Tuesday, May 17, 2011


"Manchester City are over-reliant on Carlos Tevez. Balotelli is a liability and Dzeko looks lost. Yaya knackered. Can see Spurs getting 4th place...."

Yet another lonely walk home for Alfred

With the words of the experts rattling around in my simpleton's head (these rather special bons mots were from the Mirror's spatial awareness and one foot in front of the other world champion David McDonnell) like a peanut in a barrel, I could be found at five-fifteen last Saturday - like many of my age and affliction - shedding a very public tear at what I had just witnessed. A Manchester City player, albeit a small man with too many ideas and too many teeth, holding aloft the FA Cup before 90,000 people at "the new" Wembley. And to think, as recently as only a month or so ago, the Men Who Know For a Living were queuing up to offer their advice on why the club-they-love-to-deride was on the slide.

Suddenly the only slide most of us could think of came from the ample posterior of mobile wharf Yaya Touré, after dispatching first the unsociable neighbours and then pliable Stoke City in successive rounds of the dear old Challenge Cup. But how much do we know, blinded by years of frothy bias and blue-tinted masochism. We, who have stood on the high moral step of continual failure, who must now try to adopt a different pose for all the flashbulbs suddenly exploding in our faces.

"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit"

For Manchester City, it seems, it was about the right time (give or take a decade or two) to emerge into the light, blinking and shuddering, to wake up to the new reality and get on with things as best we can. We have, after all, been living a crumpled and disheveled existence for quite some time now. Our Wilderness Years, dating further than any right-minded individual would dare travel back to, have included moments of unbridled angst, disturbing seat of the trousers discomfort and a burdensome woe that seemed to wrap itself around us like it was here to stay.

The images of a sunny summer's day in 1997 keep flooding back; Stoke City the red-and-white striped opponents, as they have often been in the darkest moments. Despite City's valiant its-a-bit-late-now 5-2 demolition job on their hosts - we both headed off down to what I still understand to be Division Three. (It must have been Division Three, Bournemouth and Swindon and Tranmere were waiting for us). There was little Georgi Kinkladze blinking away a bewildered tear and Big Joe Potato Head waving magnanimously to us all as we taboganed comically into the dark depths. It was a well greased slope we found that year, to be sure. Off we went on our summer holidays with the shrieking of other people's delight chasing us away into the shadows.

It has been pretty much thus ever since. Howling ribaldry at our every collapse, every dumb shot to the foot. Even when we came back, we went away again just as quickly. We were turning into Crystal Palace for Christ's sake. But it was relatively easy to play the victim. It always is when you have Frank Clark and Phil Neal for company. There were no glory hunters, no carrier-bag nation of well-wishers and goggle-eyed autograph collectors, no swathe of suited sharks salivating over the sushi rolls and the long thin legs on the Chairman's daughter, no banks of empty corporate seats fifteen minutes into the second half. When you play at The Moss Rose, there are no seats, full stop. Neither full nor empty, pressed by bony Manc backsides nor plump corprate tail-ends. Turn left at Knutsford, leave the car in a field with your dignity and prepare for humiliation, win or lose. In fact, when you go to Macc with your tail planted firmly between your legs for a 1998 version of the "North West Derby", you'd better dump the bow tie for climbing boots.

Bernard hauls himself into corporate hospitality: Macclesfield 1998

The climbing boots have served us well these past years. From the scaffolding at Macclesfied, we emerged into the light under the gleaming arch of the New Wembley, a place so far removed from where City had been twelve years ago, it fair takes your breath away. But we take it in our stride, just as we did standing in the rain at Wrexham and waiting for the buses to remove us from Lincoln. We mustn't look too "where the heck are we'" or they will start to laugh at us again. This is where the pristine hordes who follow The Old Top Four, as we must call our limping brethren, don't really stand a chance of understanding. With their 19 titles, their unbroken top flight years, their Shankly Gates, their Kevin Pietersens and their Piers Morgans. When you sip from the silver spoon for so long, you begin to be convinced that you are indeed Little Lord Fauntleroy. Even Chelsea, relatively new Champions league's gatecrashers, have become giddy on their Roublecoaster Ride, unflinching at 50 million pounds for a Leaning Torres or the arrival of Kaká, blasé and bloated on too many rows of sturgeons eggs, too many Ashley Cole air shots, too many John Terry indignities. They have travelled from a Shed to a Tsar's Palace and somewhere along the line, lost all idea of perspective.   

City will be no different. One day soon. Already the incoming tide of euphoria is washing in far-flung members of the carrier bag nation up to our doorstep, sprouting bloggers who "used to be neutral" and players for whom Yates Wine Lodge might as well be a Californian pied-à-terre. We are breathing the rarified air of the Winners now and with that comes a hill of detritus that we are quite possibly not really fully prepared for..

"Make mine a pint of creme de menthe and go easy on the nuts"

"So this is the ship they say is unsinkable...?"

So, on we go, unsure whether to gloat or to blush, with a heavy head and a spirit caressed by a million and one cabbage butterflies. Every new image of shiny teeth and gleaming trophy-holders nestles in alongside those we have already stockpiled of Trevor Christie, Tony Cunningham and, yes, Steve Kinsey, blowing in the winds at Oakwell. In alongside Gary Mason and Lee Crooks we store Aleksandar Kolarov, 16 million pounds of red meat Serb full back who cannot tackle, of Yaya Touré, a human bulwark with the feet of Nuryev and the lungs of Kip Keino; of Mario Balotelli, a footballer with a grass allergy. There will obviously still be the chance to laugh a little... If Mr Mancini does, I'm sure we can too. let the hair down, smile, breathe in and out. He has been blowing his cheeks out a little of late, it must be said, after 17 months in our trying company. Imagine, Roberto, what the rest of us are doing after 35 years. We have blown out more than just our cheeks.

So, now we must drag ourselves on from the Blue Moon era, of self-harm and unrequited love, on past the vibrating delirium of the Poznan and into the bright lights of Centre Stage. Take a bow, City, for we have waited a long time to applaud you with such gusto and if we dwell in this sunny place for a moment longer, forgive us. We are thinking about the journey you have taken us on and wondering if we will ever see its like again.

The last time we were good: 1977

**The Potteries is fast becoming our watershed area: it was here we beat Stoke City to end up in our lowest ever league campaign. It was they we beat to start the resurrection a year later. And there they were again last Saturday to provide us with a lethargic, surprisingly supine opponent in our first Cup Final since the invention of the traction engine. Add to that memories of thrilling moments shared with Port Vale and the area begins to take on a deal of significance. Add to that again the area's history of producing fine POTS (and our new-found liking for same) and their manager's history at arch-rivals Gillingham and the whole thing takes on heavy undertones in the story of a comeback from Deadman's Gulch.

Those Potteries Glory Matches in full:

96-97 – Thur 26th Dec          City 0 Port Vale 1  (preceded by a 2-1 defeat at Oldham and followed by a 2-0 defeat at Barnsley)
97-98 –  Tues 4th Nov            City 2 Port Vale 3  (preceded by a 0-0 draw at Oxford and followed by a 1-1 at Sheffield Utd)
96-97 -  Sat 24th Aug                Stoke 2 City 1 (preceded by 1-0 defeat at Bolton, followed by Alan ball’s dismissal)
97-98  - Wed 22nd Oct              City 0 Stoke 1 (preceded by 0-0 draw with Reading, followed by 2-0 defeat at QPR)
97-98  - Sun 3rd May                 Stoke 2 City 5 (followed by relegation to Div 3 for 1st time in club’s history)
98-99 - Mon 28th Dec                City 2 Stoke 1 (preceded by 1-0 win at Wrexham, followed by upturn in form towards promotion)
98-99 - Fri 29th Jan                    Stoke 0 City 1 (preceded by 1-1 draw at Walsall, followed by 3-0 win over Millwall)

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