My friend N–, with whom I’ve been going to watch Manchester City for the past eight years, was worried about the Queens Park Rangers match. He was concerned not just about the outcome – the night before the game, he’d had an anxiety dream in which City’s captain Vincent Kompany was kidnapped – but also that he might not actually get to see to see us win our first league championship in 44 years at all.
N– is an actor and had been in Leeds all week filming a drama for ITV. When he got his shooting schedule, he noticed with horror that he was due to film an important scene at just about the time he’d hoped to be getting on a train to Manchester. But N– is a persuasive fellow and a few days before the match he texted me triumphantly to say they’d moved his big scene. He’d be alongside me at the Etihad Stadium on 13 May to watch what we hoped would be City’s procession to the Premier League title.
Cups for cockups
After 70 minutes of the game, we would rather have been anywhere but in our seats in the South Stand. QPR were 2-1 up, their first goal the result of the kind of defensive howler that used to be City’s stock in trade.
I’d lost count of the number of times Francis Lee’s line about “cups for cock-ups” had been quoted in the papers beforehand, but had rather suavely dismissed all that stuff about “Typical City” (our sublime ability to snatch disaster from the jaws of good fortune) as a crutch that the football writers would have to learn to live without. This team was different, I told myself – too disciplined, too serene, too good. We’d gone to Newcastle the previous week and made them look like a pub team, for God’s sake.
Hubris? It felt like it as City threw themselves ineffectually against an unyielding nine-man Rangers defence not noticeably weakened by the expulsion, after 55 minutes, of that absurd pantomime villain Joey Barton. N– had gone quiet.
I squeezed his arm consolingly and whispered that we could still do it. Twenty minutes to score two goals. Hadn’t we scored lots of goals in the last quarter of games this season?
He didn’t look convinced.
Meanwhile, the man two seats along was raging operatically. “Why do you do it to us, City? It’s always the fucking same.” His companion,
an individual whose face irresistibly suggested the phrase “rat-like cunning”, was sitting (everyone else was standing) with his head bowed, not watching the game. “I need a fag, mate,” he said. You can’t smoke inside the stadium. “I have to do something.” Anything but watch the slow-motion disaster unfolding on the pitch below.
The great escape
A few rows in front of us, our friend J– did his best, Canute-like, to push back the tide of despair that was engulfing the ground.
He rounded on someone who’d moaned at another misplaced pass or unconverted cross. “There’s still five minutes to go,” he yelled when the fourth official raised his board to indicate how much injury time would be played. J–’s father, who’d been almost catatonic with nerves in the pub before the game, sat next to him quietly fearing the worst.
Then it happened. Edin Dzeko, City’s intermittently prolific Bosnian striker, headed an equaliser. And when, in the fourth minute of injury time, the ball broke to Sergio Agüero in the QPR penalty area, N– said something to me. I can’t remember exactly what now, except that it was an improbably lucid appraisal of what was about to occur and that we were going to “do it”. Agüero’s shot hit the net. N– and I tumbled over the back of our seats in a howling embrace. Then the rat-faced man was hugging me. And so was his friend. Someone else was kissing the back of my head.
That morning, I’d read an article by Colin Shindler, who’d said that he admired this new City team, a multinational outfit assembled with the aid of Middle-Eastern petrodollars, but that he didn’t – couldn’t – love them like he’d loved the 1968 title-winning side. Why is it, then, despite
all the grotesqueries of newly acquired wealth, that N–, J–, the rat-faced man and I still care? Another City-supporting writer, Bryan Appleyard, put it very well on Twitter the morning after: “City’s way of winning means, in spite of [the] changes, they are still City. Something in the concept of ‘club’ or ‘team’ is unchanging. And that ‘something’ is what is supported . . .”
He’s right. And it’s quite something.