Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A game of two halves – what a pain in the…head!

It smelt like the Wigan F.A. Cup final defeat all over again…and then we woke up. The real Manchester City came out to play in the second half…and then what about those goals?!

T’was a long day…

With the alarm clock going off at 5:20am (the ‘back-up’ alarm set for 5:30am not being required), my wife & I set off at 7:05am on the short, 15 minute walk to the coach ‘pick-up point’. It was chilly and, purposely leaving the brolly in my rucksack; some light drizzle helped to wake me up a little more. I’d been keeping my eye on the weather forecast for Wembley for a few days; I was prepared for it to be on the cool side but, thankfully, it was going to stay dry for the most part. Stopping to get a newspaper, the coach arrived within 5 minutes of our arrival and we set off dead on the planned 7:30am departure time.

We’ve nearly always travelled with A. Mayne to Wembley, a long-standing, local firm who have never let us down and who provide reasonably comfortable coaches. But this time we were in for an added treat. It had a toilet!

Have I really reached the age where I genuinely get excited about a coach having a loo?

Well my wife was sure getting increasingly irritated by my (overzealous?) animations regarding the on-board facilities. If she could have changed seats I’m sure she would have done so at one point.

In my defence, my experiences of taking the coach to (and of course from) Wembley has often been an uncomfortable one…on the return journey that is. As with a lot of people the beer tends to flow before the game…and we always manage to squeeze another pint in at half time. Well, simply put, that has ‘a certain effect’ on the body of course and seeing as it often takes more than an hour for the coach to move just ¼ mile once everyone is on board; it can make for a VERY uncomfortable & long trip to the homeward bound ‘motorway services’ stop-off.

Needless to say, I made use of the coach facilities twice on the way home on this occasion…

But not only did we have superb loo & wash facilities, we had tea/coffee/hot chocolate-making facilities…and a bloke brewing up for everyone! We had a TV (not used on the day) and the seats were more comfortable than usual; with slightly more leg room, which is a blessing when you have legs as long as mine! Mayne had clearly ‘pushed the boat out’ and one of the fellas later informed us that the ‘new line’ of coaches had cost £240,000 each. I was more than happy with that expenditure!

We ‘bombed it down’ in light traffic; stopping for 25 minutes at some services at around 9:20am. This is where I started to bump into people I knew (it NEVER ceases to amaze us how many people we know & bump into on a Wembley trip). This time it was two people from work and, separately a few minutes later, a customer of ours!

I took the opportunity of the stop-off to text a few mates who were travelling down too; updating them as to where we were and asking for their whereabouts. One replied later on at about 10:30am and he was already at the Green Man waiting for it to open at 11:00am. The other two were a little behind us and were planning a stop-off a Warwick Services. The latter we were very much hoping to meet up with at the now-usual area of Wembley; near to some portable bar units.

We moved off again at about 9:50am. I don’t know what it was, but 40 minutes after setting off from the services – about 10:30am – I got a sudden attack of pre-match nerves. It was strange; a negative feeling as though the result wasn’t going to go our way. All sorts of player and tactical thoughts started to whirl around. My mind then briefly wandered onto something else and then similar to the first emotional wave...but quite the opposite; an air of optimism suddenly wafted over me at about 11:10am. Strange…and I recall thinking at the time that this must be what players and, perhaps, managers go through ahead of a big game.

Little did I know at the time that this pessimism - followed by renewed optimism - would be exactly how I’d feel sat in my Wembley seat…

Text message updates came in: “Green Man hammered!”…and from the other two, “Just passing through Warwickshire”.

Once again we flew to Wembley but hit the usual, heavy traffic as the Wembley arch came into view. Not quite gridlock...but not far off it! In fairness the driver was excellent; weaving in & out and finding every nook & cranny to squeeze into. Apparently we were in the ‘Yellow Car Park’, which involved approaching Wembley right through the heart of the Sunderland fan’s side. Regardless of the coach driver’s fine endeavours, it seemed to take for ever - valuable drinking time was being used up! We caught site of the arch at 11:40am but it was 12:10pm before we disembarked.

Text message update: Just passing Harrow; traffic bad. I’d given up hope of meeting-up with them this time.

Heading straight to the now-usual mobile bar area, we discovered that one of the bars was closed. Not helpful at all – this meant, of course, longer queues at the one remaining bar.

It took about 12 minutes or so to get served and we ‘doubled up’ (a whopping £19.60p for 4 pints!) The still-chilly air didn’t help as we gingerly carried the very cold drinks through the crowds and to a seat/wall area. There we eagerly planted the drinks down as, by now, our lager-glazed hands were red raw in the cold March air. I think it took me just 10 minutes to down the first pint.

This was when we saw the 4th person we knew – Ricky Hatton. I’ve known Ricky since he was 10 or 11, when he played football for my Brother-In-Law’s side, Littlemoss Youth. He didn’t see me as the suited-up, ex-Boxer made his way through 100s of Blues and up the steps towards the ground; stopping just once to have his photograph taken with someone.

With about ½-a-pint each remaining – and at about 12:50pm – we made our way up the very same steps. This was where we bumped into the 5th familiar face. A lad who we used to ‘holiday with’ had made camp half way up the stairs with his family. All 12 or so of them, he explained, had now made this ‘their regular spot’…and woe-betide anyone who tries to take their patch!

After stopping for a chat for 10 minutes or so we made our way through the increasingly strong & cold wind and towards our turnstile. We were in! We were on our way up the several escalators and at the bar within 5 minutes or so; diverting only briefly to check out where our seats were. On our way back from the stand we bumped into face number 6, a lad from my local. Shaking hands we made brief, ‘loose plans’ to meet up as soon as we stepped off our returning vehicles...Optimistically suggesting that it would be to "celebrate".

We had 2 more beers (20p cheaper inside – just yer £4.70p per pint…) and just as we were finishing our first we realised that we’d been standing next to one of our good friends – that’s number 7. This was the same chap who had been in the Green Man and he reiterated just how busy it had been, which was the reason he’d left sooner than planned. He also told me that Ricky Hatton had been in there knocking back a few…

Soon afterwards some of HIS friends arrived followed by his son (familiar face number 8), who’d come straight from a stag ‘do’ in Blackpool and, who, hadn’t slept in 36 hours or so!

My wife then bumped into one of her work’s Regional Directors! A lovely chap…and recognisable face number 9.

With the delay getting into the car park, the queues at the outside bar and the slightly-early kick-off time of 2:00pm; the 'pre-match' had all seemed a little more rushed than usual. As the players came out we ‘drank up’ and took our seats in time for the National Anthem.

Oh deary me Mr Pellegrini

Not me...but you get the idea...
We’d heard the team selection 20 minutes or so before we took to the stand and weren’t alone in bemoaning the fact that he’d chosen Kolarov, Demichelis and Dzeko. What WAS he thinking?!

Quite note: Well-done to all who organised - and to Wembley Stadium - for their tribute to Mike Doyle on 4 minutes!

And our fears seemed justified; Dzeko performed his usual lamppost impression with his (lack of fluid) movement; the weak, left-side of our defence was all-too-evident…and had a big hand in their opener. Kolarov’s more-attacking nature for a so-called left-back meant that he was far up the pitch when we were exposed by a decent Adam Johnson pass. And with Demichelis being somewhat on the slow side it was then left to Vinny to ‘leg it’ across to try ‘n’ cover. But it was too late; at full pelt Kompany managed to stick in a challenge of sorts but it wasn’t enough and as his momentum took him away from the attacking Sunderland man, Borini broke away and ‘lashed in’ past Pantilimon after just 10 minutes.


We certainly had enough possession in the first half but we just didn’t look cohesive at all. They overran us in midfield for the most part and a lot of our attacks just broke down in the final third. To add to Dzeko’s ineffectiveness; Sergio, for all his efforts, looked a little 'off pace' in his ‘comeback game’.

I looked around the Blue half of Wembley and I saw a sea of motionless bodies and deathly silence. Of course this was sharp contrast to the red & white striped half of the stadium. I left my seat early on 33 minutes and without wishing to sound too macabre; I smelt (footballing) death in the air. I looked at fellow Blues in the concourse area and they were grey-faced with serious concern. Pellegrini’s team selection just wasn’t working and it had the smell of the Wigan final just 10 months earlier.

I managed to sink a couple of pints in the 25 minutes that I was down there and had a worrying chat or two with fellow, equally-concerned City fans. This included ANOTHER chap from my local (familiar face number 10). I re-joined my seat just as the second half kicked off and it was at this point that disappointment, a little annoyance, passion and beer took over.

All-too familiar…but MUCH more intense!

People who have attended matches with me - and those who have sat near me down the years - will tell you that I’m certainly not afraid to shout and, on occasions, SCREAM my support for the lads when required. But this was another level altogether.

So determined was I to get the stand singing, so resolute was I to do anything that I could to raise a change in our play & fortunes on the pitch; I yelled SO loud and for SO long that I actually did myself an injury! Not long before we scored I’d given myself an instant, migraine-level headache at the back of my head. No kidding; I actually thought I was having an aneurism there & then!

I popped a strong, dissolvable painkiller into my mouth without water; such was the intense pain. But the agony somehow didn’t stop me from continuing my Hulk-like frenzy – the adrenalin, together with the pain killer, must have somehow managed to dull the throbbing sensation in my head.

Then we scored…and WHAT a goal by Yaya! I leaped around like a loon, forgetting for a moment that it was an all-seater stadium and that it wasn’t the old Kippax terrace.

The good ol' Kippax Stand

Then we scored again just seconds later; another 'cracker' by Nasri…
This time I recall jumping up and then, apparently, both my wife and the bloke behind me had to stop me from falling over as I bounced around…arms all over the place! I eventually calmed down and the pain in my head instantly came back. But I was so focused on the game that I managed to put it to one side for a time.

Although a single goal is often cause for some nerves in ANY crucial game, not least a final - and despite the fact that Steven Fletcher should have done better with his attempt at an equaliser towards the end - we looked in control for the most part. And after the Scottish international’s error, we broke away and Yaya had several options in front of him. He chose Jesus Navas and the Spaniard sent us all into raptures!

We’d done it! We’d secured the League Cup for the first time in 38 years; the first time I’d seen us lift the trophy (I was just 5-years-old the last time).

Sunderland fans, to their credit, mostly stayed for the celebrations; not just their player’s runners up medal but a lot of the trophy lifts and fireworks too. We watched the players parade around the edge of the pitch (how apt that Captain Kompany lifted the cup wearing number 4 just like Mike Doyle the last time?) before heading off down the stairs.

The fans were singing the whole way down but I neither had the energy nor the vocal cords left to join in. I’d wrecked my throat and could hardly speak. The adrenalin ‘come down’ had also left me feeling utterly exhausted…and the pain in my head had returned.

Walking back to the coach I bumped into the same customer I’d seen at the services on the way down (how weird!). This time he locked eyes on me and we ‘let on’. Back on the coach and everyone had been very prompt in their return…but it didn’t matter; we were going nowhere. As usual, not only were the roads IN to Wembley ‘chocca‘ but egress was even worse! As well as the prices for food & drink; I HATE this part of the whole ‘Wembley experience’.

But I was okay on this occasion for the most part – I had my toilet after all…

Sugar rush!
After a ‘quick visit’, another painkiller and a dozen or more Galaxy Minstrels; exhaustion really took a-hold and it wasn’t long before I’d nodded off. We’d not even joined the main road when I was ‘neck wobbling’ where I sat. So long did it take us to move that two of the passengers eventually decided to take ‘brewing up’ into their own hands. I was awoken to the sound of, “Tea or coffee anyone?”. I stuck my hand up and croaked, “Tea please”, in a weak, pathetic-sounding voice. My aching throat needed a brew! Just as she handed it to me we hit the ‘open road’ and as we went from ‘A road’ to motorway, I fell asleep again.

Need to buy one...
I very, VERY rarely ‘do sleeping’ on a coach or ANY journey for that matter but so ‘conked out‘ was I, my wife told me the following day that she had to check to see if I was still breathing at one point!

I woke up as we slowed down to enter the services and the chap gave us ½ hour to sort ourselves out. Apart from a trip to the loo, I spent the whole time sat on a settee; head tilted backwards, shades on and with my eyes closed. My head was still bad and even a 3rd or perhaps even 4th painkiller was barely touching it. I needed my bed!

So we set off once again and I recall that the rain was lashing down really heavily on the windscreen of the coach. But it could have been chucking down Minstrel-sized hail and it still wouldn’t have prevented me from sleeping once again. I think I woke up twice before the ‘third awakening’ found me just 5 minutes from home. We got home at 10:40pm – huh…I certainly wasn’t up to meeting with the bloke from my local as (loosely) arranged…

But my head pain had FINALLY eased somewhat and a walk home in the rain, another painkiller, 2 brews and a cold slice of left-over pizza from the fridge made it disappear almost completely. We watched the goals on TV again before heading to bed at 12:15pm, a full 18 hours and 55 minutes after getting up.

The next day…

Sam: "Don't leave me!"
We’d never left our little dog, Sam, in kennels before but we had to on this occasion. He’d stayed for 2 nights and we’d arranged to collect him between 10:00am & 11:00am. But my headache was back. It was just as bad as the previous day. Even my neck and shoulders were tense & aching. I’d shouted so much that not only did I have a sore & gruff voice, I’d sort of pulled a muscle in my chest/back area too! I’d not noticed that yesterday…

What an idiot! I thought I’d moved past all of these shenanigans years ago. But so much was the passion for wanting us to win this one - and SO much did I want to shake the team from their apparent doldrums - that I had behaved like a man possessed!

I spent most of Monday popping even MORE painkillers and drinking pint after pint of water. Sometimes my headache would seem to wash away before returning just as bad. What HAD I done to myself?

The plan was ALWAYS to head to the pub at some stage on Monday (we’d both booked the day off work) to celebrate and talk-through the previous day’s events. After some domestic duties we grabbed some dinner at about 2:00pm. Something had to be done about my head – a change of plan was needed. So I sat in the cold sunshine in the garden on a kitchen chair; sunglasses on, sandwich in one hand…and a cold lager in the other. Kill or cure time! I sunk a second can from the fridge before we both set off to the pub about 3:30pm. It was working! A few more beers later and I barely had any pain.

And now (3 days after Wembley)…

Although my throat has now almost fully recovered, if I turn my head too quickly then I get a sharp reminder that my head is still far from happy with me even today. This has been the reason for the delay in my post-Wembley Blog entry – I just couldn’t stare at the computer screen for too long. Apologies.

What WAS he thinking? And poor ol’ Joleon

Under Manuel Pellegrini we are experiencing the best season I can ever recall. One cup already in the cupboard, still in two other cup competitions and ‘sitting pretty’ near the top of the league with 2 games in hand in March. It all makes it very difficult to be negative towards our manager. However…

By his own admittance during Wembley-post-match interviews we’ve gone through the whole League Cup competition by only conceding 2 goals. Put another way, before the final we’d only conceded one, solitary goal. And who was it who had played in all the previous rounds? Joleon Lescott.

Ability and ‘pros & cons’ aside; I know there might not be room for too much sentiment in modern-day footballing management but SURELY there was more reason than one to stick with the England man on this occasion. I know that Pellegrini has worked with Demichelis before and that he went to some lengths to draft-in one of his ‘favourites’ back in August; but Joleon must be absolutely gutted! He didn’t deserve that…and he could barely raise a smile in the dressing room afterwards.

We looked well dodgy at the back at times and it could easily have cost us – picking Martin AND Alex in the same team just leaves a gaping hole on that side of the defence. Chuck an immobile Edin Dzeko and a recovering Aguero into the mix and no WONDER the already-overrun midfield was finding it difficult to look coordinated and be effective in going forward!

But it somehow ‘clicked’ in the second half and…WOW - those first 2 goals! The third one wasn’t too shabby either...  Glad to see Aguero got through his part unscathed – although he looked a little ‘off the pace’; he took the pass really well to lay it off for Kolarov whose pass saw Nasri volley in superbly!

Uwe! Uwe! Uwe...
I was as shocked and disappointed as anyone not to see Negredo partner Aguero up front. But hopefully with Alvaro having a good, extended rest and Sergio getting some vital match-fitness under his belt; they’ll both be ready to ‘fire’ in the weeks ahead...not least against Uwe Rosler’s Wigan Athletic in the quarter final of the F.A. Cup this coming Sunday.

Well done Blues! You might have given me one hell of a headache that I’m STILL trying to shift but it was worth it.


  1. Great read, Steve!
    Glad you and Josie enjoyed the day. It came right in the end...just.

  2. Thanks Colin... Yeah, got there in the end. First trophy of the season! Beat Wigan and anything can happen in "2 finals".

    Just need some 'points on the board' in the league in our 'catch up' games then.