I can’t really sum it up any better than my dad did, just the other day – he said he’d love to follow City again, “but that’s not Manchester City”. It’s exactly how I feel, that the club I grew up supporting just isn’t really there any more, and something else stands in their place. There’s an odd disconnection in attempting to write about the two things together, but I’ll do my best. This, then, is my personal history of Man City.
It’s partly dad’s fault I ended up as a City fan in the first place, though there was a bit more to it than that. I’d like to pretend I made a conscious decision, as a kid in south Manchester in the 70s, but really it was pretty arbitrary and it might easily have gone the other way – my earliest football memory is not of City, but of United, specifically the 1977 FA Cup winning side. I hadn’t watched the game but my mum took me, aged 5, along to Washway Road in Sale the following day, to see the team pass by in their open top bus. Fortunately I resisted such early temptation – I think there were some playground allegiances involved which inclined me to the other lot – and then my dad confirmed it for me by taking me to Maine Road.
So it was that, in April of ’78 I saw City for the fist time. They got cuffed 3-1 by West Brom. I was hooked.
It wasn’t the first game I’d seen – by that time we’d been along to see Altrincham at Moss Lane a few times during the season, but this was a different thing altogether. I was entranced by the scale of it, the noise of the crowd …. If there had been any doubt about it before then there was no more. I was a Blue.
We had a couple more trips to Maine Road over the next few months, and there was another critical moment at a Junior Blues meeting one Sunday morning. There were a few players in attendance – I don’t know who they all were, but I know that when it came to the raffle it was big Joe Corrigan who pulled my number out the box. From the handful of prizes up there on the table I chose a scarf, and none other than Mick Channon himself wrapped it round my neck for me. It was the proudest day of the first seven years of my life. A lovely scarf it is too, much better quality than most of the ones you get nowadays. I’ve still got it and no, of course it’s never been washed.
But that was about it for the time being. In 1979 we moved to Scotland, and though I still called myself a City fan it was from afar, limited to watching results come through on the Grandstand vidiprinter (“Manchester City 10 (TEN) Huddersfield Town 1”) and listening to commentary of the 1981 Cup final on Radio 2. (Cup finals weren’t shown in Scotland as we’d be watching our own version. Though to be fair, they did show the replay. I can’t remember what happened.) If we wanted to see live football we’d go down the road to watch Raith Rovers, but I couldn’t really say our hearts were in it.
It wasn’t until September of 1989 that I moved back down to Manchester, this time as a student. The timing here was critical, because just one week *before* moving down, City had beaten United 5-1 in that famous derby – and of course, I wasn’t there. Instead, I made my return to Maine Road the following week for a League Cup tie against Brentford. I remember they were selling “Machin’s Marvels 5 Fergie’s Wallet 1” t-shirts outside the ground. City won 4-1 this time – the first time I’d ever seen them win. Trevor Morley scored a couple.
For the next few years I was a regular attendee, and while they didn’t seem like particularly exciting years at the time they were pretty good in retrospect, with Niall Quinn the new hero and fifth place finishes in ’91 and ’92. The following season was disappointing, as the limitations of Peter Reid’s workhorse philosophy made themselves apparent, but despite rumours of problems behind the scenes there was nothing at that stage to suggest quite what a calamity the decade was to become.
In 1993 I moved back north again – coinciding with a hot spell in the fortunes of Raith – but this time I continued travelling up and down to Manchester whenever possible. During the next few years the club descended into high farce, starting with the sacking of Reid (quite correct, but badly handled), then Brian Horton (incorrect, and badly handled) and the appointment of Alan Ball (good lord), before that daft season in 96/97 when the phrase “manager of the month” took on a whole new meaning. Even in the midst of miserable times there were some good moments, mind: one of my favourite City memories comes from the Horton era, sitting in the pouring rain in the half-built uncovered Kippax, watching us beat Spurs 5-2. I got soaked to the skin and loved every minute of it.
And yes, there followed double-relegations, but the season in the third tier in 98/99 was actually rather enjoyable. I was still going regularly enough then to feel a part of things, and more importantly to acquire enough ticket stubs to qualify for a ticket to Wembley for the play-off final at the end of the season. And what a day that was. I’m a mild-mannered man not prone to emotional overreactions, but when Paul Dickov’s equaliser hit the roof of the net in the fifth minute of injury time, so soon after we’d been 2-0 down, I lost the plot. I’ve never known anything quite like it.
And there were still some good times to come after that – and time enough for Ali Benarbia to become one of my favourite players in a City shirt. But it was probably inevitable that, as the next decade wore on, the long-distance relationship became more and more difficult to sustain. My own circumstances changed, ticket prices went up with the return to the top flight, and the move away from Maine Road removed another emotional link. Trips down south became rarer and more and more I’d find myself looking out for Raith first and City second.
But there’s no doubt what the final straw was. It was the sale of the club, in 2007, to Thaksin Shinawatra, a man accused of massive corruption and human rights abuse during his time as Thai Prime Minister. The full details were not much known, some in Thailand defended him, some say the charges are politically motivated (or at least, he does). But that wasn’t the point – no one knew much about it but no one seemed to care. He was promising to put money into the club and for most fans that seemed to cover it.
For me, I haven’t been back to Eastlands since.
The further sale, a year on, to Middle Eastern oil magnates hardly struck me as much of an improvement. True, I’m not aware of any such ethical issues with the current owners. But, like my dad, I struggle to see in what sense it’s still the club I grew up with. Even worse than the owners is the Chief Executive, Garry Cook, a man from a multinational corporation whose raison d’etre seems to be to stand enthusiatiscally for everything about the modern game I detest, a man who didn’t care about the Shinawatra allegations because he was a nice bloke on the golf course, and who wants to scrap relegation, cut down the premier league to its elite and turn it into an even more ruthless commercial machine than it is already.
For a few years prior, I’d been wondering how Chelsea fans could possibly take any pride in any success achieved by their club, on the back of such huge injections of cash from a source so unrelated to the club itself. I didn’t understand how they could continue to support them or to derive any sort of satisfaction from success achieved on those terms. And now that something similar has happened to my club I’m still none the wiser.
No, money doesn’t guarantee anything – City fans know as well as anyone that it’s possible to blow an awful lot of money and still be crap. I’m also well aware that there are many clubs throughout football – including the Raith team I follow now – who are to some extent subsidised or guaranteed by the generosity of local businessmen. But there’s a quantum leap from that to the sort of fantasy-football-by-gazillionaires, particularly ones with no previous connection to the city or the club, whose motives are unknown and possibly dubious, and it’s a leap I’m not prepared to make. If selling our soul is the price to be paid for having a chance of winning some trophies then I might as well have just supported United all along. What now is there to distinguish us from them? (Well okay, apart from the actual trophies.)
I should stress that this is a purely personal decision and – much as I was disappointed by the lack of reaction against Shinawatra – I have no expectation of or any moral judgement to make about anyone else for their own choices. If other people are still able to feel the same sort of affinity for the club in its current guise as I once felt for them then fine and well. I don’t get it, but good luck to you.
I also acknowledge that the break was almost certainly made easier for me by the fact that I’d already drifted away a bit over the preceeding three or four years. If it had happened at a stage when I was still going to every home game I’m sure it would have been a good deal more difficult, and I can’t be sure how I’d have reacted – but I think and hope it would have been just the same.
Football has built this pernicious legend around itself that you have to stick with your club no matter what. Of course, that’s not just marketing talk, of course I understand where it comes from. You form an emotional bond with your team, and the joy of the good times comes through having stuck with them through thick and thin. But it’s been very useful for the football world to play up this concept. It’s what enables the likes of Cook to believe that he can rely on his income streams no matter what he does with the club.
But there’s thick, there’s thin, and there’s having the piss taken out of you, and fans are under no obligation to stick with clubs through the latter. One of the most heartening aspects of football in recent years is the number of fans who have refused to do so, when everything that was important to them about their clubs was taken away. It’s why FCUM deserve such credit (despite, I admit, some quibbles on my part – which are probably grounded mostly in my difficulty giving credit to anything containing the words “United” and “Manchester”). Will anything similar happen for City? It doesn’t look likely in the short-term. It’s probably going to take spectacular failure and a financial meltdown before there’s a change of mentality, and until there is such a change, I won’t be back.
Old habits die hard though, and if I no longer consider myself a City fan then my trenchant dislike of that other lot remains unaffected. So this afternoon, for one day only, I’ll be right behind the boys in sky blue again. I can’t really get behind an overpaid waster like Balotelli, but I’ll squint my eyes a bit and pretend I’m watching Ian Bishop, Uwe Rosler and Paul Power. I really do hope they win.
Much more importantly, I hope Raith pick up three points at Stirling.
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