Since the surreal day in September 2008 when Manchester City’s fortunes became the talking point of the entire football world there has been a running joke amongst blues that refers to ten years previous. The die-hards ask it with conviction. The rest simply use it as a half-serious yardstick to determine whether the recipient of the query is a loyal supporter with years of devoted service and a heart callused by hard knocks and crushing under-achievement or just some Johnny-come-lately glory hunter.
Were you at York away?
Because in 1998/99 City’s circumstances were as contrasting to taking on the Spanish champions in the Bernabau as it is possible to conceive. Instead of Yaya there was Jamie Pollock. Instead of silverware there was gallows humour. Instead of strolling onto Madrid’s lush green turf there were scrappy, rickety-turnstiled awaydays to Bootham Crescent, Wycombe, Lincoln and Macclesfield Town, days that are cherished now with the same defiant pride that an extremely prosperous man recalls the tripe he ate in childhood poverty.
It was a season lest we forget where our perceived fall from grace into the third tier was so noteworthy it prompted ridicule across the nation. I still recall eating my chippy tea and hearing Chris Evans on TFI Friday make some scripted jibe at our expense to the sycophantic delirium of his coterie of part-time-Spurs-following, parrot-headed media gimps. A chunk of cod clung to the tines of my fork as I spat out a mouthful of venom and chewed-up potato. F*** you Evans you motormouth bellend and by the way Toploader are sh**e. The club may have been down and kick-worthy but by association the mocking was being aimed at the fans. And the fans were as exceptional then as the team they follow now, averaging gates of over 28,000 and jam-packing shed-ends across the land whilst belting out an eccentric chant that perfectly summed up the strangeness of the situation.
We are not, we’re not really here
We are not, we’re not really here
Just like the fan of the Invisible Man, we’re not really here
In the years since the journey has been remarkable to the point where it stretches reality and actually encroaches with both feet into the realms of dream. It has also been well-documented and lived incrementally day by day to the extent where sometimes it is easy to forget that this is still not quite the norm. No matter the money spent and the calibre of player in each blue shirt here is the club with relegations, mismanagement, implosions and perpetual heartbreak still embedded in its DNA stepping out at the Bernabau in a stylish Euro away kit as the English league champions.
It would be quite wrong to spend the entire ridiculous ascendancy into the big time pinching oneself or else you risk missing out on fully savouring the experience. But as Real Madrid peppered City’s goal from twenty yards with elite élan I heard loud and clear the decidedly dry Mancunian wit of ‘You’re just a s*** Barcelona’ ring out through my TV speakers and had one such pinchable moment. It was a jolting reminder that the club has undergone the mother of all makeovers but the fans have always been different class – it’s just that now the stage is big enough to Poznan on – and the tingling pride from that sustained me through the late drama that followed.
Last season brought the might of Bayern but no football fan is immune from being struck awed by the glittering aura and majesty of Franco’s boys. The stadium is hazy with ghosts more eminent than the coronated phantoms that haunt Buckingham Palace corridors. The mere name conjures up dominance and galactico glory.
It was into this ferocious cauldron of historical prestige and scarf waving zealots that Roberto Mancini decided to throw in a rookie teen with only 30 professional games under his belt. If conclusive proof were needed that the Italian does not trust Lescott with the nuances of European battle it was this startling selection that saw Matija Nastasic make his debut against Ronaldo, Di Maria and that most artful of strikers Higuain. Rumour has it that the callow Serbian is still a virgin with Jemma Jameson lined up to pop his cherry next week followed shortly after by his driving test with examiner Brian Blessed bellowing out instructions throughout.
Nastasic coped with the baptism of fire with accomplished ease and indeed looked far more composed than the man supposed to shepherd him through it. Last season Vinnie Kompany carried an unflappable sense of invincibility. He had the statesmanlike qualities that American dramas imbue into their fictional Presidents. Presently however he looks all at sea, a loss of imperiousness not helped by being pulled here and there with too much asked of him as Mancini incessantly tinkers with a simple winning formula at the back.
While Kompany attempted to deal with his own form demons he was flanked on one side by a debutant while on the other Maicon was having a stinker. He saw his full-backs isolated time after time. He had to reorganise his troops and accommodate a third centre-back just as a wounded Real were gearing up for their late onslaught. Yet nothing excuses his inexplicable decision to duck beneath Ronaldo’s routine late punt as a priceless point was in sight. It was a bizarre act that not only cost us so dear but deprived a splendid Joe Hart of a defining performance on his way to becoming a world class keeper.
So heartbreak it was. That old devil whose low, cruel chortle is so familiar to us old heads. You can take the boys out of Manchester but you can’t take City out of the boys.
The level City seek desperately to reach – to face the likes of Real as equals – is within touching distance now. This was illustrated by eliciting a knee slide from Mourinho for an opening group stage encounter. It was evidenced by soaking up 45 minutes of sustained pressure before unleashing Yaya to boss proceedings. The club, the side, the manager, are nearly there.
The supporters however have resided so long on that elevated plateau we regard it as home. Whether it’s Macclesfield or Madrid, a weed-strewn terrace or a comfortable seat, we’ve always been there. Despite what we sing.