By Tim Marcin
Elm Sports Editor
“If anybody gives you a hard-time, just say you are from Philadelphia with American accents, and you’ll be fine,” said the bartender who sported more gaps than teeth. My friend Kevin and I were in London, talking to a bartender from Wales, who was coherent about every other sentence. He was giving us the run-down on English football (read: soccer) gangs or firms. It was a less than comforting introduction to what our viewing experience would be, but he wanted to forewarn the poor American tourists. Kevin and I were a day away from taking a 5-hour bus ride to Manchester, to see the blues of Manchester City take on Tottenham Hotspurs, undeterred by the firms.
Let me explain something about Kevin—he is passionate and opinionated, and that makes him quite the City fan. Years ago, after picking up the FIFA video-game franchise, he decided to become a fan of a soccer team, which team he did not know. By some turn of fate, FIFA led him to turn to Manchester City as his squad of choice.
It was a cruel fate at the beginning. The Blues were cellar-dwellers, spending more time fighting off relegation at the bottom of the standings than at the top of the table fighting for championships. As Kevin put it, they were like the Philadelphia teams we rooted for at home: always inspiring hope and always disappointing.
Then something funny happened—City got good. Arab oil moguls bought the team in 2008, and with them came money and with money came wins. At the same time, the Phillies suddenly won a world championship and were dominant, the Eagles had (supposedly) assembled a dream team, the Flyers were steady contenders, and even the lowly Sixers got in on the act, boasting a roster filled with youthful talent. The sports gods are fickle beings, and they abruptly decided to make all of Kevin’s teams competitors.
So when Kevin’s dad offered frequent flyer miles to Kevin and a friend to see a real live Manchester City match over winter break, Kevin and I soon found ourselves in London, waiting for our trip to culminate at Etihad Stadium in Manchester. City v. Spurs was an important match. With a win, City pushed six points clear of its rival Manchester United at the top of the league. If Tottenham won, they put themselves within a few points of the top of the table.
After arriving in Manchester, we spent the first day roaming the industrial town (which felt like home to two Wilmingtonians/Philadelphians), and bought gear from the Manchester City team store. I bought a modest amount: a sweater and scarf. If Kevin owned a house he would have taken out a second mortgage to buy more gear. His final tally: two official team jerseys (the most expensive items in the store), a hat, a bag, a t-shirt, and a team polo for his dad (all this added to his already impressive collection of sanctioned City gear). Fully equipped, we were ready to see the showdown the next day.
The day of the match, there was a quiet electricity over the town. At 11 a.m., we began about a 1.5-mile trek to the stadium from our hostel. Plastic bags bounced across the street like tumbleweeds. People decked out in City sky-blue paced down streets, silent dazes of focus in their eyes. I was giddy with excitement, Kevin looked nervous and intent on taking the next step down the sidewalk—it was easy to see who the real fan was.
The lead-up to the game was a bit drawn out. We ate fried, gravy covered English food. We bought programs, walked around the complex, and finally found ourselves at Mary D’s. Oh Mary D’s, what a place. This little pub tucked in next to a fish and chips shop has been the City supporter hang out for quite some time. It sits just by the stadium, and on game day is surrounded by cops charged with keeping the order with the raucous fans around. I cannot be certain, but members of the City firm had to be in the place with us. Mary D’s was actually not so little at all—it had a small front facing the street, but extended back quite a ways. In the back “disco” room, a DJ played Man City themed songs, and throngs of sardine-packed fans sang along in shared merriment. In short: we had found Kevin’s home.
After all of the rowdy Mancunians were good and soaked with Carlsberg, the crowd flowed to the stadium. The game was set to begin.
Wandering to our seats, we eventually found our section. Somehow, the tickets we bought through the fan club were in row one. Like smell the sweat of the sideline referee row one. Kevin was beside himself. I had a sudden urge to jump the barrier separating me from the field just to touch the soft grass. Luckily, I resisted.
The standard line is that soccer in England is like a religion. In reality it feels more like paganism. There is a distinct tribalism to it all. The rhythmic chanting and incoherent screaming is a kind of intensity unmatched by any other sporting event I have attended. “Football” fans in England love to sing their team’s songs. The City fans got the unique concert under way. I joined in the chorus, having studied the song beforehand. 40,000 strong sung the repurposed Billie Holiday ditty:
BLUE MOON! You saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own…BLUE MOON!
The Spurs fans, packed into a section blocked off by policemen and barricades would not be outdone. These were the hard-core fans, the ones who travel with the team. They sung with a noticeable anger:
Oh when the Spurs! Go marching in! I want to be in that number! Oh when the Spurs go marching in!
With the songs sung, the first half was under way. Quite frankly, the first half was every American’s critique of soccer—there was no scoring and little to write home about. The second half was everything soccer fans in America don’t know about. In the middle of singing BLUE MOON! You saw… Man City’s impossibly talented midfielder David Silva slipped a beautiful pass to Frenchman Samir Nasri for the first goal of the game. Erupted doesn’t begin to describe what the crowd did. I found myself hugging a dodgy-looking Englishman in celebration—don’t ask me how it happened, it just did. City quickly added another on an ugly corner kick, and the game looked well in hand. Tottenham, however, fitted the bill of a quality team. They clawed back to tie the game, thanks in large part to star Garreth Bale, who scored a goal on a long-range, bending strike us amateur soccer players dream about.
With barely a few minutes left in the game, it seemed it would be a draw. Then, polarizing forward Mario Balotelli found an inch of space inside the 18-yard box. Earlier in the game he narrowly avoided an ejection for stomping on a Tottenham player (Kevin said it was a fair play…of course). Balotelli, with his inch of space, managed to draw a foul and a penalty kick. With a cool assassin’s grimace he scored the penalty kick, the game winner—and once again I found myself in the arms of dodgy Englishman, don’t ask me how it happened. An instant classic, a critical win, a hell of a day. We left the stadium screaming:
We score when we want, we score when we want, we’re Man City and we score when we want!
The flood of people receded as quick as it entered. Some wandered back to Mary D’s, some to harass Tottenham fans as they were escorted out, the more family oriented simply went home. We had long way back to home, but at least we left with a City win.