They’re still really here
I imagine that if you are a Manchester City fan that if you were around before Sheikh Mansour’s billions came along in 2008, you must be fairly conflicted by the rapid changes which have occurred at the club in the past six years.
On one hand you have the fact that the club has been transformed from annual strugglers to one of the very best teams in the world, replacing the likes of Georgios Samaras, Sun Jihai and Ben Thatcher with Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure. Along the way they have won all three of England’s domestic trophies, and repaid some of the years of hurt dished out to them by Manchester United with a number of comprehensive victories and taking their title with the final kick of the season in 2012, securing the finest end to a season that England has ever seen.
However, despite the fact that so many dreams have been made a reality by City taking their place at Europe’s top table, there have also undeniably been a number of unwanted consequences. Their success has captured the attention of the far flung gloryhunter, with Manchester City supporters popping up in places where the club would only previously have been recognised as the team which lost to Manchester United twice a season. This has resulted in the dreaded sight of half and half scarves and supporters whose only intention is to buy half of the megastore and take pictures of Yaya Toure using their iPad or the camera round their neck. As a result, the atmosphere at the Etihad has undeniably suffered as the years go by.
I no longer live in the city, but when I speak to my friends who continue to watch the club on a weekly basis, one of the first things they mention is always the fact that the balance between true supporters and wide eyed customers is changing rapidly. I saw it for myself on my only other visit to the Etihad this season, for the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich. More than half of the stadium seemed to be there for the day out rather than to support the team, not really caring about the outcome of the game at all. Indeed, the atmosphere improved immensely once it became clear that the Bundesliga visitors would win the game and many people began to leave early.
The Aston Villa game being postponed meant that my first trip back to Manchester since February would coincide with this crucial fixture for City, so I decided to go along to see if there was any hope of the blues avoiding becoming just another in a long line of successful clubs who had driven away their true supporters as a result of commercial greed.
Steven Gerrard’s slip and Crystal Palace’s refusal to die meant that City had full control of the title race going in to this game. If they could beat Aston Villa and West Ham at home, they would be the champions for the fourth time in their history and the second time in three years. Luckily, I had purchased a ticket some time before these events, meaning I was able to get one for face value rather than having to offer Viagogo the entire contents of my bank account along with my first born child to ensure entrance to the Etihad.
One of the perils of modern football became clear before I had even entered the stadium, the automated turnstile. In true Manchester fashion it was absolutely pouring with rain, and my ticket proved to be too soggy for it to recognise. The steward wearing a yellow jacket inside the stadium said there was “nothing they could do”, and that I should go and see one of the stewards in a blue jacket instead. Having waded through a puddle to find one of these mysterious blue jacketed wizards, they simply walked me back to the front of the queue and told the original steward I had talked to that he should let me in. Mysteriously, there was no longer “nothing he could do”, and I made it into the stadium just in time for kick off.
I was situated in block 111, very close to the away fans and one of the areas in the ground I was told had resisted the invasion of the atmosphere killing megastore shoppers. This was proven to be correct straight away, with everyone standing to watch the match rather than sitting down in silence to film it with some form of device. On previous visits to the Etihad it had been the South Stand to my left and the first two or three blocks of this part of the stadium who created the atmosphere, with the occasional click of a digital camera the only noise that came from elsewhere.
There was also a pleasing absence of half and half scarves and complaining, two of the most common behavioural traits of the modern football fan. It was such an essential game for City that I had suspected a failure to take the lead early in the game could result in some hostility being directed at the players, but this was far from the case. Indeed, as Aston Villa continued to find ways to deny City the opening goal of the game, it simply served to make the atmosphere better and better. The defiant roar of “we’ll fight to the end” had helped City to sneak over the line in 2012, and it received a number of airings in the first half of this contest, this time accompanied by second and third verses of “we’ve done it before” and “we’ll do it again”.
The first real test for City’s support came as the half time whistle blew, with the score still 0 – 0. I suspected that many teams in England would have been booed off at half time out of frustration in this position, but it was not the case here. City were applauded off the pitch, before at least half of the stadium went to kill the nerves by attempting to break the world record for the most beers consumed in a 15 minute period. The most I saw anyone manage was four by a friend of mine called Bezz, although I’m sure he faced some pretty stiff competition from those who had been around for the ‘typical City’ years. I also have to give a mention to the Aston Villa supporters, who are I consider to be some of the best travelling fans in England. They had nothing to play for and had endured another highly average season, but that did not stop them from getting behind their players.
The second half began and City increased the tempo further still. There were no signs of panic from the players yet, but they were well aware that they needed a goal to ensure they did not allow Liverpool back in to the race. With no Sergio Aguero it was down to the other injury time hero of 2012 to stand up and be counted, Edin Dzeko playing as the lone striker, and it was to be the big Bosnian who dispelled any fears of letting the title slip.
With more than an hour played, one of the numerous balls into the box finally paid off for the title chasing home side. It was not as pretty as some of the stunning strikes Manchester City have managed this season, but you wouldn’t have found anyone who cared about that for miles around. Dzeko swept the ball into the net from close range, and the Etihad went absolutely ballistic. If you needed any proof that the club retains loyal and passionate supporters, then surely this was it. I am not exaggerating when I say that even the Family Stand absolutely lost the plot, with limbs flying everywhere as 40,000 blues celebrated getting one hand on the trophy. People were falling all over the place, diving over rows to hug people they had endured decades of disappointment with. Many of the goals I had seen City score this season on television had been greeted with a brief cheer followed by polite applause, but there was to be none of that on this Wednesday night in the kind of torrential rain that only Manchester can produce.
With the nerves dispelled, the blue faithful could switch into party mode. The favourite chant of choice was related to the key moment in this Premier League season, Chelsea’s 2 – 0 victory at Anfield a couple of weeks ago. “Steve Gerrard Gerrard, he slipped on his ******* arse, he gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard Gerrard” they sang, with the Aston Villa supporters joining in and applauding this particular song. While almost every football pundit made out that every neutral wanted Liverpool to win the league, pretty much every neutral I know was absolutely desperate for anyone else to win it. Certainly for the Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton supporters I know, they would have preferred North Korea Rovers to come away with the title, rather than Liverpool doing so for the 19th time.
It was always likely to be the case that the first goal would be the hardest to find for City, and so it proved. The opener forced Villa to push further forward, and City would take full advantage. It was that man Dzeko again who made sure of things just eight minutes later, scoring his second goal of the game and 26th of the season. This goal was even more wildly celebrated than the first, to the extent where I was actually shocked that City fans remembered how to be this loud. They are a club I really admire and I had been saddened to see the sterilisation of their support at times over the course of the season, but there was none of that to be seen here. Instead of just a couple of blocks standing to support the team, the entire ground rose as one to sing their heroes home. If proof was needed that you can be successful without having to turn your stadium into a theme park, this was truly it.
With the clock running down and no sign of any Aston Villa comeback, you may have expected to hear fans singing the timeless classic of “We’re gonna win the league”, but not a single rendition was heard. The overconfidence of Liverpool was clearly setting an example, who had been belting this chant out for weeks long before it was safe to do so without it coming back to bite them on the backside. Instead, one particularly popular chant was “let’s all do the Suarez”, sung with their shirts pulled over their faces and pretending to cry. This was also quickly adopted by the Villa fans, who were more than happy to join the party. If ever there were a set of away fans in England that deserve a far better team to watch, then truly it is Aston Villa.
Stevan Jovetic has not had much of a chance at City this season, but he was an important part of the victory here. Dzeko scored the opener just minutes after he came on and added an additional threat, and it was the former Fiorentina man who made things even more secure by scoring the third goal in the 89th minute. Going topless in the Manchester rain is a bold move for anyone, but such was the joy of the striker that he probably didn’t even notice it. The rain was so bad that the third goal was followed by an announcement warning supporters to be careful on the way home, as “large puddles have collected around the stadium”. The response of the fans to this was to chant “We only sing when we’re swimming” and “City’s swimming home” to the tune of the Euro 96 classic. Good humoured and spontaneous chanting was a feature of City’s support back in their days of struggle, and it was pleasing to see that this has not been lost completely with the sense of humour loss that often comes with being a successful club.
Moments later Yaya Toure would complete the rout, a rampaging run through several Villa defenders ending with a fine finish and a full time score of 4 – 0. I believe Toure to be the best player in the Premier League, capable of more damage to an opposition midfield than the results of a Jeremy Kyle DNA test can be to a relationship.
As the fans headed off into the night with a job well done and a fourth English title nearly secured, I was confident that fan culture at Manchester City is not completely dead as it may have seemed. They will have to be careful, and it certainly seems as if major changes have already taken place, but you can see that the passion does remain on the blue side of Manchester. To keep this intact, the club will have to be very careful not to be greedy with both season ticket prices and who gets hold of the remaining tickets on a game-by-game basis. The upcoming stadium expansion should help with keeping prices low, but whether it will be filled with proper supporters or day tripping trophy chasers will be the real test when it comes to resisting the urge to become a ‘modern football’ club off of the pitch, as well as on it.
Days later City secured the title with a 2 – 0 victory over West Ham, and City supporters flooded the pitch to celebrate with flares, flags and smokebombs. The scenes were so jubilant that my friend Archie even lost his shoe at one stage, but was thankfully reunited with it before it turned up on the open top bus. This will not be the last time Manchester City win the Premier League in the coming years, but it could be the last time they win it in front of a stadium which is largely filled with ‘proper’ supporters. To slightly rephrase one of the most popular Manchester City songs, and for now at least, they are still really here.