Monday, 19 April 2021

Football - why my love affair with the game is on life support

 Ok, the headline is an exaggeration. I will always love Football. I will always love the club I support, Manchester City (unless they cease to be Manchester City and the franchise moves). But I have never felt more disilllusioned with the club, the top echelon of the game, the owners of clubs. As a City fan born in 1962, I saw my fair share of relegations. I've been at the ground for a couple of them. When they dropped down to the Third tier, I thought it was one of the most depressing days of my life. But not for a second did I think "Maybe I'll support United or Arsenal instead". I just felt sick, drew the curtains and waited for the challenge of a new season. And when that season came, it was difficult. I remember playing York City, with 3,000 City fans there, giving the opposition a huge cash bonus. It seems ironic now, but I remember being on the terraces at Fulham. I was sitting with Big Dave Watson's nephew, who'd got me a ticket (he worked as an engineer at the studio). Mohammed Al-Fayed was the owner of Fulham and they were taunting City with chants of "We've got loads of cash". Fayed had invested heavily, whilst City had more or less stuck with the team that got relegated. The home crowds at City in the third tier were higher than the previous season in the second tier, but the campaign was not the instant, easy promotion City fans expected. They ended up in a play off final. 

I took my eight year old nephew, who wasn't quite sure whether to follow my lead and support City or my brothers and support United. I explained that United was an easy gig, you had trophies, you had amazing players, you had glittering European ties. But with City you got something different, something better. You got a perspective on life that would prepare you for anything. You may never see them win a trophy, but that didn't matter. When you were on the terrace at the Kippax, or at Fulham on a freezing cold day in winter, you'd get genuine excitement. The lows would hurt and ruin your weekend, but the highs, few and far between, would be so much more delectable than for a United fan, who would consider a season where the FA cup was the sole trophy to be a failure. Success for fans in football is like being a heroin addict. There comes a point where you don't enjoy the hit of success, but it stops you feeling down, which you do, even when things are relatively good. 

At 89 minutes into the game, Gillingham were 2-0 up. The Gallagher brothers from Oasis had flounced out of the stadium. I am not sure what was going through my nephew's head, but I suspect it wasn't "This is great". I just kept telling him "Keep the faith". In the 90th minute, Kevin Horlock scored. It seemed too little, too late. Then the injury time was announced. There would be another six minutes. In the fifth minute, Paul Dickov equalised. The Gallaghers, half way down the old Wembley way, started to sprint back. 

It seemed inevitable that City would prevail in injury time. Gillingham were devastated, but no. They rallied. The match went to penalties. Unsurprisingly, Horlock scored. Gillingham missed their first penalty. We relaxed. Up stepped the hero of the 95th minute, Paul Dickov. He missed. The Gills scored. It seemed like City were destined to put a dagger through our hearts. But they slotted away the next two and when Nicky Weaver saved Butters penalty, City were back. My nephew now knew what supporting City meant. United won the treble, but nothing could compare to what we'd seen. 

I dreamed that maybe City would eventually get back into the Premiership and maybe win the League cup, possibly occasionally beating United, to allow me to wind my brother up. Little did I dream that within ten years, the petro dollars would arrive. I never saw the Agueroooooooooo moment coming. That was another game that put us through the mill. Against QPR, sat with my 10 year old son. QPR on their way to relegation, City just needing a home win. Zabaleta scores in the first half. It all looks so easy. The Rangers score 2. Yet again, it goes to the wire. Fergie and Man Utd are celebrating after their win at Sunderland. The noisy neighbours have been silenced. But then Edin Dzecko equalises and as Fergie waves to the fans, the ultimate maverick Ballotelli to pokes a ball to Aguero, City score and take the title. Fergie, hearing the groans, realises what has happened. He stops waving. As a City fan, that scene was almost as good as Aguero's goal. Those two moments will forever be remembered. 

But as any primary school RE teacher will tell you, when you sell your soul, there is a debt to pay. It seems that the debt is being collected today. The 'Big Six' have decided to shaft the rest of English football. The bottom line is that City have become everything I depised United for being when they set up the Premiership, with other greedy top level clubs. 

On Saturday, I watched two games. Just as I introduced my nephew to City, three years ago he returned the favour and introduced me to Hadley FC. The oldest football club in the Borough of Barnet and my nearest proper non league club, being based in Brickfield Lane, opposite the Gate pub. They are currently in the Essex Senior League. To my amusement, when I started going, my wife thought that meant they were a bunch of old codgers. I found a few old mates from School were fans, it has been great to catch up. I bought a season ticket, this meant I could get a local fix of footie, when I wasn't making the Pilgrimmage to Manchester. I've always loved lower league football. My Dad sponsored Edgware Town in the 1960's through his business. In the 1980's and early 1990's I didn't watch much football as I used to play for Hendon Old boys in the ASA on a Saturday. In the mid 1990's I started to go again, watching Barnet FC at Underhill and being a guest Wrexham fan when they played in London, as one of my best friends was a supporter. 

When Barnet moved from Underhill, I found it strangely underwhelming and lost interest. Hadley re-ignited this. This season, they are on a record breaking run in the FA Vase. Their match was live streamed from Sutton on Saturday. I paid a fiver to watch this before the the City vs Chelsea cup semi. Due to Prince Phillip's funeral, the times were moved, so I only caught the first half and 10 minutes of the second. It was a superb game. Both teams committed and trying to play football. I switched over when City started, with Hadley at 1-1, having just scored a penalty before the break.

They went on to win 1-3 and continue the run.

 I wished I hadn't. Hadley got £1,000 for winning and a couple of hundred quid from the streaming fees. That probably paid for a minute of one of the City players time. They were awful in the first half, disinterested and lazy. It was only in the second half, when local lad Phil Foden came on that there was any spark. I can take lazy, lack lustre performances in cup semi's, God knows I've seen some awful games, but to follow this by supporting the ESL proposal has strained me to almost breaking point.

I know that I will be at Hadley when fans are allowed back in. I know I will always be a City fan. But I do not feel the same. I have often wondered what would have happened if Dickov hadn't scored. In a sliding doors world, City would still be yo-yo'ing around the divisions. Someone else would be one of the big six. I'd be ranting and railing against it on this very blog. But it is not the fault of the fans. None of us want it. In truth, this moment has been coming for decades. What happens next is what matters. If Football moves to a franchise, no relegation, no promotion ESL, then I think it will end up declining in the UK. We love the underdogs. We loved it when Wimbledon beat Liverpool. When Wigan beat City a few years back in the FA Cup, my feelings were tempered by the feeling that at least the loyal Wigan fans had a day they will remember of ever. Like the Leicester story, it showed there was some heart left in football. Today feels like the day that heart has been ripped out. 

The soul of Manchester City isn't dead, it will never die whilst people who were at Wembley for the Play Off win over Gillingham are still around. People who expected Aguero to ballon that over the bar. I just hope that football see's sense and moves away from this concept that all football is for is to be a cash cow for billionaires to fleece those silly enough to support a top flight club. That Leadership won't come from the clubs. Sooner or later, if fans really care, they will take action. For me, the place to start would be a boycott of the TV companies. They are where the power really is at the moment. Although I fully expect them to be shafted by the clubs, when they set their own streaming services up for this new ESL. I wouldn't like to see a fan boycott of the terraces, because to me, being on the terrace is what it is really all about. 

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