When sitting down to write this article, I decided to write about a special moment in time, one of course experienced as a football fan. One moment that encapsulated being a football fan, and the emotion it can bring to the coldest of hearts.
There was a small problem though. As a Manchester City fan, there are two moments that stand out more than any others. One was followed by Paul Dickov sliding across the Wembley turf, a committed but limited player instantly elevated to club legend status by a set of fans desperate for new heroes. The second moment was followed by Sergio Aguero twirling his shirt above his head, the pinnacle of my football-supporting life, as it always will be – it cannot and will not be beaten.
To talk about one of these two moments seemed too obvious though, and they are moments that have been discussed by so many so often. But I can’t ignore the day Sergio Aguero won the league, I just can’t. So my other favourite moment, the one that perfectly sums up my thirty years plus as a football fan, as a Manchester City fan, regards a photo.
Yes, the moment Sergio Aguero won the league mattered more, in the scheme of things. It was the biggest mood swing in my football-supporting life, and it was the most important moment in my football-supporting life because it meant so much more than winning the league – that was just half the story. In addition to the shiny trophy with the gold baubles, it stopped my football club and I being mentally scarred for years to come. It killed off the typical city moniker, at least temporarily. It stopped THEM winning the league, and winning it by us tripping up just shy of the finishing line, Devon Loch style. It would have taken years to get over that, and the squad would carry around a mental weakness with them when the next title race came around. We just HAD to win that day.
The minutes after that goal are moments I could not even have dreamed about beforehand. I still feel queasy watching replays of the lead-up to Aguero’s goal, and that’s with the knowledge that the clip ends with a goal.
But I digress, because of course that’s not my moment, though my choice is from the same day. My moment is the photo below, taken just before we all set off for the final game of the 2011/12 season, at home to QPR.
That photo brings back all the memories of an amazing day, a day I would do (almost) anything to experience over again.
By that moment in time, I’d felt in a near-permanent state of illness for weeks, the stress of my first title-race having disastrous effects on my stomach, head and general well-being. By the time the photo was taken, I was sporting a false smile. I had managed to get two pints down me all day and I just wanted it to be over. It was all too stressful, this “being successful lark” – I think I almost preferred it when the club and its fans had no ambitions above not being relegated.
Why is the photo so important? The photo matters because “going to the football” was never just about going to the football. The friendships and shared experiences have been as important as anything that has happened on the pitch, perhaps more so. For different people, a lifetime dedicated to following a team they love means different things. The people in the photo won’t matter to you, but they matter to me. Well most of them anyway! You’ll have your own photos that tell their own story.
Even from 20 yards away, the fear is etched on my face. There was so much at stake, but the photo is about more than that. It’s a rare sentimental moment for me, and one that anyone who doesn’t follow sport avidly would think preposterous, but within that photo are friends that are forged for life because of a football club, just eleven men kicking a ball around, friends that had been on a ridiculous journey over the previous four years. Before then we lived off hope, the hope that envelops every football fan when a new season comes around – the hope that this season, it was going to be different. This season, we’d finally see some success. That could mean promotion, not being relegated, or a semi-decent run in the cup – the bar was set at different levels, and usually quite low before we won the lottery, but the hope is always there, as without it, what’s the point?
You see, I used to watch episodes of Sky Sports’ Premier League Years and know it was one of City’s more successful periods if we actually featured in the programme. I knew it had been a good weekend if we weren’t last on Match of the Day. If I could stomach buying the Football Pink then the team had done alright. Like many fans around the country, I feasted on scraps, and you took what little victories you could, because that’s all there was. To cap it off, I supported Manchester City, supposedly the 2nd club of many a fan because we posed no threat and they probably felt sympathy for our tragi-comic attempts to be successful. False dawn after false dawn, and the subject of a thousand corny jokes.
And yet here I was, on a sunny day in Manchester. About to head off to see if our team could win the league. The top league. Manchester City, Premier League champions. All roads led to this. The pain of relegation in 1983 as David Pleat skipped across the Maine Road turf in his loafers to hug Brian Horton, one of my earliest memories, setting the scene nicely for what was to come. Standing on the Kippax, gradually getting tall enough to see all the action, which wasn’t always a good thing. Relegations, promotions, derby day thrashings, the 10-1 win after which my dad claims he caught the match ball kicked into the crowd. More relegations, more promotions, Lee Bradbury, Franny Lee the saviour, the goal-free Stuart Pearce years, a club on the precipice, Thai dictators, free curry in Albert Square and then the sheikhs and Robinho arrived in the nick of time and nothing was ever the same again. And three hours after that photo, I’d be bouncing off many of the people in that photo, that I had experienced lean times with, wondering if it was all a dream and thankful for the foresight of booking the next day off work.
And because of that 30-year journey, following the club synonymous with failure, whilst our nearest neighbours swept up every trophy going, because so many in that photo had paid their dues and done their time, that is why that photo, that moment in time, is the most important of all.
Well, apart from Aguero’s goal anyway.