I am glad that United had secured the title before I went to the Etihad. I mean, it would have been a bit awkward to sit among City season-ticket holders and desperately want them to loose. As it was, the result didn’t matter, so I was fairly relaxed about the result.
Many United fans wouldn’t set foot in City territory today. And one of my City hosts declare that he wouldn’t be able to see FC United, although they are fascinated by what I tell about the non-stop singing.
Back in the 60’s, it was not uncommon that United fans went to City’s home matches, when United were away, and vice versa. And City and United players were living in digs together, going out for drinks – or like George Best and Mick Summerbee setting up business together. But a religious divide has developed, much due to the media building up tension for matches.
Anyway, I take the newly opened metro-link to the Etihad for the Saturday’s early kick-off. And I confess: I like the stadium complex. The plans were originally part of Manchester’s bid for the 2000 Olympics. That bid having failed, they build it for the 2002 Commonwealth games, and the following year Manchester City moved in.
The complex is more coherent than most. A TV-show is being run around “City square”. TV crews walk around the area, and all around the stadium as well as inside the ground, you can follow the building-up for the match at City Square. The catering is fine – with covered benches, tables and even toilets. You can choose between many different stalls – and although the chips I get with my fish are appalling as well as expensive, the choice is much wider than in most places.
It is bitterly cold, and suddenly the rain lashes down. I regret not having brought my winter jacket and my hat. I seek shelter in the City megastore, where I even contemplate buying a hat, as my ears feel as though they are about to fall off. I walk upstairs and guess that it is here the Manchester City museum used to be. There are City milestones written on the wall along the stairs. But after the new owners took over, City decided to expand their commercial possibilities and close down the museum. It is now an extended area for shirt-printing, signing up for membership and ticket sale.
Perhaps to compensate for this, City have posted giant displays of the major events in their history around the ground – with last season’s title win taking up almost half of it. Again, I am glad that United have taken the title back before I go. I can’t help noticing, how important that title win seems to be for City fans. United are selling shirts with “Champions 20” on the back, celebrating their twentieth title. City supporters are wearing shirts with “Champions 12” on the back. At first I am a bit puzzled, as City have only won three titles, but, of course, they are celebrating winning the league title in 2012 as THE highlight.
Still. I have to admit, the building-up of atmosphere at City square is really good, and I am always taken aback by remembrance gardens like the one they have outside the ground. The thought of having your ashes spread at your favourite football ground and your family laying flowers when they come for a match is appealing, I remember seeing Leicester City fans cry in their memory garden the other night. And as a visiting supporter, you can’t help feeling deep respect.
Speaking of visiting supporters, as I pass the away fans section, I notice that the search of the visiting supporters are the most thorough I have seen so far. One woman does not only have her long hair lifted. Security checks every part of her body and also her boots. And she doesn’t look particularly suspect.
Half an hour before kick-off I enter the ground – and I am even more impressed. My instructions say that I can enter through either turnstile B or K, which are in opposite ends of the ground. I can’t really understand it, until I enter. Instead of the claustrophobic small rooms under different sections of most stands, there is one single, giant, room running under the entire stand! Spacious, apparently with suffient catering and toilet facilities. And through television screens linked up to the City Square. According to one of the City fans, I am visiting, the place is really vibrant for the big matches. I can imagine that.
Also impressive, you don’t have to make your way through passages and stairways to get the final way into the stand. You can actually see the pitch through the many doorways along the walls of the catering room. And above them, they have printed fans’ stories on how and when they became City fans. I really like that, even though a few of them have an anti-United element.
When I go pitch-side, I see all the players and the referee, Howard Webb warming up. At first, I must admit (politically incorrect), I think he is talking to a mascot. But it turns out that it is the female linesman, looking so small beside him.
I had the impression that City were singing their anthem, “Blue Moon”, ahead of kick-off. Well, they don’t today. Perhaps it is the early kick-off, making the atmosphere subdued, perhaps the fact – as the West Ham supports rub in – “You are not champions anymore”. There are also lots of empty seats. As the box office was open outside the ground, I knew that it wasn’t a sell-out, but there seems to be thousands of empty seats. Astonishingly, the attendance is claimed to be only a few hundreds below capacity. I know that you get the same problem with some season ticket holders not turning up at Old Trafford, but I have only once in modern times seen something like this, for the FA cup replay against West Ham in January, when the attendance officially was 5.000 below capacity.
The West Ham fans look a more tightly knitted unit than at Anfield, and seem to be in better voice. They make virtually all the singing or chanting in the first half, although there are a couple of hundred City supporters standing on either side of them, who make a few attempts of getting songs going. But you cannot really hear them.
That is the problem with the stadium. It is light and open and spacious, and you have a good view of the pitch and all the stands except the tier immediately above you. But the sound and atmosphere vanish in the air. Instead you have got rain coming down. Fortunately, only a tiny drizzle 20 minutes before kick-off, but the roofing is so high above you that it will only give you shelter if the wind is blowing away from you – or not blowing at all. Which in Manchester is a courageuos assumption to make.
City’s small players, Silva, Aguerro, Nasri and Tevez play some nice football, and West Ham’s midfield drop too deep to deny them space around the area. Their only route out of there is sending long balls to Andy Carroll, who, however, is well marshalled by Lescott. So the first half is pretty one-sided, with City taking a one goal lead. Still, it is virtually only the West Ham support to be heard. Except in the 23rd minute, when the scoreboard flashes a photo of Marc Vivien Foe, who had played for both clubs when he tragically died in an international match. His shirt number was 23, and everybody stands up and applaud for the entire 23rd minute, whilst play continue. Kind of surreal, but a fine gesture.
In the second half, West Ham have decided to push their midfield forward, putting City under pressure and at the same time exposing themselves to quick breaks, which makes for a more open game. The crowd also seems to come a bit more alive, especially after the West Ham fans all shout for handball. This is followed by the usual mocking from the home supporters, standing up, mockingly shouting “handball” at any move after that. The West Ham support respond with a “We’d forgotten you were here”, which in turns make some of the City supporters try to get “Blue moon” going. They fail, however, and instead the West Ham support are “blowing bubbles” in full voice. The interchange has, however, awakened the home support, and there are more oohs and arrhs and attempts to get chants and songs going by the sections next to the West Ham support. It is, however, not until Yaya Toure makes it 2-0 8 minutes from full time, that they get the Toure song going. A chubby City supporter two rows in front of me even adds the dancing moves. A sight to behold.
City keeper Joe Hart allows an Andy Carroll shot to slip through his hands and legs in the final minute, giving West Ham some reward for their positive attitude in the second half. We are quickly out of the ground, and break away from the main stream of leaving supporters to get to our car.
An impressive stadium, but it does not really accommodate an atmosphere to match, say, the one at King Power, Leicester, where the sound circulates around the ground under the roofing. At Old Trafford, it can be quite deafening to stand in the Stretford End, but there the sound is absorbed by the hanging roofing, making it hard to hear it at the other end of the ground. At the Etihad as well as the Emirates, it just disappears. But I could imagine that for the big games, kicking off at 3 o’clock rather than 12.45, they still manage to create a better atmosphere.