Thursday, April 10, 2014

BAD TO THE BONE



Cort McMurray gets his teeth into a decent Villains Tale

***

Every good story needs a villain.

If there has been one disappointment in this thrilling season – an early exit from both the Champions League and the FA Cup don’t count as disappointments; consider them a cosmic tax on all the good things that have happened – it is the lack of a good counterpoint, someone malevolent and conspiring, someone skilled enough, someone determined enough to threaten all of our hopes and dreams.  Harry Potter must have his Voldemort, Luke Skywalker his Darth Vader, Milton’s Adam and Eve must be hounded by Lucifer’s Rebel Angels. No bad guy to vanquish, and the narrative arc is ruined: you may have success, but you’ll never know Victory.

Which is why I love Luis Suarez.

All of our old nemeses have gone, at least for this season.  Admit it: it’s not nearly as much fun taking pleasure in United settling into the soft brown ooze of mid-table ignominy with their current brain trust manning the ship, as it would have been had Sir Alex been at the helm.  For years David Moyes roamed the sidelines for Everton, square jawed and steely eyed, and we assumed he was filled with Grit and Indomitable Spirit. Eight months in at Old Trafford, and that same expression fairly screams, “Did I leave the iron on at home? I think I left the iron on!” His guilty, stooped shouldered sulk into the stands during City’s most recent evisceration of the Red Devils, a lap dog who’d just done a Bad Thing on the living room carpet, brought no joy, no visceral sense of triumph, to City supporters. Afterward, he actually expressed admiration for City’s style on the pitch! There was no defiance, no rancor, no “noisy neighbors”dismissiveness to stir our outrage. Overawed and submissive, he might as well have been managing Torquay United.

It’s a far cry from May 2012, when Dzeko and Aguero and the boys were fashioning a miracle, and, split screen, we were watching Fergie, all manic gum chewing and burst capillaries, wandering disbelieving in Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, doing an impromptu one man version of “Downfall”. It was a glorious moment, a deeply satisfying moment, heroes accomplishing the improbable on one side of our television screens, the source of all of our misery and woe set to stew in humiliation on the other. Every good story needs a villain.

Fergie’s gone, replaced by a grocery clerk. José Mourinho for a moment looked like a worthy adversarial successor. He was dismissive and outrageous, and his team of plucky ponies seemed a serious threat.  But like Chelsea itself, The Special One is a mere pretender, a caricature, not a real threat. With his Arafat beard and his open collar shirts under Armani suits and his penchant for talking crazy talk, Mourinho looks increasingly like the second runner-up in a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lookalike contest. His Mussolini pout doesn’t help.

That leaves Liverpool. (The other “top clubs” are nothing much: Wenger, like his club, just seems tired, and really was never the kind of manager to stir more than quiet respect in his opponents. Poor Spurs, twirling in Bedlam, have pinned their hopes and dreams to the back of one Emmanuel Adebayor, which from most City supporters can only elicit a mixture of commiseration and pity. Everton is soaring high on goofus dust and positive feelings; there’s nothing dark and villainous rising from Goodison Park).

Brendan Rodgers, Boy Wonder, is all Earnestness and Sincerity. Rooting against him is like loudly expressing your hatred of the color beige. Steven Gerrard is, literally, an altar boy: Sure, he may sneak the odd sip from the sacramental wine and get into the occasional scrap, but he’s a decent enough lad. Between them, they generate as much passion in their opponents’ supporters as a large bowl of mashed potatoes.

Every good story needs a villain. Finally, at the end of this long season, Fate’s tumblers have turned and everything is in place.  The poseurs, the pretenders, the Unreadys, are a low background rumble.  It is Liverpool and City, Sky Blue against Scarlet, our heroes massed against the last obstacle to Victory.  It is Us versus Luis Suarez.

Ah, Luis Suarez!  El Gran Mordedor. Lemur eyed Suarez, with his Peter Lorre shiftiness and his uncanny knack for scoring goals. Conniving Suarez, the man who shamelessly put forth “El Mano del Diablo” in the 2010 World Cup, effectively eliminating loveable underdogs Ghana from the competition, utterly graceless in victory, cackling in triumph as Asamoah Gyan’s penalty deflected off the crossbar. Bigot Suarez, whose benighted view of race relations (“I don’t speak to Black people”) makes one wonder if UKIP has opened an office in Montevideo. Suarez, talented, scheming, contemptible Suarez, a villain worthy of Milton, or at least Rowling. This is our new Fergie. This is the man we need to vanquish.

I just hope he doesn’t take a bite out of David Silva when we do.

You can follow Cort on Twitter here

Friday, April 4, 2014

CITY V SOUTHAMPTON: GALLERY

Front cover of Match Weekly, featuring Steve Daley, making his debut against Southampton 1979-80 season. Seen here pulling away from Graham Baker, later to sign for City from the Saints. This match also marked the debut of Stuart Lee
Joe Jordan goes up to challenge Alex Williams, as Kenny Clements and Mick McCarthy add their support during a 0-3 drubbing at The dell in season 85-86. Saturday 7th September 1985.
Hassan Kachloul shields the ball from Alf Inge Haaland in a stultifying 0-1 home defeat for the Blues in 1990-00
Terry Phelan scores City's goal in a rain soaked encounter in season 93-94. the match ended in a 1-1 draw on Tuesday 28th December 1993
Steve Moran scores one of his hat-trick in 1982-83, as Tommy Caton arrives too late. 1-4
Shaun Goater holds onto possession with a young Joey Barton in support in the last ever match at Maine Road
David Phillips and Paul Simpson celebrate the winner in the home game in 1985-86 (1-0)
Sunday Express cutting from 1978-79 and a two-one home defeat which included an own goal from City midfielder Colin Viljoen. Saturday 9th December 1978
Shaun Goater waves goodbye as the last game ever to be played at Maine Road comes to a typically unsatisfactory ending. Saturday 10th May 2003. Not a dry eye in the house.
Alan Ball waves a finger at Kevin Bond as Southampton defeat city 2-1 at the Dell to top the table and stop City doing the same thing. Saturday 6th February 1982. Bobby McDonald got City's goal.
Richard Jobson keeps one step ahead of James Beattie in the League Cup encounter (0-0) in 1999. Wednesday 15th September 1999. Southampton won a scintillating replay 4-3 at The Dell.
Daily Mail report on the 93-94 clash at Maine Road, with picture showing Terry Phelan wheeling away at the North Stand end after scoring City's goal in a 1-1 draw.
Kevin Reeves gets his shot away at a sunny Maine Road in the 1981-82 season, watched by future City midfielder Graham Baker and team mate Martin O'Neill.
Paul Dickov leaves future City left back Wayne Bridge for dead in the clash at The Dell in 2000-01
 Mark Kennedy and Kevin Horlock initiate a left wing attack in September 1999 at Maine Road
Gerry Gow smacks home one of City's goals in the 3-0 home win in season 1980-81


Thursday, April 3, 2014

SOUTHAMPTON TIMES TWO

Two Matches from One Season: 
Southampton 1980-1981

Saturday 18th August 1980 A long and tedious trip down to the South Coast for City fans wanting to see how Malcolm Allison's expensively assembled side would fare in the new season. The Opening Day, always one of the most eagerly anticipated, matched City against a home side featuring ex-City men Mike Channon and Dave Watson, future City men Graham Baker and Ivan Golac plus Kevin Keegan, here making his second football league debut after a spell abroad at Hamburger SV. City, ill prepared after a home thrashing by Legia Warsaw in the final pre-season game of the summer, continued where they had left off against Kaziu Deyna's old team mates (that match had been organised as part of Deyna's transfer the previous season from Legia to City). Listless and lifeless, the Blues were the bit part actors in the Grand Opening Show for Keegan and his men.


It was Mike Channon, of all people, who stole the limelight, however, scoring both goals in a blistering first half. Channon had endured a torrid two years at Maine Road, ending in acrimony as Allison picked on him and other big name stars as the underperformers who had to be shipped out to allow him to create his new City. Watson too had departed under a cloud and this ultimately easy win would have put a smile on both their faces. Allison was not smiling at all. Calling his side's performance a disgrace, he confided to the Mirror's Bob Russell "We were only fifty percent competent".

This was perhaps being kind to a City side containing the unlikely talents of Paul Sugrue, one of Big Mal's purchases on a whim from non-league Nuneaton Borough. A seemingly competent back four of Ranson, Caton, Reid and Power was given the complete runaround by Southampton and only two late chances for Dennis Tueart and Kevin Reeves, gave any glimpse of what City were capable of. This torrid opening game would lead to a 4-0 home reverse by Sunderland, immediately putting Big Mal under severe pressure as the season got underway. 

By Saturday November 15th 1980, much had changed. Allison had been sacked after one lethargic performance too many by his expensive charges, replaced by the avuncular John Bond and his entourage from Norwich City. Southampton had lost that early season sparkle, with Channon and Charlie George slowing after a sprint start to the season had seen them in second place in September. On top of this, Kevin Keegan was beginning to pick up a succession of niggling injuries. City, on the back of three legendary early signings by Bond, in the unlikely shape of the slow moving Coventry full back Bobby McDonald, the mobile threshing machine that was Gerry Gow and the spindly legs belonging to 33 year old Coventry winger Tommy Hutchison, lovingly called Hutchinson by various organs of the press.


In this game the tables were turned conclusively with the visitors, despite a first half penalty looped into the North Stand by Nicky Holmes, overwhelmed by a City side full of the verve and confidence that often comes from a change of manager. Southampton's string of City connections were added to by the inclusion here of Phil Boyer, who a matter of weeks later would head north to sign for City.

In a performance full of the energy and optimism so patently lacking in the reverse fixture, City prevailed down the wings, with a goal set up from the left by McDonald and a header from Reeves which originated in the right wing trickery of Hutchison. Bond's third signing, Gerry Gow, weighed in with the other goal, his first for the club since joining from Bristol City. The season would end in sparks for City, reaching the League Cup semi finals and the centenary Cup Final, where Hutchison would score at both ends, City only succumbing to Spurs after a replay. Allison had said, after the rubble of the opening game at the dell, that his side would pick up and win something. In his absence, the Blues so nearly proved him right.

The two games with Southampton had offered a snapshot of the schizophrenic nature of Manchester City in the early eighties.A hapless, shapeless display under Allison juxtaposed alongside a roaring confident 3-0 win, both against the same opposition within the space of three months.

Those, as they say, were the days.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

THE DERBY KIT

In order to look the business for the Derby, you need to have the right gear. The right gear happens to come from Campo Retro and has just popped through the letterbox. And what an enormous letterbox I happen to have. This stuff could not have arrived at a more opportune moment, as the Blues prepare to face the Reds at Old Trafford. None of that modern polyester nonsense that removes your nipples and leaves you bathed in a weird orange glow, this is the kind of fabric that even Joe Royle's testing frame could have sat comfortably in and indeed did sit comfortably in, in the mid 70s. Here's the proof. Take it away Big Joe.

BOSH. Ball delivered. Shirt pristine. Goalkeeper destroyed.
Now, although I am working on my Big Joe Royle muscle to fat ratio on a daily basis, there is no way I could get into a pose like this without utterly ruining my new top, so you'll just have to make do with a picture or two of what the real life stuff looks like flat on the dining room table. Rest assured it's creamy, its potatoey, it's spongey, its sexy. It's everything you would want from a garment that makes you feel like, just for a moment, you are Joe Royle and you are about to smack that far post cross past Mike Mahoney (for it is he) and his Newcastle mates and into the already trembling wet gossamer of the opposition onion bag.


Follow the Campo Retro shirtmasters on Twitter here and take a look at the information below. If you happen to prefer shirts of another colour, what are you doing here? Then, you have to go along to this place and feast your eyes.

Memories of Tueart, Doyle & Hartford


Even the wrapping paper's distinguished
The devil's in the detail

As if being purveyors of the finest retro football shirts was not enough, Campo Retro are also organising a competition, which will see two lucky winners off on their hols to the magnificent city of Lisbon. As if that is not enough, they have hatched a cunning plan for the winners to arrive in Portugal's gleaming capital city just in time to attend the Champions League final between Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund. If you want to be there when City lift the trophy for the first time in history, follow the details below and get the quill pens out. It could be YOU. Make Joe Royle proud.


Monday, March 24, 2014

MANCHESTER UNITED TIMES TWO

Shinton: no laughing matter
Two matches from one season: 
Manchester United 1979-1980


Saturday November 10th 1979 dawned damp and dark in Manchester and feelings amongst the City faithful  seemed to match the weather conditions. Malcolm Allison's second coming had not reignited the good times, but instead had hailed the arrival of many sub-standard players to replace the stars he felt had passed their sell-by date. Having shipped out Brian Kidd, Asa Hartford and, most depressingly of all, Peter Barnes and Gary Owen to West Brom, Allison's side now featured the likes of Steve Mackenzie, a £250,000 teenager from Crystal Palace, Michael Robinson, £750,000 from Preston North End, Steve Daley £1.450,000 from Wolves and Bobby Shinton £300,000 from Wrexham. Even more bizarrely, Allison would add to the extravagantly priced with low profile players Paul Sugrue, Dave Wiffill and Barry Silkman, odd captures from non league and reserve sides, who were now expected to rise to Big Mal's expert coaching and become integral parts of the next generation. To complete the decidedly unstable cocktail, Allison threw in homegrown youngsters Tommy Caton, Nicky Reid, Ray Ranson and Dave Bennett. What happened next was entirely predictable.


On this occasion it would be none of these names that made the headlines. Both derby matches in 79-80 brought another player to the nation's attention, a player neither in the first days of youth, nor in the infamous Allison how much did he pay for him? ranks.

Step forward Tony Henry.

The 22 year old had the season before turned down a move to Blackpool and was expected to be a bit part player in Allison's extravagant plans, but with the likes of Colin Viljoen, Daley and Kaziu Deyna failing to impress the coach, Henry was handed his chance in midfield.

City arrived at this stage of the season having been knocked out of the League Cup by 2nd division Sunderland and thrashed by champions-elect Liverpool, but with the flickering embers of a half decent home record to keep hopes ticking over. European Champions Nottingham Forest had been put to the sword in October, the winner a peach from Deyna, and there had been signs that Mal's expensive misfits might yet be beginning to gel.

With the game goal-less at half time, it was left to Henry, distracted by movement on the touchline which he feared might herald his replacement, to ignite the match. As the ball was squeezed from tackle to tackle in the muddy North Stand penalty area, it popped out to Henry, who dispatched it past Gary Bailey with aplomb. The 50,067 in Maine Road erupted and the City fans were soon celebrating a second, curled in exquisitely by Michael Robinson. League leaders United had been thoroughly beaten by the end and City, hovering in lower mid-table, could only hope that the season might yet deliver more than the inconsistent fare they had witnessed up to that point.

"Robinson, good try. Oah! Ooooh! That's a goal. To grace any derby match...." - John Motson, Match of the Day commentary

By Saturday March 22nd 1980 and the Centenary Manchester Derby, all hope had disintegrated and the denizons of the Kippax were now fraught with worry that the season might go a step further and deliver the unthinkable: relegation. With United now 2nd in the league and fighting the yearly losing battle to keep up with Liverpool, City began the day one place above the dreaded bottom three of Derby County, Bristol City and a seemingly doomed Bolton Wanderers. As it turned out, these very three would go down, but we were not to know it, biting our fingernails through those dreadful last weeks of season 79-80.

Kevin Reeves at Old Trafford
With few high points since the November derby match and the unequivical low of FA Cup dismissal on the legendary quagmire pitch at Halifax Town, City's approach was more Desperate Dan than measured plan. Few expected the derby to deliver grace and beauty, so much hung on the result, but what we got was still decidedly unattractive fare for Number 100 in a history of games that had created heroes and headlines on a yearly basis.
As Richard Bott opened in his Sunday Express piece, "We had hoped the Centenary derby would be a glittering occasion of pageantry and passion, a day of fine football and lingering memories. Unhappily it never measured up..."

Ironically it was to be Tony Henry again, who made the Sunday papers, but this time for all the wrong reasons. A scruffy match with few obvious scoring chances finally slipped away from a battling City side in the very first minute of the second half.

"All the abject misery of City's season was wrapped up in the crazy cameo which gave United the only goal of a dismal contest" - Richard Bott, Sunday Express      
 In attempting to block a tame shot from Mickey Thomas, Henry stuck out a boot and the ball looped high off his foot and over the stranded Joe Corrigan. United had presented little danger and their title aspirations had looked as sullen as City's own chances of finishing the season with any degree of optimism. City would leave it until very late in the day to save their souls with a typically emphatic burial of Bristol City in a relegation cliffhanger in late April, whilst United gathered strength from this victory and eventually ran Liverpool close for the title, only succumbing on the final day when Liverpool trounced Villa 4-1 to win the League title. For Tony Henry the two 79-80 season games with United would represent isolated and indeed contrasting moments of limelight in a career that never properly hit the heights. He will be remembered as the Allison water carrier who briefly hit the headlines in Derby number 99 and 100.





Thursday, March 20, 2014

FULHAM TIMES TWO

Two matches from one season: FULHAM 1999-2000

Romance stirs by the sparkling waters of the Thames
August 14th 1999 dawned sunny and calm in London. By the banks of the Thames, Craven Cottage, newly restored to the second tier, looked forward to receiving Manchester City, also back in the big time after an eventful season attempting to avoid cowpats in the old third division. City had opened inauspiciously with a home defeat on live tv to Wolves, whilst Fulham had drawn 2-2 at Birmingham. A midweek blitz of Burnley in the Worthington Cup restored faith amongst jittery City supporters that the season need not be a complete disaster. Fulham, with the likes of Steve Finnan, Rufus Brevett, Chris Coleman, Lee Clarke and Geoff Horsfield, were tipped to be strong challengers, whilst City were looking for a season of consolidation after the ructions of 1998-99 had nearly caused us all seizures.

"The only noteworthy incident came in the 70th minute when Collymore went down in the box under a beefy challenge from Morrison. (...) When asked why he was sent off, Morrison said, "I haven't got a clue. Collymore just whistled..." - Mark Redding in The Guardian

Tiatto produces his usual half-hearted commitment
The game was to hinge on an incident in the 70th minute. Embroiled in a bout of pushing with Fulham's star man Stan Collymore, captain Andy Morrison, with a reputation for storing the shortest temper in football under his overstretched shirt, somehow ended up with his tongue in Collymore's mouth. As Morrison received his marching orders, it was unclear whether tongue kissing an opponent had been deemed a bookable or a sending off offence, as Morrison had been booked earlier. "We've had a player sent off for putting his tongue down another player's throat," exclaimed a mildly surprised Joe Royle at the end of a backs-to-the-wall 0-0 draw, which earned City their first points of what would turn out to be another one of those quite eventful seasons.

CITY: Weaver; Crooks, Tiatto, Wiekens, Morrison; Horlock, Jeff Whitley, Bishop; Dickov, Goater, Kennedy (sub used: Vaughan) 

By Sunday 16th January, an odd thing had happened. Fulham, as expected, had acclimatised well to their new surroundings and were well placed in a comfortable 10th place, City, though, had managed to do the usual trick of surprising everyone, this time in a positive way, and lay in an incredible 2nd place in the table, a single point behind leaders Charlton. City came into the Fulham game on the back of a salutary lesson in the 3rd round of the Cup, where David O'Leary's brilliant young Leeds side had thrashed the Blues 5-2 at Maine Road.

"We are not going to go out and meet teams the calibre of Leeds in this division (...) we have to find out strengths and play to them..." - Ian Bishop, previewing the Fulham game.
 "Well, they're hardly Leeds are they, Fulham?!" - Joe Royle previews the Fulham clash in his own inimitable way.
This match hinged on the performance of another high profile player. Whereas the away game had been dominated by Andy Morrison's romantic advances on Stan Collymore, this match was all about the incredible goal poaching of Shaun Goater. The Bermudan striker, with a knack for hitting the net with any part of his body, grabbed a brilliant hat-trick as City kept distance between themselves and the hard chasing Ipswich and Barnsley in 3rd and 4th respectively.

Shaun Goater carries out another unlikely finish, this time over his right shoulder

Taking his tally to 18 for the season with a neatly taken threesome, Goater was busy confirming his cult status amongst the City faithful. Again this match hinged on a sending off 20 minutes or so from time. With City one up, Chris Coleman was given his marching orders for a foul and hand ball double on Goater as he raced onto a cunning through-ball from Rodney Trotter look-a-like Tony Grant (a collector's item if ever there was one) and from that moment on City had it all their own way, scoring another three goals, with a penalty from Kevin Horlock completing the rout.

CITY: Weaver; Edghill, Wiekens, Jobson, Granville; Bishop, Grant, Horlock, Kennedy; Goater, Taylor (sub used Tiatto). An amazing six changes from the side that had played the August fixture.

The season would end in tears for the third season running, but this time they would be tears of delight and disbelief after a roller coaster game at Blackburn saw City promoted for the second consecutive season. Fulham, finishing strongly in 9th, would miss the play-offs by nine points.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

AQUI SE SUFRE MUCHO

Balon. Meta. All you need to know.



We have come in our thousands to stand before yet another high altar of world football. We throng the tree-lined precincts of the Ramblas and Plaza Real with its gothic arches and extravagant Gaudi lamp posts. We cluster in expectant groups and drink in the sights, drink in the Volldam, the Cruzcampo, the Estreladam, drink in the wonderful warm sunlight. Cans litter the pavements where petals once fell. An Estreladam lorry trundles gently up the middle of the square just in case of emergencies. Plastic beach balls are kicked in to the majestic palm trees and flags announce our arrival from every pillar and post. Cafés disgorge aromas of freshly fried squid and great thighs of Serrano ham hang enticingly from every beam. We line their streets in our sweat stained polyester leisurewear where a thousand and one wool-clad hipsters have stalked moodily in their Pedro del Horno button downs. We fill their well-heeled alleys and terraces with the confident calls of Gorton and Collyhurst, Prestwich and Bury where the guttural shouts of Catalan and normally resonate. We drape little corners of this red and yellow striped city with the sky blue favours and prepare our gallows humour for the inevitable disappointment. A pasting? An embarrassment? A let-down? A near miss or a hard luck story? Few and far between are the voices expressing certainty of a two goal win and those that whisper it also slur it. 

Where some decide it is warm enough to have a swim in the hotel’s roof pool (a rectangle of icy water, seven feet by nine feet briefly houses three grown men who should have known quite a lot better. The icy surface is only broken by several ill-timed and haphazardly constructed bellyflops), the rest of us make do with sunglasses and a read of the paper in the gentle spring temperatures of a city coming quickly into bloom.

Gaudi's lamp posts: droopy
Expectations get the better of us amongst the heaving mass of humanity edging its way up the Diagonal to the stadium. We, the scruffy mongrels, filled up on chick peas and pork and Catalan creme brulée are on our unsteady way to the Nou Camp for another kind of feast.  

Outside the giant cliff face of Barcelona’s mythical home, quite a scene is developing as nearly 87,000 people make a concerted effort to gain entry to the same building. The ticket that has been in and out of my pocket all day, just to make sure it hasn’t melted or departed through a new method of osmosis through my pocket and out into the atmosphere, states somewhat precisely General 3 Graderia, Acces 19, Boca 533, Fila 0027, sient 0016. Even with a slow to stationary grasp of Catalan, I am onto it. Happily it also states “only for the visiting supporters”, which makes one feel kind of special.

Just how special Barcelona find us is to be revealed once we have climbed to the top of the mountain.

Do Michel Platini and his band of besuited canapé crunchers, being feted, wined and dined somewhere in the bowels of this cavernous stadium, know how far some of us have had to walk to get to our sients? And all uphill at that! Images of his face come to me, munching languidly on some thinly sliced salmon marinated in the juices of a million cadis fly larvae, as we haul our miserable corpses ever upwards. Only the secure knowledge that we are about to witness one of the crowning moments in City’s history drives us ever onward into the mists of a darkening Catalan night.

The Travessa de Les Corts, once jam packed with taxis, tooting cars and impatient pedestrians, all converging on the citadel, by now lies miles below us, its traffic thinning, its population emptying into the big building with the tall sides. The last flight of stairs becomes onerous and slow, as lungs fail and a queue forms to get back out into the open air. A steward appears, jolly of face, dapper of bib, to wave us on. “Go, vale, vale!” he shouts and gestures that it would be wise if we continue to climb to a section that appears to be full already. All those little numbers printed carefully onto our tickets suddenly mean nothing. Nothing at all. It is like boarding the late Ryanair from Magaluf, but with 5,500 other happy souls who have been at the trolley service all day.

Our sometimes jovial, sometimes serious, but mostly tremendously apprehensive steward, silently
From behind the nets "ripped by City fans"
mouthing entreaties to the Gods of the Sagrada Familia who have placed him here tonight as Barcelona’s sole representative before a rabble of English that will almost certainly riot at the drop of a hat, has bought into the theory that most of us have arrived unwashed and unreconstructed on a charter flight direct from 1983. Looking at us, you can see the area for confusion.

Possessing only Catalan, Spanish and a rudimentary ability to wave his arms, he tells late arrivals to keep on going. We are facing the heavens. We are just under the clouds. There are no allocated seats. My Boca 533 is correct enough, but the rest is as rooted in reality as Monsieur Lannoy’s grasp of a good tackle is about to be. People are just being waved forward and upwards into already packed stands. Bewildered, frightened and in a hurry, the gangways are filling with fans too. Heated words are exchanged between folk who know no Spanish and bibbed representatives of Barcelona who know no English.

When we finally manage to turn to face the other way, the temple reveals itself in glorious technicolour. Only there is a hitch here too. For, we will be the only fans to be afforded the same view you would have watching migrating wildebeest from a helicopter, through a thick camouflage tent. Pockets of City fans are beginning to make
Where the special funds are kept
themselves heard further below in the home sections. Three of our happy band –we already know- are at the other end of the stadium with other optimists, who had bought tickets on the Ramblas in the morning.

** Note to FC Barcelona: wonder if those in the know might want to put some of that Neymar leftover fund into shoring up the old edifice a little and perhaps paying for some English classes for Apprehensive Rùben and his jittery mates in bibs.


But there is no time for trifles like this. The teams are entering the surface to a mass of plastic red and yellow flags. The Barcelona anthem strikes up. It will be days before the dry little military ditty exits my head. As the sides line up the first swell of Blue Moon heaves out over the night sky. We are so high up, this probably doesn't even register to the folks back home, but the tightly packed City curva is in tremendous voice. The home fans will manage two more flag waving bursts after each goal and the occasional roll of tickled applause. I am struck by a lack of passion in the ground. They have seen it all before, I guess. One Champions League knock-out round morphs seemlessly into another and so on until the world stops turning.

The next day reasons for this are revealed. The little red and yellow flags are everywhere. In the old town, at the cathedral, on the Ramblas, at Plaza Catalunya and each one is neatly rolled up and poking from the back of a foreign tourist’s rucksack. Here lies the future and it is wrapped in canvas and speaking Swedish. 

"Is that Messi there...the smallish one?"
I digress. The action has started. City manager Pellegrini is up in the Gods for talking too much (only the dios know what he will say after this one), whilst Gerardo Martino, embattled and possessing the suave good looks of a bus driver coming off the late shift in Asunción, prowls the touchline alongside the thin fellow who assists our manager. Make no mistake, Barcelona are far from past it. Tales of their impending demise have been somewhat exaggerated. Whilst the morning press and its possessed by the Gods headlines are predictably over the top, there still remains enough class to make this Barcelona vintage a tough one to uncork. They still swarm at you with their short passes. They still overwhelm with their quick thinking. They still grind you into making mistakes in dangerous areas of the pitch. Most importantly, they still have an innate ability to be knocked from their feet by the slightest zephyr of breeze and make it look like Hurricane Hadley is in town. Our French stand-up, Monsieur Tannoy (shout it loud) is convinced and proceeds towards refereeing nirvana with his golden whistle and his warped sense of fair play.

Packed at the front, dishevelled at the back
City, hardly the underdog these days, hold on for dear life. An increasingly dogged, brave display begins to grow on us. Not cowed, not pressed back, City are winning corners and keeping possession. Against the owners of the ball. Chances come and go. Lescott upends Messi but the referee is busy filing his nails. Joleon’s trusty old legs are whirring as fast as they can, but every time he slides one in, the little Argentine has just departed. City go toe to toe and do not give an inch.

Again, as in the first leg, we are treated to a referee seemingly starstruck and whistling gleefully whenever Barcelona players go to ground (and boy do they go to ground). At one stage Iniesta lands on the turf, dispatched by an ordinary enough tackle, and lies in a diagonal mess with one arm stiff and in the air, like a board hard corpse. Whilst many of the Catalan newspapers and sections of the English press dismiss City’s efforts as puny, the wall of support from upon high suggests a different point of view. Referee Tannoy dismisses Zabaleta for asking for his penalty back. Messi does his famous little feint and dink routine. All is going round. Kompany digs an equaliser and the brattish Dani Alves immediately skips in for 2-1. Barça are not dead. Not yet. The press, who have murdered them all week, now flush up with hyperbole. It is all about dios and pasión. We have seen great players play well, but we have seen little or no passion. A place swollen on history and self-importance, pumped by thousands of tourists and half-believers does not easily make for pasión. It is already happening at the Etihad. This is the cult of the super clubs.

Amadeu arrives at Plaza Real
City are out of the Champions League, but have acquitted themselves admirably to what had always seemed a gigantic task.

Now they must lick their wounds and prepare to swap the sun-kissed Ramblas for the sobering surrounds of Humberside. Wigan-Barcelona-Hull in the space of a week. Time travelling at its best. Whilst the quality of opposition will not be nearly as intimidating, those heading to Hull can at least rest assured their accomodation will be safe and comfortable, their seats appropriately numbered and their “matchday experience” will mirror the standards expected of stadia in the 21st century. Michel Platini will not be in Hull on Saturday, but he will no doubt be fascinated to learn that even the biggest of European giants can still, it seems, learn some valuable lessons from their smaller brethren, if what the powers that be have turned into a “consumer experience” wishes to live up to its lofty and these days not inexpensive tag.

PRESS REACTION -
 
"Negative point: Manchester City fans again ripped the netting protecting the away section..." Mundo Deportivo

Those That Are Alive (When They Want To Be)   "Those that are dead are City." ... "Messi and Andrés assassinated them..." - Sport

"Nasri.timid. Lescott. Insufficient. Dzeko. Man of the Match."

"Gods return the faith to Nou Camp"  -  Sport

"Impressive support and passion for the team...." - Mundo Deportivo

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Imbiber of Amantis 2005, cold water, black coffee. Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; hapless dreamer, willing accomplice and crafty left sided midfielder.

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