Manchester City faithful learning lessons United supporters know all too well – Premier League success comes at price of ‘proper fans’
Latecomers and glory hunters head to the Etihad to see Pep’s title winners just as at Old Trafford under Ferguson, while some Blues miss struggles of old
Three Manchester City fans left The Oxford public house in London’s Camden Town before Sunday’s Premier League game at Arsenal. To their immediate right was a stall selling football shirts of Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, Arsenal and Manchester City.
“You would never have seen that 10 years ago,” laughs Chris Beswick, a 49-year-old meat wholesaler from Radcliffe near Manchester. Beswick, along with his friends Sean McMullen, a window cleaner from Beswick close to City’s Etihad stadium, and Brendan O’Dornan, a railway worker from Withington in Manchester, have followed City all their lives.
In their words, they have “won the lottery” since being taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group a decade ago. There is no comparison between the City of now and the City of then.
“The football was always second to us,” says Beswick. “We’d go everywhere with our mates. We’d usually lose. We watched our team drop into the third division in 1998. We lost at York City in December 1998 and my son said ‘Is that it?’ I had to bribe him to come to games with me.”
“It hit me how bad we were when we entered the FA Cup in the first round,” says O’Dornan.
“I walked to Maine Road on Boxing Day in 1996 and we played Port Vale,” says McMullen. “I spoke to two Port Vale fans and they felt they were going to get hammered. I told them we were so bad they shouldn’t be so negative. It was 19 years to the day since I’d watched my first City game. Port Vale beat us.”
There’s a price to pay for hitting the jackpot.
“I don’t like all the tourists who’ve started following City,” says Beswick, “I didn’t like it when we went from a Category C opposition to Category A and had to pay more. Some of my mates would travel to away games and not go in the ground because ticket prices were too expensive.
“Yet I’d go in the ground and it would be like the League of Nations with fans from everywhere, but it comes with success as United fans can tell you. If I have a spare ticket, then it goes to a lifelong blue.”
— Manchester City (@ManCity) 19 May 2016
“Our hard core is probably 35,000,” says McMullen. “About 7,000 added on when Kevin Keegan was manager, but they disappeared when Stuart Pearce took over. I think we would have been relegated had the sheikh not come in.”
Across the city, Manchester United were winning everything in the ’90s and noughties.
“They were on that much of a different level they weren’t an issue,” says McMullen. “I never liked United but I blocked them out. Then I’d go to derby games thinking ‘I hope we don’t lose by more than three or four.’ If we got a point away from home it was an excuse for a two-day bender. The tables have turned now.”
“United was our cup final, of course it was, that’s where we were,” adds O’Dornan, whose family moved to Manchester’s Moss Side from Belfast to escape the Troubles in 1969.
“There was a Manchester derby when we arrived and my mother saw a lot of trouble between fans. She told my dad that she wanted to go back to Belfast.”
They stayed and his lifelong addiction to City began.
“Our seasons would often be over in January when we’d go out of the FA Cup,” O’Dornan recalls. “We’d be relegated, but we had some exciting relegation battles because it meant the season extended until May.”
“I used to pray for a quarter or semi-final,” Beswick chips in, “now we go to Wembley so often the novelty has worn off.”
And then the change.
“It took me a couple of years to stop looking at the bottom half of the table to see where we were,” laughs McMullen. “Now? The football is brilliant. We win the leagues, but winning the FA Cup in 2011 was my high point, a first trophy for so long.
“A bugbear to me is when fans sing ‘Where were you when you were s****?’ Apart from United and Liverpool, we had one of the highest average crowds. United were the best supported team in the country in 1990 with 38,000, we were fourth with 27,000 – more than Tottenham, Everton or Chelsea.”
Beswick and O’Dornan list winning the league – dramatically at the expense of United – in 2012 as their highlight. All three agree that David Silva is the greatest City player they’ve seen.
All three think that City will retain the league this season. After beating Arsenal 2-0, it’s easy to see why they’re confident.
Close to the away end turnstiles Jay Boyle, 46 and his son, Tom, 11 and on his 53rd away match, were approached pre-match by Arsenal fans telling them City would win.
The Boyles are from Urmston, three miles from Old Trafford.
“It was 90 per cent United in the 90s,” says Jay. “Reds made fun of me for years because I went to City every week, but I also think they respected me for going to games.”
“I go to a football school and it’s about 60 per cent United fans and 40 per cent City now,” Tom observes.
His father is a little rueful. “I miss a lot about the old City. The football is much better now, but the atmosphere was better, the fans were true fans then. I’ve been in the ground and a woman asked me what colour City were playing in.
“I’ve seen tourist fans wearing half-and-half scarves against United and Liverpool. It’s wrong. I came to Arsenal two years ago and five people behind me were prize winners from an Irish bookmaker when proper fans were outside the ground.
“To be fair, the club look after the young fans, but away from home – but now I get what United fans used to dislike about getting to the top.”