PHIL Neville is not a footballer who goes in for platitudes. And as a result, the Everton captain has wound up a few Manchester City fans ahead of tonight’s meeting between the two sides at Eastlands.
Neville, once of Manchester United, has suggested that City and their fans may be a little prone to over-excitement. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t he meant it as a compliment.
“City are always going to be an emotional club,” Neville said. “They are so up and down. If they win a couple of games, then they are going to win the league, and if they lose a couple, they are the worst team in the league.”
In fairness, Neville did go on to say that City have the chance to shed those tendencies under the management of that Swedish chap in the spectacles who seems to have nerves of ice. He also said that they have signed some very good players since said Swedish chap arrived.
Nonetheless, City fans have taken to the message boards on the Manchester Evening News’ website to demonstrate an impressive level of umbrage at Neville’s comments.
And yet, I’ve spoken to a few City fans about this, and pretty much all of them feel that Neville has actually got a point. Life at City is a rollercoaster. In fact, I suspect that drama is a large part of the reason that a lot of their fans follow the club. It would be no fun if they won every week, would it?
Neville’s comments took me back to three incidents during the 1990s, all involving fans commenting on City’s plight, all of them telling.
Two of them occurred on BBC GMR’s Saturday post-match football phone-in, hosted by Jimmy Wagg, a lifelong City fan. In the mid-1990s, the phone-in was dominated by three types of call: City fans zipping from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, depending on that weekend’s result; Oldham fans complaining that Bolton got too much coverage; and Bolton fans complaining that Oldham got too much coverage.
(There was a notable exception to this: One week, Paddy Crerand was Wagg’s guest expert, and caused the phone lines to go into meltdown by stating that Stockport County’s legendary beanpole striker Kevin Francis was “crap”. Even now, that’s a statement that can get you drummed out of Edgeley Park. Back in 1994, it sparked call after call after call from infuriated County fans demanding Crerand’s head on a silver platter. Andy Buckley, then GMR’s head of sport, spent a large chunk of the following week writing letters of apology to the irate fans who had called in.)
Anyway, most weeks, the City calls were far an away the most entertaining part of the phone-in. When they were up, they were up, and when they were down, they were down. (They were very rarely halfway up.) Wagg’s job seemed to be to sit back, shake his head and try to talk some sense into the poor soul unburdening themselves live on air.
The first incident came some time during the Brian Horton era. City were muddling through in the lower reaches of the Premiership, playing entertaining football but losing more than they won. A couple of spectacular victories early on in the season were too much for one City fan to take.
“We’re going to win the FA Cup this season,” he told Wagg. “And take it from me, Les Ferdinand’s going to score the winner for us.”
Spoke too soon. City got to the fifth round of the FA Cup, losing at Newcastle; coincidentally, the team that the sought-after Ferdinand joined from QPR at the end of that season. Horton was sacked by chairman Francis Lee. Within four years, City were playing in the third tier.
The second incident happened some time during City’s late-1990s plummet through the divisions. I couldn’t tell you who was in charge at the point; it was somewhere between Alan Ball and Joe Royle.
Blues fans, exasperated by a perceived lack of effort from their players, stormed the GMR switchboards. Their anguish reached its nadir one Saturday evening, as a fan rang Wagg to insist that he could do a better job on the pitch than those paid to do so.
“Give me a shirt, Jimmy,” he cried. “I’ll play for nothing. I could do just as well as those numpties.”
As politely as he could, Wagg gently suggested to the supporter in question that even the worst professional player you have ever seen could run rings round the average fan on a football pitch. Slowly, from there, things started to get better for City.
The third piece of fan comment actually came from a Manchester United supporter, in one of the club’s many fanzines: again, I can’t remember which one. Fanzines can be a mixed bag; to find a piercing comment piece, a clever piece of satire or an intelligent interview, you often have to wade through several pages of jokes along the lines of: “All fans who support our rivals are in-breds. Ho ho.”
But this particular article stuck with me, because it was by a United fan genuinely trying to understand what it was like to support City. It must have been written early in 1998, because it focused on a televised FA Cup tie between City and West Ham that January.
In that game, First Division City went 1-0 down at home to Premiership West Ham, then equalised through one of Giorgio Kinkladze’s mesmeric individual goals; where he seemed to dribble past the entire opposing team before shooting past Craig Forrest just went it looked as though he had run out of space.
City then dominated the next 15 minutes, but missed countless chances, including an Uwe Rosler penalty. They then promptly lost the game thanks a goal from West Ham midfielder Steve Lomas, a former City player.
The United fan, watching this game, wrote about how he had gone into the match without much hope for City. The team then raised his hopes by equalising, and made him genuinely believe they were going to cause an upset, only to dash them again.
That is what it’s like to be a City fan, he suggested. They make you believe, then cruelly dash those hopes.
Maybe it’s different now, under Sven. Maybe Phil Neville is looking back to the City of old, and doesn’t realise that things have move on now, that City have entered an era where their dreams come true. And maybe City will qualify for Europe next season.
Maybe we’ll find out tonight.