Blue is the warmest color: a lonely journey watching Man City go from bobbins to quite good

You always remember the first time. It is 1991 and you are only a few weeks off the boat from Belfast. You have come to Manchester ostensibly to go to university but that is not the real reason. The real reason is that you want to watch Manchester City play every week. There is no good reason why you support City, a club that loses more often than it wins, except that in 1985, when you were 13, everybody in Belfast seemed to support Liverpool or Manchester United, and you felt the need to be different. City had just come up from the second division that year, clinching promotion with a 5-1 win over Charlton in front of 47,000 at the club’s then-home of Maine Road, and had signed aging Northern Ireland midfielder Sammy Mcllroy to patrol the midfield (to no great effect, as it turned out). That was enough. It has been enough ever since.

You are on the top deck of a bus rolling through Manchester’s grim, decidedly non-gentrified city center, dominated by that paean to the horrors of 1970s urban planning, the behemoth Arndale shopping mall. When you get off the bus 15 minutes later, you walk through the cramped terrace streets of Rusholme and Moss Side to get to the ground, a low brick and steel hulk against the mercury gray of the Manchester sky. You pay £3 to stand on the bellowing, swaying Kippax terrace, which runs along the side of the pitch and which, when full, holds 25,000 or more. The squeeze is so tight that it is hard to lift your arms from your sides.

It is the first game of the season and, after a strong finish to the previous year, hopes are high at City that day, especially when leggy winger David White gives the team an early lead against unfashionable neighbor Oldham. But hopes are often high at the start of games at Maine Road. Come the final whistle they are usually much lower. The final score that day: Manchester City 1-2 Oldham Athletic.

When the game is over you squeeze onto a narrow concrete staircase (no room for more than four across) at the back of the terrace. The exiting thousands hold their collective breath and totter and heave their way down the slick steps, wet with rain and spilt beer. You dare not breathe until you reach the bottom. It is two years and four months since 96 Liverpool fans died at the Hillsborough disaster.

How could City mess that one up, you think later, scuffing your shoes miserably against the curb as you wait for the bus to take you home. But deep down, you know you are not really surprised. It’s the way things often are at City.

Peter Swales was chairman in those days. Swales was a local businessman who had been in charge of City since 1973, taking over just after the club’s late-1960s/early-1970s peak – City won the league in 1968, the FA Cup in 1969 and the now defunct UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970. Under Swales, who ran the club throughout the 1980s and early 1990s with all the vision and grand design with which he managed the string of Manchester TV showrooms where he made his money (not much, in other words), City was known for two things: (1) big, loyal crowds, and (2) losing. “If there was a cup for cock-ups,” said Swales’ eventual successor, former City playing legend Francis Lee, “City would win it.”

The Kippax and the rest of those giant terraces — the dark, satanic mills of English football, which in time became redolent of violence and even (after Hillsborough) death — are gone now. The land on which Maine Road stood is covered by houses, while City plays at the Etihad Stadium in East Manchester. In the club’s brave, fabulously wealthy, new world, work is currently underway to expand the capacity of the stadium to 61,000.

City is a different club now. English soccer is a different game now. As David Conn writes in his book about City’s transformation into (probably) the richest team in the world, Richer Than God, when an exciting City side finished runner-up to Liverpool in the 1977-78 season, a season ticket for the Kippax cost £11 (£56.10 at today’s prices, according to the Bank of England’s comparator), a price “which accounted for the teeming presence of young people, teenagers, and football justifying the term “the people’s game” for all social classes to enjoy.” The cheapest season ticket to watch Arsenal at home this year costs a somewhat less socially-inclusive £1,014 (by comparison City’s lowest priced annual ticket costs £299, the cheapest in the Premier League).

In 1987, the year in which City beat Huddersfield 10-1 in Division 2, the club’s star striker was Paul Stewart, who cost £200,000 from Blackpool. His modern day equivalent is Sergio Aguero, for whose services City coughed up a princely £35 million.

City’s transformation arguably began in 2007, when the club was bought by a man who, at the time, writes Conn, was “accused of human rights abuses, ousted as Prime Minister of Thailand in a military coup, charged with three counts of corruption and who had his financial assets in Thailand frozen.” But few City fans seemed to care much about Thaksin Shinawatra’s dubious history, as the new chairman brought in a host of high profile players – some of which, like Vincent Kompany, were successful, and some of which, like Brazilian forward Jo, were not – and hired former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager.

Shinawatra’s reign was mercifully short-lived, and the real revolution took place in 2008, when Sheik Mansour and the Abu Dhabi United Group paid Shinawatra, by then convicted of the corruption charges, £150 million for his shares, and began to invest astonishing sums into City (£934 million was spent on transfers in the first three years). Sheik Mansour destroyed the old City, razed the old City to the ground – and then rebuilt City as something arguably better and brighter than ever before.

But the old City spirit lingered on – a downbeat, sardonic ghost stalking the gleaming halls of the Etihad. It lived on out on the pitch when, in 2012, despite the millions spent on new players, far more than any of the club’s rivals, Roberto Mancini’s team seemed to have let the league title slip through its fingers when it was losing at home to QPR in the final game of the season. Did we really think anything had changed? you thought, as City trailed and the minutes ticked away – until that immortal, preposterous last-second winner from Aguero overcame the demons of the past and made City champion for the first time in 44 years.

And what ghosts and demons there are. Enough to sink a ship. Or a soccer club. Almost.

It is 1989. In the club’s last home game of the season, City needs a win against tiny Bournemouth to guarantee promotion. Maine Road is packed to the rafters and the Kippax is a roiling, sweltering crush. In the first half, City is imperious, sweeping effortlessly to a 3-0 lead. The champagne is uncorked in the dressing room. In the second half, with the crowd chanting going up, going up, going up, City takes the collective foot of the gas. Bournemouth scores what is surely a consolation goal. Then Bournemouth scores again. Hearts beat faster all around the ground. Finally, improbably, Bournemouth equalizes in the 95th minute, as the fans gape and the Kippax swoons in disbelief. The champagne, now flat and warm, is poured down the drain. Still, at least this one has a happy ending. City finally gets the point it needs away at Bradford a week later, and promotion is secured.

(Note: the inflatable bananas carried by hundreds of City fans in this clip were part of a spontaneous, light-hearted response to the grim climate of violence that surrounded British football at the time, as well as a comment on the surrealist nature of being a City fan. Gallows humor and irony is a recurring theme among City supporters. Back in 1999, when the team was in the third flight of English football, the crowd’s favorite anthem went as follows: We are not, we’re not really here, we are not, we’re not really here. Just like the fans of the invisible man, we’re not really here.)

Winning trophies or qualifying for Europe was not a major priority for City in the 1980s and most of the 1990s. Instead, the club’s existence focused on avoiding relegation (if in the old Division 1 or the Premier League) and/or getting promoted (if in a lower division). Between 1995 and 2001 the club was relegated an impressive three times.

One of those comes in 1996. City needs a draw against Liverpool in its last game of the season to stay in the Premier League. Or at least, having heard (via terrace Chinese whispers) that relegation rival Southampton is losing to Wimbledon, the players think they do. With the score at 2-2 and the game dwindling to its end, City’s Steve Lomas keeps the ball in the corner to kill time.

But Southampton is not losing. Southampton is drawing, which means that a point is not enough for City. A point will send City down. When he discovers this, with time running out, substituted striker Niall Quinn runs down the touchline to Lomas, screaming that City needs another goal. But it is too late. City is relegated. Again. It’s the way things often are at City.

Still, it wasn’t all bad. Amid the darkness there were brief chinks of light. In 1998, instead of a quick return to the Premier League, City goes down again, this time from the second to the third division. In December, after losing 2-1 away to the mighty Lincoln, City sits in 12th position in the third tier of English football. It is the lowest the club has sunk in its long history. The defeats in those days come as inevitably as the Manchester rain, and even the victories are tainted with the certainty that another loss surely lurks silently around the corner. Manchester (City), so much to answer for, as the bard of Mancunian misery, Morrissey, once warbled.

What happens next, though, changes City’s future forever. Somehow the team recovers and sneaks into the promotion playoffs. Wigan is dispatched in the semifinal, meaning City will face Gillingham in what is surely an eminently winnable final at Wembley. 45,000 fans make the journey from Manchester for the game. Except eminently winnable doesn’t mean that much where City is concerned. Astonishingly, appallingly, the team trails Gillingham 2-0 as the game creeps into its 90th minute.

All around you, thousands of City fans are making for the exits, bursting their blue and white balloons, stamping their blue and white scarves onto the ground. A small boy in front of you is crying, while his father stares hollow-eyed out at the pitch. At the other end of the ground thousands of Gillingham fans are celebrating with wild abandon.

And then this happens – after which City goes on to win on penalties.

It is no exaggeration to say that if City had not beaten Gillingham to return to Division One at the first attempt, if the club had spent another year or two operating on reduced attendances, reduced sponsorship deals, reduced TV money, then it might never have made it back at all. Such a fate, after all, has befallen more than a few grand old clubs from the north of England, such as Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday. Certainly, City might not have made it back in time to move into the Etihad (then the City of Manchester stadium) and catch the eye of Sheik Mansour, then looking for a suitable investment prospect in English football. Arguably, without Paul Dickov’s ludicrously dramatic last-second goal in a third division play-off final against Gillingham in 1999, there might never have been Sergio Aguero’s ludicrously dramatic last-second goal to win the league in 2012.

City now has a shiny new stadium, currently undergoing expansion. The team is full of world class players, and the talk is of trophies, not relegations. The club’s rivals are (or soon will be, it seems) Bayern Munich and Barcelona, not Lincoln and York. Everything, it seems, has changed. Surely, with so much success these days, the fans must also be different, more smug and complacent?

“Not really,” says Marc Starr, a 40-something City fan from Manchester. “We’re just more confident we’ll do well. And there’s a real pleasure in turning up and knowing we have a real chance of beating any team in the world. It didn’t use to be like that, so it’s a real novelty for the older fans who lived through the bad old days.”

Some fans, however, feel that something has been lost in the slicker, more gentrified world that City now inhabits.

“The Manchester City of the 1980s was a more beautiful thing than we realized at the time,” says Simon Curtis of the Down the Kippax Steps website. “I think after the initial adrenaline rush of success, we’ve now reached a different place, where it’s easy to hanker after those simpler, older times when we really didn’t know what would happen next. The idea of almost intolerable suffering brings people together, and creates a spirit that the likes of Arsenal and United can never have, whatever their club manages, because they’ll never see the things we’ve seen – stuffy little grounds like at Chesterfield, York, and Walsall. We’ve made it through the dark and into the blinding light on the other side.”

“Standing on the Kippax was raw,” says Colin Maguire, another City fan. “I remember struggling to breathe in one game against Liverpool. The crowds weren’t always as big, but the atmosphere was generally better. But it’s great to see City win things. There were plenty of times when I thought I’d never see it happen.”

It is 3pm on a Saturday afternoon in 1995. You are in a pub a short stroll away from Anfield, where City is about to play Liverpool. The team has failed to win any of its first 10 games of the year and the season already has the look of another long battle against relegation. Perhaps because of this, you leave the pub a few minutes late. As you finish your drink, you hear over the radio that Liverpool has scored. Walking down the street that runs along the side of the ground, you hear more cheers from the Liverpool fans inside. City is 2-0 down and the game is 10 minutes old. The final score is 6-0, with City lucky to get nil. “I enjoyed watching Liverpool today,” says then City manager Alan Ball after the game. You do not share his enjoyment.

It all feels like a long time ago now.

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