My knees hurt. Not for any particular reason. I don’t run and I don’t go to the gym, so perhaps I deserve it. But then neither do I spend my spare time kicking fire hydrants, so I’m not sure that I do. Yet here we are. If I sit in the same place for any length of time, my body seems to start calcifying. So, after three hours on the train to Manchester, I limp onto the platform at Piccadilly until my shuffle becomes a proper walk.
The Etihad is almost on an island. Football clubs have been building stadiums next to Harvesters and Volvo dealerships for a generation now, but this has really become its own place. It probably even has its own postcode, Member of Parliament and micro-climate. Off the metro, up the steps and it’s Manchester City Land. The colours and crest are everywhere and, in the early afternoon, a guitar band’s feedback is welcoming the first fans to dribble in from the city centre.
It’s not somewhere where a football stadium just happens to be; it’s an actual complex. The days of finding grounds hidden within communities are almost over, but while this isn’t the tallest stadium or even the most imposing or best, the facilities spill out across the land. It’s like its own little republic, cut off from the traffic and the shops and the houses, perhaps even with its own gravity.
To get press credentials, you have to walk across a bridge and into offices on the perimeter of the youth team’s stadium. The people who work at the club are kind and friendly. They couldn’t actually be any nicer. The lanyards for the game against Leicester come with a Christmas card and a free pair of City-branded gloves.
Am I being sportswashed? Would my wearing of these gloves, on this admittedly very cold day, actually be a tacit endorsement of something that I’m not aware of?
Football’s in a really strange place.
Inside, in the hours before kick-off, City usher little battalions of fans through their media auditorium. They’re on a stadium tour, presumably as part of a hospitality package. They come in, a new group every ten minutes, and take turns sitting behind the desk at the front while, on big screens around the room, a hologram of Pep Guardiola appears next to them.
A member of staff asks questions, Pep answers. Yes, he loves the club. Yes, he and his family have been made to feel at home in Manchester.
Goodbye, he says unprompted, it’s time to go – time to get back to work.
It doesn’t sound strange, but it is – or at least it is to watch. It’s like something from a child’s dream. Or a theme park. It’s football’s version of an officially approved memory, pictures of which will end up hanging in a frame for decades.
“Is that you and Uncle Pete with Pep Guardiola, Dad?”
The simplicity is unsettling. It’s fun, but it’s mechanical, and yet everyone has such a good time. They love it. The adults love it. There’s barely a child among them. But they giggle. Their eyes dance. They reach out to touch Guardiola. They pat him on the head and put their arms round his shoulders, all the while watching themselves on the screens.
Maybe it’s fascinating because this is what passes for an intimate experience in football now? Every club probably has their own version and, whatever their spin, this is what the game is willing to share of itself. Worse, this is more than some supporters think it should share of itself. That it does this much is thrilling. That they provide the illusion is enough.
City are good on Saturday night. In parts, they’re actually excellent. The suspicion still remains, though, that this isn’t a title which will have to be prised out of their cold, lifeless hands. Guardiola wants another Champions League, that’s no secret, and his (and probably their) ambition has bled into the team’s domestic form. They’re loose. They’re impressive and entertaining, but they play in pulses. It’s enough, too, because Leicester don’t quite have the balls for it.
Jamie Vardy puts them ahead. He nearly gets his second after Harvey Barnes finds an angle which could have cut glass with the outside of his boot, but he whistles his shot over Ederson’s crossbar.
It’s two-one within the blink of an eye, though. In the second half, it’s 3-1 and finished when Kevin De Bruyne gashes Leicester down the right and squares for Gabriel Jesus to tap in.
Sergio Aguero is back on the City bench after injury and Jesus seems more anxious for it. Any time Aguero trots down the touchline to warm up, the crowd on the near side responds and the more he does it, the more uptight Jesus seems to become. When he scores, he just lies on his back exhausted, pleased to have ended his long run without a goal at home, but knowing that nothing he’s done over the past month will save him from the bench.
The actual Guardiola is sat in front of the press after full-time and he says it’s his side’s best performance in months. In comes Brendan Rodgers – City were ‘outstanding’, of course – and he very deliberately calls every journalist by their first name.
Poor Brendan, he’s trying so hard to be likeable this time. He doesn’t come across as a bad person or anything like his caricature, but he’s still vain, he sounds like someone who reads and memorises everything written about him, good and bad.
Thanks Ollie. Thanks Sam. Thanks (someone he doesn’t know).
It’s like he read about this in a Cosmopolitan he found at the dentist. Make eye contact, smile, make people feel important when you talk to them.
Every train out of a football town on a Saturday night sounds the same. It looks the same, with the same people, and – inside the carriages – it throbs with that same mess of a noise. Like a dozen televisions on at once, all on different channels, all at different volumes.
They’re loaded with clichés, too, with everyone sorted into their own little categories.
One of the four-seaters on the 2105 out of Piccadilly is staked out by some 20-somethings, with an eight-pack broken apart for the journey. One of them looks like Kryten from Red Dwarf, but with Spud’s haircut and some bad tattoos. He’s gymmed himself into angular oblivion and he’s louder than everyone else, as he machine-guns anecdotes into the carriage.
I hate him. So does everyone else. They’re scattered in the rows behind, but their disapproving glances give them away.
Football, they’re thinking.
Except they haven’t been to a game at all. Opposite them, in another four-seater, three Americans (students?) are sat quietly. They were at City against Leicester, the match programme on their table confirms it, and as the train pulls out of Macclesfield, conversation starts to volley between the two groups.
No, Kryten hasn’t heard of Christian Pulisic, but he knows Geoff Cameron and he’s shite.
And then everyone gets off at Stoke. The entire carriage empties, leaving the Americans, with their ringing ears, in silence.
“That was loud.”
The train companies couldn’t possibly care less about supporters. There are reminders of that everywhere, but particularly in the north after a 5.30pm kick-off. The latest Saturday train back to London has been the 2035 for an eternity, which implies a couple of things:
One, that Virgin Trains – or Avanti now – are indifferent to the conditions on those trains. But two – to be conspiratorial – that the timetable is actually designed to be prohibitive. They don’t want fans on their network late at night, so they make it as difficult as possible for them to travel, with the one concession of that single, horrendously busy train. The CCTV footage from which, presumably, is used to deepen the assumptions about how fans behave and to justify the existing policy.
But it’s not fans, is it? Put a lot of people in the same confined space, with too few seats and not enough room, and they inevitably become uncomfortable and ill-tempered. It doesn’t matter what they’re coming back from or why they’re travelling in the first place.
There’s no getting to London on Saturday. I kick off the Timberlands at the Wolverhampton Novotel and wait for morning.
Tottenham High Road doesn’t really change. It’s actually the perfect emblem of modern Britain and its muddled priorities. Before White Hart Lane was demolished, Spurs had a stadium which suited their surroundings, just not their objectives. Now, it’s the opposite.
The Lane’s replacement is like a skyscraper in Ancient Rome. It’s a building with different properties to anything which surrounds it. Or anything for miles and miles, actually. What cost more to build – this, or everything else in Haringey? It’s unspoken obscenity that whispers in your ear. Leave Seven Sisters, reach the war memorial at the crest of the hill and there it is, looming on the horizon, completely out of place.
Inside, its aesthetics are seductive. Ten minutes before kick-off on Sunday, when the Tottenham and Chelsea players are in the tunnel, the floodlights drop and the stadium descends into an atmospheric dusk. Away to the right, the vast south stand starts to get loud and, for a few minutes, everything is just absolutely perfect.
But it never gets any better. The game is nasty. Chelsea deservedly win, they’re comfortably superior and Willian scores a brilliant goal, but it’s a scratchy and artless and horrible 90 minutes. Paulo Gazzaniga gifts a penalty with a piece of goalkeeping that would make Rene Higuita cringe, Serge Aurier is the full rainbow of his ridiculousness, and Son Heung-min Beckham98’s his way to a red card.
And, of course, Antonio Rudiger is racially abused, which sets off the protocol in the ground.
“Racist behaviour from spectators is interfering with the game.”
That’s a very strange environment to be in. Three times the announcement comes over the PA. Each time, it feels like the entire ground has been contaminated, the situation is worsening and that, instead of being at a football match, everybody is now trapped within some awful, social Chernobyl. The game is basically over by that point. Eleven-man Tottenham were dismal, but with ten there’s not even the hint of a comeback. So there’s really nothing to do but dwell on what’s happened and what, in the hours after, will presumably follow.
Which is… nothing. There’ll be outrage. And tweets. Lots and lots of those. But nothing will actually happen. Players being racially abused is now a regular occurrence in English football, but it’s just not regular enough, apparently, to command any sort of meaningful response. It needs a retaliation. Racially abusing someone at a football match should be life-altering in a way that it’s currently not.
In response, Gary Neville speaks eloquently on Sky. When Neville’s angry, he’s articulate and that’s a skill to be envious of. He’s also right to broaden the discussion and involve the country’s political leaders. But this absolutely is a football problem. Undeniably so, because it’s an issue manifesting itself in football and, as such, the sport has the opportunity to retaliate. It should relish the chance to make examples out of people who do this. This is the Premier League. Together, these clubs are more powerful than God and, as such, should be lobbying for legislative reach.
The managers come and go. Mourinho is snide, that mask is definitely beginning to slip. But Lampard is smart and likeable. He’s tweaked by the accusation that he cloned Antonio Conte’s tactics in pursuit of this win. He deals with it well enough, though, talking the media through his 3-4-3 and its various advantages. Control. Possession. Security. Yup, Chelsea had all of that.
In the press room, Sky Sports News is on the gigantic screen at one end of the room. Spurs release a statement about the abuse and it seems to go from their website to the yellow ticker within less than a minute. Elsewhere, journalists are putting in their headphones to listen to Neville’s monologue, while others bang away at their keyboards.
By 8pm, most of the fans have left the ground. Outside the club shop, South Korean fans in Son shirts are recording a sombre video, but almost everybody else has gone home. Some have flowed into the pubs and bars, others have been snagged by the takeaways on their way to the tube, and they’re sharing pizza or chips or kebabs on the pavements outside.
In the middle of the road, a hundred yards before McDonald’s, a Mercedes with blacked out windows has come to a stop. A fan is stood in the road in front of it. He sways and looks lost, until his friend steps into the road to retrieve him, puts a comforting arm around his shoulder, and takes him back to the pavement. The driver gently accelerates away and into the night, while one of the men trips, dragging the other down with him and into a pile on the floor.
And my knees hurt. Because it’s cold and it’s been a long few days. But also because it’s far to Seven Sisters, there are no conclusions to write about and nothing has really been learnt. And because, ultimately, nothing can be as disappointing as football.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.