Monday, October 15, 2012

They Call it Football (Part 2)

The Etihad Stadium, Manchester
Match day came with much anticipation for me and most of the people in the group, fan and non-fan alike. We gathered in the lobby of the hotel awaiting our departure only to learn that this was the team's hotel as well and that all the players had come through the lobby just five minutes earlier. The team bus with its embroidered logo seats, towered over our taxi cabs as we departed for the match.

The Etihad Stadium was built in the eastlands of Manchester as part of the 2006 Commonwealth Games which were hosted by the City. The cab ride to the stadium took us through a mixture of new and old Manchester which has seen a bit of a re-birth in the last decade. The City Campus began with a City@Home building where the staff, dressed in suits, greeted us with a friendly hello and our ticket package. From there we traveled up the main roadway and around to the City Store where everything MCFC could be found for purchase. I have seven jerseys in my collection already, but I couldn't believe the amount of gear available. After everyone made their purchases we headed into the stadium.

We were lucky enough to have seats in the Citizens Suite which is located across the field from the tunnel and player benches in the center of the second level of the stadium. The tickets included a catered meal, match programs, and pre-game activities with former players. The food and service were great, as was expected, but I still nervously awaited the moment when I would walk out into the stands of the Etihad for the first time.


The East End of the Etihad
A group of us decided to head out to our seats early, so through a small access tunnel, around a corner and there it was the perfectly groomed pitch of the Etihad Stadium. I looked off to the upper right hand corner of the field and remember back to Vincent Kompany's game winner against United that kept us in the title race last season. I point to the east end of the stadium and said to my friends that that's where Sergio Aguero scored his stoppage time goal to give us the title last year. Sure it's not the same history as Old Trafford across town, but it's my team's history and I embraced the atmosphere.

Pre-Game MCFC Tifo
Kick-off was fast approaching and the chorus of "Blue Moon", the team's anthem, rained down from the stands. The away supporters from Sunderland were corralled into a small section of the west stands, flanked by dozens of police officers to make sure the sides remained "respectful". And then it began, the match and the chanting. You can watch a thousand matches on television and hear the chants in the background, but nothing prepares you for the sound of actually being there. From the first minute of the match the opposing sections squared off in what could only be described as a verbal duel, each round escalating in volume and intelligence.

City were lucky enough to score a very early goal in the fourth minute off a Aleksandar Kolarov free kick that bent around the misplaced wall and past the keeper. The City fans immediately started taunting the Sunderland supporters with "your wall is sh*t", which was both simple and appropriate. Both teams settled into their ends of the pitch with only a handful of scoring chances and the possession fairly even right up until halftime.

Aguero Goal Celebration
The second half was quite simply, all City, and the score could have been 7-0 if it wasn't for Sunderland's keeper Simon Mignolet who made some saves that Joe Hart may have missed. After just 15 minutes, Sergio Aguero was on the finishing end of a rebound shot in the 6-yard box to drive it home and push the lead to 2-0. The City fans turned their backs on the match and jumped in unison in their celebration called the Poznan which dates back to a match in Poland they played over a decade ago. The Sunderland fans responded by doing the Poznan to the City fans, and so on. The one moment that the entire stadium stood to applauded was when Sunderland midfielder Adam Johnson was substituted; Johnson was traded this summer from City after spending his entire career with the team. The pressure remained on Sunderland and James Milner earned a well-deserved goal after being virtually everywhere on the field during the match and that is where it ended, 3-0 City.

We stayed for an hour or so after the match to enjoy a few celebratory cocktails and to take in our final memories of the Etihad. It was amazing how quickly a stadium of almost 50,000 could fill and empty, the campus slipping back into the quietness of the surrounding Eastlands neighborhood.

The one thing that really set Manchester apart from London was the hospitality. In London people were polite, but mostly going about their business with no real communication beyond what is necessary. No matter where I went in Manchester it seemed I struck up a conversation with someone about totally random topics. I explained to many of those people that I was a writer for a soccer blog back in the states and that started several more conversations about Major League Soccer, favorite players and teams, and what I thought of the Manchester teams. 

Back Patio at Dukes 92
Our hostess at the stadium recommended we go to bar called Dukes 92 just around the corner from us in the Deansgate neighborhood; what a strong recommendation that was. The bar was set along a small canal with the brickwork of the elevated train trestle just beyond as the backdrop. It seemed like the place to go for locals and those travelers visiting from other parts of England. It wasn’t too long before I started speaking with two women who turned out to be from Bolton, a town located about 30 miles to the northwest of Manchester and home to the Bolton Wanderers of the Championship League. They wanted me to refer to them as the “Bolton Birds” in my article and they explained to me how Manchester has something called “Northern Hospitality”. The area is made up of mostly working class families, so when people go out there aren’t really different classes eating at the same restaurant, everyone is cut from the same cloth so to speak. With that said it is commonplace for people to lean over and start talking to total strangers at the table next to them. It wasn’t just the “birds”, several other guys and ladies throughout our travels offered up an ear for discussion. It was truly a warm and welcoming feeling and one of the better memories I had of the city.

Old Trafford Stadium
(Courtesy of Michael Beatrice)
The next morning some of us headed back to London to spend one more day before flying home while others spent the day in Manchester doing a tour of Old Trafford. Although I wasn’t lucky enough to tour that stadium, my friend Michael was kind enough to share some of his pictures of the tour. His impression of the stadium was it had the same magic in the air as walking into Yankee Stadium does in America. Whether you are a United fan or foe you still can’t help but be in awe of the history and magnitude of Old Trafford.

We flew home on Monday morning and that ended the most incredible weekend in my soccer traveling life (keyword is “soccer” so not to downplay my wedding or the birth of my children).  Special thanks to Michael for inviting me, Brian and Keith for traveling with me, and my wife for giving me the green light (and the funds) to go. I can now truly say that I am “City ‘til I Die”!

2 comments :

  1. "Brilliant..." - MCB

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  2. Loved reading your passionate article. How great that you fulfilled a long-term dream. In high school I worked as a car wash boy side by side with a kid who was born in Manchester and his family had been Man City fans. He spoke of it as tradition, and was happy to be the supporter of the constant looser at that time. Back then, hardly anyone had heard of the "other" Manchester team while the world was crazy about Man U and the young Beckham.

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