We never win at home, and we never win away
I became a Manchester City fan out of principle, or contrariness. Most of the other boys at my infant school were United fans. ‘City are rubbish,’ they said. ‘No one likes City.’ After a couple of years I managed to persuade my dad – a South African with no interest in English football – to take me to a match. It was 12 December 1994 and we lost 2-1 to Arsenal. I don’t remember much about the football. I noticed the parking signs on the lampposts with distinct rules for ‘First Team Match Days’. Men were shouting and singing in the street. Football meant that the normal rules and habits of behaviour didn’t apply.
When I was born City hadn’t won a trophy for ten years. When I was ten we were relegated from the Premier League. The season after that we had five managers, none of them any good. The season after that we were relegated again, to the Second Division. A favourite song of the era, which still gets an occasional tongue-in-cheek airing, begins: ‘We never win at home, and we never win away.’
When I was 25, in 2011, City won the FA Cup, their first trophy since 1976, and the following year we won the Premier League, Sergio Agüero scoring the winner in the final match of the season with almost the last kick of the game. The scene outside the stadium afterwards made me think of one of Kevin Cummins’s photos of clubbers at the Haçienda. The sense of disarray after a high was potent. ‘Is this real?’ I posted on Facebook. For months afterwards I couldn’t watch replays of the last few minutes of the match without a lingering fear that this time Agüero would miss.
Mishka Henner, an artist from Manchester, made a slow-motion video of his father walking across the pitch as the crowd made their way back to their seats after a post-match pitch invasion. ‘Wish my old man was alive to witness it with me,’ one comment on YouTube says. ‘I’ve watched this video loads of times and I’ve cried every time,’ says someone whose username makes a reference to a City hooligan firm. ‘This day made all those times on the Kippax worthwhile. I’m crying now. This day will never be topped by anyone ever.’
When the European Super League was mooted, writing explicitly into the rules of the competition the unwritten rule of total dominance by the rich clubs (and City, owned since 2008 by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, are among the richest), many fans felt it as a kind of betrayal, though no one could precisely articulate what was being betrayed. Did the Super League mean football was selling its soul, or was it the payment falling due? ‘I will never ever forgive them for stealing from me the opportunity to make the memories with my boy that my Dad made with me,’ a friend wrote on Twitter.
It’s hard to make a coherent critique of the current state of the game when there is no substantive programme of reform around which to begin a discussion. The media tend to focus on the nationality and motivations of individual club owners rather than the game’s system of governance, the role of money more broadly, or the experience of the fans. The whole discussion of English football is characterised by mutual antagonism: the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of a given set of fans with the current state of affairs is put down by their rivals as merely a reflection of how well or badly they’re doing in the league. The only unhypocritical positions seem to be total disengagement or total acquiescence.
Any expression of a sense of loss at the nature of the contemporary game is overshadowed by the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died because of police failures. You want to return to the bad old days of crumbling, dangerous stadiums, degraded facilities and habitual police neglect? This week saw the collapse of the trial of two former South Yorkshire police officers and a former police solicitor for perverting the course of public justice. They had altered police statements given to Lord Taylor’s Hillsborough inquiry in 1989, but the judge ruled that as a non-statutory inquiry, Taylor’s investigation was not a ‘course of public justice’; they therefore had no case to answer. Campaigners aren’t going to let it rest there.
Supporting City was a way for me to make sense of myself as a Mancunian in the absence of a family connection to the city I grew up in. This has only become more important the further I’ve drifted from home. For now I continue to opt for hypocrisy. City are playing Chelsea in the Champions League final at the Estádio do Dragão in Porto tonight. I got my hands on a ticket for a seat in the ‘neutral’ section earlier this week.