Sunday, 6 December 2009

Rite of passage in Manchester

A good weekend, even if Danielle had to go and see her infirm mother in France. Indeed, a memorable weekend, since it included my first ever professional football match.

To avoid confusion, when I say ‘football’ I mean what 95% of the world’s population understands by the word. The game for which the other 5%, living in the US, use the term, is ‘American football’.

Funnily enough, I attended a professional American football match ages ago, when I sawn the New York Giants hosting the Cleveland Browns back in the seventies. It was fun, though I remember little of the detail. It would probably have helped had I understood the rules. The problem is that, just as you have to be American-born to be President of the US, you have to be American-born to understand American football by your twenties, my age at the time: it takes the equivalent of a complete childhood and adolescence.

My one clear memory of that match is of a man not far from me wearing a brown hat and scarf. At one point, when the Browns had done something or other particularly good under the arcane rules of the game, he made the mistake of cheering them. He was greeted by growls from the Giants fans all round him, to the effect that he was probably quite attached to his limbs – and I think some of them included his head in that category – and if he wanted to stay that way, he’d do well to keep his mouth shut.

It seems that in any game sporting the ‘football’ label, passions run deep, and being an away fan in the home crowd isn’t good for your health. Yesterday the away supporters were completely surrounded by stewards to stop any threats moving beyond the word stage.

In this instance, the away team was Chelsea. In every generation, London produces at least one successful side viewed as glorious by fans who love the Club, and as boring, dirty or otherwise despicable by everyone else, who loathe it. Once it was Arsenal, today it’s Chelsea.

The home side was Manchester City, which likes to present itself as the real Manchester club, since Manchester United actually plays in Trafford, a suburb of the city. This intensely annoys Alex Ferguson, the legendary manager of Manchester United, which may explain why City keep repeating the claim.

I was there as a guest of Ronnie, who with his wife Breda have been close friends since the eighties. We had hoped that Breda might join us for one of Manchester’s rightly-famed curries after the game, but unfortunately she had been laid low by the wine served at a dinner the previous evening, though whether the problem was the quality or the quantity of the wine I was unable to establish.

Having given no previous indication of this inclination, Ronnie has recently emerged as an avid fan of football and above all of Manchester City. With roots in Ireland, it’s hard to understand why he chose City. Clearly it can only be a coincidence that his admiration of the Club has emerged just when as it has gained an Arab owner and, at last, sufficient funds to buy players to challenge for a spot in the top flight.

The game itself was excellent. We went with low expectations, expecting the steamroller that is Chelsea to roll right over City. Indeed, within ten minutes, City was a goal down. It looked as though we might be heading for a rout.

But then things changed: City equalised before the interval. Few could have believed that they would have been going it at 1-1, and I’m sure most of the City fans would have been delighted to accept that half-time score line had it been offered them at the beginning.

The real wonder began in the second half when unrelenting City pressure was rewarded with a second goal and the lead. With more than half an hour to go, though, it was hard to see how they would hang on. Everything seemed to fall apart twenty minutes from the end, when City conceded a penalty. Chelsea would of course convert it, and the success would be the platform to take them to victory.

Then a miracle occurred: Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, one of the most successful penalty-takers in the world, saw his shot blocked. Commentators have described this event as Lampard missing a penalty, but those of us who were cheering from the City stands know that it was a brilliant save by keeper Shay Given. Given the chance, he took it.

And so the match ended 2-1 for Chelsea. Ronnie and I went on to enjoy our Manchester curry, raising a glass to our absent wives as we did so.

A memorable weekend indeed.

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