Plastic or Fantastic #1 Jumping Ahead

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste

Plastic fans or overseas fantastic fans?

When it first happened, we were a little jealous. No. In fact, we were bitterly jealous. As the likes of Liverpool, Manchester Utd and Arsenal gathered overseas fans, City had no hope in hell of travelling beyond Greater Manchester. Together with other so called big 4 club Chelsea, they often dominated the pathways into European football’s top competition and commercial cash card. Terms likes ‘plastic fans’ or phrases based on the geography of where a fan came from, ‘Kent reds’, ‘Singapore reds’, or ‘Here’s another ferry from Ireland’ could be heard. Ignorant fans labelled the new followers as glory seeking lightweight supporters in a heartbeat. I know, because I used to say it and still do from time to time.

Before the Premier League was formed, history served Man Utd well, they’d won it in ’68 – as the first English club to do so. Liverpool did better beating the rest of the pack in 1977, 1978, 1981, and 1984. Nottingham Forest were a founder club of the Premier League – and have the European Cup in 1979 and 1980. Of the 22 founder clubs that season, only 12 are in the 2019/20 season of the Premier League. Like Nottingham, the other 9 clubs have had a topsy-turvy recent history. Where are Wimbledon?

The Champions League followed the European Cup. For the former, Aston Villa won it in my birth year. However, only Chelsea, Man Utd (twice) and Liverpool (twice) have managed to win it in 25 years of the Premier League. Man Utd received global acclaim on how they rebuilt a club following the Munich air disaster and capitalised on a social liberation and liberalisation in the 1960s. They cashed in on the surrounding pop culture with “Fifth Beatle” George Best and so on. Football fans and even the neutral fan could join in or follow a team beyond their own turf. They wouldn’t be begrudged their second club from time to time. It was the norm.

Real Madrid and Barcelona have appeared in the Champions League since cavemen bashed clubs over dodos. They’re almost ever presents having qualified for seemingly every edition. Barca have managed 15 straight seasons of last-16 knock-out games. Their 16 domestic league titles since 1990 has featured just four finishing standing outside La Liga’s top three. Since 2008-09 they have finished twice, three times. They won the other seasons. Real Madrid last finished 4th in La Liga’s 2003-04 season and also clinched a Champions League Place. In 1996-97 they didn’t join the Champions League –  having qualified in the edition of the season before. The Champions League rebrand of the top European Cup started in 1992, at about the same time as the Premier League in England. The global branding of Spanish football has been clear – and one rarely unbroken for Real and Barca. They bucked the trend in terms of fans following top clubs from Asia. Neither team sported red, like the flags of Singapore, China or Hong Kong’s sponsors Sharp name. But, their following was few and far between until Ronaldo and Messi arrived. Then, they banked on superstars.

In the years leading up to the Premier League, floating on the stock exchange wasn’t a bad move. Man Utd did that. City just floated – with no direction. As branding clung to fashionable stars like Beckham and Giggs, football entered a new era for City too. Financial ruin caused by off the field mismanagement and on the field turmoil. Freefall entered the blue half of Manchester with little sign of abating as one club would march to a historic treble (that people seldom hear about these days). Even City signing Chinese player Sun Jihai in the early 2000s did little to stem the flow of international fanbases looking from the east towards somewhere west of Manchester.

Liverpool have won zero of the 27 Premier League titles on offer yet have fared well in Europe during the Champions League era. They like Man Utd, have been in Europe, to the FIFA World Club Championships and European Super Cups. The International Champions Cup has featured them plenty. Exposure beyond the Pennines, Irish Sea and the Lancashire boundary has been kind to them. Man Utd have been described as a global brand – long before City lifted a Premier League trophy. Overseas tours followed the money as City spewed out close to home European numbers like Hamburg’s HSV and Oldham Atheltic away. Even Stockport County and Sheffield Utd had a crack at China – although West Brom came first, long before the Eastlands was a term.

Manchester City’s first foray into the Champions League came from a third-placed league finish in 2010/11. City have featured 8 times in UEFA’s top competition since reaching the semi-final twice, hardly enough to make a dedicated Wikipedia page on City in the Champions League. Higher league places mean higher Premier League revenue and City gave won half of the Premier League titles on offer since their first on 2011/12. Since the takeover in 2008 they’ve shot from ‘marketable lovable team seeks caring partner’ to ‘dominatrix of the year’. Back to back titles, especially considering the strengthening and determination to dethrone City’s centurion of point getters has justified some clever marketing deals.

City and Utd having a derby in Beijing could have been a big thing. It was a farce and never happened. USA had that first privilege at a later preseason. As thousands of red shirts outside the Bird’s Nest Stadium cried, shouted and shown general anger, pockets and handfuls of City fans skipped around Beijing bars, experiencing the City fan culture. A few days later, similar happiness happened in Shenzhen and the culture of Manchester – and football spewed outwardly. Shenzhen Blues and Hong Kong Blues were soon joined by 11 more groups – recognised as official supporters clubs by Manchester City. The OSC formed in 1949 and now has around 250 clubs globally, with around 20,000 registered members. It provides a direct and sometimes challenging link to Manchester City. It is officially recognised and backed by the club but remains independent. Kevin Parker has been voted as General Secretary for 20 or so years running now. He does wonders for the club in a demanding voluntary role. Alan Potter, Howard Burr, Mike Young, Christine Wardle, Karen McCormack are names that help run this ever-expanding organisation, but I don’t know their exact roles. They get mentions in matchday programmes and online from time to time but maintain quite a modest presence.

The annual membership for Manchester City’s Official Supporters Club goes far. A percentage goes to City in the Community. Another amount is made available for charitable applications by the Official Supporters Club membership. Shenzhen Blues donated around £500 to a children’s charity, A Heart For China. The membership gives a card, often a gift and the chance to apply for tickets by each branch. There are many other benefits and event support is one. One thing that as a supporter travelling from nation to nation, or town to village in the UK, means that knowing where your nearest OSC is, you can say hello. So, if you’re in Addis Ababa or Newton Heath, you’ll not be far from one. When I first moved to Dongguan my closest branch was Hong Kong Blues. I met up with that lovely branch until Shenzhen Blues became mainland China’s first branch. From then, I have met so many mainland fans and expats here on work, or just visiting and that is exactly what an OSC should be for: to bring people together.

The Premier League Asia Trophy featured in Nanjing and Shanghai and we’re not really here… we never thought we’d see this many blue shirts or this level of enthusiasm overseas. To continue this writing, I will explain why fans of English clubs overseas are fantastic – and not just plastic unlike the Leeds fan who shouted, “Our fans are from Leeds, your fans are Chinese” at someone not even born in Asia… in Perth this week. Man Utd’s 4-0 win over their bitter Pennine rivals shouldn’t have come into his thinking. Anyone the video us out there.

To be continued.

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā

The spirit of football.

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do,

“We’ll go on getting bad results.” (Jimmy Hill)

13/5/2012

The daylight emerged between the window frame. The curtains had been positioned in a way ill-prepared to create darkness. I had slept surprisingly well despite sticking to the sofa in a slight sweat. I went to the bathroom, had a shower, cleaned my teeth and generally prepared myself for that Sunday’s sunny day. With a spring in my step, I dressed and sat on the sofa. Bhagira the cat and Fuzzy kept me company. The red laser pointer pen activated and entertained my feline friends. Eventually Dan emerged, a little worse for wear. It may have been a cal by our friend Jack Daniels the previous night, or his seemingly strenuous job delivering home deliveries for Asda Walmart, either way his eyes weren’t awake. A coffee fixed that. It was Nescafe but I didn’t care. I enjoyed the warmth and milky taste. With a new sense of alertness, my buddy gave me a lift to Kirkham and Wesham railway station.

Waiting on the platform, pigeons fluttered and the cold polished bricks of over 100 years felt very familiar. I couldn’t recall if I had been there before or if it was just the Lancashire style of old stations. The two-platform station surrounded by sealed off arches and historic sidings had an air of calm, despite the Northern rail service rattling in quite loudly. The train departed, bound for Manchester Airport. I’d exit on platform 13 of Manchester Piccadilly. There, I’d change for Levenshulme, then drop my things at my mum’s house before heading back into Manchester city centre.

That day, May 13th 2012, was a far cry from several 1990’s conclusions to the season. The Castle and Falcon Club, Manchester city centre, was a backstreet dive.  The Dantzic Street location, just off Shudehill hid it from what is now The Printworks and far more modern uprisings. The bar has long closed and the Burtonwood Ales signage has long gone. It was here following a game at Stoke City, I sat with my Dad and his partner Bernadette. Manchester City F.C. had been relegated despite a wonderful 5-2 win at Stoke City. We’d been relegated before in my lifetime, the Premier League in 1995-96

Uwe Rösler as top scorer with just 9 league goals hadn’t helped at all. City were beyond woeful and the moniker as a club that could win cups for cock-ups was born. City had looked happy with a 2-2 draw against Liverpool. They never chased the win. Rösler’s penalty and Kit Symons’s goal that day gave no pleasure later in the evening. But, for me, I did not understand relegation back then. After changing from the very familiar sky blue to Kappa’s laser blue at the beginning of 1997-98, City’s crest also changed and an air of positivity crept in. The results did not have many highs, a 6-0 battering of Swindon and a friendly 2-2 draw in a Manchester Derby as part of Paul Lake’s Testimonial

During 1997-98, Murtaz Shelia, from well-known team Alania Vladkavkaz (sounds like a fashion model?) arrived. Nothing changed. City faced Stockport County and lost 3-1. They hadn’t played their local rivals for 87 years before that day! Another Georgian player entered the fold by January in Kakhaber Tskhadadze. City slipped into the relegation zone. Frank Clark was fired. Joe Royle came in to steady the ship and try to climb up the table. Combative midfield-enforcer Michael Brown won Player of The Year, as City lamented relegation to the third tier with a bizarre friendly game against Jamaica’s national team.

The 1998/99 season was an incongruous one. It had a great climax that remains fresh in club folk-lore but few discuss the oddities of that season. The club had changed from a team of stars and names to a team of relative unknowns. 16 friendlies accommodated a huge squad and before long City’s stuttering season began to build. One player, Ray Kelly, left to play part-time for Bohemians and study in Ireland. Little old City were struggling for off the field stability. As 1999 arrived, City looked far off the promotion race. City stuttered towards the finishing line looking like they’d sneak it before being whipped 2-1 to Wycombe Wanderers at Maine Road. The play-off semi finals arrived and City visited Springfield Park. Paul Dickov’s late crucial equaliser kept City in the tie. The return leg at Maine Road saw a Goater goal, which Wigan fans argued as being hand ball. Graeme Jones had struck the woodwork but City would return to Wembley for the first time in 14 years. The 1999 play-off final is, as they say, history.

Back to June, and Xiamen Gulangyu International Football Tournament 2018 saw Murray’s F.C. finish 7th overall. Not bad from 16 teams. Our first quarter-final game was hellishly muddy and concussion didn’t help my appearances from the bench so well. Every team battled and worked tirelessly in dire muddy conditions and the eventual winners Quanzhou Spartans deservedly took their second title in as many years. It was good to play Chilean Alex, now at Kunming Turtlebar, and also teams we’re familiar with in Hong Kong Krauts and Shenzhen Lions. The organisers of the tournament certainly know the spirit of football.

Returning back to 2012, I’d opted for a hospitality package at City. The QPR game had something about it. The possibility of a title win and being there in style didn’t take much to clutch onto. I’d dreamt of trying the City hospitality for many seasons but never wanted to leave the South Stand. Now, Nat Fatorechi who I shared my seasoncard with, gave a situation where we both wanted a ticket. It wasn’t a tough investment. But now, there is another unfamiliar moment of football, England at the World Cup and in the semi-final since the 1990 edition. I wasn’t in double digits of age then and can safely say I don’t recall any of that tournament.

Fair play to Gareth Southgate. So much more than the butt of a dozen crappy jokes about an under-par golden generation. He has his head firmly screwed on in football. He looked average as a manager at Middlesbrough and dropped into the ranks of England. Unlike many who do that, he didn’t drift off or head to Spain, or punditry too often. His spell as temporary gaffer wasn’t groundbreaking (the games weren’t huge tests, except Spain where a 2-0 lead was chucked away). But, the FA appointed him and for once they gambled on fresh blood with all the qualities of a modest manager and someone who keeps the game simple. He has benefitted from the role of FA’s head of elite development. He seems to know the future youth players well and his squad selection seemed geared to building for Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup. Best thing out of Watford since DCI Hunt/Philip Glenister (or Ginger Spice?).

“We’re not creative enough; we’re not positive enough.” (Trevor Brooking)

Remember a game when City faced Boro? We played in our away kit at home. Southgate had his bonce wrapped up and played a blinder. We drew. They went to Europe. That’s the kind of spirit England need, and not that of Rooney or Beckham with their egos and sponsorship deals following them. Look at Messi, he has more minutes advertising per year and it never paid off. Same for tRanaldo. Graft and the kind of grinding football that Leicester City did, with flare, that’s the future in cups. And, City can learn from this England spirit.

“I think it’s bad news for the English game.” (Alan Hansen)

Good to see City links all over the World Cup. Guidetti for Sweden, Boyata with Belgium, Corluka of Croatia, and the list goes on and on. I claim any City link I can. One that stands out is Bury-born Keirin Trippier. During his time at City, Micah Richards was linked with Chelsea and Ar$enil, as Zabaleta was talked about heading to Barca. Coupled with the fact Trippier still was developing physically, he was quite far down. We had a clutch of first teamers that could play RB as an unnatural position. He had little chance. Fair play to him in his evolution at Spurs. His football formation years also featured clubs like Burnley and Barnsley. He knows the game well enough to play for many years. He has appeared for England U18s, England U19s, England U20s, England U21s, and now the senior England squad. He is capable of joining the Masters team one day and could well reach national legendary status with the chance before him now. I wonder what the away friendly game for City, against Barcelona did for his vision. Did it inspire? That came a season after lifting the FA Youth Cup with City. Good luck to him with England and in his future of football.

The Lightning Seeds wrote and released Three Lions in ’96, it had a re-write in 1998 and now 22 years later it is being played in epidemic proportions. David Baddiel and Frank Skinner must be dusting off their karaoke microphones, surely? Will 2020 or 2022 feature new pessimistic quotes to amend Three Lions as a song once again? Tout est Possible. I do get the impression that this song will not go away, regardless of any results! The Lightning Seeds, despite being Scouse are a cracking band, so I won’t complain.

 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye