When I was growing up, my mum would ask: “You’ll stick with them, will you?” She meant Manchester City. And always after City had lost, which in those days was often. I did stick with them, as Mum knew I would, because that’s the deal with football teams. I think she just liked the idea that her son had grasped the concept of loyalty. But there were moments when I looked at my two brothers (Liverpool fans) and some of my less imaginative friends (Manchester United) and wondered what had possessed me. Shouldn’t the road less travelled contain fewer potholes?
While most football fans merely suspect that Sod’s Law was conceived with their team in mind, City fans know it. I cite in evidence my solitary lapse in more than 30 years of blind faith. With minutes to go in the 1999 play-off final at Wembley, City were 2-0 down to Gillingham. The winners would be promoted to the giddy heights of English football’s second tier. The losers, well—did you ever pop into Oldham around the turn of the millennium? It was more than I could bear. I changed channels.
Half an hour later, I switched back to wallow in the post-mortem. Somehow, the game was still going on: City had scored twice, forcing extra time, and they went on to win on penalties. I still feel guilty. But that was the point: when I tuned in, they invariably stuffed it up; on the rare occasions I didn’t, they’d get promoted. It was Sod in excelsis.
I know what you’re thinking. Is this the same Manchester City who are currently enjoying the beneficence of Abu Dhabi billionaires? To which I say: details, details. City and I go back far too long to be separated by a sweet-talking magnate—to the early 1980s, in fact, when I first collected football stickers. I never did complete the sticker book, but City came closest to a full set and there was something beguiling about Paul Power’s ginger moustache. In 1981 they reached the FA Cup final against Spurs. Even for a six-year-old growing up several hours away in Oxford, this was heady stuff.
They lost, naturally, conceding a goal to Ricky Villa that is still legendary today. I cried. But a template had already been set. Villa’s famous slalom came in the replay. In the first game Tommy Hutchison had given City the lead before redressing the balance with an own-goal. Very City.
Looming throughout were Man United, who somehow turned City-like underachievement into world domination. This wasn’t entirely helpful, especially when foreign friends called United “Manchester”. I tried in vain—and, given my roots, a touch hypocritically—to tell them that proper Mancunians supported City. They nodded.
There was only one thing for it. City’s haplessness would have to become a badge of honour. So what if United won everything? We had unpredictability!
It was a logic that made rare triumphs all the sweeter. Bliss it was to be alive the day City thumped United 5-1 at Maine Road in 1989-90. And when, a mere 18 years later, Sven-Goran Eriksson steered them to their first pair of league victories over United in one season since 1970, it was almost possible to forget that the club had sold its soul to Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled prime minister of Thailand and no poster boy at Amnesty International.
Now, almost overnight, those goalposts—the ones which other teams habitually rattled—have shifted. In 2008 City got another new owner, Sheikh Mansour, and his cash lifted them from mid-table mediocrity to challengers for a place in the Premier League’s top four, with its promise of European football. In 2010-11, they finished third and made it into the Champions’ League (only to blow their chance); in 2011-12, they were top at Christmas for the first time in 82 years, and stayed there until mid-March, when United (who else?) inched past them.
Last season City played grim football in the image of their pragmatic manager Roberto Mancini. But now the iron defence comes with some expensive creativity up front. David Silva (£24m), a World Cup winner with Spain, spent the first half of the season gliding around as if playing on a billiard table. Mario Balotelli (£23m), an Italian with a nose for trouble, mixes audacious goals with temper-tantrums and antics like setting fire to his own bathroom; this would once have counted as a typical City fiasco, but is now shrugged off as an amusing eccentricity. The marriage of grit and flair is admired even by detractors who resent City’s ultra-capitalism. Their own teams, of course, would never stoop so low.
For years, City harked back to a brief golden age in the late 1960s. Now they are the FA Cup holders and the “noisy neighbours”, as Alex Ferguson, the United manager who has seen off 17 City counterparts in 25 years, puts it. When City won 6-1 at Old Trafford in October, the noise was heard around the world.
Do I miss the old days? A little. For Christmas, a friend bought me a T-shirt emblazoned with “Goater, Kinkladze and Rosler”, three cult heroes from the banana-skin days. City fans are great at retro chic, less sure about future chic. It could still go horribly wrong: they could finish the season without a trophy. But I can assure my mum that I’ll be sticking with them.
Lawrence Booth is the new editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack and a columnist for the Daily Mail
Picture credit: Getty
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine