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And The Crowds Came Out For Europe (or maybe they didn't)
Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis
26th September 2018 – All quiet on the Eastern Front, while the sound of the bubbling cauldron out west fair makes your ears whistle.
The crackling static about City’s turn-out against Lyon in the Champions League was almost as fervent as the deafening screeching coming from Anfield. Why are City supporters indifferent towards the Champions League? Don’t they get it or something?
Well, this has been covered in many places by many people, some more accurately than others. Suffice to say, there are plenty of reasons, not rating Lyon as worthy of a viewing not being one of them.
In fact, historically speaking, a turn-out of 40,000 for a home game with last season’s third placed French team compares favourably with past European ties and continues a consistent thread through City’s staccato presence in the continent’s showpiece tournaments.
Let us drift back to the 70s, with Tony Book’s City beginning to make an imprint on the English game. Exciting times, average league attendances up above 42,000 for the first time in several years, inroads being made on United’s hegemony in the city of Manchester. City are unlucky enough to draw Juventus in the first round of the UEFA Cup, an occurrence quite able to happen on the basis of the strange belief in those ragged-trousered days that cup draws did not need to be seeded to allow Real Madrid and Bayern Munich to get to the semi-finals every year.
Juventus, then as now, the absolute mark of Italian football aristocracy, turned up in unreconstructed Moss Side with what was practically the Italian national side. Zoff, Bennetti, Scirea, Tardelli, Gentile, Causio, Cabrini, you’d Bettega believe it, all sashaying through the cramped Maine Road portals with their delicately cut suits and sweet-smelling cufflinks. Brian Kidd – wearing no nonsense Umbro diamonds – scored the goal that separated the sides after 90 minutes of drama and noise. 36,000 attended. Nobody squeaked about a less-than-full-house the next day.
The following year, with City’s star beginning to fade, the Poles of Widzew Lodz turned up, with star-in-the-making and future Juve midfield lynchpin Zbigniev Boniek emerging fast. 2-2 the final score and the only mention of the 33,695 crowd in the next morning’s papers was when Boniek was assaulted on the pitch by a single member of the modestly populated North Stand.
It was around this time chairman Peter Swales began fiddling the attendance numbers – sometimes very obviously for those of us wedged onto the Kippax and being told we were part of a 24,000 crowd – for tax reasons, so there may have been more present but the official numbers are these.
A year later City were embarking on their final European campaign until the Fairplay Gods threw a lifeline again in 2003.
Twente Enschede (3-2). Colin Bell continuing his heroic comeback in front of 29,330.
Standard Liege (4-0) a late three goal surge brightens the gloom for the 27,489 crowd.
AC Milan (3-0) an unforgettable night with Asa Hartford in charge and everything ticking against the Italian maestros. Attendance: 38,000. The quarter final against Liverpool’s old pals, Borussia Monchengladbach (1-1), was watched by a fraction over 39,000.
As can clearly be seen, 40,000 v Lyon stands good comparison, given it was the first game of the group matches and, therefore, one of those early season European matches that are not exactly on a knife edge competitively. That is what we have been delivered by the Good Men of UEFA with this competition. That everyone begins to wake up for the knock-out phases is for good reason: it’s more exciting. The Europa League is covered in slow growing moss for the same reason. Guaranteed games is good for the penny-counting likes of Ed Woodward, but the fans want to be pushed to the edge of their seats by matches that mean something.
The fall-out from Lyon was simply “bad day at the office”, “plenty of time to recover”. In the 70s, City would have been staring at almost certain elimination.
How about City’s rivals, who are always harping on about empty seats and a lack of history? Well, it’s all wearing a bit thin, but bear with me just one more time (perhaps). Our chums at Old Trafford fared less well for some of their European nights (see image above) and Liverpool’s famous nights in the 70s and 80s, although Youtube footage will have us believe it was all swaying Kop and You’ll Never Hear The End of Us, were also liberally decorated with matches that just did not seem to appeal to the massed ranks of red scarf wearers.
History tells us many things and one of them is not to open our mouths until we have something approaching the full picture of what’s going on.
As alluded to below by my co-writer, Liverpool’s smooth progress in the league is beginning to make some of us hark back to an earlier era too, this time for all the right reasons. The 3-0 walkover against Southampton was just the kind of nonchalant, never-in-doubt stroll that I remember so painfully from my youth. The scores coming through from Anfield were nearly always the same.
Liverpool one-up. Liverpool two ahead. Liverpool have made it three.
I remember Derby and Spurs allowing the score to go up to five and seven respectively (and later still Steve Coppell's Palace shipping nine) but those three-nil wins without breaking a sweat were commonplace. This one had a little whiff of the Dalglish and Souness about it too and that can only be a growing concern for those wearing sky blue favours.
– Simon Curtis
26th September 2018 – So it’s that time of the year again when Liverpool supporters get excited about watching their team play European games at Anfield and opposition supporters mock them for get excited about watching their team play European games at Anfield.
“Look at them with their silly banners and their silly songs!” scream the naysayers. “It’s a myth!” they add, “there are no special nights at Anfield!” On it goes, game by game, week by week, season by season … generation by generation. Meanwhile, us Reds just keep turning up and turning it on. Allez, allez, fucking allez.
I’m a pessimist by nature and a cynic by habit but if there’s one thing I refuse to play down it’s Anfield on a European night. I’ve been to practically every one since Rafa Benitez became manager in 2004 and there are very few, if any, that have disappointed. The noise is relentless, the sense of occasion tangible, and the effect … well, City fans know about the effect first hand, don’t you? 3-0 if I’m not mistaken.
When it comes to Anfield’s ‘special European nights’ I get the cynicism and the frothing, because no person involved in this most tribal of sports wants to be told that there’s another gang who do it better. But, I’m sorry, we do.
It’s a way of behaving born through tradition and habit, stretching back to those occasions in the 1960s and 70s when the club was finding its feet on the European stage and realised a great way of progressing past the likes Internazionale and St Etienne was to scare the shit out of them.
Auxerre got a taste of it in the early 1990s before the Anfield crowd lost its power for the remainder of the decade because as much as we shout, scream and sing, the team still needs to be half-decent and under Graeme Souness and Roy Evans it simply wasn’t.
But then came the Gerard Houllier-inspired renaissance. Barcelona were beaten in 2001 as well as Roma in 2002 before the Rafa years took it to a whole other level.
Good God those were sensational times. Juventus, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Arsenal; just four of the sides that arrived on Merseyside fancying their changes of European victory before all leaving beaten and battered. Their ears ringing with the madness of it all.
It’s been much of the same under Jurgen Klopp, with the win over City up there with the best European nights I’ve experienced at Anfield.
As soon as I took my place in the Kop around 45 minutes before kick-off, I knew it was going to be a good’un - the singing had already started and only got louder the closer we got to kick-off. Flags waved and the lad to my left was wild with adrenaline. His eyes bulging, his pulse no doubt racing.
Then came the onslaught, and I’ll never forget looking towards the touchline at 2-0 and seeing Pep Guardiola gesturing to his players to stay calm. He knew, we all knew: City were being overwhelmed by a collective force.
Last week, Paris Saint-Germain became the latest team to feel it. I couldn’t go to the match due to work commitments but most of my match-going mates did and, to a man, they claim it was as a belting night as the rest. And here’s the thing City fans, isn’t it good that there are a group of supporters who consistently and forcefully get behind their team during European games and, through some intangible magic, can help make the difference between triumph and disaster? Don’t we all want to believe football fandom is capable of that?
I know you’ve got your own issues when it comes to European nights at the Etihad, which Simon has outlined and explained in his piece, but surely, one day, you want that there, too? The type of nights you look forward to with feral excitement and remember with fondness years after they have passed. Those ‘I was there’ moments against the biggest and best Europe has to offer. Trust me, you do.
Having missed the PSG game, I made sure I was at Anfield last Saturday for what turned out to be expectedly routine win over Southampton. On this occasion the atmosphere was lukewarm, which was to expected given the opposition and the fact that, for most domestic games, the ‘best supporters in the country’ can be rather tame in their support. A song here, a chant there, but most of the time … very little.
As said, that was to be expected. What did hit me like a kick in the nuts, however, was the collection of messages that ran on the electronic hoardings during game. You may have seen them on Match of the Day - a cross put through ‘manager’ as ‘guardian’ pops up next to it; a cross put through ‘songs’ as ‘anthem’ pops up next to it; a cross put through ‘stadium’ as ‘home’ pops up next to it.
Now, that really is a load of bollocks.
– Sachin Nakrani