x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

At home in Manchester

Visit this gritty northern English city to explore the atmosphere and history of its Premiership club now so closely linked to the UAE.

The City of Manchester Stadium, the home ground for Manchester City Football Club.
The City of Manchester Stadium, the home ground for Manchester City Football Club.

Hanging high up in the stands of the City of Manchester Stadium, home of Manchester City Football Club, there is a huge blue and white banner with an unequivocal message. "Manchester thanks you, Sheikh Mansour," it reads, a sincere sign of the fans' gratitude for the immense investment that His Highness has made in the club since its purchase in September 2008. Following the arrival of international stars such as Adebayor and Carlos Tevez, the Sky Blues have risen swiftly to a top five place in the English Premier League - with the promise of greater triumphs to come when the new season kicks off on August 14.

Even if you don't follow football, it is impossible to ignore the close bond that has been developing between Abu Dhabi and this ebullient, time-scarred English city more than 5,000 kilometres away. As blind dates go, the pairing of a scorchingly hot desert emirate with a famously rainy metropolis would seem a fertile union. The strength of the relationship is manifest in the fact that both Etihad Airways and Emirates operate frequent daily flights. Business is so good, both airlines are increasing capacity, with Emirates introducing a new service from September 1 using its state-of-the-art, 517-seater A380 "superjumbo". Meanwhile, Etihad's name is now a familiar sight on the washing lines of Lancashire thanks to its position as City's official shirt sponsor.

As Sheikh Mansour has put it: "Premiership football is one of the best entertainment products in the world." Now young Emiratis have a new world-class team to consider supporting alongside such traditional favourites as Liverpool, Arsenal and, of course, City arch-rivals Manchester United. How do you choose? Well, nothing beats going to a game, and City's smart, modern stadium, popularly known as Eastlands, is one of the best. Originally built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, with a capacity of just under 48,000, it is the fourth-largest in the Premiership. With bright blue seats, excellent sightlines and two huge TV screens for action replays, spectators can enjoy all the atmosphere of a top-level sporting contest in a safe and family-friendly environment.

Who wins, of course, is only part of the fun. For the uninitiated, there is the chance to discover the sharp humour, mixed singing abilities and peculiar rites that make English football matches such a colourful experience. Along with familiar pop songs from Oasis (keen City supporters), and bizarre chants such as "we are not, we're not really here", the club's adopted anthem is Blue Moon, which is always played at ear-busting levels. You'll also learn about local heroes such as Bert Trautmann, City's German goalkeeper who famously played on for the last 15 minutes of the 1956 FA Cup Final despite a broken neck, and 1970s golden boy Colin Bell, considered to be the club's greatest ever player. Perhaps you will want to buy a long blue and white City scarf to hang from your bedroom window, or join in the curious half-time ritual in which hundreds of fans rush off to devour a takeaway pie. Now, what do you fancy? Cheese and onion, peppered steak, chicken balti...?

If you can't get to a match, the next best thing is to book one of the highly popular stadium tours that run daily. You'll get an engaging peek behind the scenes of the world's most ambitious football club, checking out the press room where new signings are presented to the media and testing the plush seats in one of 67 executive boxes that ring the stadium. Football may be big business, but I can certainly feel its human side when we get the chance to walk down the long white tunnel where opposing teams line up nervously before a big match.

Above our heads are the words of City's stirring motto, "Pride in battle". It is equally absorbing to be granted admittance to the home side's windowless changing room where the stars prepare for games and Roberto Mancini, the club's Italian manager, gives his vital talks at half-time. With its tactics boards, fridges filled with sports drinks and motivational slogans such as "winners are usually the ones who work harder", the atmosphere seems surprisingly cosseting. The insights offered into the players' quirks and habits can be highly entertaining - the winger Shaun Wright-Phillips, we learn, brings a choice of 11 pairs of boots to each match.

"The Sheikh looks after the staff here really well," my tour guide told me, and impressive efforts are being made to support community programmes and foster links with Abu Dhabi, such as by offering season ticket holders discounted flights with Etihad. How far you want to take this loyalty becomes an interesting question when you see the extraordinary range of merchandise on sale in the City shop.

Okay, I can just about understand the attraction of owning a MCFC mousepad or a framed shirt signed by all the team (US$356; Dh1,310), but, um - anyone for a pair of light blue Manchester City monogrammed slippers? Or a cheery garden gnome dressed in the team strip? For real die-hard followers, there is even a memorial garden by the stadium where fans can have their ashes scattered, bringing added meaning to that popular terrace cry: "We'll support you ever more."

The dramatic renaissance of Manchester City FC seems only fitting for a mighty conurbation that has long seen itself as England's second city and sporting capital. Football lovers can also take a tour of United's Old Trafford stadium, which is celebrating its centenary this year, and pay a visit to nearby Wigan and Bolton, which also have teams in the Premiership. From next year the city will become the home of a new memorabilia-stuffed National Football Museum, while cricket fans should make their way to Lancashire County Cricket Club, or, for something different, try catching some Rugby League or greyhound racing.

And if you like a little star-spotting, the place to head to is the luxurious Lowry Hotel in Salford, which at times seems more like an unofficial clubhouse for sports celebrities. The weekend I visited, legendary Manchester United midfielder Ryan Giggs was sipping coffee in the River Bar, and later that night Roberto Mancini dropped in for an after-match drink with a crowd of compatriots. How did such sporting prowess come about? The answer lies in Manchester's history. As the world's first industrial city - dubbed "Cottonopolis" for its dominance of the global textile trade in the 19th century - this has always been a place where people get on with things. Warehouses, mills and canals from this heyday still adorn the city centre, along with palatial libraries and monumental museums that are now prime visitor attractions. Don't miss the neo-Gothic John Rylands Library in Deansgate, a magnificent cathedral to books built in 1899 as a memorial to the city's first cotton millionaire. Today it is part of the University of Manchester, which has produced no less than 23 Nobel Prize winners.

As entry to most museums is free, there is every encouragement to explore the city's cultural riches. The Manchester Art Gallery includes an exceptional collection of pre-Raphaelite works, while The Lowry is a flagship arts centre that takes its name from a local artist, LS Lowry, who died in 1976 and whose paintings have become emblematic of Manchester's industrial roots. One to seek out here is the much-loved "Going to the Match", which was painted in 1953 and portrays a crowd of fans on their way to a Bolton Wanderers game. The scene is characteristically bleak and drained of colour, but there is a tangible air of anticipation that all sports fans will recognise.

Manchester is a city that likes to work hard and play hard, where life has not always been easy - for an overview visit the excellent Making of Manchester Gallery at the Museum of Science and Industry. Here the engrossing exhibits include working steam engines and machinery from the cotton mills, and the museum houses the world's oldest surviving passenger railway station, dating from 1830. As the city grew, so did its sporting life - Manchester United FC began as a works team formed by railway employees in 1878. Two years later, the club that would later be known as Manchester City played its first match. Unusually, it was founded by a woman - Anna Connell, a vicar's daughter who wanted to help local men living in an area of great deprivation keep on a straight track. Who would have thought that her rough and motley team, with its baggy shorts and heavy boots, would 130 years later have grown to become one of the richest football clubs in the world? Now that, as people like to say in these parts, is a result.