IT’S 34 years since Manchester City won a trophy. Until recently, it had been 29 years since anyone made a film about the club. In both cases, it’s been far too long.
Blue Moon Rising got a selected cinema release just over a fortnight ago, almost three decades after Granada’s seminal documentary City! first appeared on TV. Taken together, the two films provide a fascinating insight into how not only a football club has changed, but also the game’s culture and film-making itself.
On the surface, the films tell a similar story. City! focuses on a three-month period during the 1980/81 season, features a club struggling for success, hitting frustration, changing the manager, reviving their fortunes and getting to the FA Cup final, only to lose to Tottenham.
Blue Moon Rising focuses on a handful of key matches during the 2009/10 season, features a club struggling for success, hitting frustration, changing the manager, reviving their fortunes and getting to the brink of the Champions League, only to lose to Tottenham.
At the beginning of City! narrator Bob Greaves states that “City are tired of being overshadowed by their more glamorous neighbours United”. During Blue Moon Rising, chief executive Garry Cook refers to a Stretford End banner mocking the club’s long run without a trophy. “It certainly drives us all nuts,” he says.
But the two films could hardly have told their stories more differently. City! isn’t really about City; it’s about the downfall of Malcolm Allison, the once-innovative coach whose touch starts to fail him. Allison loses his job not just to anyone, but to the self-possessed, smart-suited John Bond, his junior team-mate at West Ham in the 1950s.
Bond claims that Allison used to dismiss him as a country bumpkin who would never achieve anything in the game. His eagerness to take on the City job is as evident as Allison’s pain at losing it – he strides into his first meeting with his new players and tells them to “call me boss” while Joe Corrigan stares into the distance, looking bored. The relationship between Bond and Allison, mediated with little tact by then-chairman Peter Swales, makes difficult yet compelling viewing.
Watching City! now, two things stand out. Firstly, the film crew were given an insane level of access, even filming Bond’s job interview, during which Swales can been distractedly flicking a book of matches, having already made his decision. Blue Moon Rising does get behind the scenes, but not anywhere near as much.
Secondly, through all the extraordinary goings-on at Maine Road during the late autumn of 1980, there is not one interview with a fan. No one in football was asking what supporters thought in the early 1980s. These days, it’s almost the first thing anyone asks.
Blue Moon Rising, a product of 2010, tells its story almost entirely through the eyes of City’s supporters. It’s a sign of football’s realisation, which grew out of the early fanzine culture of the mid-to-late 1980s, that supporters’ voices should be heard. City know this better than anyone – in the 1990s, they were the first club to appoint a fans’ representative on to the board.
But the flip side of giving the supporters a voice is that, sometimes, they don’t have an awful lot to say. That comes across in Blue Moon Rising too.
The film follows seven loyal fans who follow City home and away in a battered 1992 Renault Espace called Helios. For all of director Stewart Sugg’s attempts to draw out mild eccentricities, they come across as regular blokes – they like a laugh, a beer and each other’s company; they’re devoted to their club but also to their families. Assorted girlfriends are shown tutting and rolling their eyes in sitcom wife tradition, yet there is a strong sense that they wouldn’t have their men any other way.
Seven main characters is too many for a film, though, and Sugg knows it. Four of the group appear only fleetingly, and Sugg spends much of the first half-an-hour trying to figure out who his central figure is. After much umming and ahhing, he settles on the jovial, energetic, shaven-headed Steve Haley, whose words describe five key matches during City’s season.
Haley, who drives Helios, puts his all into driving the film too. He describes City’s highs as “unbelievable”, the lows as “devastating”. In one scene at home, he is shown encouraging his daughter to throw out all her red crayons, because it’s Manchester United’s colour. But later in the film, when another member of the group starts dating a United fan, Haley shrugs his shoulders in mock outrage and laughs: “What’s all that about, then?”
It’s hard not to warm to Haley, but even he probably can’t believe he was chosen to be a film star. His closest contender is Adam White, who is smart enough to run his own debt consolidation company, yet claims to be so politically ignorant that he votes Conservative purely because their colour is blue. Like the crayon scene, it’s funny, but it doesn’t quite ring true. I could be wrong, it’s one of a number of moments where the subjects appear to be acting in a certain way because the film crew have asked them to.
Blue Moon Rising is good at keeping the gags coming, though. Celebrity fans Noel Gallagher and Mike Pickering chip in with a cameo as they attend the Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester United. And there’s a wonderful moment during that match in which Carlos Tevez scores and makes a ‘yap yap’ hand gesture at Gary Neville, with who he had exchanged verbal blows in the media. The United defender, unaware there is a camera on him, can clearly be seen quietly mouthing to himself the words ‘fucking wanker’.
At times, it feels as if the movie was co-scripted by Richard Curtis and Sky Sports. The fans are portrayed as diehards with charm and a sense of humour; the match action comes with a Die Hard soundtrack. You know the stuff; every kick of a football sounds like a bomb going off, while the whole ground falls silent before an important penalty. Sequences are shot in super slo-mo; it would be no surprise if a booming voiceover were to ask us why the bleeding hell we haven’t got an HD television yet.
The longer the film goes on, the more various fans talk about passion and devotion, the more it becomes clear who the real central character of the movie is. It’s not Haley or White, it’s Manchester City. The clue, perhaps, was in the opening credits: Blue Moon Rising is made by Endemol, who have a close relationship with the club, running their official website. It’s not quite a film made by the club, but it’s not far off.
Making a football club the central character of a film is a noble aim, and City’s strong identity – their long wait for success, the loyalty and humour of the club’s support through thin and thinner – almost makes it possible. Perhaps, though, it also limits the film’s crossover appeal.
And so Blue Moon Rising feels like a film that was made for City rather than about them. If you love City, you’ll love Blue Moon Rising, and you’ll completely understand why Mark Hughes’ sacking was given roughly the same amount of screen time as an item about how some lucky pork pies helped the club reach the 1981 FA Cup final.
If you don’t, you’ll find it a mildly-diverting tale of Mancunian eccentricity, and wonder why a managerial change that was oddly handled even by City standards was glossed over.
There are some City!esque moments in Blue Moon Rising, though. Hughes’ replacement, Roberto Mancini, is shown having English lessons with a tutor who pretends to be Gareth Barry for the purposes of a mock team-talk. The tutor, Dolores Long, notes that Mancini’s English contains too many Italianisms – he uses the word ‘mentality’ when he means ‘attitude’. (Mancini still does this.)
“Convince me you can qualify for the Champions League,” she later says to him. “I have to convince my players,” he replies.
There are, also, fleeting shots from inside the City dressing room before and after the crucial end-of-season defeat against Tottenham, which consist mainly of Craig Bellamy trying to motivate his team-mates while swearing a lot.
And thrillingly, there is one man from the City! documentary who reappears in Blue Moon Rising. Former club secretary Bernard Halford, seen sitting alongside Swales at the press conference to announce Allison’s sacking, is interviewed about the club’s pursuit of a trophy. Bizarrely, this is intercut with shots of him admiring a miniature porcelain cow in a broom cupboard full of memorabilia.
“Everything looks plus plus plus plus,” says Halford. When that statement comes from a man who has seen everything at City over nearly 40 years, and knows where all the bodies are buried, you have to believe it.
After the Tottenham defeat, Helios and its seven City fans head for a meaningless final-day match at West Ham, determined to enjoy themselves. “Thirty-four years, and we’re still here,” they chant as they approach Upton Park. It doesn’t feel like the end of the story.