Thursday, December 19, 2013

A DELAYED ARRIVAL IN HEAVEN part two

You have an upgrade, Sir
We all remember what it was like to get our first glimpse of that impossibly green pitch as a youngster at Maine Road or in more recent times the Etihad, but what if the experience is gained in middle age? And what if your Mancunian host has had some ideas of his own about how to entertain you?

In this second part of his recent adventure, Cort McMurray tries to come to terms with the beauty and diversion of Manchester City.

In July 2010, in the swelter of an Atlanta summer, my son Noah and I made our first sighting of
fellow Manchester City fans. City were playing Mexico’s Club America in an exhibition match.
Club America was the big draw: Atlanta has a sizable population of Mexican expats and Los
Augilas are one of the strongest, best established and most popular clubs in La Liga Mexicana. 

City? City was far enough under the radar that Noah and I were able to find the private school
where the team was based, wander into a training session and collect autographs, with nary
more than a bemused look from Roberto Mancini.

So a couple of hours before match time, running into a group of guys at the CNN Center, kitted out in City gear, was a bit shocking. They were from Manchester, sweating their way through City’s Tour of America. One of them, a gregarious railway engineer named Paul, asked for my
email address.

Over the years, we’ve exchanged emails. It’s been a cordial, but casual acquaintanceship. 

****

A few months ago, as our family was planning a trip to England, I contacted Paul, and asked
him for help in securing tickets to The Etihad. His response was immediate: “Leave it to me,
mate. We’ll get you sorted
.” He asked that Noah and I send him a photo of the two of us,
wearing City shirts. This seemed reasonable: He hadn’t seen us for more than five minutes,
and that was three years ago. The City shirt request seemed a little odd, but we complied.

Paul and his friend Ted were waiting for us at Manchester Piccadilly. We were greeted with
laughter and hugs and a hearty, “Welcome to your City!

This was a recurring theme: at every turn, people we barely knew treated us like long-lost
relatives and reminded us that as City supporters, Manchester was our home. This wasn’t a
stretch for me: Manchester, great and grey and rainy, reminds me of Buffalo, New York, the
aging industrial city where I grew up. It felt familiar. It felt like home.

After getting us settled in at our hotel, Paul said, “Now it’s time to see the real Manchester.” A
few twists and turns down some dark side streets, and we entered the warm and ancient
confines of Mother Mac’s. Packed shoulder to shoulder with City faithful, Mother Mac’s walls are
plastered with faded photos of old City squads and assorted military memorabilia. Aside from
the video Pub Quiz machine and the flat screen tv hanging on the wall, it might as well
have been 1948. Paul introduced us to a bunch of his friends – “we’ve been going to City
matches together since we was lads
” he explained – and we got to know one another. A
burning question: Why can’t Americans cook a proper piece of bacon?

Noah and I quickly learned that the Full City Experience is lubricated by copious amounts of
beer, glass upon glass upon glass of it. All of this lager posed a problem for me: I don’t drink.
It’s a religious thing. Wrapped in the warm embrace of dozens of happily quaffing City fans, I
felt a little out of place, delicately sipping my glass of tonic water. 

One of my new friends offered quick reassurance. “Ay, Cort, ye haven’t touched a drop. It’s like
we’re with Cloudy-O Rrrrreyna!
” This was the first time I’d ever been compared to the former
City midfielder and it made me feel a little less self-conscious.

A rather harrowing cab ride and we arrived at Sport City. I keep an aerial photo of Maine Road
on my office wall, its lovely, ungainly mess of architectural styles wedged into the row houses of
Moss Side. Sport City is nothing like that, at all. The Etihad looms, all smooth lines and
spotlights, like a freshly landed spacecraft. Parking lots, practice fields and chain-link fences
effectively sequester the stadium from the rest of the world. This isn’t Maine Road.

Still, it works. City have done a very good job of bringing festivity to what could be a generic,
even antiseptic environment. There are bands and canteens selling hot dogs and pies and beer. It is, as Lyle Lovett sings, “an acceptable level of ecstasy.”

Paul, who is to City what the Apostle Paul was to early Christianity, didn’t give us much time to
soak in the atmosphere. “Come on, mates. There’s something you need to see.” He led into
the upper floor of the enormous City gift shop, where we met a man who looked official. “These
here are all the way from Texas
,” Paul told the man, who shook our hands and handed us a
couple of match programmes. An envelope poked from the pages of one of the programmes.

Welcome to Manchester,” the man said, and disappeared back into his office.

Paul was grinning. “Take a look on page 52.” There was the photo Paul had requested, Noah
and me posed in our City best, with a caption welcoming us to the Etihad. “Now look in the
envelope.
” Our tickets had been upgraded to VIP “Platinum Box” status.

Entering the VIP area at the Etihad is a little like arriving at the gates of the Emerald City, except
everything is sky blue, not green Everything is covered in white twinkle lights, and your ticket is
verified by a cadre of very lovely young women, dressed in short hemmed great coats and
imitation bearskin hats. “Welcome to the Ethidad,” they cooed.

Inside, there were statues of Colin Bell and Bert Trautmann, and a few live, in the flesh lesser
City idols. “Dad,” Noah hissed. “That’s Stevan Jovetic! Dad! That’s John Guidetti!” In a
hallway, we passed an impossibly large, impeccably dressed man, talking with a couple of other
fellows. My son’s eyes bulged. “Dad, that’s Patrick Vieira! Patrick Vieira!” Have you ever stood
arm’s length from Patrick Vieira? There is only one word to describe the man: regal. And we
were sharing a hallway with him! I would have taken a photo, but taking a photo of Patrick Vieira
without his permission felt wrong, and actually speaking to Patrick Vieira seemed an endeavor
beyond my meek and lowly station.

There was yet another surprise. At halftime, the club sent Ian Brightwell and Richard Edghill to
visit and pose for photos. Both are friendly, classy gentlemen, fine representatives of City.


In the midst of all this, there was a football match. Kun Aguero converted a penalty, and fine
scoring strikes from Nasri, Negredo and Eden Dzeko overcame both Plzen’s scrappy attack and
their leather-lunged fans (seriously, the good people of Plzen are insanely loud).

As we left the stadium, it was more backslaps and hugs, more laughter and friendship. We left
Manchester, lovely grey Manchester, the next morning, with a sack filled with City souvenirs,
and a deep appreciation for the generosity and kindness of our new friends.

There are not many times when you’re able to give one of your kids a truly unforgettable
experience. Thanks to Paul, and the people at City, I had that privilege.

I am not Mancunian. I am a stranger, an outsider. But Paul is right: Manchester is my City, and
Noah’s City, and it will always be.

You can follow Cort on Twitter here

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