I DON’T remember it being as chaotic as this when Manchester hosted the 2003 Champions League final. 10.45am: Quay Street gridlocked. Almost every car contained at least three people wearing Rangers shirts.
Manchester has been preparing for a party for a while now. The road signs went up last week, warning motorists that Albert Square would be closed to traffic on the day of the UEFA Cup final. An estimated 80,000 Rangers fans made their way down from Glasgow for tonight’s match against Zenit St Petersburg. Where on earth would they all go?
Now I’m not one for stereotypes, especially as my late maternal grandmother was Glaswegian. But an awful lot of fans in the city centre decided that the best place to go was anywhere that sold alcohol. Even before lunchtime, I saw several fans carrying 24-can boxes of lager. They had all come to party, but in a good-natured way.
By lunchtime, when I popped out of the Manchester Evening News office to get a sandwich, Deansgate felt like a carnival. It was glorious to be a part of it.
By early afternoon, the first signs of concern. A woman working elsewhere in the city centre phoned the M.E.N. sports desk to ask: 1) What time the match kicked off, and 2) How on earth she was going to get home on the tram. “I don’t feel safe among those large crowds,” she said.
Mid-afternoon; a call from Radio Five Live. Could I make my way to Kro Bar in Piccadilly Gardens to do a live interview about the game, the atmosphere and everything around it? So I did.
During the 15-minute walk across the city centre to Kro, I felt as if I was experiencing the end of a particularly long and arduous rock festival. St Peter’s Square was packed to near-bursting. Trams go through there on normal days. No trams were getting through by this time, though. Beer bottles and rubbish littered the streets. Roads and pavements disappeared in a sea of supporters.
The party was still in full flow, but it felt as if it could tip very easily if it wasn’t well policed. Not because anyone was out to cause trouble, but because this is the atmosphere you get if you have too many people and too much alcohol in one place.
I got to Kro, where Five Live had somehow managed to rope off a section of the bar for their live broadcast, patrolled by a couple of alert security guards who used a mixture of charm and firmness to keep out the Rangers fans who kept trying to sneak in.
Presenter Peter Allen wanted to interview me live while walking among the Rangers fans. He’s a hard-bitten, experienced, no nonsense journalist is Allen, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he might have been taking a risk too far.
As we walked, he asked me about the atmosphere, about the behaviour of the Rangers fans and if I thought that the three big screens erected in the city centre would be enough for the thousands who had travelled south. I felt that there was the potential for things to turn ugly if Rangers lost, and I said so – perhaps not a wise move with so many fans within earshot. But I also said that they had come to enjoy themselves rather than to cause trouble.
I was interrupted mid-flow by a gaggle of fans determined to give Five Live a bit of live atmosphere by yelling into Allen’s microphone. Allen, sensibly, realised that the safest course of action was to let them. We returned to the bar as quickly as we could.
I thought of all those television and radio news journalists who have tried to do reports to camera live from crowded, noisy pubs during big football matches. They have almost always come to grief, drowned out in a cacophony and almost drowned in lager.
At that moment, I felt sympathy for Allen. At least my five minutes of mayhem was over, and I was free to pick my way back through the city the the MEN office. He had to remain on air for another hour-and-a-half.
I could have stayed in the city centre and soaked up the atmosphere. But I had seen enough. Given that I didn’t have a ticket for the game, I decided that the best place to watch it was at home, on television. When I heard reports coming through at half-time that one of the big screens in the city had broken down, that disgruntled fans were throwing bottles, I couldn’t help but feel I had made the right decision.
Maybe that’s just a failing on my part. Manchester may be the city of Twenty-Four Hour Party People, but I know damn well I’m not one of them. I’m glad the Rangers invasion came here and had a good time, but if I thought I could handle it every week, I’d move to Glasgow.
And the game? The game was a sideshow. Second-half goals from Igor Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov won it for Zenit St Petersburg, deserved winners of the trophy after their outstanding performance in defeating Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. Rangers’ huge travelling support will, ultimately, have more cause to remember the party than the game.