Monday, 31 December 2012

That day

I wrote this at the time and after trying (and failing) to get it published in a magazine (WSC now you ask, optimistic I know, but I did expect a reply at least) did nothing with it. Reading through it now I find it a little cringey if I'm honest, but having been contemplating 'putting it out there' for a while decided that now was the time to bite the bullet. So here it is:

Writing this over a week later, and despite all the euphoria that’s still eminent, I can still distinctly remember just how bad I felt for those last 20 minutes at Manchester City’s title winning match against Queens Park Rangers. As a friend said when we were having a pint following the victory parade the next day, it was complete disbelief that the current club could make you feel worse than they had at the lowest points of the last 20-30 years but somehow, they had done that. A thing that compounded it personally was having been a nervous wreck all week, Pablo Zabaleta’s goal just before half-time, had allowed me to drop my guard and make some post-match plans which I’d previously refused to do.

I was looking out of the window at the club shop/car park at the back of the stand when Edin Dzeko equalised but still couldn’t really face going back to my seat. I just turned and looked at the gangway/stairs and can’t remember anything of that minute or so until Sergio Aguero’s winner. The noise of just before a goal/chance happens is pretty unmistakeable and I think this had prompted me to move towards the stairs. Then the goal miraculously arrived, and in the predictable mayhem, I was back with my Dad, eldest brother and nephew within seconds and saw the players in a heap on the floor.

I’d left my seat on around 70 minutes. Unable to bear to watch what was (or, more accurately, wasn’t) going on in front of me, I went to the concourse at the back of the stand and paced around for a while. I’ve no idea when, or if it was prompted by a particular crowd noise, but I found myself at one of the bars that had closed. Then in a moment, uncontrollably, I broke down in tears. I was trying to tell myself that as a 32 year-old man who lives a happy life, I should be above crying because the football team I support is getting beat. I’d been through far worse in my personal life (it was, after all, a football match.) Who hasn’t? I’d been through far, far, worse in my City supporting life. But there I was unable to move, sobbing away, hidden in a corner.

A couple of days later I was discussing these feelings, in comparison to those at our relegation to the third level away at Stoke 14 years ago, with a colleague. While it’s undeniable that fateful day in the Potteries was horrible, and a more damaging moment for the club than Sunday ever could have been, it didn’t have the intense pain that throwing away a league title in a game where we were 1/8 favourites to win did. I’ve attempted to make some kind of analogy since and the best I can come up with is that whilst being made redundant should be a far more serious matter for a person, would it feel as painful as that immediate moment of realising you’ve lost a winning lottery ticket?

A few minutes later I’d got myself together a little but still couldn’t face the fact that we were going to throw away our first league in my, and only the second in my Dad’s, lifetime. What was I going to do after the match? How would I get home? What would I do when I got home? What would I do over the summer? All these thoughts ran through my head with very few answers. Strangely a moment of clarity, and even comedy, popped into my head. At least having cried out of view of the pitch, I’d ruled out being captured by a TV cameraman or photographer which would make me a ‘celebrity’ in newspapers, clog up facebook feeds and see me on t-shirts sold outside of Old Trafford I thought.

As much as I had played this down, and told people it was entirely about us winning the league, rather than beating them, the fact Manchester United would win were we to fail, did I’m sure, have an effect on me. I was thinking how I could expect to hear many of the things I’d regularly dismissed as bollocks. “United know how to win at this time of the season” “don’t ever take Fergie on at mind games” and so frustratingly, as I find it the most annoying of cliché’s, “typical City.” All these things would be stuffed down my throat and I’d have very little in the way of comeback.

As the majority of the match had been, much of this is a blur, but the moments after I’d re-joined my family in the stand: full-time and the pitch invasion, the trophy, the singing. Were all things I fortunately could, and did, enjoy. We hugged, there were more tears and the feeling of elation, but more so the relief, was something I’d never experienced at a match. A picture was taken of the four of us and when my girlfriend saw it she commented that she’d never seen my Dad show such emotion about anything before. 

The car on the way back to my parents was a bit subdued, undoubtedly due to exhaustion, and when we got there the two of us just sat and a had a beer in near silence watching Sky Sports News. Later I laughed with my parents that eating spaghetti bolognese in their front-room two hours after we’d done a thing I’d spent my twenties telling friends I’d never see happen (it wasn’t approaching a viable conversation topic in my teens), wasn’t really the way I’d imagined celebrating City winning the league. And although spending the evening in a relatively quiet pub didn’t have the exuberance the celebrations in central Manchester would have, having that time with my Dad, who was responsible for, and had accompanied me to watch the football club I love for the last 26 years, was exactly how I wanted it to be.

Despite the previous night’s beers and the fatigue of not having slept properly for much of the previous few weeks I was wide awake quite early on the Monday morning and, still unable to relax, spent a couple of hours pacing around my parents' house. I made my way back to my flat near the city centre where I continued the pacing around for another few hours, interspersed with crying a bit (lot) more watching various youtube clips, before making my way into town ahead of the parade. Getting to the pub and seeing a lot of my friends, many looking as exhausted as me, was oddly, the best I’d felt for a while and everyone was pretty much telling the same story about the anguish of the second-half although they’d all seemingly managed to stay in view of the pitch. After a few pints and joining in a few songs, we went out to watch the parade and without wanting to sound over-dramatic (again), I can honestly say it was the happiest I’ve ever felt. I’d lost my friends who I was with but, in a way, was happier being on my own. Talking to strangers, the odd person I recognised, parents with their kids and so on. Just the full spectrum of people who were there, all so happy, had me beaming when I walked back across town after seen the bus go past and having showed the players and management my gratitude for what (I’ll let them off for the second-half) they’d given me, my family and friends.

It wasn’t until later in the week that I began to feel normal again, my voice had stopped shaking when talking to people about it and I was having the best, settled, sleep since before the derby two weeks before. In all honesty I hadn’t been myself in the period since we’d dragged ourselves back in contention around a month earlier. With each game and week that passed, the traits of broken sleep, always being pre-occupied, unable to concentrate in the office, became worse and worse before it peaked in the days before the QPR game. I specifically remember that it was the Wednesday morning when I woke up and decided winning this fixture was now the most improbable result ever. It was a feeling that seemingly swept across Manchester as someone on the City message board I frequent asked later that day: ”How have QPR become Real Madrid in my head all of a sudden?”

Another aspect that told me I was regaining some normality in daily life was that I began to feel regret that I hadn’t actually seen Aguero’s goal (I have done since by the way, it’s out there if you look hard enough) as in the immediate days after, with the adrenaline still pumping around me, I really hadn’t been that bothered. As you may have gathered from my reluctance to make any post-match plans though (which having done that at half-time, I then began to hate myself for,) I am something of a superstitious fan. So if not seeing it was the little part I played in Manchester City becoming the champions of England, it was worth it. A billion times over.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Shirtspotting: #theSpots 2011

Well the red-carpet was rolled out on New Years Eve as familiar faces and dignitaries from the worlds of professional sport, show business and politics made their way to Dukinfield Town Hall for the first annual, The Spots. The event, held to celebrate achievements in the world of football shirtspotting, was the brainchild of shirtspotter founder @shirtspotter when he thought it might be a bit of a laugh after a few days on the ale over Christmas. Despite being hastily arranged, it was an immaculately delivered evening and a celebration of all that’s great about having an interest, bordering on obsession, with obscure and retro football merchandise.

The event was hosted by the actor Joe Thomas, who many of you will know as Simon in the Inbetweeners and from Fresh Meat, where he played the character, that one out of the Inbetweeners. Wearing the unconventional, but fitting, event attire of the Holland Euro 88 shirt, Thomas threw us straight into the first award of the evening, the best shirt to be spotted.

As would be the case throughout the evening we got to see a short montage of clips highlighting events that had taken part in this field in the previous 12 months before the shortlist of three was presented. These would be:

FC Barcelona from the “El Tel era,” spotted at the Great Yorkshire Run by @tinfoilcup
UC Sampdoria away (1992-1994), spotted at the Newcastle Free Trade Hall by @DolphinHotel
Aston Villa (1987-1989), picture spot, on Slovan Bratislava fans away in Prague in 1991 by @RalphDavies1

Winner: @DolphinHotel with this tweet on 31st January:

@shirtspotter There was a barman in Newcastle's Free Trade Inn wearing a Sampdoria 92-94 away top on Saturday night.

Naturally the room rose as one to applaud the winner. Unfortunately @DolphinHotel wasn’t able to make it to the evening to collect his award but, fittingly, a regular wearer of the fantastic garment, Atilio Lombardo, did so on his behalf. Predictably the awards organisers played the Lambada which lead to Lombardo, to his credit, performing the iconic dance with master of ceremonies Thomas (Simon out of the Inbetweeners.)

The next award was for the best fake shirt spotted for which the nominees were:

Werder Bremen (inc sponsor WeWin rather than Bwin), spotted in Asda, Hulme, by @shirtspotter
Schalke 04 with SAND on the back, spotted in Droylsden, by @WillU87
Manchester City including the crest, which used the name TEAM, in Covent Garden, London, by @house78

Winner: @shirtspotter with this tweet on May 10th:

Last night in Asda, Hulme, Mcr. A fake Bremen shirt that had the sponsor "WeWin" rather than "BWin." Caused a wry smile, so it did

To generous applause and good-natured shouts of ‘fix’ from the gallery, @shirtspotter went up to collect his award and struggling to keep his emotions in check, spoke passionately about the strides that had been made in shirtspotting in 2011 and how he hoped for more of the same in 2011.

Next up was best photo taken of spot. The nominees were:
Cardiff City with Fortune-West on the back (location not given) by @LauraMcAllister RT by @Chrissy_Pike
Independiente in Negombo, Sri Lanka by @therealstoffers
Aston Villa (1987-1989), on Slovan Bratislava fans away in Prague in 1991 by @RalphDavies1

Winner: @LauraMcAllister RT by @Chrissy_Pike with this tweet on April 25th:

@shirtspotter: Spotted-this Leo Fortune West Cardiff shirt -fair play ...

Unfortunately, neither @LauraMcAllister RT by @Chrissy_Pike was available to pick up the award, but stepping up on their behalf was, a slightly bemused looking, Leo Fortune-West. Fortune-West thanked all involved and when asked by Thomas, revealed that yes, the custom of accumulating bookings in order that you could be suspended and therefore drink your way through the Christmas period was still rife amongst lower league footballers.

After the half-time break, Thomas returned to the stage and announced that the next award would be for most unlikely location of spot. Nominated were:

Newcastle Jets in Gorton, Manchester by @WillU87  
Anorthosis Famagusta (merchandise) at Salford Crescent Train Station by @shirtspotter
Sporting Gijón (fake) at Macys, New York City by @jrjohnno

Winner: @jrjohnno with this tweet on 18th July:

@shirtspotter (fake) Sporting Gijón home 10-11 in Macy's, NYC.

Due to transport problems @jrjohnno was unfortunately unable to be at the event and pick up the award. Another competitor shortlisted in the category, @shirtspotter , had already agreed to collect the award on the behalf of the absent winner. After congratulating @jrjohnno on the triumph, the mood turned a little sour as @shirtspotter proceeded to go into a tirade of how much better his spot of two Anorthosis Famagusta tracksuit tops was and went on to offer out the members of the awarding committee ‘one at a time or all at once.’

Fortunately the host’s professionalism rescued this ugly situation and as the disgruntled, unsucessful, nominee was ushered off stage, Thomas quickly announced that the next and penultimate category would be best German shirt spotted. Nominees were:

West Germany home (1990) in Natwest, Spring Gardens, Manchester by @robmcfc
Alemania Aachen home at Manchester Airport by @AllisterWhite
Dynamo Dresden 08/09 in Stalybridge by @robmcfc

Winner: @robmcfc with this tweet on September 23rd:

@shirtspotter West Germany home shirt from 1990 on show in Natwest Spring Gardens, Manchester this afternoon.

Disappointingly @robmcfc couldn’t make the short journey to the awards ceremony but on-hand to pick up the award was, taking her responsibilties with the appropriate seriousness, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Chancellor Merkel spoke of her delight that such a committed shirtspotter as @robmcfc had picked up the award. She then went on to give her memories of this specific, fantastic, Die Nationalelf shirt but said that the late equaliser conceded in the dying moments of the final group game against Columbia still rankles with her despite the team’s ultimately successful World Cup campaign. She couldn’t let the moment pass without praising Guido Buchwald’s masterful performance at the heart of the defence in the final against Argentina but, when asked, declined to comment on the Eurozone crisis as it is “beginning to do my head in.”

The anticipation in the room was reaching fever pitch as the showpiece award lingered on the horizon. Up for best spot of 2011 were the following:

Wellington phoenix at Sheffield Food Festival by @coops1889
Maldives national shirt, including shorts on Oundle Road, Peterborough by @208fifashirts
Cardiff City with Fortune-West on the back (location not given) by @LauraMcAllister RT by @Chrissy_Pike

Winner: @208fifashirts with this tweet on 23rd August:

@shirtspotter Maldives national shirt, including shorts! Jogging down Oundle Road in Peterborough last night.

Despite the healthy competition, it was an obvious and thoroughly deserved winner and has set the bar at which all other shirtspots should be judged. Regrettably, @208fifashirts , was unable to make the awards ceremony to pick up the award but with confusion growing as to who would collect it on his behalf, up stepped man of the moment and BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the bike-rider, Mark Cavendish.

Cavendish told the audience that this really was the ’icing on the cake’ as far as 2011 was concerned for him. Then, with the look of the determined and focused competitor we all know Cav to be, he said that for all the challenges 2012 poses: another Green Jersey at the Tour de France, World Cycling Championship and an Olympic Gold, taking @208fifashirts best spot title was the biggest and most sort after for any sportsmen, and that he'd be doing his utmost to do so.

With many of the audience tired and emotional, Thomas (that’s Simon from the Inbetweeners remember) brought the evening to a close. He thanked all the guests for attending, the organisers for putting it all together but most of all, the shirtspotters across the globe without whom, none of this could have gone ahead.

It had been a magnificent and illustrious, if sometimes controversial evening, but if ever there was a reason to get your spotting glasses on in 2012, it’s surely the prospect of a bigger and better #theSpots in 12 months’ time.