Following the incredible late drama that led to Manchester City winning their first league title for 44 years we’ve read and heard many heart-warming, funny and emotional tales from blues across the land. However nothing quite encapsulates the agony and the ecstasy of Sunday May 13th like what you’re about to read. And they say it’s just a game….
By Chris Bulmer
On Sunday, for the first time in my life, at 42 years old, and watching City since I was 5, I left a match before the final whistle.
Before that I’d spent less than 15 minutes in my seat not being able to bear being sat there even at nil nil. Instead, I chose to go and sit in the concourse, a place where I’ve enjoyed many special moments in my life; and several bad moments too. It used to be just derbies that I’d have to go and fret in the concourse – but this season I’ve had to spend several spells there, although normally for the last few minutes and not for the majority of a game like I did on Sunday.
I saw Zab’s goal through one of the entrances – at the time I’d been stressfully flitting between three different ones and happened to poke my head up at the right time. That’s the only goal I saw that day in real life.
My mate came and found me at half time as I was propped up against wall. Despite his cajoling I refused to go back to my seat, and I didn’t. But this probably didn’t surprise him too much as I’ve got form as a nervous spectator. I watched less than half of the last derby, the rest of the time I had my head in my hands and would only lift my head up during what I deemed to be positive crowd noise. For the last 10 minutes of the derby, I took up my usual behind-the-scenes position and celebrated the final whistle with stewards and people leaving their seats before miming the ‘Hey Jude’ song because my voice was completely gone. I wasn’t lucky enough to get a ticket for the FA Cup final but I was lucky enough to get one for City Square. I thought I was nervous that day – again I couldn’t watch the last 20 minutes of that game. I ended up holding a lady’s hand as her and her husband took pity on me as I was crouched on my haunches. When the final whistle went that day I must have hugged 50 strangers as I ran screaming from person to person to anyone that would have me. Sunday’s game was something else though – since the Wolves game my nervousness had been steadily going off the scale.
I’m also extremely superstitious when it comes to football (but only football). I decided during the United/Everton game to turn off my phone and strip wallpaper rather than follow what United were doing in any way. This in itself was part of my superstition; in my mind, only good things could happen if I paid no attention to the game and a guy in the Co-op had already told me that he’d dreamt it as 2-2 so… maybe…
With 7 minutes to go of that game, my mate knocked on my door and excitedly asked if I’d seen the score. He’d only knocked on because he couldn’t get through on my phone and had to share the final minutes of pain with me. Since then he keeps telling me how much he’d have liked to have taken a photo of my expression at the moment he informed me that it was 4-4 – apparently I looked haunted and desperate. Anyway, since that day I’ve carried a piece of wallpaper in my jeans on every match day, this I’ve clutched during every game.
As for leaving Sunday’s match, people who don’t know me well might think that I’m a fickle or disloyal supporter and that I deserted my team in a fit of anger. This couldn’t be further from the truth. What happened I liken to a kind of football nervous breakdown… I saw QPR’s equaliser through my fingers via City CCTV. I remember shouting noooooooooooo and then pacing up and down the concourse’s limits in a kind of daze. I heard some commotion and briefly popped my head through an entrance and saw something going off with Barton. After returning to my concourse hell, such was my detachment from the game itself, I didn’t even know he’d been sent off. I had no idea whatsoever.
I then continued to pace up and down feeling so bleak that I can’t even describe it – it felt like every second was a minute and we had hardly any time to get our noses back in front. I didn’t want to even look up from my pacing until we scored, which I was starting to feel might be unlikely, despite there being plenty of time when looking at it objectively and calmly now. The next thing I remember is some, ‘not loud enough’ cheering and looking up to see this guy staggering through an entrance saying “they’ve gone 2-1 up, they’ve f***ing scored”. There were already maybe 15 people in a similar state to me in the concourse (you’d be surprised how many people you find there during critical match times) and these people were doing nothing for my nerves and sense of hopelessness. Then others spilled out into the concourse in a mixture of rage, despair and disbelief. Seconds later I just left without thinking. Left my mate who I’d gone through so much together over the years: relegation against Liverpool, relegation to the third flight, Gillingham at Wembley, Spurs pipping us to the CL, countless derbies… Part of the reason I left was because I couldn’t face him and his disappointment as much as I couldn’t face my own and that of fellow Blues. Looking back at it now I see that there’s no point in lamenting what I missed because I just simply couldn’t be there. I was trapped between my seat, which I didn’t even want to sit at when we were still at nil nil, or remain in the concourse which had become a cauldron of anguish and pain. I just had to be on my own to deal with it… That’s the only way I can describe it to you all now.
It wasn’t just about this game, it was about so many precious memories this season that I knew would be tainted by our not winning the league. The away matches I’d watched in the pub and at my mate’s house. Loads of us watching the 6:1 and one of my friends doing a Klinsmann dive at our 6th and us all piling on top of him, me amusing myself and friends by doing a Posnan on my own in the pub when we beat Spurs away. Countless memories too many to recount. Just how much it meant to me, to me and my mate’s sons after the Newcastle match. Even today had its own special memories – our nervously leaving for the game early Sunday and getting the train to town at 11:15am. Both of us following the exact same routine we had before the derby a couple of weeks before. Part of this was having a couple of pints at The Salisbury prior to heading to Kro Piccadilly to meet up with other mates. By the time we got to town The Salisbury was still shut so we took a walk around to kill time and ended up looking out onto the river next to the Hotspur Press, during which we came up with nervous and irrelevant conversation to distract ourselves. I think we spoke about how the building’s bricks below the water level could have survived so many years. Neither of us were especially interested in how they did…
We were The Salisbury’s first customers that day and surprised the non-football supporting barman (he didn’t know a thing about the day’s significance!) by only having 2 super quick pints of ale – that after he’d known we’d waited at least 20 minutes to get in.
Then there were the bad times that could make this day so special: watching our form dip at the worst time possible, just as theirs got stronger. Losing to Swansea away, them going on a winning run that looked like never ending, winning all their ‘hard’ games: scoring in injury time away to Norwich and then beating Spurs away. And then, seemingly, the final nail: our defeat to Arsenal. I got home from watching that game at my mate’s house – as I walked through the door my three children hugged me to make me feel better. It did a bit. We’d all accepted before that game that we weren’t going to win the league… (Well, most Blues I know anyway except for my Dad). But that game hurt because they all came crawling out from under their rocks feeling safe enough to do their usual ‘let’s all laugh at City’ thing and celebrate being champions elect in their usual ungracious way that they do whenever they get one over on anyone. It was unbearable. Their ’20th’ T-shirts. social networking arrogance, United fans texting pictures and gloating messages (despite the fact that I never do the same to them, ever) my rag brother in law sending endless abusive texts to the point where, despite how placid I am, I lost my temper with him. But, these days, even strangers can cause pain; Piers Morgan was getting to me with his Nasri abuse and the press were having their usual United bum-in…
On the Monday after the Arsenal game, I was complaining to a mate about all of this and I remember saying to him “Just imagine by some amazingly implausible freak situation that we managed to turn this round now, it’d be the sweetest victory possible” Never did I think that was even remotely possible. It was just a wild fantasy that I wanted to say out loud to make us feel better.
These were the thoughts that were going through my mind as I trudged into town along literally deserted streets for 25 minutes, with head down and mind swirling. The best footballing year of my life was being tainted by this literal nightmare scenario playing out behind me. Of course, from time to time I refreshed BBC’s website on my phone as I walked, all I was seeing was “it’s like Chelsea v Barcelona, City just can’t break them down”, “They’re bereft of ideas” and then the one that really hurt, Robbie Savage saying “City have just crumbled and what do United do? Keep on winning”.
At 4:43pm (I remember the time because it was on BBC’s update page) it said something like “they just don’t look like scoring”. At this moment I gave up completely. I started to tell myself that I just can’t continue to take things this seriously anymore and that I’m a father with three young children and that I should focus on them. But how could I not take it so seriously? My life, my very identity was so entangled in City that if you take City away, what would be left? Perhaps not a ‘me’ that I’d recognise.
At about 4:52pm I checked the score again and saw that it was 2-2; but I wouldn’t allow myself to feel hope. At this time I was just going past Aytoun Street and thus had got back into the centre and started seeing one or two people, but still hardly anyone. I heard some muted celebrating from a pub that I illogically put down to Dzeko’s goal before thinking that it must be down to United sealing their, previously taken for granted, 20th title. At 4:53pm I received the life changing phone call. A mate, of all things a Villa fan, Ben, called me and excitedly said “you’ve won it!” I just couldn’t understand what he was saying. I was flabbergasted but above all confused. I felt something explode in my head but I wouldn’t allow myself to consider it until I’d made sure of what I was hearing. I said something like “we can’t have, do you mean Dzeko’s just scored?” I couldn’t afford to misunderstand this information. Like a lot of neutral fans that day, Ben sounded pretty excited himself and I remember him saying “Nasri’s scored” and then “No, it was Aguero”. He then said “hang on, it’s not over yet” which I took to mean another attack from QPR, but he was just describing the match resuming. I said “stay with me, please” – at that moment he was my lifeline and the arbiter of the greatest victory ever. It was like he’d called from a parallel universe where all was well again. What seemed like seconds later he just calmly said “that’s it, you’ve won it. It’s over”. I rabbited at him excitedly for a minute or so explaining how surreal this all was before hanging up and making my way slowly back to the stadium.
I didn’t have the presence of mind to run back to the Etihad – I’m pretty fit and could’ve done it in 10 minutes and probably got back in, easily in time for the celebrations. But I was just so emotionally wrung out. In that moment, I’d had to reconcile feelings of despair and loss to those of the most amazing joy possible. And this was going to take some time. Ben’s phone call had taken me, quite literally, between absolute opposite ends of the human emotion spectrum. I walked below my usual pace and it must’ve taken me almost half an hour during which I was lost in thought aside from, bizarrely, taking a call from a United fan mate who lives in LA (bless him, he was gutted but still called me) and calling my Dad – the reason why I found myself in this, finally, glorious situation.
By the time I’d wandered back, after almost an hour of walking in absolute solitude and through the deadzone between the stadium and city centre pubs, I couldn’t even get in the stadium grounds, let alone the stadium itself. But that was okay, I hadn’t even thought about getting back in and, at the time, didn’t feel like I deserved to be inside. I just sat down on a kerb and rambled on at a kindly old guy about all that had happened to me.
When they did eventually open the gates I set about trying to find my mate, but it was impossible to get through to him on my mobile. So I wandered around shell shocked, probably looking like I’d be come from a warzone, a lot of people looked like that. Especially outside before they reopened the gates. The contrasting atmosphere between how things were when I’d left the stadium and how things were on my return just couldn’t be starker. I walked around City Square, bought a 1972 black and red away shirt (my superstition had precluded the wearing of colours before the game, instead opting for my lucky Valvoline T-shirt that had seen us through the derby and Newcastle game), shook hands with John Stapleton before eventually getting through to my mate who was outside the Mitchell Arms. Once reunited we walked back to Piccadilly Gardens – Kro’s bar was 10 deep so we bought 12 cans of Carlsberg from Tesco and set about drinking them as the whole area filled with jubilant Blues. From there other friends rejoined us at this now hallowed place where we’d all met up at the start of the day, and always do on match days. We then finished off at our favourite Salisbury for a couple more pints before getting the train back to Urmston.
From there I had one more drink before walking back to Flixton and I got back home half way through Match of the Day. I saw the goals for the first time and, as they showed us lifting the trophy my emotions finally got the better of me. Unlike the tears of the FA Cup, this time I quietly sobbed for a few seconds.
In some ways I don’t regret that I left on 65 minutes – it’s academic anyway because I had to. But the way it ended up happening was a unique experience that I can’t imagine will ever be repeated. Perhaps it was fitting that I got to experience that indescribable feeling alone and in quiet reflection rather than absolutely going off my head as I would’ve done had I been in the stadium. I’ve used a lot of words to try and describe my feelings that day, feelings that haven’t yet fully sunk in.
What a day in our lives. What an experience. What a unique club.