So they did it. Moneybags Manchester City went into the semi-finals as underdogs against arch-rivals Manchester United, and after a nervy start recorded a famous victory with a Yaya Toure goal.
I have never known a week like this leading up to the game. City have had more important games than this. Games on which the club’s hopes of promotion or relegation rested. Yet this felt different. I tried not to think about the match, it was just a semi-final after all, and there’ll be plenty more of those in the future hopefully, but with each passing day my stomach twisted just that little bit more and my productivity at work took a massive hit. Friday was a washout. There was no denying it – this was a big game.
An early start saw a medicinal Guinness at 6:30am before boarding the coach. By midday we had reached Wembley. The fact that four north-west teams were travelling 200 miles to play a football match is of course ridiculous, but there’s no use bleating about it now. Everyone knew the arrangements before the season began, and the FA are hardly the kind to let commonsense have its say. Football fans will be paying for the FA’s £900m white elephant for many more years to come. At least, it allowed more City and United fans to watch the game, than its predecessor would.
Over four hours in a pub near Wembley helped soothe the nerves, and around 45 minutes before kick off, I saw no point in putting it off any longer. It was time to trudge all the way to the ground.
Approaching the City end from the west, the streets were a sea of blue, matching the sky on a glorious day. The odd red shirt got some barracking, but thankfully nothing too serious. My last visit to Wembley was not the greatest of nights. England 2-3 Croatia, when the wally with the brolly led us away from the Euro 2008 finals, and I got very, very wet. The second time round, I can’t help but feel the ground continues to underwhelm me.
It’s hard to comprehend that the Wembley stadium cost £900m. To me it looks nothing special from the outside (love the arch though). Inside, it is undoubtedly impressive, but the whole set up seems flawed. The thin 2nd tier separates the loudest fans, and dilutes the atmosphere. Yet again the escalators were not in use, which was not a problem for me, but five levels of stairs is no mean feat for a pensioner. The food and drinks are, not surprisingly, an almighty rip-off, the toilet facilities extremly poor, and the stewards asking to see tickets at the beginning of the 2nd half was nothing short of baffling. If you’re going to spend £900m, then it kinda needs to be perfect. The New Wembley has quite a long way to go, it would seem, to achieve that.
There was just time for a quick Poznan celebration to coincide with the announcement of the United team. I had my doubts over whether this would just look naff, but it worked wonderfully, and felt great. And then, it started. The game, that is.
I’ve always had this stand-out fear in a derby match. Even with an expensively assembled team, that fear has never receded – it’s conceding an early goal. I worry at what could happen if United score early. I worry about being thrashed. Thirty years of failure can do that to a man, especially when your close neighbours hoover up all the trophies.
Because of this, I settled a little when the first ten minutes passed without incident. I remember nothing from the first part of the game. However, it soon became clear that United were dominating possession. Soon after, they should have taken the lead. Hart saved excellently when Berbatov was put clean through, and as City dozed during the subsequent throw-in, he somehow contrived to scoop the ball over the bar from only two yards out.
A narrow escape for City seemed to indicate trying times were ahead, but after that, the Sky-Blues just grew in confidence, seeing more of the ball, and creating a succession of half-chances. Barry shot into the side-netting, Van Der Sar tipped over a long-range Balotelli shot, Kompany curled a shot just wide while Lescott volleyed over from a corner when he should have done better. So the score stood 0-0 at half-time, which was probably fair considering City had clawed their way back into the game.
Having re-mortgaged my house to buy a half-time pint, the second half was soon upon us. It transpired that the City players had had a heated argument at half-time, and boy did it work. From the opening minute of the second half, I felt we played excellently. We were dominating possession (it certainly felt that way), and getting plenty of balls into the box. But ultimately, it was a mistake that led to the opening goal. Carrick’s sloppy play may have been the main factor in the goal, but credit to Toure and also Barry for chasing down the ball earlier in the move.
After that, City continued to press, and play well. The clock seemed to be ticking backwards, but United’s chances were being limited, apart from a Nani free kick that deflected off Balotelli’s head, off Hart’s outstretched hand, and onto the bar. And then with under 20 minutes to go, a collector’s item. A Scholes assault rightly penalised, rather than the obligatory pat on the back and a warning not to do it again. But having tasted United’s proclivity to score late stunners, all my naturally cynical brain could think of was “boy, will we look stupid if we mess it up from here”.
City sat back a bit too much from then on, and United pressed, but created precious little. And then, the final whistle rang in the mother of all celebrations. City had beaten United to get to a cup final. No City game could be complete without a bit of fun and games from Balotelli, though I’ve seen no proof of any wrongdoing except for clutching his shirt near the half-way line towards a deserted United end, and the heinous crime of winking at Rio Ferdinand.
It’s hard to lecture s0meone on decency and respect or take the moral high ground when your manager and star striker are both serving bans and your most decorated midfielder is taking an early bath for a thigh-high assault. Ferdinand had a good go at the Italian though, only the brute strength of Shaun Wright Phillips holding him back from causing Balotelli some serious harm.
Paul Scholes’ pre-match comments that he didn’t view City as a rival fooled no-one. This defeat will have hurt him and his teammates. Let’s not forget that he only gives one of his “rare” interviews just before a derby match (pure coincidence, no doubt), and that he counted his last minute winner at City the previous season as a career highlight. A paradox, considering he doesn’t see City as rivals.
As for the fans? Well, it meant everything. To beat United, at Wembley, will always mean something. One step away from ending 35 years of hurt. From ridding Old Trafford of THAT banner. The achievement of progressing to our first cup final in thirty years (the Full Members Cup does not count). A team slated, week in week out, in the press as being wracked by division, disunity, fights and fall-outs, and led by a manager on the verge of the sack, proved all the doubters wrong, and delivered when it mattered. Grown men with tattoos were welling up at the end. This might sound rather pathetic, and strengthen our perceived “small-time” tag, but when you have been starving for 30 years, and you can smell a feast, you can be forgiven a tear or two. Even the players did a mini-Poznan. Perfect. I even got two texts from United fans congratulating me on a well-deserved victory. Stranger days, I’ve never seen.
United have other (and they might say, bigger) fish to fry of course, and a 19th league title is surely now theirs after Arsenal imploded yet again the following day. But let’s not pretend a semi-final at Wembley against City didn’t matter to them. It mattered enough for someone to punch a hole in the dressing room wall. And amidst the celebration, let’s also not forget City have won nothing thus far. Stoke will be a tough game. Blackburn away next Monday will be a tough game. It’s time to move on – if City suffer a major semi-final hangover and embarrass themselves in the final, all these celebrations will have been for very little.
The result made a long six hour journey home all worthwhile. Having slept little I awoke early to replay the match, and not even Clive Tyldesley could ruin my mood. A great day, and here’s to plenty more. I don’t think my bank manager will be happy at that thought though.
– Howard Hockin
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