Monday, February 20, 2012

THE EUROPA LEAGUE: A WARM & PLEASANT PLACE

Building bridges
Having failed to either come to terms with or even particularly enjoy the whole Champions League Thing some of us might have been forgiven for wondering about the worth of going through more pain to witness the Europa League in action. Some even went as far as to say that City should hot foot it down the road marked "early exit" as quickly as possible. Do a Villa. Follow 'Arry. It was a waste of time and strength, a strain on the club's playing resources and our own financial resources.

We would really be better off without it, wouldn't we?

I think it is probably safe to say that anyone, who went to Porto to support City, will be dead against anything but more Europa League. A lot more Europa League. This is the sorry tale of wine, dance and sunshine that accompanied us through an away win at the house of one of the greats of European football and the holders of the UEFA Cup, as I like to call it.

Settling in to new surroundings

The Quai de Ribeira is the sort of place, when bathed in Spring sunshine, with its little port barges puttering past, the wine lodges basking on the other bank, Gustave Eiffel's giant iron railway bridge spanning the great divide, with its rows of decorative trinket shops and eateries and the warm glow of sun on your back, that you could gladly call home for as long as the locals will put up with you. With City's game against FC Porto another nine hours or so away, this is exactly what many Blues had decided to do. In this idyllic setting, we started our day, met with old faces and new, turning the taps slowly on what would become a day's worth of Superbock and red wine and wallowed in our sheer bad luck to have been drawn to this beautiful old coastal city in northern Portugal to watch top class European football.

Scanning the local football press proved an illuminating start. In O Jogo João Moutinho was busy stating that "City will have to prove to us that they are the best", whilst Hulk confirmed that "City are one of the best sides in the world". Porto's young manager, Vitor Pereira, also joined the throng, offering challenges of his own, whilst a full page ad put out by the club itself depicted a demented looking dragon clutching the UEFA Cup whilst snorting copious amounts of flame and fury under the banner "It's ours. Just try and get it!". All confident stuff, if a little melodramatic. With 40,000 tickets sold the day before the game, the locals too seemed to be up for a fight, the Dragão's 53,000 capacity coming under serious danger of being filled. City's support along the quays was certainly in good form, as the season's favourite songs rang out from the top row of bars down to the massed ranks of Blues sunning themselves riverside. The Noisy Neighbours were being made to feel very welcome here.

"Manchester's a shithole, we wanna stay here" rang out loud and clear as tin trays and soup spoons were commandeered for percussion practice. It is always at times like these that you are reminded what a fantastic experience an away trip in Europe can be. Old familiar faces and new unfamiliar ones streamed past. A hug, a handshake, a volley of old reminiscences. The place was awash with the good and great of City's bedrock support, with the lined faces to prove what we had all been through to finally merit a day and a half in the sunshine of southern Europe.


The talk of Carlisle in 84 and Grimsby and Lincoln, of trips to Barnet and Wrexham, Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury put this bright sunny place into stark perspective. For so many faces, creased deep by the labour of love, this was like a reward at the end of a long hard journey. As the red wine flowed and the stories broadened out into what might become of us, minds were trained on the job in hand. Would City be full strength? Would Mancini risk throwing Yaya in so soon after he had completed African Nations Cup duties? Would we last it in this heat slogging back bottle after bottle of red wine?

Boom boom boom, went the tin trays again. "Oh David Silva, Oh David Silva, he scored the 5th goal at Old Trafford...."

By the time the light began slanting down over the port lodge roofs on the opposite bank, there could be only one outcome to the day's wonderful meandering melodies. We headed to the trains and coaches, expectation and, in various cases, heavy bladders getting the better of us. A mild altercation in the underground ensued as some visitors became confused by the strange local custom of paying for tube travel, but there was no stopping the flow of merry travellers from completing the short journey to station "Estadio do Dragão".

Watching the plebs getting frisked from the UEFA staircase

Exiting into what was now night, the giant bulk of this brand new stadium (constructed for Euro 2004) shone out at us, it's great open end allowing the first glimpses of the dark blue seats which would soon be occupied by 48,000 bellowing believers. There was just time for the typical modern football experience of disappearing into the neighbouring shopping centre, where Portistas were devouring pancakes and coffee. We opted for ice cream and red wine, which seemed particularly apt at the time.

At this point I was reminded of the large piece of laminated plastic attached to the lapel of my coat. Ah yes, of course, I would - thanks to the doyen of the Sporting Lisbon press box Tom Kundert - be taking in this game from the sweaty ranks of the press! I had almost forgotten. Luckily, by imbibing heavily during the day, I would not stand out too much in my amateurish shufflings from the rank and file of the Men of Letters..

"pencil, notepad.....razor, toothbrush, hair drier, what's this square one for?....."
With a lack of sleep, food and oxygen beginning to make me hallucinate, I took my place alongside Paul Simpson in the press area. Paul Simpson!!! Don't stare, you'll look a complete imbecile, I told myself, as I stared right at him organising his papers. I fingered my dictaphone, as one does in moments of tension and looked for paper of my own to shuffle and organise. Sadly, all I had was a little leather embossed flip-open note pad, which did not need organising, so I stood to take some pictures of the royal view instead.

"Please, Sir!" came the firm but polite voice of a teenage security boy, bedecked in shirt and tie, walkie talkie and UEFA embossed credentials. "Not here for pictures!". Why not, I shrugged. "UEFA!" came the all-empowering one word explanation. You don't need to say anything else, do you? I had visions of that nasty Anglophobe Mr Platini doing a Gallic shrug and getting me thrown out. There was no space for argument. I sat, defeated and put my little camera away. Little did we know, the young fellow would have recourse to far stronger words than that to get me under control later on, when the football excitement would mount towards volcanic levels.

For now I slipped back into my seat nonchalantly flipping the pages of my notepad and checking that my pen was still functioning. Preparation involved writing "Ready Steady Eddie" just to look busy for a minute. Try writing this under the influence of alcohol after being told off for taking photographs, whilst wearing a meaningful expression of serious intent on your face. Ready Steady Eddie!!! And I had even put a row of exclamation marks alongside it.

Owing to the excitement billowing up inside me, I now take shelter in the scribbled "Matchday Notes" from said little book to remind me of what exactly happened. This of course represents an abridged version as there are pages and pages of the stuff:

  • Ready Steady Eddie!!!
  • No photos, you daft pleb. What an embarrassment. Learn the UEFA rules you laughing stock amateur! God, what a start
  • Pudge-bellied City official in ill fitting maroon jumper. Looks awry in amongst hoity toity UEFA suits. Good old City! All the wannabe's leaning into their laptops. Like Blakes Seven up here. Small note pad = deeply embarrassing. 
  • Paul Simpson alert!! Ian Cheeseman!! Looking serious, just tried to sharpen my pencil, only to realise its a biro. Sitting down opposite the REAL Pros!! Alright, gents, how's it going!!
  • Music: "We are Porto, we are Porto", sounds like a funeral dirge. Still checking pen/pencil for escaping lead/ink..
  • Fireworks in the City end. Still party time over there then! Hope there are no UEFA pigmies chasing them up.
  • Balo, Yaya, Nasri all play. Get in, get down, and get in again.
  • Appear to be sitting in tv and radio area, nice man is moving me down a bit to sit with the newspaper bods. At least he's not throwing me out. See ya later, Simmo & Cheesey!.
  • (At this point I appear to have attempted to draw a tiny team formation - very small notepad, remember - but it looks a little like a Rorshach test with a fellow called "Sweating" upfront for us and a flock of caped bats in midfield..
  • Looking through bars. pay nothing, look through bars. Oo we're off....
  • 7:17 Yaya! Big Yaya. Nice to have you back, son.Floating, stinging, cruising.
  • Big Argie flag...big Brazil flag. Something about the Armada. De Jong on Moutinho, tasty! Small v small and only one winner.
  • Barry tidy but risky. 19 is James, not bad start. Constant Porto support. Nasri, woof woof.
  • We're Not Really Here ringing out. Hulk x de Jong big splat. Silva EVERYWHERE. Alavaro Pereira EVERYWHERE. Oooer Nasri - corner.
  • Big Sleepy at near post, Varelaaaaa 17 in case you didn't notice. 1-0 to the insiders. Moderate noise.Gah.
  • Code red from away end! Nordic reporters studying laptops, drinking WATER so calm! Going into action. Take them out one by one. We are CITY from Maine Road.Preparing Blakes Seven tool box.
  • 30:45 Clichy NOOO! Balotelli ooof. 36:00 taxi for James.
  • BIG THIRST COMING DOWN. Weetabix mouth. Fernando clatters Silva. Is this gig working with Nasri? Sort of.
  • HALF TIME. Where's the UEFA buffet. BLOODY VENDING MACHINE!!!! a vending bloody machine.tut and you have to put coins in it. A non-free vending machine....

  • Long punts to Balo - not paying off.
  • 49:18 Richards post right side, oof. Sit down sit down, you ape, he'll shout at you again.
  • 51:10 De Jong-Balo- Barry- Yaya- nice nice....Balo just saved, Atmosphere hotting up HOT level RED again, going wading into UEFA suits in a mo
  • Maicon flattens Balo. City man in maroon pullover's back, nearly went headfirst down the steps. Call for UEFA teenage helper crew.
  • 53:?? Own goal own goal!!! Under the desk punches going in in in. Paul Simpson's watching from the balcony above! Try a hard man press smile at him. Not looking. Turn round. One ONE, get in the old onion bag my son, CMON BLUES
  • Yellow Kompany...yellow de Jong....yellow Barry. What the ... is happening. Its 3 card trick time!
  • Filha da Puta!!! every time Harty takes goalkick.
  • 62:== Hulk thru, cleared away. Clichy UP and DOWN, Up and then DOWN
  • 66:00 Blues starting to get on top!!!
  • 66:52 Helton running around like its last minute. HAS CLOCK STOPPED? What's going on???? Something in his tea? Amphetamines somesuch tripe. Or loaded tripe.
  • 68:05 Hulk touched by de Jong, goes flying rolling. Immediate surgery needed!! Dear me, for a big lad..
  • 69:05 ref playing for us.
  • 70__ Looking at Yaya cruising, CRUISING around. delight to have him back.
  • 72:00 Superdragões have shut up at last. COLD-THIRSTY-DEHYDRATED Vending machine now anything will do
  • Yellow Nasri, dear Jesus. 78:00 Aguero for Balo. Where's Milner? All this way for a press conference. Not on bench!!!
  • 79:00 Moutinho big loopy into stands. Not going for them
  • 81:00 Losing hands, circulation, COLD UP HERE. Found a mint that tastes like those toilet blocks.The blue ones. Micah and Alavrao Pereira 2 BIG athletes..BOOM
  • Aguero sky blue boots!!! oh no Kolarov...oh no!! - for Silva! It's over now. One one.
  • 84:00 goaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaL----- get in!!! get in!! get in!!!!!! GET THE BUGGER IN!!!!!!!!! Air Kissing Paul Simpson. Lips tongues, you name it. Slight ruckus in the press area, centred on....oh, me. Sit down, Sir, or we take you away. This is press area, not supporters. Where's your laptop, sonny? You do understand UEFA pressbox etiquette? So stop shouting!
  • 86 - Kolarov you little beauty! We Are Not Really Here. People leaving all around!!
  • Blue Moon now. Saw me cold in my coat. Still time for 2-3!! Yellow Richards, dear me. Refs from Turkey.
  • 93:00 we win in Europe. Oh boy! Press are leaving at speed. Where to now, nobody knows. Follow the Nordics. Press face attached, dictaphone magic coming up!! "Er Paul, could I have a quick word, mate?" *fumbles with on/off switch like a complete amateur....* ...Be with you in a second.
tabloid hack begins non-football story
Down in the bowels of the stadium, serious people are readying themselves in the time honoured way. They have done this hundreds of times. I have done it once before, in a bare room occupied by two journalists waiting to interview the respective managers of Atletico and Belenenses in the Portuguese 2nd division. This is note pad heaven! In fact there are no note pads here at all, just laptops, mics and intimidating technology. I finger my pen. The auditorium is large and slopes viciously down to what I will call the dias at the front (journalists probably have their own special name for it). The British tabloid crew are immediately obvious. They are camping on the front row. Shaved heads, scarred skulls the lot. A living parody of what they really are. Astonished and blinking, I shuffle into row two, alone and still fizzing from the wine, the cold, the win.. Portuguese and Nordic serious squad way back in rows 12 and 13, just in front of huge array of tv cameras. This is exciting. I'm warming up but still extremely dehydrated. There are leggy UEFA girls in skirts and blazers all over the place. Teenage sit down squad has disappeared. We are close to the stars now, so we usher in leggy lovelies instead. The door opens, chatter stops, in walks Roberto Mancini. Small and surprisingly slight when you are close up in a professional sort of manner. UEFA leggies towering over him. He sits down between two translators. Or a translator and an interpretor. Or an intepretor and a lifeguard. Or a lifeguard and his brother in law. The lifeguard has an old coat and a ridiculous moustache.

UEFA leggy alert. Coming right at me! hands mic to tabloid boys in front of me. I now regurgitate word for word because I am stunned:

  • Scarred Skull: "Roberto, what do you think of the racist chants at Balotelli?"
  • Mancini, surprised: "I no hear nothing, bat eet ees for other people"
  • Skull: "How did the racist chanting affect Balotelli and Yaya Touré"
  • Mancini: "Eeer, I hear, we hear nathing on the bench, nathing, so I don't know"
  • Skull's mate: "Will City be reporting Porto over the racist chanting, Roberto?"
  • Mancini (looking deflated): "I don't know about thees."
  • 3rd reporter: (affecting deeply disinterested voice) "So what chance you go through now?"
...with this the tabloid pack are satisfied that they have asked all the sentient questions they could think of after City's win at the holders of the Europa League. Stunned, I find myself waving at Leggy One for the mic, in order To Restore The Reputation of Albion and Its Fine People. She nods, I nod. A frisson of understanding, deep understanding passes between us. I hear angels, UEFA angels, singing in the distance. One has a harp, the other a mouth organ or a banjo, one of those quality ones, not George Formby, not in the slightest George Formby. My mouth goes dry. I glance ahead. Mancini is waiting. The words on the laptop in front of me are already being committed to text. Match report. It says: "Manchester City's win here was marred by racist taunting....". The tabloid slant. I am cocked ready to go off. The moment is mine. Time stands still.

Mancini deals with my question whilst moustachioed interpreter waits to translate the bons mots
Paraphernalia of a true Football Man
I have the mic in my hand. A big one, with a big end on it. A two hand job to hold in front of my face, like those massive ice creams we'd have as nippers. The UEFA Leggy winks at me, as if to say "Go for it, kid". She knows like I know that there's a football question coming. She is looking at a football man. Her stare doesn't unnerve me, but I grow strong from it. Mancini is looking at me. Who is this stranger, he must be thinking. Daily Star? Daily Rat? Daily Gutter? But I am a football man and my question is a glorious one: "Roberto," I can hear myself stutter in a strange little voice, "City looked different with Yaya Touré back in the side. How difficult was it to put him back in so soon after he landed from Africa and how much difference does he make to the side?". I can a feel a glow all around me. The tabloid boys are eying me with a cocktail of mistrust and disgust. Ms UEFA is shooting me a glance of admiration that is making my underwear smoulder. Roberto seems to recognise a fellow football man and visibly relaxes in his plush UEFA seat. The interpretor is now dealing with my words, popping them into Portuguese for the others to see just how clever I have been. I glance around and nod at the crowd with a smile. "No," he says suddenly. "No player is more important. Yaya is tremendous footballer. No difficult to put in team quick, but no footballer make the difference. They are all good players." I wink at him. His secret is safe with me. I too know that Yaya is so precious it was no trouble flinging him in less than 24 hours after a bumpy flight from the Ivory Coast. He knows. I know. He knows I know and so do I. This is what it is like to be a football man amongst the UEFA legs bigwigs. Supping at the high table. Hob-knobbing with the dandelions. Me, Roberto, Ms UEFA and Paul Simpson. We all know, because we are on the inside. Now, if somebody will just tell me where the UEFA accredited buffet is, I'll hop along there and stock up...

4 comments:

  1. As a City supporter since Trautmann broke his neck, living in Australia the last 40 years, all I can say is .... Good On Yer Mate and may you have many more balmy days like the one in Porto.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's very kind, although I think they already have a poster campaign to keep me out of all press accredited areas near football managers.

      Delete
  2. Brilliant piece, Simon. Wish I could have been there. Roll on Bucharest!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cheers. If it's against United, maybe they could bring it forward to a Monday night. That'd be fun.

      Delete

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Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; bitter, confused and maladjusted. Watching City since 1974 with fluctuating amounts of disbelief.

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