City-Chelsea clash brings back memories but it’s all so different
It’s a long way from Maine Road 30 years ago as you pitch up at the ‘Etihad campus’
Fans gather at the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
The “Etihad campus” seems like a world away from the club’s former home in Moss Side but the fans still sing about being Man City “from Maine Road” these days. They had quite a history before moving but even the most ardent sentimentalist would struggle to mount an argument for things ever having been better.
People will grumble about where the money has come from but on days like this, you have to say, Pep Guardiola and his players look to be earning every penny.
There are sometimes complaints about the lack of atmosphere inside a stadium built for a Commonwealth Games rather than the champions of England but the locals were in predictably good voice here as they watched their side run riot against a Chelsea team that was outclassed and utterly overrun in a game that was effectively over after 20 minutes.
Even the regulars, who have seen their share of great days these past few years, seemed cheerily shocked by an avalanche of goals; started and finished by Raheem Sterling.
For someone returning to this particular fixture after an absence of almost exactly 30 years, the sense of wonder was much wider.
A job on the railways in London back then came with cheap travel which, in turn, meant the chance to glimpse new cities either sides of games.
Chelsea’s trip to Maine Road seemed like a pretty decent candidate for a day trip and with both sides chasing promotion of of the old second division, the stakes were fairly high while ticket prices, I was well aware, would be attractively low.
Mine cost a fiver on the day at the ground (Sunday’s was £58) and I was relieved to get inside. There was another game in Manchester that day, an FA Cup quarter-final between United and Forest – which Brian Clough’s side would ultimately win 1-0 to earn themselves a fateful tie with Liverpool at Hillsborough a few weeks later – and so there were four sets of fans milling around the old city centre.
The atmosphere was pretty grim with just about everybody making it clear what they thought of the fans. The train from London had been hopelessly packed and I settled down onto a patch of floor space between carriages for the entire journey. As the train got closer to Manchester, Chelsea fans a few feet away shouted taunts about northerners being poor at nobody in particular whenever we passed through a town. As we approached Piccadilly station, the train’s guard, with obvious amusement in his voice, apologised for the overcrowding but prompted widespread grumbling by pointing out that there had been plenty of free seats in first class for which the supplement would have been just £3.
Everyone was then greeted at the station by a platform lined with police and dogs, quite a few of them snarling at passers-by and straining on their leashes. It sort of set the tone.
Still, the whole thing had a touch of comedy about it. At one point somewhere near the Arndale centre a group of Chelsea fans came hurtling towards me pursued by Forest supporters. Both disappeared around a corner, the Londoners first. Moments later, the Forest fans reappeared, with the Chelsea ones this time appearing to be in pursuit. It took another few seconds for it become apparent that they were all now being chased by a far larger contingent wearing the colours of United.
I decided that heading out to the ground early might be wise and joined the queue at a taxi rank where one of the small group immediately behind me absentmindedly tried to hop in my cab. His friends politely yanked him back, pointing to me. I thanked them and as I hopped in offered to share if they were going to Maine Road. “Maine Road…MAINE F*****G ROAD,” one of them shouted with rapidly growing incredulity. The driver clearly decided it was best not to wait for a definitive answer to the sharing proposal. He took off and I hung on, trying to get the door closed while the group of locals ran down the street aiming kicks at the moving car.
Inside the dilapidated ground, I was befriended by two slightly older City fans who took a shine to me because they had, incorrectly, gathered that I had flown over from Dublin that morning to see the Blues. Despite taking a liking to them too, I reckoned it was best to play along and was happy I had when two Chelsea fans, having seen their team go 3-0 up, forgot themselves for a moment and instinctively celebrated a goal.
The locals were in no mood for such provocation and blows rained in on the pair from all angles as my new bezzies got pretty worked up as they contributed to the accompanying abuse. A couple of cops then arrived, plucked the pair out of the scrum that had developed and carried them towards the exit. Both looked battered and shaken but there was clearly no question of a complaint being made.
With time to kill back in town before my train I eventually settled on spending most of it in a pub I took to be the least likely football haunt in town. Inside, a solitary elderly man sat nursing a pint.
I got one and sat across the room, relishing the silence, but the place then suddenly filled up with City fans, one of whom led collective singing while standing on a chair (their Blue Moon was quite something, to be fair) and quite a few bought drinks or paid homage to the old man who I now realised must be a former City player.
I looked on, bemused, until the guy on the chair wrapped up a song and loudly announced: “Right lads, down to Piccadilly TO GET THE CHELSEA!”
The place virtually emptied in 30 seconds flat and it was pretty much just me and the old timer again. I resolved to take a later train.
Thirty years on, it is hard to think of anything beyond the overcrowded train I arrived on (from Liverpool this time) that is recognisable from the original excursion.
But the best bit is that the only people this time having to make their way home to London after receiving a hiding had been out there on the pitch.