair on them), but it was a match taken seriously by both teams and by both sets of fans and which, for those reasons alone, brought prestige back to a competition that, in recent years, has suffered because some clubs have treated it as a sideshow to the main events of the title and the FA Cup.

We last won it in 1976 – 2-1 against another North East team, Newcastle, with goals from Peter Barnes and a memorable overhead kick from Denis Tueart: I still have the press cuttings in a scrapbook.

That was a victory that marked the end of the good times, though, followed as it was by a silverware drought that lasted until the FA Cup final of 2011.

With last season’s FA Cup final defeat by Wigan all too fresh in the memory, the Black Cats’ goal on 10 minutes did nothing to soothe nerves.

It’s a good thing that I have short hair because otherwise I’d have been tearing it out for an hour.

‘No, no, no – not again! Please no!’

I arrived in good time and took my time wandering up Wembley Way, sampling the atmosphere. No silly jester hat this time – it was probably why we lost in May.

Superstition plays a role on such days: coffee in my ‘City ’til I die’ match day mug first thing in the morning is an established ritual.

Up in the gods to watch the gods
This time, with yet more rain promised and greyness already evident, I attired myself in navy cords, a hooded sweatshirt and a home shirt (Zabaleta on the back). This is not a particularly fetching look for anyone of my shape, but since I was determined to wear colours and since I’d already tried the shirt underneath a hooded sweatshirt look for the Barcelona game (which we lost) I wasn’t repeating that mistake.

Then for the City dog tags, the earring and the two rings – one of which, a 1970s enamel crest on a stainless steel band – was given to me as a Christmas present by friends at Fairfield High School for Girls, which just happens to be up the road from where the current stadium is.

That one has enormous sentimental value – I refused an offer of a tenner for it some years ago, when a tenner would have been very welcome – and only comes out for the really, really big games.

A baseball cap (Champions’ League) topped off the ensemble – as I said, no wearing that blue and white jester hat again – together with a Capital One Cup Final scarf that I’d picked up at the Etihad a couple of weeks ago, since it was cheaper than anything that the stalls on Wembley Way could offer.

The atmosphere was brilliant – none of the pessimism and doubt that City fans were feeling last May even before we made it into the stadium.

The only real question on people’s lips was whether Manuel Pellegrini was right to opt for Costel Pantilimon in goal rather than Joe Hart – a slightly odd thing to be asking when Roberto Mancini’s dropping of Pants on the morning of the Cup Final (and then sending one of the junior coaching staff to tell him) had almost certainly been one factor in what happened that day.

If you’re going to operate a squad – and with so many matches in so many competitions in a single season, you have to – then you don’t drop players when they’ve got you to a final.

Anyway, once inside the stadium, a pint of Tetleys was slowly imbibed while gazing outside.

At one point, a Virgin Pendolino sped past in the near distance, on its way north. It reminded me of all those trips I’d made in that direction, glancing to the right as we passed Wembley and uttering a silent prayer that I’d eventually get a chance to see City play there in a final for a proper trophy.

Mike Doyle with the League Cup in 1976
And here I was, on a third visit to the stadium in four years – the second for an actual final.

But however much this is a new incarnation of the Blues, the history remains.

In the fourth minute, in honour of former skipper Mike Doyle, who lifted that last League Cup in ’76, fans stood to applaud the man who died in 2011.

And nicely done by Wembley for putting up a picture of him on the big screens too.

Then, at the end, as I was leaving, people were taking it in turns to ring a very special bell outside.

Helen ‘The Bell’ Turner was a lifelong City fan who sold flowers outside Manchester Royal Infirmary, raised loads of money for charity, and carried a school bell with her to all games, where she rang it with a vengeance.

She stood behind the goal and would chat with ’keeper Joe Corrigan, giving him a sprig of heather before each match.

She was so much a part of the club that she ‘rang out’ the final game at Maine Road and, when she died in 2005, there was a minute’s silence for her.

And back on that League Cup Final day in 1976, memorable pictures attest to her joining the team on their lap of honour with the trophy.

Mike and Helen – just two indicators of how City has ‘no history’, according to some who resent our recent change in fortunes.

Anyway, back to the present – or the rather more recent past, as it is now.

Sunderland’s goal – well taken by Fabio Borini – came six minutes after that tribute, and I spent the following 60 minutes in hair-tearing mode, screaming at the team (and occasionally the ref) and frequently with palms pressed to brow in anguish.

Asa Hartford and Helen the Bell with the trophy in '76
Logic stated that, unlike last season’s FA Cup Final, the opposition had scored early and time was on our side, but logic and emotion are not necessarily the best of bedfellows.

Everything changed, though, inside two second-half minutes.

The Engineer claims not to have said much more at half time than ‘stay calm and patient’, but his charges came out a different team.

And 10 minutes into the second stanza, up stepped Yaya Touré to curl home a miracle shot (at my end of the pitch) from all of 30 yards out.

Then, just a minute later, Samir Nasri gave us the lead with another spectacular strike.

Not, of course, that it was ever going to be comfortable.

Moments of looking fragile at the back were only finally put to bed when Jesús Navas made it 3-1 on 90 minutes.

What a friend we have in Jesús.

Especially on a Sunday.

Now the celebrations could really begin.

Oh, the joy of seeing Vincent Kompany lift a pot at Wembley!

Most of the Sunderland fans stayed for the presentation and afterwards, as we were all slowly trooping out of the stadium, we applauded them and they applauded us.

They’re fantastic fans and helped create a really marvellous atmosphere: a credit to their club and their city.

Not that you’d have got that impression the night before from Tory MP Robert Halfon, who tweeted in disgust that they’d ‘taken over’ Covent Garden and turned it into a “cesspit”.

How dare those dreadful northern oiks come down to the Big Smoke to wreck your night out, eh Bobby?

The public-school educated politician has since apologised for calling Sunderland fans “scumbags”. He, however, remains a plonker.

I joined friends for a spot of post-match partying – although, in ridiculously middle-aged style, I was still home by 9.30pm.

It had been another day of sharp emotions: of dramatic highs and crazy lows.

But goodness: after all the years where what we mostly worried about was whether we could avoid relegation – and goodness, I shed a tear or two in those times – and where, more than once, we rescued defeat from the jaws of victory, how wonderful to be there, at Wembley, to see the Blues lift a serious trophy once again.

And on Wednesday night, I’m pleased to report that my voice has recovered.

Well ... almost.

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