Friday, January 12, 2018

A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN

The following long read constitutes the Manchester City chapter I provided for Guardian journalist Sachin Nakrani's book "We're Everywhere, Us" which covers Liverpool's 2014-15 Premier League title push. It is reprinted here in full: 

***

Alec Lindsay, Brian Hall, Alan Waddle.

Perhaps not the very first words you’d expect from a Manchester City fan, when asked about Liverpool, but there you go.

Richard Money, Colin Irwin, Bob Bolder. Ah, Bob Bolder.

Liverpool have always fascinated me, troubled me, lingered in my worst nightmares and, to whit, spoiled many a good match-day rumble, but they have also always made me wonder. Particularly, in my youth, those names already mentioned. Just how did they stick with it? How did they concentrate, stuck in the reserves waiting for Phil Thompson to pull a hamstring or Peter Cormack to finally bang his head on the door frame? Liverpool dominated everything about my football upbringing. If the end of the season did not feature Emlyn Bloody Hughes with his melon grin and a selection of pots and trophies adorned with fluttering red ribbons, there was something badly skewed with life as we knew and recognised it.  

We had Marmite butties. We had Scooby Doo. We had the Double Deckers and we had Kevin Keegan scoring in front of the Kop. These were the staples, the fabric of life, the very pillars of growing up in the 70s.  

A little later, Anfield took on shadowy proportions away from the playing field too. For City fans heading into enemy territory, it was well worth “minding your backs”. In the late seventies and early eighties, under the blood red sky of Thatcherite Britain, a trip to Liverppol, that trudge out of Lime Street, wading through the rain and litter on the Scotty Road, anything might happen. Liverpool the city, a fine upstanding place become downtrodden and beaten, looked to its football clubs to help keep the chins of the locals off the ground. A weekly trip to Anfield or – to a lesser extent apart from a blip in the mid 80s – to Goodison, helped put a spring in the step of a local population taken to task by the Tories and their anti-Northern, anti-football philosophies.

 The boarded up shops. The discarded shopping trollies. The upturned hopes of a whole generation, lay bare for all to see. Even the football brought troubles, in those terrible late 80s days, when politicians lied and Old England was dying. Crowds sunk to the late 20,000s at Anfield and into the teens at Goodison. At City times were rough too. Maine Road, sat plum in the middle of Moss Side, a war zone to rival anything Toxteth could muster, was falling apart at the seams. A putrid atmosphere of decay and simmering violence lay everywhere. 

In Thatcher’s Britain, you needed distractions or you would have gone mad. We had our music in these two great cities. We had our clobber. And we had our football. For all the hatred, the bridge of these three cultural elements brought the youth of Merseyside and Manchester into close proximity, whether you were red or blue, Bunnymen officionados or Oasis fans, Adidas followers or wearers of off the back of a lorry Tacchini. It was pure escapism of course, from the daily flow of factory closures and miners’ strikes.

And, of course, we had our football. And football in the 70s and in those dreaded 80s meant Liverpool.

For City fans, it was worse than for most others. A caning always awaited us at Anfield and the same thrashing, even more hard to take on your own patch, was more often than not delivered at Maine Road too. I even stopped going to Anfield for a bit, as it had become just too predictable, too painful. Whilst Alan Ball, in his dubious capacity as City’s 1995-96 relegation mastermind coach, could say he had “enjoyed watching Liverpool”, as they beat us 6-0 and 4-0 within three totally inglorious days, I could not. I hated it with a passion and I had had enough of Anfield, with its songs raining down from the Kop, its misty Saturday afternoons and its spicy Irish Sea gales flying in off the Mersey to play havoc with Stevie Kinsey’s quiff and Andy May’s shorts.

But it was not the 90s that invented Liverpool drubbings of City. These things have existed since I was a scruffily dressed kid, fresh off the school field, where I had been a mud-spattered mini-version of Dennis Tueart, firing nerveless winners past chubby, rosy cheeked Ray Clemence all afternoon. In off a tree stump, rebound from the bicycles, it mattered little if you had a chance to pop one past the mini Ray Clemence in his stolen Sondico gloves.

Come the end of the week, the real Mr Tueart, was always thwarted by the real, lythe, athletic Mr Clemence, however.

City had some decent sides in the 70s, trailing in 2nd in 1977 and 4th the season after. Guess who scooped the main prize as we struggled over the finishing line? Doesn’t need answering, does it? Liverpool were omnipotent. The afore-mentioned Clemence safe and agile, a back four that was strong and unforgiving, an ultra mobile, ultra competitive midfield four and two excellent goal-hungry frontmen. Phil Neal. Alan Kennedy. Alan Hansen. Mark Lawrenson. Steve Heighway. Graeme Souness. Terry Mac. Kenny Dalglish. Keegan and Toshack. John Barnes. Ian Rush. Ray Houghton. The names roll off the tongue one after another.

Rush was supposed to be coming to City from Chester but Big Mal stopped for a cigar and a sausage roll at Warrington services and John Smith got in ahead of him. What a difference that single issue would have made to this correspondent’s life. Rush went on to become an even bigger thorn in City’s sides than either Keegan or Dalglish.

One of the great football topics: what might have been. Instead of watching Wayne Biggins, Tony Cunningham and Trevor Christie mash up the striker’s role before our disbelieving eyes on the Kippax, it could have been the languid and, let’s face it, deadly, Ian Rush. Instead he wore red. And
indeed he did score regularly at Maine Road. Much too regularly in fact and in totally the wrong coloured kit. With deadly accuracy, with speed and punch, displaying the inimitable goalscorer’s ability to be in the right place at the right time, season after season after season. Such is life.

In those innocent days of growing up, when Liverpool hit the European trail, you would follow avidly. if you were English, you supported all the home sides in European combat. I don’t even think I made an exception for United, such was the naivety of youth, although it seems a little odd now. I certainly remember being an enthusiastic follower of Liverpool’s progress through the old European and UEFA Cups with glorious dismantlings of Aberdeen, FC Zurich, Benfica, St Etienne, Monchengladbach and others readily springing to mind. Unlike United’s dominance of the 90s, which made me sick to the pit of my stomach, I watched Liverpool’s 70s sides in a state of shock and awe. This was a young lad’s first view of what powerful, successful football looked like. The Kick Off match would bring us a weekly blast of red goals every Sunday.

Gerald Sindstadt, with his queer little moustache and his clipped southern accent, would be there to show us a 7-0 beating of Spurs or a 5-0 demolition job on Derby, five past Forest or nine past Palace. Everyone, it seemed, was ripe for an Anfield hammering, not just City, after all.

Yet, still it felt like we came off worse. When we did win in Liverpool, an occurrence as rare as hen’s teeth, we got our comeuppance in no uncertain terms. 1980 81 season: Liverpool struggling towards Christmas in a right old state. Wallowing down in 10th as City visit. Bruce Grobelaar has one of his days and lets in three goals. City winning 3-1 at Anfield! I can still feel the elation to this day. The Kop celebrated by flinging a wine bottle that hit big Joe Corrigan on the head. Such an unusual act of unsporting behaviour from that famous end. Straight away a thousand arms are pointing out the culprit and Joe Corrigan (England’s number three in those days) is serenaded with a raucous burst of “England’s Number One” by the home support. A great day all round, unless you happened to be Corrigan.

Come April, City and Liverpool have swapped places. City midtable, marooned and hopeless. Liverpool back at the top when it mattered most, after a surge of unbeaten games. The Reds arrive at Maine Road for a sunny Easter fixture and carry off a 5-0 win that puts City right back in their basket after the December victory at Anfield. Even Sammy Lee, wearing his shorts like a nappy, belts one in from 30 yards. It is – once again – total ignominy to add to the list of mishaps, failures and thrashings.

And on and on it went.

By the time Liverpool were beginning to tire of all those trophies, City had headed south and were bathing their wounds in the second division against the likes of Carlisle and Cambridge. The good times rolled again in ’88 in the FA Cup as Mel Machin’s young marauders carried the team into the FA Cup 5th round. A home grown side featuring Ian Brightwell, Paul Lake, Paul Moulden and Andy Hinchcliffe came up against the last great Liverpool side before the present day.

A soaking wet, mud-up-to-your-eyeballs Maine Road pitch greeted a full house at Maine Road. There was hope again and a chance to measure ourselves against the best in preparation for a return to the big time. At least the four goal thrashing dealt out on that afternoon, beamed live to a hungry television audience across the country, would prepare us for more ignominy at the hands of Liverpool when we did return.

Strangely, the early 90s brought little of this traditional sour tasting football disaster. Suddenly, and quite out of the blue, City became good at playing at Anfield. For a short while at the beginning of the decade it looked a little like we had worked out what we were doing. Admittedly, the mighty Reds of the 70s and 80s were slightly diminished with a new set of traffic cones with names like
Harkness and Burrows, which hardly set the pulses racing, but two consecutive 2-2 draws at Anfield, one featuring a last minute Niall Quinn header at the Annie Road end and the other a spectacular double from David White, made us believe for a while that the hoodoo might just have passed.

Then came Alan Ball and his odd ideas stored away under a flat cap. As Liverpool slipped off the pace, City slipped off the back end of Planet Football and disappeared towards the third tier. Liverpool no longer occupied City minds, even if humiliation readily did. Now the thrashings were from lower life forms and that really stung. Getting tanned at Anfield drifts to the back of your mind when you are trying to locate the away entrances at Northampton or at Darlington in the 1st round of the FA Cup. Oh for a Dalglish back heel or a Ray Kennedy ghosted strike then.

The long haul back reunited the clubs in league action at the start of the new century and an Anelka and Fowler inspired win at Anfield was hailed the first such miracle since the wind-assisted Steve Kinsey affair of 1980. It had been a long time coming, a very long time coming and the celebrations in the cramped confines of the away section were loud and long. With bruised shins and scuffed trainers, we howled with delight. It is a good thing that we made the most of it, because – since then – City have failed to repeat the feat. Two wins at Anfield in my City supporting lifetime, a mere 40 years or so, stands comparison with the worst records of any teams on any grounds on these green and pleasant islands of ours. Mind-numbingly, irrevocably awful is another way of putting it.

Although City now have a decent record against Liverpool in Manchester, turning our away stats sheet into something legible and acceptable is proving a little more taxing. Anfield still feels much like the immovable object it always was, still creates an atmosphere that makes our boys turn into mice and still reeks of the old days of thunder and lightning. Even if the players change and the reputations dwindle, that old ground still strikes fear into each new generation of City players and supporters.

Whereas everyone else seems to have moved on and can play decently without fear and, sometimes, come away with a point or two, City stubbornly stick to the age old script, exiting with absolutely nothing. When we manage a draw, as we did in the League Cup semi second leg in 2012, it was when we needed to win.

Mention of League Cup semis, takes me straight to Alf Grey, who may not register on any Liverpool fan’s radar, whatever their age, but is a prominent piece of furniture in the cluttered memory of any City fan over 45. He it was who reffed the 1981 League Cup semi final first leg at Maine Road between the two sides, disallowing a perfectly good Kevin Reeves headed goal after just three minutes for – according to the hapless whistler – a push on Alan Hansen. There had been no contact whatsoever. Liverpool regrouped and Ray Kennedy did what Ray Kennedy always did, sliding in undetected at the far post on one of his stealth raids and knocked all of the stuffing out of the Blues. A hard fought second leg at Anfield finished 2-2 and Liverpool progressed to a final they won against West Ham.

It was, if memory serves, the first League Cup win for the Reds. 

On March 1st 2015 when Liverpool beat City at Anfield with two stunning goals, most of the City support looked at each other, shrugged and headed for the exits. Even Edin Dzeko’s excellently worked equaliser had felt like putting your finger in the dyke and having to wait for the water to begin seeping out again. City played competently, within themselves, rather like quite a few of their performances in a deeply disappointing defence of that 2013-14 title snatched from Liverpool’s excited grasp. But, as ever, it was not to be. Philippe Coutinho’s rasper was added to Jordan Henderson’s rocket shot and City, once more, were buried. If the inevitability never quite finishes you off, the misplaced hope certainly does.

The year before at the same stage of the season, Liverpool had won a cracking, hard fought game 3-2 and seemed on the very brink of winning the title for the first time since the Glory years I have mentioned widely here. The atmosphere that day was raucous, celebratory and, it has to be said, slightly premature. City fans were as low as an armadillo’s belly that afternoon, estimating their own side’s chance had gone. Once more we had been beaten at Anfield, on this occasion after a stirring fightback that had led to such a reversal of the game’s original flow, it seemed there could be only one winner. In a way, there could and we should have known who that one winner was and seemingly, will always be. That crestfallen feeling came over the away end like a huge wet blanket. The slow trudge to the exits, the half hearted farewells to mates, the walk to the buses and cars, the slow departure from the grey, windswept landscape of Stanley Park and its precincts to hit the clogged roads east.

It is a well worn path trodden many times over the years, each time with shoulders hunched and the gleeful shouts of a thousand Scousers ringing in our ears. Even in their fine new clothes, Manchester City at Anfield continues to be a disaster waiting to happen.




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