Thursday 27 April 2023

Football - It's the hope that gets you in the end

 I have two major passions in my life, one is music and the other is football. 

I enjoy playing and watching both. Sometimes, the two worlds collide. Last night was a classic example. About six months ago, we bought tickets to see The Teskey Brothers. If you've not heard of them, they are an Aussie band that play music in the Style, think Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. The singer Josh Teskey is perhaps the best singer you will hear performing orginal material at the moment. When I booked the tickets, I didn't realise that the date would clash with the most improtant Premier League game my team Manchester City FC will play this season (hopefully). The match against Arsenal may well have decided the destination of the title, barring a Devon Lock style collapse by City and Arsenal rapidly discovering their faltering self belief. 

But I found myself here

I seriously thought about not going but Mrs T was having none of it. As it turned out, I watched the first half on my phone before the show started. The band were excellent and I managed to catch up. Once John Stones put the second goal in the net, just before half time, I felt the game was done.

This morning, on Facebook I saw the carnage of dreams that City had laid waste to my numerous friends who support Arsenal. Most had managed to convince themselves that the six points dropped in the previous three matches were a blip and 'The True Arsenal' would show up. Mr Kevin DeBruyne had other ideas. Now Manchester City find themselves in the driving seat. All they have to do is win every game between now and the end of the season, they will win the treble. A feat only Manchester United have managed previously. Who are the main obsticles? None other than Manchester United and Real Madrid, thirteen times winners of the Champions League. Neither of those two clubs will be sitting back thinking how nice it will be to see a very good City team finally achieve the potential that the billions invested were expected to deliver. 

For City fans, anything less will feel like failure. But the truth is that it is a terrible curse being a football fan. For nearly three decades Manchester United were the richest team in the world. They had Alex Ferguson, a legend who won the Premier League fourteen times, a total unlikely to ever be superceded (unless Pep Guardiola decides to stay at City until he can draw a pension). Every season United fans would dream of winning the European cup. Under Ferguson, despite all of the great players and all of the wealth, he won the Champions League twice (the same number of times as Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest). This is not because Ferguson is a rubbish manager, it is because it is extremely difficult. I believe that it is far harder for a Premiership team to win the ECL than for a team from the other major European leagues. If you look at Arsenal's recent run, you can see why. Before playing City they drew with both West Ham and Southampton. Both clubs are mired in a relegation struggle and Arsenal had been expected to win easily. The truth is that no one in the Premier League rolls over. When teams rest players and rotate, they often come unstuck. If key players get injured, whole seasons can be derailed. When you think about it, despite Manchester United being the best team for three decades, in only two seasons did their fans end the season feeling they'd reached their full potential. As for Pep Guardiola, universally recognised as being the best manager in the world at the moment, he's won the Champions League twice, the same as Clough and Fergie and only with Barcelona. 

Now any City fan will tell you that this is the best era for City ever and that the team are amazing, but in truth, every time they've got the bus back from yet another Champions league failure, the feeling is one of desolation. Hopefully, this season will be different, but how many times have we felt that. Last season, City were cruising in the 90th minute, two goals ahead of Real Madrid, only to get the most massive kick in the teeth. The desolation I felt was indescribable. As the clock ticks towards this years semi final showdown, there is a deep sense of fear in the pit of my stomach. In truth, I've never followed City to watch them win titles, I followed them because I felt a strange sense of empathy with the club. It was less glamourous than its rivals, but was famed for mercurial players, Colin Bell, Rodney Marsh, Peter Barnes, Georgie Kinkladze, who would do things that the laws of physics should deem impossible. I recall Dennis Tueart winning the League Cup 1976 with an overhead kick against Newcastle. It seemed to me that only a City player would have the audicity to do that. No matter how bad things got, there was always a prospect who would be the saviour. 

In truth, the soul of football was sold when the Premier League was formed. The idea that a modern day Brian Clough could win the Champions League twice with Forest seems ridiculous, unless a state buys the club and invests a zillion pounds. Ironically, Manchester United, who thought the Premier League would make them unassailable have become the biggest victims. Their wealth and success attracted the Glazers, American asset strippers. Over a decade and a half, the club have lost their glamour and been knocked off their perch as the premier league top dogs. The club are saddled with debt and whereas twenty years ago, you'd see kids walking around Brent Cross in Man Utd tops, now this is a rare sight. United fans still dream, but the harsh reality is that their dreams simply add $$$$ to bank accounts in the USA. Every United fan dreams of a saviour, who will buy out the Glazers, invest in the club and return the glory. It may well happen, but every year of failure is another year of kids who won't wear their shirts, another lost generation.

I have to add that not all US owners are a disaster. Perhaps, the biggest story in football this season is Wrexham, where a pair of American superstars have bought the club and turned it into a Hollywood blockbuster. I have watched with interest. Wrexham are my second team. They have been since 1984, when a bloke from Wales called Keith joined the company I worked for. As we both liked football, music and beer, we soon became good mates. He told me that his mates from North Wales were coming down to London to watch  Wrexham play. He said they were doing a beer trail and going for a curr afterwards. I invited myself along. I've been watching the team ever since. Back in 2019, we ended up at Leyton Orient, watching Wrexham what was rather like last nights game. A virtual league decider. Wrexham lost. It seemed like the chance was blown.

 I have enormous respect for their fans, who spend hours on coaches and come in huge numbers. I was delighted when they won promotion, but sooner or later they will hit the ceiling. Whatever league you are in, you want better next season. In 1999, when Manchester United were winning the treble and the first of Fergie's Champions League titles, I was watching City beat Gillingham in the the third tier play off final at The Old Wembley. I was dreaming of a time when maybe, just maybe, City might once more be a mediocre Premier League team, perhaps reaching a cup final before old Father time catches up with me. Now, I'm writing that failure to win the treble is failure. And if City do win it? It all starts again next year. What do we dream of then?

Music isn't like that. You just enjoy it. When the Beatles beat the Stones to the no 1 slot, you didn't draw the curtains and stay in. You just listened to Satisfaction rather than Penny Lane. In truth, with football, it isn't the defeats that crush you. It's the hope. If Dr Who had turned up with his Tardis as I left Wembley in 1999 and showed me the league table today, I'd never have believed him. To be honest, I thought it was more likely we'd be playing Wrexham than Real Madrid now. Maybe in 20 years time, it will be Wrexham playing Real? In football, nothing would surprise me.


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