35yrs…but it was worth the wait with my beloved City

Yaya Toure scores Man City's winnerAt some time around 5:15pm, on Saturday 14th May 2011, Carlos Tevez, captain of Manchester City Football Club, climbed the Wembley steps, shook a few hands, and held the FA Cup aloft. The blue moon had finally risen. City had won their first trophy since 1976. After 30 years of supporting my team, I had witnessed a City player lifting a trophy. It barely seemed real.

The last time City won a cup, I had just spoken my first words, and just learnt to walk. On 28th February 1976, the Four Seasons topped the charts with December ’63. Abba’s Mamma Mia had recently lost its place at the top. It was the days of terraces, rag and bone men, the Football Pink, the hottest summer ever and the first commercial Concorde flight. Margaret Thatcher had taken over the Tory party, but was 3 years away from becoming Prime Minister (remember her?). Elvis Presley was still alive too.

A lot has happened in those 12,858 days. In the period since then, Heath Ledger was born, and died. Computers took over our lives, we got something called global warming and Britain fought over the future of the Falklands, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I still haven’t swum with dolphins.

Thirty five years and we’re still here? One hundred and five domestic trophies were handed out to top-division sides in that time. A few European trophies too. I always console myself with the thought that if City had had the success of United, by now I’d be bankrupt and in the Betty Ford clinic. Small mercies and all that.

The 20th century gave us three historic moments of jaw-dropping poor predictions – Neville Chamberlain declaring peace in our time, the man who said computers would never catch on, and Peter Swales, sat in his seat in the early days of his chairmanship of Manchester City saying “this is easy”.

Easy it was not. One of my first memories was relegation – a fitting way to start my lifelong relationship, my only one. David Pleat skipped across the Maine Road turf, and a generation of disappointment had begun. We went down, we came back up, we went down and further down, we came up and further up, we contested a Full Members Cup Final the day after a Manchester Derby, we had a few days in the sun, but many more in the rain, and we never sat at the top table, and we never won a trophy. This was the team that managed to get relegated on my birthday. Twice.

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The stats for the last three decades make for grim reading. It can come as little surprise that City are the best supported team never to have played in the Champions League. And the list of teams that had played in a cup final since City last did was the ultimate stark reminder of their prolonged failure. The list of teams that had reached a semi-final since City last did (special shout out to Chesterfield) was almost too depressing to read.

I always used to think it was hope that kept a football fan going. The good times that may be just around the corner. But it is the hope that got ultimately destroyed time and time again, until harbouring hope seemed pointless.

As John Cleese’s character Brian Stimpson said in the film Clockwise: “It’s not the despair Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

And it’s even harder to stand when the team down the road are hoovering up every trophy in sight.

Hope was a dangerous thing to have as a City fan, as it was always dashed. A quarter final at home to West Ham springs to mind, when our name was “on the cup” before defeat left us in familiar territory.

You don’t support a team to win trophies, unless you are a glory hunter, but if I had known in 1982 that I wouldn’t see my team win a trophy for the next 30 years, I’d have probably changed my allegiance there and then. I have never regretted my choice though. No trophies perhaps, but so many good memories, and so many good friends made in the unique family that is a football club, any football club.

I spent Saturday with many of those friends, from 5am to 4am the following day. Many cried at full time. A couple welled up just from listening to Abide With Me. The pressure of being favourites weighed heavily on many, the pressure to break the barren spell was greater. The release of that pressure at full time, the release of three decades of tension, broken promises, false hopes and near-constant dejection was immense.

When you wait so long for success, when 18 managers have passed through the door, it is inevitable that not everyone made it. Friends and family have passed away before they had the chance to see a City captain lifting up a piece of silver. They never experienced the feeling I had on Saturday afternoon. I wish I could believe they are looking down on us celebrating too, but I can’t. To absent friends, to those that missed this moment, to those that never saw their football team win a trophy, it was undoubtedly for you.

A lot of blues spoke before and afterwards of those that are no longer with us. How they would have loved the game, how they would have spent the day together, how much one game of football meant to them, how they would have loved one more day together to experience what we did at the weekend.

Because days like Saturday are the epitome of what football means to people. Football is not just about the results on the pitch, it is way, way more than that. It is a family, a lifelong affiliation. Saturday showed that. Soppy perhaps, but so very true. That is why Tony Pulis wanted to win the game for his mother who passed away last year. That is why so many wanted their team to win, for parents who no longer stood by their side.

This is how it devours peoples’ lives, affects their every mood, shapes who they are. Loyalties are passed from father to son (though not in my case, my father being a United fan!), from generation to generation, memories are passed on too. Football is used as pointers for your life. This stupid game of 22 men kicking a pig’s bladder (sorry, synthetic substitute) around a piece of grass has so much to answer for, but so much to give. It is because football fans invest so much time, effort and emotion into their clubs that sometimes it almost matters too much. You are a hostage to your club’s fortunes. All you can do is prey and hope. Even atheists like me have preyed a thousand times in a football ground.

And credit to Stoke fans for staying at the end to support their team, to savour the day for every moment it offered to them, despite the result. I’m not sure I could have done the same. They were a pleasure to spend the day with, unlike the previous round. And credit to Tony Pulis for taking a second Wembley defeat to Manchester City with grace and dignity. They have a European adventure ahead of them, and they will love every minute of it.

Many in the press wrote about how City’s day would be overshadowed by United winning the league. Their ignorance is laughable. No one spoke of United, and no one cared. Everything rested on our result, everything.
Of course the inevitable recriminations about City buying success have continued, and I am not about to revisit the tedious arguments over how to do things the right way. The fans are now labelled as arrogant, but they are the same friends that were travelling to Lincoln and watching Bury beat us at home just 12 or 13 years ago. Our current owners have run our club with as much class, dignity and thought for the fans as any other owner in my lifetime. Next year my season ticket will cost £460, and tickets for domestic cup ties will be capped at £15 until the quarter-finals. I have never been prouder of my club, its players or its owners. And irrelevant of the money, Roberto Mancini and Yaya Toure will be club legends forever. They have earnt it.

So the monkey is off City’s back. A new and exciting journey begins, and it seems City didn’t kill football after all. Fancy that.