Wednesday, December 3, 2014

THE ART OF TIMING

Chelsea and Roma may well like to take note. A significant corner has been turned in season 14-15.

Manchester City, in this majestic form, are building up a head of steam just when it is most needed. Roma away will decide who goes through with Bayern to the knockout stages of the Champions League and the December league fixtures stretch out in front of us in a string of approachable, winnable games leading all the way to 2015.

Looking at this sumptuous performance on the ground of City's greatest nemesis of recent years, the powers that be at the Italian giants will be scrurrying back to revise their gameplan in double quick time. What looked like a highly promising opportunity to progress now appears like a grim challenge laced with poison for the Italians.

For all those saying tonight was a watershed, that important point was clearly reached during the dying minutes of the Champions League match at home to Bayern, when City - having been outplayed by the ten men of the Germans - somehow managed to pull a positive result out of the hat. The relief could be felt immediately. Elation and relief. But do not get the two mixed up. It may have felt a little like the Aguero moment against QPR all over again, but this was a moment of cold realisation for all around, that Manchester City had not lost any of their powers and were about to remind all those doubters what they had to offer.

So quick are we to jump on the slightest sign and portray it as the death of an empire that some were heralding Chelsea as champions elect without even letting the 2014-15 season drop into a decent rhythm. Foolish as they may look this evening, it is safe to say that City are now hard on the Londoners' coat tails, with much of the old swagger back on show, the old dash and panache to the fore and with half a team still to return from injury.

How quickly the tide can turn.

Post Bayern (and this will surely be seen as some sort of magical marker in this 14-15 season) we have seen two majestic away wins at grounds traditionally rendering little or nothing for City. Moreover, a 3-0 win at St Mary's and a 4-1 stroll at the Stadium of light do not simply represent a change of fortune, but a tidal wave of confident, lazer fast one touch passing through the side to an individual at the pointy end of the operation, who is outdoing himself on a weekly basis.

Stand up and take several bows, Sergio Aguero.

The little man has received the plaudits from all directions of late, but - from a City point of view - we are surely watching the best striker ever to don the sky blue shirt in the long and illustrious history of this great club. I go back a fair way, less than some, more than many, and have enjoyed many years of watching City strikers carry out their difficult job as best they could. From the sharp finishing of Denis Law, the inimitable goal-poaching of Franny Lee, the elegant left foot finishes of Neil Young and the eloquent extravagance of Rodney Marsh, the dash and panache of striker on the wing Dennis Tueart, the goals from all angles and heights of beanpole Niall Quin and the score with any part of the body available Shaun Goater, a good many have passed before our eyes, but none with the combination of power, balance, acceleration, touch, control, awareness and deadly finishing that Sergio Aguero possesses.

To watch the little man from Buenos Aires carry the game single handedly to a visibily petrified defence is quite something to behold. His touch, his assuredness, his need for no time at all are from another dimension. For a young man who grew up with the sound of gunfire backing his efforts on the dry dust football fields of his parched youth, it is those that try to bar his way to goal that are now worried about being taken out by sniper fire.

With nineteen goals dispatched already, Aguero is on target to complete his best ever season in the Premier League. Steer clear of injury and surely the awards will come at season end for a player on the very unplayable apex of his abilities. Before being removed from the field of play at The Stadium of Light this evening, Aguero was enjoying an average evening (for him) having sent the City equaliser into the net with such ferocity and assuredness of touch that Costel Pantilimon looked like he had been bolted to the turf with a staple gun. The net would surely have sailed away had it not been well fixed to the North East turf.

His part in the second goal was an exquisite one touch flick under pressure to get the ball as quickly as was humanly possible to the waiting Stevan Jovetic, who smacked it with aplomb into the Sunderland net.

His third magic moment came after 70 minutes, turning James Milner's cross into the net with a piece of impudent, clinical, ultra-accurate finishing that we are perhaps sadly beginning to take for granted. Do not take anything he does for granted. Do not look upon his actions and think quietly to yourself, here goes the little fella again, because his is the art of an athlete at the very pinnacle of his powers, a low slung one man battering ram with the gentle caress of a fine artist. The fourth and final City goal
was no ordinary finish but the work of a man in the absolute peak of condition. That he was spared further loss of sweat shortly afterwards was understandable with Everton arriving in Manchester at the weekend and the all important trip to Italy coming up next midweek.

In the meantime, we had witnessed another startling break forward end with right back Pablo Zabaleta lifting the ball over Pantilimon with the deft touch of Lionel Messi, a sturdy night's work from an initially perturbing centre back partnership of Boyata and Demichelis, the continuing lively improvemetn of Yaya Touré and Fernandinho's seasons, a rocket-heeled display of the full back's art from Gael Clichy, the first signs of real cohesion from Stevan Jovetic and an all round team performance which augurs more than well for the next few weeks.

Manchester City are returning to the kind of exhilirating form that has brought them two league titles in the last three seasons and countless unforgettable scenes that we will take with us to the grave. It might just be that Sergio Kun Aguero -in this kind of form- is set to outdo anything we may have witnessed so far.

WEARSIDERS TO ACT ON INSIDE INFORMATION




Dashing Southern hemipsheric Sunderland manager Gus Poyet has explained to the Guardian that he is utterly bewildered by the North East side’s recent record v Manchester City (he is not alone in this), telling the Guardian “It’s incredible, it’s unique, it’s a thing of rare and fragile beauty. I cannot and should not explain it, I don’t know how and I don’t know why and I don’t even know who, but I would take a fifth 1-0 at home without very much persuasion at all. That would be perfect. Absolutely perfect and quite lovely.

Poyet’s Sunderland, almost wholly unspectacular unless fighting against relegation, can count three ex-City players and two ex-United players in their ranks. This, says the manager, can work in their favour.

Jack Rodwell, Costel Pantilimon and Adam Johnson have been spending the week telling their new team mates about how the visitors will play, but a slightly frustrated Lee Cattermole told the Sunderland Evening Bugle this afternoon, “It’s all very well like, but I’m not too bothered what kind of runs John Guidetti makes, nor do I want to listen to Adam telling me about all the potshots he beat Richard Wright with when the first team was off on Champions League duty in Amsterdam. Costel keeps telling us about Karim Rekik’s penchant for going in early on players attacking from the right side, but I couldn’t care less if you pulled me shorts up really high.

Poyet, overhearing the pronouncements of his lead midfielder, said. “I think Lee is wrong to dismiss this. It’s what we call insider information. They know about City and I don't. They know things that we can only guess at. They have seen things not fit for our eyes. We talk about these things when the sun goes down and strange shadows play across the squares but it is so much easier when you can have it confirmed from the horse's mouth that Wright has –how you say - buttery fingers, Bruno Zuculini has a big temper if you pull his hair and Matija Nastasic is a bit on the quiet side when it comes to singing songs in the bath. All of this can help us get the upper hand once again and make it possible to weave yet another night of stunning colours and strangely intriguing patterns.”

Rodwell – who left City for Sunderland in the summer – played a total of 16 games in two years, but says he can remember every minute of it. “And what’s more,” he said, “I know full well that, if Yaya and Fernandinho are playing, that it is partly down to them that I have this smashing new career here at Sunderland.”

"I think it's fair to say these players have had the same view of Sergio Aguero as I have sitting halfway up the Colin Bell Stand," said a man with a flat cap and a red nose standing outside the Stonemason's Arms in Timperley. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL


1) THE RETURN OF THE MIDFIELD Looking at the broad grin playing across the face of Fernandinho at the edge of the pitch immediately after the 3-0 win at St Mary's, the casual onlooker would promptly have been reminded of the perfect image of relaxed happiness. For it to be Fernandinho's face that was shining like one of Santa's little helpers, told its own story.

The wiry little Brazilian has had a torrid few months off the back of the World Cup, where his country's 7-1 thrashing by Germany sent many into a spiral of serious self doubt. With the masses turning on Fernandinho (along with the log shaped Fred) as one of the main scapegoats, it is hardly surprising that he has been in subdued form so far this season for City.

The Southampton game saw something of a resurrection of the Fernandinho that played such a marked role in the second half of City's title winning season. The spring is back in his step, those little blocks and dinks and runs into space are suddenly coming naturally without the need to look, to think and to empty the lead weights from inside his boots.

The case of Yaya Touré has been an altogether more complicated one. Last season's goal machine has been replaced by a sometimes waddling, sometimes grazing Ivorian, looking not a shadow of the previous years of rumbustious attacking football, where he sometimes resembled a runaway bus with its passengers grimly trying to hang on at the back. But Touré too is waking up, with the goals beginning to go in and those encouraging signs of energy returning. The Blues may only have him for another month before the African Nations starts up, but his forceful presence can make a significant difference throughout a December packed with tricky but distinctly winnable games.

2) THE PLAYER OF THE YEAR UPFRONT The amount of words devoted to Sergio Aguero in the last three weeks is beginning to look like a government white paper. There has been a never-ending flow of high praise and plaudits from all strata of the British media and beyond. For once everyone seems to be in agreement about his worth to City and his ability in general. With Suarez gone, City can rightly claim to have the best player currently performing on the Premier League stage.

3) PELLEGRINI LOOKING FRESH That dreadful hang dog look has lifted. Has he had a hair cut too? Something has risen from the shoulders of the City manager and, whilst he will never be a man with a creace-free face, he looks fresher and more optimistic for the first time in weeks. He can see, like we can see, like everyone can see, that things are picking up, that form is coming back and that progress towards that top spot can now be resumed. With David Silva, Edin Dzeko and Aleksandar Kolarov all due back shortly, he knows that his suddenly sprightly looking side is about to be augmented by three more than useful players.

4) DANGER FREE DECEMBER The month leading up to Christmas is always one of the busiest sections of the season, where the chaff is separated from the wheat. City's schedule - already freed of Capital One Cup commitments and in grave danger of having Champions League time go the same way - is a relatively comfortable one right through to the end of the year. Chelsea's itinerary looks to be marginally more difficult, but few are the opponents for either side who carry the look of possible pitfalls. By the arrival of the New year, we may see the Londoners' comfortable six point lead cut back further.

5) MAGICIAN'S SUDDEN COMEBACK Take David Silva out of the equation and City can look more than a little toothless at times. Whilst they are far from a one man team, Silva's unique brand of midfield prompting is hard to replicate. Samir Nasri, easing his way back from injury himself, reached levels of brilliance last season that dovetailed beautifully with his Spanish midfield partner, but so far has not hit the same heights, as he seeks proper match fitness. Silva sees passes others don't, he threads the ball through holes that look to be closed or closing; he twists and turns until his markers get motion sickness. With the little magician back in the side, a City team beginning to pick up pace, will become stronger still.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

DAS BOOT

Nine Germans have made it on to the pitch in the sky blue shirts of City down the years, the most famous and most popular of which were clearly custodian Bert Trautmann, one of the greatest figures to play for the Blues, and 90s cult striker Uwe Rosler.

Trautmann came to City in November 1949, having participated in the war, fighting at first on the Eastern front and later on the Western front, where he came into closer contact with the allies than he had wanted. Captured first by the Americans, from whom he managed to escape, then by the British as the war drew to its bloody and inevitable close, Trautmann was held with hundreds of others in the prisoner of war camp in Ashton in Makerfield. Refusing repatriation, he decided to settle in Lancashire, playing first for St Helens Town, then moving to City where- after a difficult start - he became a huge crowd favourite. At that time City had a significant Jewish support and the arrival of a German paratrooper caused an understandable furor.

The players at Maine Road, who included in captain Eric Westwood a Normandy veteran, did their best to make him feel at home, however, and Trautmann succeeded in winning over doubters with weekly displays of courage and tenacity. He kept goal in the difficult early 50s when City were not making much headway, but was quickly recognised as a worthy successor to the great Frank Swift in maintaining City's reputation for iconic goalkeepers. He was the first German to play in the Cup final, in 1955, but a year later he would return to Wembley a winner, although ti was in terrible personal circumstances, breaking his neck in a challenge from Birmingham's Jimmy Murphy.

The bravery to continue through to the end cemented his place in City folklore, a comic book hero emerging from the gruesome antipathy of World War Two.

Decades later, City signed a total of five German players between 1993 and 1995, a trend started by Brian Horton and continued by his successor Alan Ball. Midfielder Steffen Karl and striker Uwe Rosler arrived as as part of a pack of players bought in a panic by Horton as relegation loomed at the end of 93-94 season. Karl had been a substitute in the first leg of the UEFA Cup final the previous autumn between Borussia Dortmund and Juventus and had played the entire second leg in Turin, as Dortmund lost 6-1 on aggregate, and came to City with a high reputation. He signed on the same day as striker Paul Walsh arrived from Portsmouth, Friday March 11th 1994. A week earlier fellow German Rosler had been signed from East Germans Dynamo Dresden.

City were a single place above the bottom three of Oldham, Sheffield United and Swindon and in need of a real shot in the arm. The two Germans delivered the much needed boost immediately, Rosler netting at Ipswich in a 2-2 draw and again in the morale-boosting 3-0 win over Aston Villa. Karl stepped up next with a daisy cutter of a winner at the Dell in City's following game, after entering the pitch as a substitute with twenty minutes left of a fraught relegation cliff hanger. Rosler would score three more in home draws with Norwich and Chelsea and a rousing draw at Hillsborough, where the big City following chanted his name all afternoon, as the Blues finally struggled to safety.

TYPICAL CITY LINE-UP WITH TRAUTMANN
v. Fulham Jan 1950
Trautmann, Phillips, Westwood, Gill, Fagan, Walsh, Munro, Black, Turnbull, Allison, Oakes  

TYPICAL CITY LINE-UP WITH ROSLER AND KARL
v Newcastle Apr 1994
Dibble, Hill, Vonk, Curle, Brightwell, Karl, McMahon, Rocastle, Beagrie, Rosler, Walsh


Although Rosler was sent off in the opening game of the following season, a dreadful 3-0 reverse at Highbury, he revealed admirable spirit in scoring three in the next two games, 3-0 and 4-0 home wins over West Ham and Everton respectively, to kick start a season full of goals in a City forward line that now included Niall Quinn, Paul Walsh, Peter Beagrie, Nicky Summerbee and Rosler.

This was the season Jurgen Klinsmann uprooted trees for Tottenham and City's own German striker hardly flew in under the radar either, with a hatful of goals, including four against Notts County in the FA Cup. The other goal that night was scored by Maurizio Gaudino, City's fifth German acquisition. He had joined at Christmas, after his club Eintracht Frankfurt had wanted rid of him, as a ten year prison sentence for being part of a car theft ring was hanging over the gifted midfielder.

Gaudino did not play as if being chased by the Polizei and provided a languid and silky touch to a City side increasingly dominated by the club foot and hoof brigade represented by Steve Lomas, David Brightwell and Alan Kernaghan. Two games summed up his class as City's season again degenerated into a relegation scrap. Scoring with a beautiful low shot at Goodison Park and a thumping header at home to Liverpool contributed to the points that kept City heads above water.

Goalkeeper Eike Immel and left-back Michael Frontzeck came to Maine Road in 1995, joining Rosler just in time to experience Alan Ball's idiosyncratic method of Premier League management. Although Immel
would prove a busy shot stopper in a season when City's three year flirtation with relegation finally ended with burnt fingers, Frontzeck was scapegoated for some of the team's ills and never really settled, despite staying on for the following, disastrous season in Division Two.

Post-nineties stress over, City were back with the big boys by the turn of the century and fielded ex-Bayern full back Michael Tarnat in Kevin Keegan's attack-minded side. Tarnat will be remembered for standing goggle-eyed by the post after Manchester United's smash and grab Champions League final v Bayern and for a howitzer of a free kick for City against Blackburn at Ewood Park, as Keegan's side hit an early season top spot in the table. He repeated the dose in the sun-drenched home game with Aston Villa, showcasing a left foot that had both power and accuracy.

Ex-Liverpool star Dietmar Hamann enjoyed his last year of professional football with the Blues, signing after a brief week long sojourn at Sam Allardyce's Bolton. Hamann was a steady influence in a poor City side, as Keegan's reign ended and the dour, goalless period under Stuart Pearce began.

City's most recent link with Germany and indeed Bayern Munich comes in the shape of Jerome Boateng, a gangly defender, who was never seen at his best at the Etihad. Used mainly as a right back, Boateng looked ill at ease and even, at times, disinterested after starting his City career with the good omen of injuring his knee on the drinks trolley in the flight to Manchester. The £10m signing had been brought in by Roberto Mancini but failed to straighten his wheels and left for Bayern a year later, where the inevitability of a future as a World Champion national team defender and a European champion Bayern stalwart fits City's historical custard pie-to-face routine to a tee. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

RED MIST



Through the impenetrable whirring and static of Manchester City’s failed attempt to beat CSKA Moscow at the Etihad on 5th November, it became apparent that something unusual – even by City’s extravagant standards – was transpiring before our casually leaking eyes.

As the ineffable referee Tasos Sidiropoulos - enjoying an evening of bashful myopia - brandished more and more cards, it became increasingly evident that somebody would soon be heading for the proverbial early bath. Sure enough of the six yellow cards produced, two turned to red. That both were for City and both totally deserved told its own story of the Herculean frustration circulating around the ground.

The first, waved in front of Fernandinho for a piece of what has long been termed professionalism and has lately become taking one for the team, but could equally have been named "breathtaking stupidity", reduced City to ten when a little momentum was being built in a difficult phase of the game. The second, awarded to the towering Yaya Touré for face-swatting an opponent temerous enough to try to get in his way, was also as indisputable as the combined works of Sugar Ray Leonard.

Hartford: purveyor of prolonged dissent
Leaving City with nine men against a quietly competent Russian side, who had not only looked over their homework but also underlined the important bits and gone through it all with a highlighter pen, the home side finished the game in seven states of disarray. To put a tidy tin lid on it all, manager Manuel Pellegrini -quizzed as ever to the ninth degree in the post match press conference - could not quite put his finger on what it was that was provoking his side to play like eleven (or in turn ten, then nine) strangers. 

For all his positive attributes of Champions League expertise and cunning South American tactics, here was a man, visibly ageing before the cameras, with no answers whatsoever for The Sun, The Mirror nor even the man in the revolving hat from the Daily Star.

The shambles took some of us immediately and thrillingly back to previous occasions when City had misbehaved on this grand scale. It only takes the slightest provocation for some of us to absolutely wallow in it, you see. Only three times in the last 40 years have the Blues been reduced to nine men, Asa Hartford, Kevin Bond, Richard Edghill, Andy Dibble, Richard Dunne and Gelson Fernandes being the block-headed miscreants involved.

When the initial anger regarding the sendings off subsides, City manager Mark Hughes will be left to reflect on the fact that his side remain consistent only in their inconsistency….” Phil Dawles, BBC online, after City v Spurs 2008-09

Supporting City was always to worship at the altar of the unexpected during All Saints Festival of the Haphazard and the CSKA match proved that City still have it very much in them to enter that particular church brim full of gifts and harvest offerings. When it comes to unlikely scenarios and improbable story lines, it is almost as if the club hasn’t changed at all, in fact. Bless them for that if it is even partly true.

"Getting yourself sent off when your team is trailing by three goals is not a lot different to desertimg a beaten army..." Steve Curry, Daily Express, September 1982
In September 1982 the portents of doom were perhaps more obvious than any of us standing on those shallow rickety terraces of Upton Park, West Ham, cared to realise at the time. That City's front line was no longer populated by the likes of Brian Kidd and Rodney Marsh but instead by David Cross, a man who looked like he had been on Marta Reid's cabbage leaves and watercress diet, was bad enough. That one of the dismissed on this occasion had spent his formative years being spoon fed semolina by the team manager was another sign. If boss John Bond's son couldn't manage to stay on the pitch, what chance did we have? Naturally enough City went down to the 2nd division at the end of a season spent ignoring bad omens and absent-mindedly tripping up gypsy soothsayers. David Cross contributed a single digit total of goals and a heap of memories tinged with the whiff of gunpowder and horse manure.

That Bond junior had been sent off for kicking Hammers hard man Billy Bonds was surely daft enough. Asa Hartford joined him emptying the Dettol into the team bath after a bout of  what the Daily Express called "prolonged dissent" led to the meltdown of referee David Letts' patience.

Strangely, in a nod to recent times, assistant manager John Benson later mentioned that it could have been a "case of mistaken identity" in Hartford's case, mirroring the CSKA game when the extravagantly monikered Pontus Wernbloom escaped a red of his own after the referee decided to punish Sergei Ignashevich for the already yellow carded Swede's 77th minute indiscretion. The correct decision by the muddled ref at that point would have leveled the match at ten v ten. Instead, seconds later it was nine v eleven and chaos resumed.

In 1994, things were a lot more stable. Chairman Peter Swales had been overthrown by ex-player Franny Lee, boss Brian Horton wore the look of the man who has been given one too many votes of confidence and City were heading towards a two year date with destiny that would start a slide into Division Three. Nothing at all to get worked up about then...

Again, as you might expect, a referee, this time the pebbled-glassed Gary Willard (no, exactly) was at the centre of things, removing 'keeper Andy Dibble, a tree trunk-thighed Welshman with a penchant for tomfoolery, for what at the time looked like a perfectly executed sliding tackle. Even Les Ferdinand, the player dispossessed, called Dibble's intervention "a fair challenge, he got to the ball before me". 

Gerry Francis, the QPR manager, had written in his programme notes for the need for video analysis to aid referees (see how long this potato has been burning away in the oven) and, as ever, irony was stalking City brandishing its stopwatch. As Barry Flatman, writing in the Express said, "Richard Edghill was dismissed for two cautionable offences and Bardsley was booked for dissent, yet basic lip readers could judge that half a dozen others got away with much stronger language...".

To cap a strange day in the life of a strange club, Paul Walsh scored a bizarre goal, taking goalkeeper Tony Roberts' full blooded clearance full on and, without knowing it, being repsonsible for the ball cannoning backwards into the goal.

Naturally, nine man City won two one.



City's history is so littered with these unpredictable outcomes, it is surprising there are any words left in the average dictionary to describe variations on a recurring theme. Suffice to say, all of this guff and nonsense just refuses to go away and for that, in a particularly curious way, we should be eternally grateful.


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Thursday, November 6, 2014

MENTAL TSARS




CSKA Moscow V Manchester City  
21st October 2014


“Moscow Moscow what a lovely town”



So, the draw was made and my wish for 3 new Countries to visit was not to be realised. This was always going to be a long shot but Germany, Italy and Russia again! To be fair Germany is a great place to visit, football or otherwise. Munich is fabulous, end of.  Rome in December? What is there not to like about that? Apart from the potential to have some part of my anatomy punctured with a sharp implement, I can’t wait for that fixture. As inviting as both Germany and Italy are to me I went to Moscow last season, and yes I had a fabulous time, met some great new friends and discovered a whole new culture of which, though, a large part of the population still harks back to the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s. This time around I was not as apprehensive about getting around the place, the food, the people and most importantly the match and ground itself. After all I knew what to expect.

I booked my flights and hotel not long after the draw was made. Thanks to Stelios airways I got a great deal on flights, so I thought I would splash out on a decent hotel round the corner from the Kremlin. Rude not to really I thought, especially as the Metro system is not that easy to understand and if I can walk to many places of interest then that would be preferable. The Visa application form I have to admit I did find easier this time round, however I did have to do it again after deciding I was Ukrainian and not from the United Kingdom. Well they are next to each other on the drop down menu. On my return from the game in Munich said form was sent off and returned within the week. In the words of one of my friends, “What could possibly go wrong”?

As with most teams CSKA have a minority of idiots that support/follow them. This had already led to a meeting of UEFA to decide that they must play a game behind closed doors with the possibility of more sanctions if there were any further problems with their fans. Unfortunately further problems were exactly what they had in Rome the same night we played Bayern. A few days later (now less than 2 weeks to the fixture with us) UEFA decided they must play OUR match behind closed doors in Moscow.

Well, nothing that UEFA do these days should surprise me, but to make this decision days before I was due to fly out beggared belief. So, ok…this means that UEFA will refund the £700 I have paid out I assume? Er…no, of course not. Although it is UEFA, who have refused me entry to the ground and the reason I have paid out my hard earned money, arranged holidays from work and generally turned my life upside down for UEFA to say they have no responsibility for what now would be a pointless trip.

Merci, Monsieur Platini.

Although I am fortunate enough to travel to all the European games I am in no way a financially comfortable individual. I do not have what most people would call “Normal” holidays throughout the year. These trips following City are my vacations, or Vocation if you prefer? 
 
I never for one minute imagined that UEFA would reimburse me so splashing £700 for absolutely no reason but to now sit on my backside at home was never going to seriously be an option for me.

A few days prior to flying out, City sent out an email invite to attend an event at the Stadium on the afternoon/night of the match. Food, drink, entertainment etc was all paid for and the match would be shown on a big screen. Now considering this decision to play the game behind closed doors had nothing to do with the club, personally I thought this was a decent gesture, it was however never going to make up for not being in Moscow to see Gods Own Club. Several emails passed between myself and the club and there was a 30 minute phone call two days before I was due to fly. As much as I appreciated the time they took to try to encourage me not to go to Moscow, lets face it….Not going was not really an option.

4 am Sunday 19th October 2014, the alarm goes off which in the big scheme of things is normally what it should do. Unfortunately it is 30 minutes after I have already woken up, which in turn is probably only a few hours since I managed to get to sleep. Every European trip follows the same giddy routine. I’m like a kid on the way to Disneyland. The night before I have checked, double checked and checked several more times that I have my passport in a place where I cannot miss it in the morning. So when I get up I check it is still there, well just in case the passport ghost has come and nicked it, you can’t be too careful.

Taxi turns up and at 05:30 I’m on my way to Manchester Airport for this morning’s direct flight. I’m not expecting many Blues at the airport, most will have been able to cancel the trips they had organised, mine was non refundable. Once boarded I reckon about 20 or so City are on the flight, some I know and a few I recognise but only on nodding terms. Flight goes without hitch, and remarkably lands 40 minutes early! Not bad on a flight that was only going to take 3 hrs 40 mins anyway. Captain speedy pants makes a good landing and its off to get the Aeroport Express.

My first encounter with the locals is a lovely young Russian Lady called Anna. (see photo above). She had just landed from Kuala Lumpar where she had been working for three months and was on her way home to just outside Moscow. We got chatting and it made the 40 minute direct train journey into Moscow most enjoyable, well it did for me anyway! My hotel was only about 15 minutes walk from the station and thanks to the wonders of Google Earth I had “virtually” walked the route several times. Weather wasn’t too cold at this point, which was just as well as I had not packed a “big coat “. The intention was to buy one out there, best laid plans and all that. Checked in, hotel was as nice as it looked on the interweb and chilled for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Monday 20th October 2014 proved to be probably my favourite day of the trip. I woke up refreshed and took full advantage of the inclusive breakfast. It had snowed overnight which added to the giddiness. I decided over another pastry that I would make today my “out all day/night” day. I left the hotel at Midday and headed out into the cold, snowy air.

The walk into town along the river although very cold and wintry is simply outstanding. Every turn brings a new view of a domed shaped building. The Kremlin walls getting closer and the iconic St.Basil’s looking like a giant Christmas tree decoration. In reality R*d Square is much smaller than when you see it on the television with the parades and various Presidents of the past giving the salute. No matter your opinion of the Russian’s and the government’s views on things that normal society would find abhorrent, it really is a moment to just stand and look around at this place in history.

I decide to do the Kremlin tour. This is a must if you ever get the chance. An outstanding array of several buildings of architectural wonder. My favourite place was the Armoury, truly spectacular artefacts fill the place. As a tip, use the audio guide but then when it’s finished walk round again at your own pace. Several hours later, tour done it’s now getting dark outside and food is on the agenda.

When I visited last year I went to a Mexican restaurant La Cantina, the food was great last year so I thought I might as well give it a try again. Seemed a safe bet and I wasn’t to be disappointed. Although it was difficult trying to explain I wanted the Draught Guiness in a “long glass and not one that was the type used in “The Indoor League”. One for the oldies there. I settled for a Desperado!

Another aspect of the place that hadn’t changed was the delightful young lady who visited the table enquiring if I would like a “shot”. I do hope she didn’t get a chill in those what can only be described as ever disappearing denim shorts!  Food and drink consumed it’s time to head off into the night. Even though It’s a 30 minute walk round the strange streets of Moscow, I settle for heading to the Hard Rock Café where I know a few blues are meeting up.

I get to the Hard Rock but unfortunately they are not there, I remember the John Bull is close by and head there. Again, they are nowhere to be seen. I go in for a Guiness and a few blues are in who invite me to join them at their table. I can only thank them for their hospitality for the next hour or so. Times ticking on and I am at least an hour’s walk from my hotel but they mention they are heading round the corner to a 24 hour BOGOF sports bar where there are other blues. A few names I recognise and decide to join them. When in Rome and all that, well Moscow anyway.

The rest of the night is a mixture of laughs, and well….having a few drinks. In the bar was our Russian organiser Alex, Giant of a man whose broken English bordered on robotic but the bloke is quite simply first class. He has organised the office block which the Bayern fans have used 2 weeks previously. For this we will pay a deposit of 500 roubles. The remainder will be paid on the coach the next day. I left about 3am with Cheryl and Col in a taxi. They get out at their hotel and I am then left with a Russian Lewis Hamilton. Not in looks but I’m glad I had my seat belt on!

Always a sign of a good night when you miss breakfast, I eventually get mine at 1pm in the hotel bar. Much needed it was and time to reflect on the previous day’s events and look forward to what was supposed to be a day to remember. However, it soon becomes clear on social media that the police have put a stop to our plans. This is not how the day should be going. 
"What do you mean we can't get in?"

I leave to meet our Alex at about 4pm for the 15 minute walk to the bus. A Russian television crew come on board and want an interview. Neil C takes up the microphone on our behalf and in his best telephone voice gives an assured performance.  After an hour’s wait the coach leaves for an unknown destination and we embark on a crawl through heavy traffic around the back streets of Moscow. We eventually arrive at the bar. It is situated next to the banks of the river and first impressions are not positive. Sited near an industrial estate and the bleak windswept river surroundings does not bode well. Across the river we see the forlorn disused floodlights of the old Torpedo Moscow ground. We cross the road to “Jimmy’s Bar” where we find the aforementioned television crew are waiting to film our arrival. A few smiles for the cameras later and we make our way into the bar.

The old saying of never judge a book by its cover is very true. The previous year in Moscow we stumbled across a hidden gem of a bar near the Khimki Arena called Platform 13. This time “Jimmy’s” has stepped up to the plate….and glass. Fabulous inside with several rooms for dining and a giant screen in the room that we are to use. Alex has done well. The next couple of hours are quite flat for me. As we watch the game it becomes apparent that some CSKA fans are in the ground. This leaves a sour taste. And of course the match itself ends poorly for us.

The 2nd half performance is hard to understand. The TV crew film the remaining hours we spend watching the game. I do hope they did not put subtitles on for the Russian viewers! The night is punctuated by the dulcet tones of Neil C and Paul giving renditions of “Moscow, Moscow what a lovely town”. This little ditty sticks in the head for several days.

"Houston, we do not have lift-off..."
We leave at about 22:30 to catch “a bus” back into Moscow. 30 minutes later and in temperatures that are now on the edge of freezing my wotsits off and the bus arrives. After endearing ourselves to the locals on board for 10 minutes we get back to Pavalatskaya. I decide to head back to my hotel whilst the rest get a Metro back to the BOGOF bar. On the walk back I notice a few more unsavoury characters out and about than the previous night and its fair to say my steps are a little quicker! Couple of drinks in the bar and due to the time difference I get to watch one of the later Champions League games.

Wednesday morning, unlike the the previous day I am up in time for breakfast. My mood after last night’s result is a bit flat but I am determined to get out and about later. Being of a certain age space travel was something always in the media in the late 60’s and 70’s and has always fascinated me. So, a trip on the metro to the Cosmonaut museum is on the cards today. I navigate my way there at lunchtime and without getting lost which in itself is worthy of a mention. Houston Control would be proud.

The temperature has dipped even further today so even though there is a vast park area around the museum it’s not somewhere I spend too long. Inside I find space geek heaven and several hours later I leave happy in the knowledge I made it my choice of venue for the day. Table for one in the evening at the hotel restaurant and a couple of drinks and a relaxing night.

23rd October and it’s the day to set off home. I go back into R*d Square for one last time and it’s dropped to -10. Really pleased I didn’t bring my big coat at this point. I head for the Peoples Museum on the edge of the square. Apart from anything else it’s warm in there. An hour or two later after looking at Lenin, Stalin and WW1 artefacts it’s time to leave. The hotel is vacated around 4pm and it’s on to the return leg on the Aeroport express. This time Anna is nowhere to be seen and the 40 minutes journey is accompanied by Tracy, John and of course Cheryl and Colin are on board. Back in the airport I use the last of my roubles on some chocolate and its homeward bound. All in all, a trip that has been interesting, fun and surprising.  Interesting for the places I have visited, fun for the people I have met along the way, old and new, and surprising for the fact I get slightly drunk for the 2nd time in about 15 years. Did I mention I don’t drink much?

I leave with a sense of anger and disappointment to the hierarchy within the walls of UEFA who have deprived me of watching City in Europe through no fault of my own. Their lack of thought and compassion for travelling supporters is quite frankly disgraceful. They should hang their heads in shame.

прощай Moscow, until the next draw.

Moscow Moscow what a lovely town


Saturday, November 1, 2014

COCKS OF THE NORTH

The Manchester Derby arrives again with those steady trophy winning megaliths getting ready to try and deal with their nearest and dearest upstart puppy neighbours. The wannabes, the noise merchants, the great unwashed. The team full of household names squaring up to a rush job hotch potch sellotape and pritt buddy attempt to get rich quick. The seamless wonderboys, all sleak and gleaming, against the rag tag army where anything can and often does happen. The pin-your-last-fiver-on-us brigade versus the cup for cock ups eleven.

But which is which these days?

A sea change that caught Alex Ferguson on the hop has not only happend in his lifetime but, rudely, impolitely, whilst his revolving chair is still comfortingly warm with that little dent in the middle where his regal Glaswegian backside once nestled.

Football, dynamic unpredictable vortex that it is, has sucked us all in and thrown us out the other side in somebody else's trousers.

Current Manchester Status actually has the record league champions portrayed as a somehwat humbled band of hucksters, down on their luck and clawing their way towards the light in a painful, belly-scraping operation along the Chester Road. City, the proud cocks, the dominant beasts, all feathers and strut, are Kings of the North with their two titles in three years (also two in 46 years, but let's skip the fine print for now) and slew of other baubles and trophies that have been collected since the desert sandstorm blew in over Moss Side.

If only power shifts were so simple.

Fast it most certainly has been. To see the two clubs juxtapoosed as they are today less than two years since Ferguson departed the scene muttering and grunting is a fair eye-opener. The speed and height of City's climb and United's descent has been eye-wateringly decisive, crunchingly distinct.

And yet. Football's delicious ability to trip up the arrogant, to dispose with the cock-sure and put leeches in the bed of he who carps to long and too loud, means the first Manchester Derby of season 2014-15 brings together an all-conquering City side in the middle of a giant stutter the like of which has not been seen for seasons and a down-on-their-luck United side actually beginning to believe that the nightmare of the past season and a bit could be evaporating to reveal a clear blue horizon to aim at.

City fans are fretting away and so are United's. As ever the potential for spilled custard is immense.

City's recent form is that of the addled old man heading home sideways from Yates Wine Lodge whilst United have a gleam in their eye that can only come from a period off the fizzy stuff. The Reds are suddenly realising things aren't as bad as they may have thought. Despite this, the calibre of player on both sides means there will be no falling to press speculation of pitfalls and the tittle tattle of the latest majestic swerves of common opinion. Van Persie, Aguero, Kompany, Rooney are seasoned pros who know just how good they are and what they are capable of in the collective from.

The Blues may have followed up a dreary second half in Moscow and an unhinged performance at West Ham by producing something even less appetizing to go out of the Capital One Cup against Newcastle reserves, but they are better than this and we all know it. More importanly Mr Van Gaal and his cohorts know it too, as does Señor Pellegrini.

City in recent years have specialised in shattering records that have stood for decades. The FA Cup victory v Stoke after waiting to replicate the feeling of 1969, a first League Cup win since 1976, a league title after 44 years twiddling thumbs and wringing hands. It is also 44 years since City recorded four consecutive derby victories. Not since those Malcolm Allison-inspired days of bravado when the coach would saunter gently up to the packed terraces of the Stretford End before the start of the game and raise the number of fingers that he thought City would win by have City had such a clear upper hand. Even the United victory in 2012 masks what went before it, another City double and the great six-one.

When one thinks back to the harrowing mid-nineties, when United's rise to be the first Premier League power coincided with a City fall from grace that swept us all away to the 3rd division, the shift is seismic. Nobody in their right mind could have come up with this scenario whilst watching André Kanchelskis whip in three in a truly horrible 5-0 defeat at Old Trafford in 1994. To dream of a time when City could easily outflank their rivals in this twice-yearly festival of insults and abuse would have been akin to signing up for enrolment at the local funny farm.

Since the heady days of Allison and Joe Mercer, when the Blues were top dogs in the city, only a spell in the mid-to-late seventies really felt like something approaching parity might be reached. In that vibrant, unfettered atmosphere of early segregation on the terraces, with United still fresh from a brief sojourn in the 2nd division and City at the top of thei powers, the tension and expectation was colossal. Since then, the Resd have wracked up their twenty win advantage in the history of this fixture, going great stretches of the 80s and 90s untouched by City's slingshots and puny arrows.

Time, though, stands still for no one.

So here we all are. Still sane, still alive. Hair a bit scorched, clothes dishevelled, ever so slightly the worse for wear, admittedly, but still here, hearts beating and eyes shining bright with hope and fear in equal measure. Manchester City have outgrown those days of tremble and bluster. They stand now as the team to be measured against, even if your name happens to be Manchester United.

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Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; bitter, confused and maladjusted. Watching City since 1974 with fluctuating amounts of disbelief.

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