|"Will I see you at Half Time? I never make plans that far ahead"|
Whilst the battle rages for the hearts and minds of the City faithful (“Ollie” Holt doing a particularly snazzy job of demolished flattened City and plucky oh-so-close Arsenal in his fabulous Mirror pieces this week– am I going nuts? No, really, somebody please help me with this), the real Champions League pressure test on Tuesday night was being enacted in the full and unforgiving glare of the strip lights and stiiff white curtains of the Mancunian Suite.
Here amongst the squadrons of trembling acne-clad teenage waiters and the phalanx (phalanx? Oh, yes, that’s definitely a phalanx) of mini skirted, Cossack-hatted hostesses, the talk was of “dying for the company” and “taking one for the marketing team”. Our table, populated by sales figure masseurs and global double digit profit enhancers, hummed to the sounds of fall-out from last Wednesday’s emergency sales meeting and the new directives from that “big nosed oaf” in the Paris office. Every time I initiated a conversation about Vincent Kompany’s hamstrings or, God forbid, the tao and te of Martin Demichelis, I was shouted down by a tall woman whose look for the evening had been constructed by teams of experts from Barrett Homes and TarMacadum. She was alternatively “so excited to be here” and also “deeply worried about last month’s figures”. She had both had her photo taken “downstairs” with Patrick Vieira and been talking urgently to Maximilian from the Brussels office. The excitement and the confusion was at once palpable and ever so slightly ridiculous. The former was all hers, the latter mostly mine.
You could, in fact, already cut the atmosphere with a knife.
You could, in fact, already cut the atmosphere with a knife.
Behind me, a fellow with a Mancunian accent was timidly embarking on free discourse about Clive Wilson and the art of working the left flank. Looking around from time to time to check he hadn’t been rumbled, I caught his eye and winked. It gave us both strength to continue. We were not alone. Not totally alone, but damn near it.
Meanwhile on our table, Jean Luc was taking one for the wine waiter, a short, bespotted boy with unfeasibly slick hair, who was nervously attempting to nudge napkins into position whilst remaining utterly invisible to the naked eye. An upbringing on the mean streets of Timperley might have helped him in this ephemeral shimmering that he was undertaking. His vitally important guest was busy ignoring his darting movements completely but I for one felt his uniquely terrible pain. Another charming young girl passed with a visiby wobbling bottle of Perrier atop a small tray, nay tablet, and stopped to ask us who we supported. I coughed a piece of mini spiced pretzel across the lush carpet and refused to answer what I have come to consider an obviously unnecessary question. Would I look as sallow and harassed as this if I supported Barcelona, for God's sake? The girl continued, nervously trying to pronounce Fernandinho whilst smiling, welcoming, gesturing and pouring at the same time. I got the water in my lap (it wasn’t even meant for me, I’m a strictly as much alcohol as possible man at City games, always have been, since the age of six and the unfortunate Barney Daniels Incident) and a nervously giggled let’s hope “Fernushkambranca” does play anyway! Will there be anything else?! No? Enjoy your sparkling water.”
David Silva’s non-smiling face looked out at me from the cover of my free programme.
Alongside him, a friendship scarf sat on my side plate
like a big loud raspberry to the partisan hatred of anything that might attempt
to get in the way of my City winning
this game. I pushed it under my posterior in an attempt to be high enough to
meet the towering gaze of the marketing lady from TarMac eye to eye. She caught me stuffing the ungodly garment under my buttocks and shot me a gaze of puzzled interest. I felt like sending off one of my best Rick Blaine lines from Casablanca. "Honey, it doesn't matter a hill of beans what you just saw. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship....". Instead I removed the half and half scarf from the back of my trousers and waved it at her, to prove that I had not been foraging in the undergrowth for anything else. Her smouldering heavy-lidded eyes told me she was impressed and drawn unknowingly to my Kippax Terrace animal charms.
|"Barman. Two pints of Dizzy Lady and a finger dip"|
As we had only been drinking in town since midday, it was easy to sit and refocus for a minute, as the troop of helpers assigned to our eight person table hovered, dillied, dallied, bowed and scraped. I had not started the day looking like a high powered member of upper management and was damn sure my afternoon activities had not rendered me any more business-powerful, but still they came, still they called me “sir” and smiled without batting an eyelid at my untucked shirt and the cloud of Stella mist hanging around us. Their unswerving dedication to the cause was noted with humility and gratitude and a certain amount of minor dribbling.
So I skipped and hopped my way through the salmon escabeche (“hey, it’s not cooked in the middle” – “Shall I get you another one?” – “It’s suposed to be like that you arse”....), the Salted Catalan Cod lying in its own bed of sorry excuses and the Seville Orange Crema Catalana, apparently flambéd orange flavoured egg custard (“you’d think the bloody thing would melt, wouldn’t you...?).
Having fallen victim to the wooziness that comes from adding white aperitif wine, bottles of Moretti and a flaggon of red wine to the afternoon’s schooners of Stella, I breezed the breeze and gulped in the fresh air of a cool Mancunian evening outside. My seat, padded to the density of a
small prince's bed made from the feathery down of a thousand migratory Barnacle Geese
accepted me with an embrace not unlike Aunty Edith at Christmas: deep, warm and eerily sticky. There it was: the dreaded plastic sheeting draped everywhere. We were to
be part of the mosaic, a marvellous continental invention which is made for television, but
not for those in the ground.
|My empanada, showing French teeth marks|
In your living room you see hitherto unimagined scenes and unexpectedly touching choreography, a swelling performance of artistry and syncronisation from 46,030 people. In the ground, it stops you clapping and hollering, it comes off on your hands (if you are part of the 97% of the stadium holding up “bits of black”, as they are technically called, and it prevents you from seeing the, er, fantastic display being put on for the good people in their living rooms. Still, unlike those poor souls on black, I later discovered that my white plastic sheet meant that I and other like-minded folk around me had been holding up the European Cup!! Or the Champions League Trophy, if you are new age. Inadvertently, me and Jean Luc and the inevitable small family party of Japanese that had by now appeared at our side, were to be the chosen ones, who got closest to the cup with the big ears this season. Closer than Vinnie, closer even than Michel Platini and his mates, probably now supping pints of Lambrusco with the Gallagher Clan downstairs. Vive La Belgium, I was tempted to shout in all the excitement but felt it might be grammatically corrected by Jean Luc, who had at last joined us from the bosom of next years Grand Plan du Marketing and was busy scooping hungrily at the last fragments of flambéd Crema Catalana on the lapels of his Vanessa Paradis Trenchcoat.
(....First half ...)
Ah, half time. Wonderful. A time to be back inside again. Amongst friends and colleagues, but mainly colleagues. My menu card (which was so large you had to stand up and edge away from the table to read it, unless you wanted to take someone’s eye out or flip the masses of glasses over) read “HALF TIME: Spicy beef empanada with garlic aioli”. Now I cannot quite remember whether I was ready for such a treat. Quite possibly not. The afternoon Stella(s), interacting nicely with my salted cod and crema Catalana, were making me feel like a mobile Quatermass experiment, but still the sight of Jean Luc, with his immaculately straight blue tie and his side parting and rows of identical sales figures, eating a second beef empanada (there were 4 in the little presentation dish. There were 4 of us there to scoff, er consume, them. Thus ONE EACH) set the tone, I now realise, for the beginning of the second half, where yours truly behaved, as the FA Disciplinary Hearing I should have been called to might have put it, in a way utterly unbefitting a marketing executive of Giant Rollover PLC.
We are of course there to set an example. We are there to show the younger ones how to behave in public, which knife to start with (always work in from the outside, kids), how to drink bubbly water without provoking a giant coughing fit and a spray-filled replica of the Iguazo Falls, how to tuck in your napkin and double knot your half and half scarf. Well, they were there for that. As an imposter, a non-board member, a non executive and indeed a non-conformist, this gesture of empanada theft, my empanada, by the loose lipped Frenchman, helped to push me, if not over – that would be in the capable hands of Mr Jonas Eriksson of Sweden-, then towards the very edge of the precipice.
I had been walking a tight –and somewhat swervy- line for some time already.
He didn’t even ask. He did not ackowledge his sudden bout of the Les munchies du mi-temps. He did not apologise. He did not treat us to the rogue grin of L'Homme Qui Doit Manger Tous. He just launched himself at it, his second don’t forget, taking a giant, finger-including scoop of the spicy mayonnaise (this is what they mean by garlic aioli I was informed by a culinary insider) and – and this was the defining moment of my forthcoming surge of table rage – continued to pontificate in a French accent about his sales team’s otherworldly performance. I could see small bits of my empanada going around in his mouth, fragments of my soul being crunched and lubricated and suffocated and smashed, utterly smashed.
|My empanada alongside Jean Luc's, before he ate both|
I thought of Napolean and went back outside. What happened next sealed it for me completely. It was a good six or seven minutes into the second half and the defining moment was already about to fall. My night was about to be complete. With the play ebbing and flowing, back came the seven man Japanese party, one by one with an interval between each nodding member just long enough to allow you to sit down again before the next one arrived, bowing and clearing bits of, what, empanada!!!, from their lips. Darkness closed in around me, a fog descended, I took to my feet and I began to shout at nobody in particular in the loudest voice I could muster. Mists seized me, as did a large man with onion breath and a walkie talkie.
I looked him full in his one good eye, took a good grip of his lapels and whispered, "Of all the gin joints of all the towns in all the world, you walked into mine ...."