First, an apology for not posting yesterday. I’m still struggling with this cold and slept very badly on Friday night/Saturday morning, which made the following day a bit of a bleary write-off. I’m used to bleary write-offs, but normally they’re self inflicted, indeed if I hadn’t had this bug I probably would have aimed exactly for that status via the middle class drinkeries of Hebden Bridge. Not that anyone cares because no one reads this, so I appreciate I’m more or less saying sorry to myself, and that’s the kind of delirium one endures when inflicted with the horrible pain of man-flu, right lads? I did manage to rise from my sick bed long enough to go to the movies and see Their Finest, starring the future Mrs Smog, Gemma Arterton. What a lovely film, rather old fashioned, nicely performed and blending the practical problems of living during the Blitz with a tone of gentle satire to overall winning effect. Also, what a pleasure – a rare one these days, sadly – to visit a cinema where my fellow patrons want to sit quietly and watch the picture, rather than fiddle with their phones, chat throughout, fail to control their spawn, etc.
So sometimes before a match I like to write down some general thoughts about the team we’re playing, memories of past matches, whether I like them or not and why. These critiques can be long or short depending on the opposition, and I have a lot of feelings about Manchester City, so bear with me.
To be honest, the Blue half of Manchester didn’t make much impression on me at all before I moved there. I knew of their existence, and occasionally we would play and beat them – I’ve linked above to the highlights from our Rumbelows encounter in 1991, which I recall watching at University and having a laugh at the bluenoses complaining we’d only won because of the Teesside smog, as though Lennie was using his managerial wiles to call on the elements in aiding our cause.
When I moved to Manchester in early 1994, it was my luck to fall in with a bunch of City fans just as the other team based there – you know the ones, not Stockport County – were celebrating their first league title in donkeys’ years. There was definitely a logic to supporting City. I don’t think it agreed with my Boro sensibilities to follow any team that was successful, and the fans’ belligerence and loathing of the Rags sat well with me. The build-up to a derby match felt genuinely thrilling – this was a proper cross-city rivalry, both sets of fans looking forward to it and all logic flying out the window as everyone believed fully they would win. I caught my first derby at the Crumpsall Labour Club with a City pal – a pound a pint, can’t go wrong – and quickly learned how much of the atmosphere was based on fresh air and bullshit. United won 5-1. And it wasn’t even deceptively close. As soon as SAF’s lot took hold of the action the result was never in any doubt and they cantered to victory.
It didn’t matter. I was in love, and tried to ignore the irony that as I was starting to attend Maine Road on a regular basis Steve Gibson was embarking on his project of pumping money into Middlesbrough as the dream days of Bryan Robson’s aegis began. City were pretty dreadful, truth be told. The haunted, trapped in headlights look of Brian Horton wasn’t good enough for new Chairman, Francis Lee, and he was replaced with Lee’s old buddy, Alan Ball, for the 1995/96 season. Ball, squeaky voiced and carrying a reputation for mixed fortunes in management, oversaw a year that ended in relegation and the growing cult of Georgi Kinkladze, in reality a poor man’s Juninho who was naturally insisted upon as being better than Cantona. Perhaps in terms of pure skill he was the superior footballer, perhaps, though he had little of Eric’s heart and a fraction of ‘the kings’s’ force of personality. I was no United fan, but it was impossible not to love Cantona. When he retired, I wrote an article about him for the student magazine at Manchester Metropolitan University, for whom I was working at the time. Of course, none of this meant anything to City. As United’s successes aimed for the stratosphere, culminating in their European Cup victory, City endured years of ignominy and spent a season in the third tier, struggling to go back up at the first attempt. Their eventual win in the playoff final was tinged with black humour, as they only forced the match into extra time through two very, very late goals and prevailed ultimately on penalties. Manchester City, never making it easy for their supporters when dragged out drama and soul searching would do.
Even their ground was a bit of a laugh. I loved the sheer crapness of Ayresome Park and always relished standing in the Holgate, sharing the delights of winning 6-0 against Leicester (whatever happened to them, huh?) and the ignominy and gallows humour that came with losing 5-1 to a Portsmouth side inspired by a pre-perma-injured Darren Anderton. Of course, all that was replaced with the modern sheen of the Riverside, an essential part of the club’s overall renaissance under Gibbo, but neither compared with Maine Road, City’s old home in dodgy Moss Side, its four stands that appeared to have been designed and built by different architects, making for a disjointed and cobbled together effort. It was the perfect home for a team put together in much the same way, and it ended with the club’s move into Manchester’s Commonwealth Games stadium. We all know what happened next. A slow upturn in the club’s fortunes was kicked into touch with money from the United Arab Emirates. Suddenly, City could compete with anyone when it came to signing any player they wanted, leading to the situation we have now.
It might appear that City haven’t lived up to the gazillions invested in the football club. They’ve had a couple of league titles, but the team is still punctuated with the relative failure of being gazumped by others, whether it’s Chelsea this season or Leicester’s unlikely triumph in 2016. Despite having a manager many consider to be the best in the world, and a squad that is filled with football glitterati, they aren’t quite the sum of their parts. But it’s worth considering their real achievements. They are now Manchester’s premier club, which is saying something with United still up there. And they have transformed the area of the city in which they’re based, new buildings and landscaping replacing the irredeemable shithole it used to be. None of it means very much to me, though. I liked them when they were that Laurel and Hardy outfit, demanding attention during the United dream years and delivering season after season of depressing fare on the pitch. I kind of got it. Even in the doldrums City were fantastically attended, and I realised for many fans it was all about unloading their frustrations on the shoddy football served up by the players. Also, Maine Road was pretty near Rusholme and it became part of the match day ritual to follow a game with curry in one of the many restaurants on the stretch. Where do they go to now? The big Asda?
So that’s me and City, a sort of on-off love affair that means I’m always looking out for their results while feeling a curious disconnect with the Goliath they’ve developed into. I have to say I’m not expecting a lot from today. If Stevie Agnew fields any side other than one designed to soak up pressure and counter-attack then I think we’re stuffed from the off, and whatever we do we’re likely to be overwhelmed. They’re a frightening side, in particular their attack that can play the likes of Sterling, De Bruyne, Sane and Silva, oh yeah and Aguero or Jesus up front. Sane especially terrifies me. The lad’s built for speed and I think of him torturing our defence with his pace and wake up in a sweaty mound of post-nightmare tension. They’ll be compelled to go for it too, as Guardiola aims to salvage the team’s top four status from an underwhelming campaign overall. Hey, let’s just enjoy it. When we’re playing the likes of Burton and (possibly) Fleetwood we’ll look back to welcoming Manchester City to the Riverside with rueful nostalgia. Remember when we were rubbing shoulders with the best…?
Elsewhere, a sad day in Sunderland yesterday when their beating off of Bournemouth officially relegated them after an uninterrupted decade of top flight football. Remind you of anyone? In fairness, they’ve been flirting with relegation for years. Late season run-ins were defined by the Mackems changing managers and a doomed cause sparking into life, just about keeping their heads above water while beneath it all the long running problems within the club continued. They’re a bit of a basket case all told. Their wage bill is massive, definitely in the Premiership’s top ten, and there’s been some logic in reducing what they spent this season as an attempt is underway to reduce their huge losses. The dressing room is divided, morale is low and it’s becoming clear that only a wide reaching overhaul will resolve anything. They could be down for a while as all this plays out, probably without David Moyes as the manager hinted he would be on his way shortly, most likely as Scotland manager when Trashcan steps down in the summer. I say all this to illustrate that while Boro have their own set of problems, things here are relatively stable and it could be a lot worse. We could be Sunderland.
It sucks to be Peter Beagrie right now.