Friday, September 21, 2012


"You're going where?"
"But we've got an ISO inspection at work on Tuesday and the kids've got swimming"

A door slams.

There are city breaks and there are City breaks and this one fell conclusively, unforgettably into Category Two. If Cruzcampo did football away trips to foreign lands, you imagine it might look a little like this. Include climate, setting, time spent idly chatting to friends, smells, sights and sounds of a great world capital and add to it a Champions League encounter between daft old City and the Spanish Royal Family that had just about everything, and you would be right in thinking we left Madrid more or less as we found it: elation might have turned into deflation but we were definitely still pinching ourselves.

Madrid is a place that likes to take itself seriously. The boulevards are impossibly wide and stuffed with honking traffic. The women, impossibly symmetrical and, after a tough summer, an unfathomably deep coconut brown, wear the dismissive manner of human beings who have spent too many years looking in the mirror: They know they are beautiful. You look at them. They know that you are looking at them. They don't flinch. You wipe away a tear. They strut on. Men wearing suits as crisp as freshly rolled cigars stand laughing into mobile phones in a way only pricy lawyers can carry off. Everybody looks impossibly healthy. You daren't cough, in case you are carried away for being unfit for purpose.

Healthy. And haughty. You do not find this frozen splendour in the cosmopolitan streets of Barcelona, even less so the happy clappy calle of Valencia and Sevilla. Capital cities are prone to this kind of thing and so it is with Madrid. There must be a slight risk that a place that becomes so keen on what it is, will eventually try to eat itself. Real Madrid Club de Fútbol, José Mourinho their able, thrusting manager, the immaculately coiffed President Florentino Perez plus their towering Portuguese icon to the cosmetics industry all surely know a little of the phenomenon themselves.

During the last few years, we of the occasionally combed hair brigade have had the pleasure of visiting the cowfields of Denmark, the port lodges of the Douro and the slate-grey streets of Gelsenkirchen, so let us not quibble. Sitting on the fringes of the great rectangular Plaza Mayor, a site of coronations, public celebrations and executions, felt just fine. As the ranks of traveling Blues filtered into its welcoming embrace for a knock-around with a yellow beachball, we wondered which of the three we had come all this way for. As it turned out, we would be the lucky recipients of all three, one after the other, but in completely the wrong order.....

Chris considers drinking Mike's pint but realises there's plenty for all
The attraction of Plaza Mayor and its slightly more prosaic neighbour Puerta del Sol is the absence of vehicles, a constant feature of the grand boulevards that cut this great city into regular slices. Here at last was relative peace and quiet, a place where the chat was cheap and the beer expensive. There was even a statue of Mike Channon on one of his horses in the square's centre. More at home in a Habsburgian Spanish plaza it would have been impossible to feel.

"This calamares is a bit sloppy. Do you want some?"
"It's wet and cold.I don't want it "
Enter small shuffling Peruvian.

"Waiter, three more beers please"

The Museo del Jamon, made famous for its moody appearance in Pedro Almodóvar’s film Carne Trémula was the chosen spot, with its glistening cañas and droopy calamares a satisfying enough accompaniment to the excited chat of Grown Up Football Tournaments and our possible role (roll ) in them. It has an unfeasibly wide range of sliced pork, pickled pork and pork in other shapes and stages of development. This undoubtedly is what drove Chris to order chips.

"Patatas bravas a bit tasteless aren't they?"
"You have them then"
"Where's the spicy sauce?"
"Waiter..."  ...-"er ah more beer?" ... "Spot on, mate!"

As with all gourmet tours, the main dish was to be eaten across town in a rather more majestic establishment. We embarked for a sweaty and noisy half an hour meet and greet on the city's overheated metro system, enjoying the warm crush so much, we strayed onto the blue line (inevitable subliminal attraction I suppose), and were too late for an unprovoked baton charge on City fans on the Castellano by a bored group of the local constabulary. We settled instead for our own assault on a series of stuffed bars near the great towering walls of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu itself.

Friendly locals were happy to chew the fat, one well dressed gent magnanimously offering us Ronaldo if City could push Aguero and Tevez in the other direction. How we laughed into our hastily arranged lines of mini spicy sausages. How our chuckles provoked bubbles in the top of our glasses of Mahou (and a white SuperMario moustache in my case). Cristiano Ronaldo, you see, my friend, has been in our pockets for many a long year, oh yes! You can keep him and your floppy haired Marcelos, your hook-nosed Modrics.and your Professor Pat Pending Di Marias. We're just fine as we are. Does this sausage taste off to you? Must be me.

On a stained napkin, the rejected sausages started taking shape: they assembled in a no-frills 4.4.0 (there were eight sausages, so no attack today): Kompany there, solid with Lescott, Zaba and Kolarov (the one with the end bitten off) outside, nice and steady, no faffing about.... Fine, now who's eaten Nasri?

The walk to tier four of the Bernabéu is best partaken when in full control of your faculties, comprising as it does a couple of thousand greasy steps in a spiral of ill-defined light and sudden exhilarating shadow. Thankfully, the elixir of giddy optimism emanating from every pore made the climb bearable and stops were made on the ascent to genuflect, reorganise simmering tendons and bellow a few crude truths about just who was the best team in the land and all the world. At the summit, if the climb had not already taken your breath away, that crucial first glimpse of the green turf certainly did. You could see Lake Titikaka from up there and the very top of the Taj Mahal.

Yaya, Yaya, Yaya, Yaya... that was our stop, wasn't it?

Up you go

Like everything else we had witnessed in Madrid thus far, the Bernabéu spread itself loquaciously in front of us, a gigantic cement block monument to self confidence, grandeur and prestige. It said, look at me, hold your gaze and tell me I'm not magnificent. I guess at this point if anyone had panned the away end with a camera, viewers would have been treated to row upon row of pasty foreigners with eyes like ten pence pieces, mouths open and wet, a kind of transfixed awe on our faces. It might have made interesting television, especially with the bons mots of Clyde Tediously to bring it all to life. Meantime, I was beginning to dribble.

What can you do.

What we did was start singing: a medley of songs aired at Sincil Bank and Meadow Lane now rang out loud and clear in the self-styled Cathedral of World Football. We are really here etc.but only just clinging onto reality at this stage.

Amongst all the unbridled jollity of the occasion, it had gone unnoticed that Roberto had played a little trick on us. Not one, in fact, but three. Three tricks, of varying sizes. The 19 year old rookie Nastasic would come in for Lescott, who, of our two giant pillars in central defence, had been the one slightly less off-form so far this season. Who's that, asked someone as the teams warmed up. "Its not Javi Garcia, he's over there," I burbled back squinting, with the confidence of a man asked to identify a strangely perky wading bird from a position half way up a tree three hundred yards across a salt marsh, who answers with the words "it's a duck?". That climb was beginning to get its own back.

Mancini was not done with us yet, though. Maicon, still sporting the wide-eyed glare of a man asked to make his English Premier League debut at the Britannia Stadium, was in too. The same Maicon given the county two-step by Gareth Bale two years ago, provoking a landslide of newspaper articles wishing him well in his next career. On the left, to complete the Defence Most Unlikely was little Clichy. So used are we now to seeing the lothario Kolarov sidle out for Champions League matches, it is something of a surprise when his ambling, shorts-falling-down figure does not appear. So, there it stood. Our defence for Real Madrid away would be Maicon-Kompany-Nastasic-Clichy. Mourinho tried to make us feel a little less uncomfortable by dismissing the opinionated Sergio Ramos to the bench, replaced by their own version of a trembling teenager, the French kid Varane. The thyroidal Ozil was also missing, replaced by Michael Essien. Yes, that Michael Essien. Things were becoming quite confused.

We were grateful at least for the small mercies of Marcello's identifiable flop-perm and the giant figure of Yaya flapping his arms in the centre circle. At last some semblance of normality in this pre-game fug. Barry and Garcia were there too, giving us the tasty possibility of seeing Yaya in his stormtrooper role. Cristiano started sensibly, opting for the slicked down look, side parting, cropped eyebrows, moodily aggressive body language. Perhaps the 2nd half would herald a platform for his fluffy bouffant or the remote, dead eyes of the sad professional. Maybe his tormented little body would be thrown to the floor. "nooooooo!". Smack, smack, thump, thump. We would just have to wait and see.

A whirl of feet and screeching in my ears like I'm in a wind tunnel. Roaring from our end, parping, tooting from theirs. A vuvuzela or a cuckoo, I'm not sure, but we've started. It is soon evident Roberto's defence -whether strong, bendy or foolhardy - will be given an examination of medical intricacy. Shots are pinging in from all angles. Ronaldo alone has four in the first four minutes. I am not clear about Real's formation at this stage, such is the roaring in my ears, but they definitely have more men on the pitch than us. By half time 71,000 people have seen Real produce 15 shots towards our trembling goal. Joe Hart has saved impeccably the few that were actually on target. In the crowd a distressing scenario is developing as Florentino Perez, all post-holiday smarm, glad-hands Rafa Nadal, Butragueño chats to new City head honcho Soriano in affable Spanish and, a few rows in front, alternative ambassador William John Gallagher, replete in shiny black leather rain jacket and giant shades, gives it Big Burnage in the expensive seats. A diplomatic incident is only meters away.

The second half is proof that you should never doubt whether to follow City abroad or not. All hell breaks loose and it doesn't calm down again until we are back in our hotel beds.

"Bloody squid's repeating on me"
"Told you to leave it"
 "Don't waste good food, mam always said"
 "Not good advice that"
Within 10 minutes around the hour mark, we are treated to a rash of substitutions. I don't know what Light the Blue Touch Paper is in Spanish, but that is the effect. The confused Essien gives way to Ozil and Modric will shortly replace the workmanlike Khedira. The Real subs, whose appearance of two inexperienced window fitters in an Abbot and Costello sketch should not lull anybody into a false sense of security, get ready to enter the fray. Abbot comes on, but there's a hitch with Costello who resumes puttying duties on the sidelines. Meantime, we already have Kolarov who has been on since Nasri pulled up in the 24th minute with a scorched hamstring) and we are about to have Dzeko and Zabaleta. First the Bosnian replaces Silva, who is given a noisy ovation from the inaptly named Real fans.Some seem a little perplexed that such a good Spanish player has somehow found himself on the wrong side.

Look at me, drink me in, you'll never see anything like this in Birmingham

Ignoring the obvious scenario, City choose the 68th minute to take the lead. As yet another thundering run from Yaya takes him through the middle like a mine sweeper, we hang suspended in air and time. He has four players in his wake. They look like the tins carried behind a newly weds' car, bobbing and tumbling as the Ivorian sweeps through the gears. The ball is going left. Dzeko has matched his run and is available in space. We stay in mid air.

That roaring is in my ears again. Calamares bubbles are everywhere. The ball has been transferred to the grassy patch just in front of Dzeko's hungry strides. The Bosnian tank has Arbeloa and Khedira climbing into his shorts from behind. He doesn't notice and fires past Casillas. Khedira slumps off whilst we re-enact the Great Fandango on the 4th tier. I am off the ground, as is the person I am hugging, a solid teenager with gravy on his chin. There is a strange smell of burning. We both return to earth at the same time and resume bouncing around the steps. When I face back to the pitch, he has gone but I still have the pocket off his t-shirt in my hand. The roaring has been replaced by high pitched squealing, like a kettle going off.

Before we know it Yaya is once again thundering clear, towing more debris and flotsam behind him. Nothing can stop him but an act of God or an earth tremor. In the end it's his own lack of accuracy. The ball hits the side-netting. This is close to unbearable. Two nil up at the Bernabéu. Don't even go there.

There is delirium all around now. An atmosphere of lightly sugared lunacy is effecting balance, sight, speech. Something similar happens 60 metres down, as Zabaleta finally enters the fray waving his arms and starts galloping around like he wants a word with Modric about the part in the sketch with the piano. But that's Laurel + Hardy. This is Abbot and Costello. Suddenly, Marcelo's hair is cutting in from the left. It flies past Kompany with disturbing ease and has a clear sight of goal. The ball kicks off Javi Garcia's boot and flies into the net. Oh my. Oh hell. Oh no.

I have located the source of the high pitched kettle sound. It is the noise made by Zabaleta's arms whirling around in a frenzied state. He misses a ball in front of goal by millimetres then is chopped down near the touchline. A freekick now with Kolarov loping across to have a sniff at it. I think for a moment it is a shame Balotelli is not here to squabble over who takes it, have a smoke, shrug a bit. It's just what the game is missing. Kolarov it is who whips in one of his left foot curlers. It goes past 16 pairs of boots, waves goodbye to Xabi Alonso's shoe laces and enters the net behind Casillas' right hand. Time for the Funky Chicken. Rude not to. I take the opportunity to give the young kid his pocket back. He looks a bit sheepish. I shout it was all my fault and if we win I will buy him a full cosmonaut outfit, any colour he wants. An argument breaks out about why he has a t-shirt with a pocket anyway. Suddenly there is another roar. Another goal. I'm still facing the wrong way. From Benzema. When did he come on? The place is heaving off its shackles and trying to turn a somersault. My stomach goes from volcanic to ice station zebra in 5 seconds. I can feel the twenty degree temperature drop in my guts.

Pandemonium and carnage. Horror and nervousness. Sand and sawdust. The clock is still ticking still ticking still ticking. Ronaldo now, appearing down the left, jinks past Zabaleta and his now redundant piano, shoots low. Somehow Kompany manages to duck under it despite it being only hip height. The thing does that Ronaldo trajectory, just like the beachball in Plaza Mayor all those hours ago and dips alarmingly under Joe Hart's left arm. All our squid have come home to ink us at the same time. Ronaldo does his knee flex, neck vein celebration, as Mourinho resplendent in Pedro del Hierro light grey suit, does a skiddy ten metres into the pitch. 2000 euro suit ruined. I hope his mum is watching back in Setubal
"What do you mean you've gone through the knees on that already? 2000 euros that cost!". 
The match finishes and before we have a chance to salute our boys in grey and black, a line of fidgety robocops appear as if out of a bottle. Barring the way, they twitch and fizz until one of our number gets too close and is beaten on the head and shoulders. The guy has been watching too many back to back episodes of Cagney and Lacey, but has obviously not read the translated version of the Hillsborough Report. I take his picture, half expecting to be clouted too. City have just finished an epic match and these guys are full in our faces just waiting for an excuse to lay into us. An absolute disgrace. I speak a couple of garbled bits of Spanish to him and he flickers again.

We have a sing song to the empty stadium. The night is waiting outside.

The next morning's Marca, a sort of journalistic marriage of an eleven year old's Real Madrid scrapbook and early 70s Pravda, proves that I had in fact dreamed it after all. I read through the City players' marks out of ten after this epic struggle that has taken champions Real to the very wire and wonder if I really exist:

Hart -7; Maicon-3; Kompany - 2; Nastasic -3; Clichy - 5.5; Javi Garcia - 4, Barry - 2 (that's TWO out of TEN); Nasri - 3; Silva (Spaniard warning) - 6; Tevez - 6.5; Kolarov - 6; Dzeko - 6; Zabaleta (put the kettle on) -6; Yaya - 7.5
Just for good measure they give Mancini a 3 as well, and City get three out of ten too. "Tanto para tan poca coisa" says Guilleme Ballagué realistically in AS (pronounced "ass"), whilst Tomas Roncero, who may or may not snore loudly at night in the room next to his mother, says "El Madrid es eterno". The whole world, it seems, does revolve around these people after all. Only Yaya - named "El Dandy" by Marca, escapes the rasping tongue of Spanish criticism.

Back in the Plaza Mayor, the kid's beachball sits atop a spike on the railings protecting the statue of Equestrian Micky Channon. The air has long gone, as have the singing hordes but there are still metaphors to inflate.

There goes the suit

Hasta luego, Real Madrid, see you in Manchester for the rematch. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


The Champions League draw has pitted us against the might and majesty of Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax, to many the “perfect draw”, allowing us to see City play in the homes of the champion clubs of Germany, Holland and Spain, in large capacity stadia, in countries that are all attractive and easy to get to in these days of high powered hovercraft and genetically enhanced ferries. The cultural side of things can sort itself out, however, what is occupying us right now is the act of being involved in this Champions League monster for a second consecutive season. For a second consecutive season, we also have the honour of participating in the eternally gloomy Group of Death. Many might hazard the opinion that this year's Death is even worse than the one inflicted on us twelve months ago.

Thatcher + Douglas Hurd keep a straight back in Sheffield
As it turns out, history has played a neat little trick on us too. City will play in three of the cathedrals of world soccer on more or less the same dates that, in 1998, we played in Macclesfield, Darlington and Lincoln, places of worship too, but for slightly more parochial congregations than the smiling nobility on the Castellana. 

Swapping Marstons Pedigree in a muddy alleyway for Krug Grand Cuvée on the great avenues of Europe has left some of us panicking slightly at the onrush of bubbles. Looking back at the masochistic fun we had at Northampton and Wycombe can make it hard to move on sometimes. As André Gide once said, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Quite so but when the oceans are so full of champagne bubbles, it is difficult to know whether to start for the distant beaches doing the backstroke or the doggy paddle.
In the light of the Hillsborough inquiry, it is perhaps poignant to stop for a moment and consider where we have come in this time. This has been a period where football has changed irrevocably, mainly for the better, but to such an extent that, if given the blueprint for Premier League 2012-13 as a free handout with your programme in September 1988, most people would have wrapped their chips in it mumbling something to the tune of “I’m not much into science fiction myself...”.

Waiting for the 1035 to Kings Cross
Yet here we are, shambling casually into season 2012-2013, with ticket prices at an all-time high, unable to stand to watch a football match, unable to drink alcohol anywhere near the pitch, with football turning itself willingly into a customer experience rather than a sport and making damn sure it charges us top whack for the pleasure. We welcome big business where once it shunned us. Politicians bask in its limelight where once they queued to throw fish at it. From Blair to Cameron, you are without your people if you do not profess allegiance to one club or another. Football, it seems, has had such a big face lift that its ears are on the top of its head. Despite this sometimes unwholesome new makeover, we are all still mad keen to devour it.

Could you point me to the urinals, officer?
In that dark smouldering year 1988, I remember well my relation with the sport. It was intense, as now, sometime overpoweringly so. But it was also very different to today. There was palpable fear on away days, the casual acceptance that violence could play a part in your day, that it could come from opposition fans but also from police and figures of authority supposedly there to aid you. There was an acceptance that you would stand in rivers of urine if you needed a leak, that the programme would be small, thin and sparsely monochrome, that the food would have you sitting awkwardly on the toilet before the day was out. You just hoped it would not have immediate effects on your bowels, because having a dump at the ground was out of the question. If you were female, the facilities in this respect would have driven you to tears and to a place behind a tree in the local park. Policemen on horseback would take indiscriminate swipes at any raucous behaviour; steaming piles of horse excrement were everywhere. I remember being greeted by medieval scenes arriving from the Scottie Road to queue at Goodison in the pouring rain, police horses battering thousands of us into tighter and tighter corners as the queues snaked around the ground in a forlorn wait to pass through those dark, grim tunnels..

In those days the boys often went by train to the away match; the train station was an early focal point for the day’s possible confrontations. You were met by lines of police, mistrusting eyes falling on each of us as we ambled past. Away fans, you see, were even dodgier meat than home support. I well remember the tense atmosphere as we stumbled bleary-eyed down the platform at New Cross, in Hull, or in Wolverhampton glancing anxiously to see where the home fans were waiting. Any gathering of bony local wastrels would have you on heightened alert. The noise of a breaking bottle or a tight adolescent yelp would have the City fans gathering ominously into tightly knit bundles of aggressive energy. A trip to Middlesbrough around that time saw a convergence of various mob-handed groups, amongst them City’s Governors, Young Governors and a big crew of Cardiff casuals dressed in blinding white Tacchini tracksuits on their way to a fashion dust up in Newcastle. Our lot descended from the train on a whim in Darlington, in order to “surprise the Boro”. Unwilling to stay on board a train now completely occupied by Cardiff casuals, we were swept along in a raging, bubbling phalanx of hormonal males in a rush of directionless shouting and wailing.

On the back of this brooding malevolence in our national sport, the police and government decided to tar us all with the same brush. In the late 80s it was impossible to be a football supporter and have the respect of authority. 

Welcome to Maine Road
Inside the grounds we were greeted by police dogs with yellow teeth, surly coppers who didn't take no for an answer and unending reels of barbed wire. I remember being held up on entry to the Leppings Lane, of all places, by a policeman who refused to let a six year old City fan enter with a small plastic bottle of Coke. His father incredulous, was forced to listen to the copper as he became more and more adamant and less and less polite. The man, clearly doubled with frustration, turned for home, his poor lad an uncomprehending accomplice.

Go anywhere near the front of your “paddock” and your view would be destroyed by double rows of huge metal fencing, behind which we were meant to feel safe and protected, until Hillsborough proved we should have been on the other side of the divide. Stamford Bridge smelled of decay and violence, Ayresome Park with its curious tubed stand roof was falling apart in front of our eyes, Oakwell was a mass of ancient terracing, The Den (old not new) was a warren of potential mugging opportunities for the feral youth of New Cross. I was there for a couple of games with Millwall, both in the cup in 1989 and I will never forget the feeling of walking those streets at night, the barbed wire pens we ended up in and the atmosphere afterwards heading to the train station.

We stood in the acid rain at Boundary Park, Home Park and Boothferry. We got half a gnat’s view of proceedings at Filbert Street, Dean Court and Valley Parade, oblivious to the fact that everywhere was held together with spit and shoe laces. These decrepit old temples of yesteryear.

9,300 watched us at Oakwell. Football was being gradually, casually strangled to death. And then came Hillsborough. That very same season.1988-89.

I had stood on the Leppings Lane several times in the 80’s supporting City, getting wet through, getting pushed around, getting abused by Wednesdayites and the unsurpassably morose South Yorkshire constabulary alike, getting diminishing value for money but returning season after season. The “accommodation”, a broad, low, shallow-stepped sweep of terracing was par for the course in those days; certainly not the worst in the division. You had to see what we went through at Oxford and Walsall to really appreciate how far football had fallen. These places were death traps but it was perhaps ironic that it took Hillsborough, our iconic FA Cup semi final venue, with its cantilever West Stand, its giant Kop and its 60s styled “opulence and space” to sound the deadly wake-up call. This was a place we had all been to,we had all shouted our heads off from that expansive and tidy terrace, but now it was claiming its innocent victims. 

As we ghosted around, transfixed by the ghastly news coming out of Sheffield, football fans knew the truth: it could have happened to any of us. The catalogue of errors and dereliction of duty by the authorities on that April day served up a terrible disaster. Bradford and Heysel would follow, both intricate parts of a dreadful story of contempt and neglect.

"...and over there is where they rioted..."
Thatcher’s treatment of football in the mid eighties was as misdirected and uncouth as her government’s treatment of the miners and steel workers. Her puppet dwarf at the Ministry of Sport, John Moynihan, squeaked her nonsensical commandments whenever a camera swiveled apologetically down to his level. It was the worst of times. We were the scum of the earth and what we deserved was overflowing urinals and the stench of violence and danger. We were being squeezed out of society, along with the miners and anything else marked human detritus. What nobody deserved was the denouement at Hillsborough that afternoon. 

Little did we know, though, thanks to a revolution brought on by the Taylor Report, accelerated by the wave of fanzines and consolidated by an England side that reached the World Cup semi finals in 1990 (despite the last gurgling shrieks of mob rule in Sardinia), football was about to rediscover itself and reinvent itself as the nation's darling.

The fences have come down, the idiotic policing has given way to a kinder more subtle approach, health and safety protects us all from ourselves, the gangs have edged into full-bellied middle-age, replaced by foppish computer literate young men sending smartphone images of the flexing substitutes to friends in Perth and Bogota. The Facebook Generation has no urge to run the gauntlet outside Fellows Park and Burnden Park. Fellows Park is, in any case, a DIY store and Bolton have long since moved beyond the ringroads. 

We sit expectantly in our Lego model stadia with shiny padded seats, watching inflatable mascots roam the perimetre, as children wave foam hands. Loud music plays, unfeasibly jolly young men tease out our enthusiasm over loudspeakers you can hear in Africa, the scoreboard shows dancing robots, everything is bathed in the silken light of opulence and order. This the canned 2012 version of what we used to be forced to put up with. We in the grounds are no longer seen as “tanked up hooligans”, as Kelvin Mackenzie’s Sun famously bellowed to the world the day after the Hillsborough Tragedy. We are no longer feral beasts, no longer a danger to society, no longer thugs and knock-abouts. 

Mostly we are now "valued customers". It says here in the latest of many emails I receive. The contempt that is shown now comes in the size of the cheque we must hand over in return for our fix not the size of the baton coming down on the back of our heads. Clubs still take us for granted, for we are still basically cannon fodder. Clearly, many lessons have been learned whilst others still remain undisturbed in the great scheme of things.

As we climb the steps to the top tier of the Bernabeu next week, many of us will be unable to stop ourselves making some of these comparisons. I will be thinking of Barnsley and Macclesfield, Lincoln and Darlington. Thinking of 25 years and the total transformation of our national sport. Football has come a long way since those dark days, but sadly, not all of us survived to experience the brave new world. We should be thinking of them too.

Behind the fences on the Leppings Lane

Additional reading: WSC post Hillsborough Editorial 
                           Spurs fan's recollections of Leppings Lane in 81
                           Brian Reade's recollections of Hillsborough
                           Harry Harris ESPN

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Pillar of Benfica

Javi Garcia, Benfica's Spanish bulwark, was the big mover during Portugal's final hours of transfer activity this summer and he is likely to be sorely missed. Whether he makes such a big impression on the denizens of Manchester is another story and will be largely up to him, although where and how frequently Roberto Mancini unleashes him will also play a crucial part. At anything between 16 and 24 million euros, depending whether you read English or Portuguese newspapers, he would be a very expensive reserve, although not the first in City's recent history. Portuguese daily A Bola tallied the price at €20 million with a floating €3 million, depending on him playing in over 50% of City's games.

So what have City bought and, despite the still lingering City Commission, does Garcia represent value? 25 years old, he has been around the (Iberian) houses already and has built a growing reputation as a strong defensive lynch pin with an ability to up his game for the big opponents. With Nigel de Jong, regrettably, exiting the Carrington swing doors at the same time as the square- headed Garcia entered, comparisons will be inevitable and not without reason. Have City, people will no doubt be asking themselves as they lie in bed at night, replaced the delightful Dutch hatchet-man with something similar?

Well, yes and also, to a degree, no.

As Tom Kundert of says, "He'll give 100% every game and is a solid option. He is very definitely a defensive midfielder, although he played with limited success once or twice at centre-back as cover. He did very well at Benfica and proved to be excellent at the job he was assigned.Javi is a good tough tackler, not afraid to foul when it is necessary." Sounds like there may be some de Jongesque moments to savour in that.

The cousin of former Liverpool floppy hair merchant Luis Garcia, Javi sports a more rugged shaven look and plays to match the sharp lines on his head. None of his cousin's foppish flicks, Javi is carved from solid teak. Known throughout his time at Benfica as "o Pilar Táctico" (the tactical pillar), Garcia grew into a pivotal role at the Estadio da Luz, providing the defence with a central boulder and an accurate, trustworthy outlet ball all in one package. Where de Jong excelled in crunching tackles and safe - often square - balls, Garcia is more likely  to top off a trademark tackle by surging out of defence, happy to carry the ball forward but always aware that his job is to find a more creative colleague. Although this sounds somewhat too close to stating the obvious, Javi also scores more frequently than de Jong  - who doesn't you might add - as a willing and obvious target for cleverly flighted dead balls into the box. here is a definite plus that de Jong could not offer. Where the old king was squat and ground-based, the new pretender is a significant aerial presence at corners and freekicks and will add to the already considerable threat posed by the loping hulks of Lescott, Yaya and Kompany at these critical moments. The vast majority of the 14 goals he notched for the Lisbon Eagles came from that sculpted forehead, although he has a lethal and occasionally accurate right foot, given the opportunity. He developed a happy knack, too, of scoring against Benfica's big rivals, netting in the Lisbon derby twice and at Porto.

His league record reads like this:

2004–2007 Real Madrid B 86
2004 Real Madrid 3 (0)
2007–2008 Osasuna 25 (2)
2008–2009 Real Madrid 15 (0)
2009–2012 Benfica 73 (6)
2012– Manchester City 0 (0)

Benfica's immediate reaction to losing their defensive talisman was to assure the press, via a ashen-faced Jorge Jesus, that there would be no immediate replacement bought to cover Garcia's departure. "He arrived here unknown and leaves an established star," said Jesus, through gritted hyperbolic teeth. Neither is completely true, in fact. He had already featured widely in the Primera Liga before arriving in Lisbon and is hardly an A-lister on departure.. His immediate replacement is the tough tackling young Serbian Nemanja Matic, although Jesus also mentioned André Almeida and André Gomes (two B team players) as future candidates to do the mopping job. Many think Garcia's exit will free up the excellent Witsel to take on a bigger role too.

What City fans can expect is a big game player with plenty of guts for the fight, an impressive physical presence, built to tackle, block and hassle whoever is in possession. We can expect to see a player, who is positionally sound, difficult to beat and has a flicker of fantasy for the other end of the field when the chance allows. 

We wish the big man luck forcing his feet into the steel slippers left behind by the one and only Nigel de Jong.

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