x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A journey well worth the wait for Manchester City fans

Fans came by road, rail, air and any other mode of transport that would bring them to see Manchester City claim their first major trophy in 35 years.

Manchester City's Yaya Toure vies for the ball against Stoke's Robert Huth during the FA Cup final.
Manchester City's Yaya Toure vies for the ball against Stoke's Robert Huth during the FA Cup final.

A lone figure stood on the platform at Denham Golf Club, an isolated station almost engulfed in trees and bushes on the Chiltern Railways line into London's Marylebone station. Another Saturday, he perhaps mused, another quiet and stress-free journey from leafy Buckinghamshire into England's capital.

Not today. This was FA Cup final day, when travellers from round the globe would descend on Wembley Stadium by air, road and rail and by any other route imaginable. And the day also when the world looks on from afar, a spellbound televisual audience of hundreds of millions.

As the train slowed to a stop, its carriages packed with Manchester City and Stoke City fans like huge cans of blue-and-red sardines, the look on the face of the lone figure turned from expectation to bemusement to horror. An expletive or two later, he had squeezed in to become a sardine. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.



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But, hey, it's a once-a-year experience and the banter was good on the way to Wembley: the City supporters salivating over the prospect of winning a first trophy in 35 years, the Stoke followers almost frantic as they awaited a first cup final appearance in the club's 148-year history.

Mr Golf Club might have seemed unimpressed, especially with the inflatable bananas brandished by some of the City faithful, but if you and your mates can't wave a bit of plastic fruit about on your team's big day out, what's the point of it all? Fun in the sun, despite a few specks of pre-match rain, was top of the agenda.

Perhaps not for the ticket touts plying their dubious trade outside the Hotel Ibis. "Buy or sell, buy or sell," they intoned gruffly as a police helicopter hovered overhead. For them, the event was strictly business.

As, too, for the convoy of coach operators - Happy Al's, Lamb's and Gee-Vee Travel, from Barnsley, among them. Barnsley, a good 40 miles from City's home ground? Maybe the Greater Manchester area had sold out its entire fleet of buses.

Of course, there is always someone to ruin the best-laid plans, to poop the party. And at 2.37pm, as the blue-and-red hordes gradually filled the stadium, it was the moment that City had dreaded.

In faraway Lancashire, it was the moment when Manchester United reclaimed the Premier League crown with a 1-1 draw against Blackburn Rovers.

It did not go down well with the banana-wavers - many more of whom had arrived to form a smattering of yellow bunches inside Wembley. And the vast and vocal City contingent, the "Noisy Neighbours", fell silent.

Only when roused by the gloating and flag-waving Stoke sections did they break out into a chorus of anti-United jeering and booing. Still, City's moment would come. But not before a defiant Stoke had taken them to the most extreme limits, putting their bodies on the line at every opportunity, repelling every blue surge and mounting as fierce a challenge as City can expect regularly during their debut campaign in the Champions League next season.

It was City's 57th match of the season, their 21st in cup competitions. At times, it showed, their thought laboured, their movement too rigid.

But when Yaya Toure lashed the ball into the net in the 74th minute, the explosion of emotion - the sheer release and relief - was almost seismic.

"Let's all do the Poznan," the City fans chanted, jumping up and down as they performed the adopted Polish ritual of turning their backs on the pitch and linking arms. Roberto Mancini, the City manager, did allow himself a minor congratulatory embrace with Brian Kidd, his assistant, and then popped a piece of chewing gum in his mouth. That Mancini … he's so Italian, he's so cool.

Cool at the end, too. When the long wait for a trophy was over, when the players had actually got their hands on the cup, when a rock 'n' roll version of Blue Moon, the club's signature song, blared out over the PA system; and when, after the disconsolate Stoke fans had trudged away, the City slickers took over the stadium amid a perfect storm of streamers and pyrotechnics.

Mancini soaked it all up. Calmly, with dignity; in control, with not a hint of triumphalism. But he knows that his work has only just started, that serious questions remain to be asked - and answered - during the close season.

Is he prepared to liberate his staunchly pragmatic team? Will Carlos Tevez, his agitated and agitating captain, want to stay at Eastlands?

That is for the summer. City have won the cup for a fifth time, have qualified to mix it with the creme de la creme of Europe, have proved that they are a coming force in the Premier League and maybe beyond.

Yesterday, finally, was their day to rejoice. Even the disgruntled Mr Golf Club of Denham, Bucks, would surely not begrudge them that.



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