Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Golden Ticket

About 2 weeks ago now I received an unexpected e-mail from Manchester City inviting me to the official opening of the new Manchester City Academy. To say that it was an honour to have been chosen – along with a few other supporters – is putting it mildly.

What a Club!

The invite

I can’t express enough just how great the Club were in making a ‘regular fan / supporter’ feel comfortable and at ease around such other prestige guests. There were players & officials both past and present; past players not necessarily associated with Manchester City, well recognised faces from the BBC, ITV & Sky Sports and well-known officials from Manchester City Council as well as the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The "Guest" wristband
Most of the afore mentioned met in the same reception area at the ground; made their way to the Academy on the same coaches, mingled together having breakfast refreshments in the same area and aside from a few reserved seats we were all sat mingled-together for the main presentation speeches and unveiling of the official plaque. It was just ‘spot on’.


The ‘invitation for one’ stated “smart casual” and having taken the dog for a walk and chosen to incorporate a visit to my mum’s house, she appeared disappointed that I wasn’t all properly ‘suited up’. It’s an age / generational thing I think…

But having not let those comments blow my confidence, I must admit there was a sense of justification and mild amusement when, ironically, I got into the taxi and upon telling the driver our destination; his first response was to say, “Are you going for an interview?"

So I wasn’t as ‘dressed down’ as my mum was suggesting, bless her.

Arriving bang on 10:15am in the icy cold breeze, I headed straight into the West Stand Reception area where some of the other guests were queuing up to be registered and to receive their guests wrist bands.

I was pleased to see that I'd hit the tone just right with my smart / casual look.

Whilst stood in the queue I very soon realised that I was right next to Alex Williams who was talking to some bloke at the side. It’s hard not to notice the ex-City goalkeeper and head of  City in the Community and I have spoken to him a few times in the past.

In fact, he lead the one & only tour of Maine Road and Platt Lane that I was to go on in the early 90s. In addition to that, Alex is a passing acquaintance of my wife and with her being the Practice Manager of the Dentist he used to attend; whenever we both visit the Etihad and pass him by Alex lets on to my wife [rather than the person who’s attended City far more and for over 30 years]. I don’t say that out of bitterness in the slightest – it’s a little running joke we both share… J

I ‘signed in’, got my wrist band and not really knowing for sure if the three, rather plush-looking coaches were indeed for us (me) and were to be our transport across the road; I eventually asked a G4S Customer Service Officer. They were our coaches and as one of them pulled away, I got on the second in line.

They were plush – well…the most posh I’d been on anyway. Leather seats no less! Easily pleased...

As I embarked I noticed that most people were sat in ‘singles’ with a seat separating most. Clearly I wasn’t the only one to have received an invitation ‘for one’. So I did likewise; taking my seat just a few from the front and on the left overlooking the entrance I’d just emerged from.

As it started to fill up, Alex and the man he was chatting to emerged from the West Stand Reception area and it was at this point that I realised, all-too-clearly, that the ‘some bloke’ Alex had been – and still was – talking to was a certain Colin Bell; only one of the most iconic City legends ever!

Thankfully I was sharing my foolishness with no-one other than myself - well, until sharing it with you all now…

They were both heading to my coach and as they got on, I found myself sort of ‘budging up’ towards the window as if to suggest to Colin (or Alex of course) with a child-like voice in my head, “You can sit here if you like?”

Colin gave me a brief look and walked past (perhaps I should have worn the suit after all) and Alex gave me a nod and an, “Alright”. I then fully expected him to ask about my wife…but he didn’t. So, sitting on my own - and not with any past City-playing legends - we soon set off as the winter clouds gathered.

The (very short) journey

Out of the ground, up Ashton New Road, across Alan Turing Way and in through the Academy gates. It was brief but all still very exiting.

Well it was for me anyway – I’d managed to get the day off work and was sat on the coach wide-eyed like a child off to the seaside for the very first time. However, at least 2 others near me appeared to be squeezing in the visit in-between ‘dealings with work’. As we entered the gates at least 2 other chaps were on their mobiles sorting out work-related matters right up to the point where we disembarked. Priorities all wrong in my world at least…

Anyway...momentarily, any excitement turned to slight confusion. As we neared the main, central complex listed as the, “Performance Centre”, I noticed the first coach parked up and facing us towards the left. But as we continued up the newly tarmacked, pristine road to the right, we were abruptly stopped by an attendant and a 2 or 3 minute conversation then ensued with the driver.

I don’t know, of course, what route the first coach had taken but clearly [from listening to the dialogue] our driver had been given instructions to drive the guests right around the Performance Centre before dropping off at the main entrance where the other coach sat; whereas the attendant had been given instruction that no-one was to drive around the back. It all got a bit awkward at one stage until the driver quite amusingly said, “Well…we’re stuck then aren’t we? How about I just drive on and I’ll them ‘em that you must have missed me, hey?”

So if there’s a new opening for a road / park attendant at the new City Football Academy then you now know why…

Once inside…

Official brochure
One of the youth teams were training outside in the cold air as we were directed into the Performance Centre, which was considerably warmer. It was huge. We were all stood on (state of the art I’m sure) artificial grass as we made our way over to the breakfast refreshments.

There were juices, fruit, tea, coffee and various pastries available and, most notably, Manchester City ice-topped cup cakes. Having had a little breakfast at home but not sure exactly how I’d feel when it got to about 1:00/1:30pm (the time where lunch refreshments were to be served) I went for a tea and a small (in case my diabetic nurse reads this) but very sweet pastry.

I then just wandered lonely as a ‘single invitee’; taking a few snaps of the time-line display boards for my Blog and avoiding the temptation to stand too near HUGE names of past players just in case they spoke to me and I turned to jelly; unable to speak after a sugar rush and general star-struckness.

Timeline exhibition

I took a few snaps of our trophies and, most noticeably of course, the Premier League Trophy...but resisted the crossbar challenge that was going on at the far end.

The area grew slightly dark and we experienced a 5 minute hail storm that, from within the large, high-roof complex, sounded quite impressive for a time.

The cups...
I soon found a fellow Blogger / fanzine writer in Dave Wallace from King of the Kippax and not long afterwards his colleague, Steve Parish, joined us. Steve did, he informed me, have a go of the crossbar challenge and proudly told me that he’d got 2 from 6 shots!

'THE' cup!
It was lovely to see and chat with them both again and 45 or so minutes later, Steve & I walked through as the divide was opened up to allow us into the main presentation area.

15 milliseconds of fame!

Steve was off like an Aguero shot! No messing - he headed straight for ‘front & centre’…and I quickly followed.

Separated only by a row of reserved seats, we were LITERRALLY sat at the front and RIGHT in front of the speaker's podium. With cameras of all descriptions from various medias - and with Sally Nugent hosting the ceremony - I was convinced (and told my family so) that I’d be on the telly! To date, I’ve seen the back of my head and my clapping hands on both Sky Sports and the BBC.

Timeline exhibition
Timeline exhibition

Timeline exhibition
I keep checking the Internet…

I had a pretty good idea that Chairman Khaldoon would be present; Txiki Begiristain, Ferran Soriano, someone from Manchester City Council and Patrick Vieira. However, I didn’t anticipate for one moment that Manuel Pellegrini and Vincent Kompany would be there too (I thought the manager, at least, would have been in Italy ahead of our game with Roma) and certainly didn’t expect George Osborne.

Front-row centre spot!

Alex: That bloke in the second row - what's his wife called?
Andy Warhol & Peter Swales lookalikes share a joke...
Serious now - our Chairman speaks...

And it was great to see, a later-understandably, quite emotional, Tony Book officially ‘lift the veil’ / open the Academy.

As well as reading and being very impressed with Tony’s book / life story, I used to get to Maine Road and sit on the concrete steps of the Kippax with my homemade sandwiches and match-day programme very early as a teenager; and have very vivid memories of Tony being the first out EVERY time, warming up the keepers (Alex Williams included of course) by firing-in cross after cross.

A lot of poignant words were spoken by all and as a Manchester City fan reading this, you have every right to be excited about the journey ahead.

We have very professional people with the right attitude and plans for our Football Club and any outside neutral with negative words about our recent spending – or worse still those with specific, anti-City tendencies / hidden agendas – well just feel pity for them and let them ‘snipe away’ to their embittered heart’s content.

We’re doing things the right way – patience and relentlessness are our goals.

Not in Italy - second right is our Vinny
Also not in Italy - Manuel & Ferran Soriano

Tony Book being interviewed by BBC's Sally Nugent
Messrs Pellegrini, Soriano, Sir Richard Leese, Osborne & Al Mubarak

The unveiling
Based on the Maine Road...
...Main Stand mosaic







Photo opportunity…and another case of chronic 'blind spot'

Following the ceremony we were invited to watch the first, official training session / game to be played in the centre and the very proud-looking youngsters that were sat across the stage moments earlier did, what I’m sure they enjoy doing, the most.

Not long into the ‘kick about’ I turned to my left to see that I was watching proceedings whilst stood almost next to Manuel Pellegrini!

The match

You know…for someone 6’ 1” (in boots) and with little wrong with his eyesight I don’t 'alf almost miss key individuals at times. For someone famous who’d prefer to simply go about their business undisturbed / unrecognised I’m probably a celebrity’s dream!

Could have done with 'Eagle Eyes'
Thinking that the huge amount of clicking press cameras would want to take a few snaps of our manager, I must admit that I made a point of ‘lingering around’ him a little. After 5 minutes of so of doing that, I decided to move away and watch the action from a little further down the cone-marked-out pitch.
Once again my ‘eagle eyes’ failed me as, although I instantly recognised that I was stood next to Life President Bernard Halford; it took several more minutes to see that he was stood next to that very same, ‘some bloke’. For a TRUE Manchester City hero, Colin Bell isn’t half a very unassuming man who blends in very well indeed into the crowd…

Upon hearing my news that I’d been invited to this event my wife text me, “You’ve got a golden ticket!”, clearly referring to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

That, then, had been in the back of my mind as the exciting day began and so towards the end of the kid’s exhibition match, I thought I was (finally) going mad! Sure enough, with background music playing in the ‘front end’ of where we’d been gathering before the ceremony, Willy’s “Pure Imagination” began to play. Very weird…

The footballing session finished, we meandered to the front once again and although we were invited to take the coach back to the ground (presumably where the lunchtime refreshments would be served – I dunno); I decided, instead, to walk around the complex taking more pics for my Blog as the coaches departed.

Some of the training pitches and surroundings.


Still some work being finished...and my brolly
Outside of the Performance Centre


The 7,000 capacity ground within the Academy complex


Eager to then get some ‘domestics’ out of the way before heading to my local 'for a few' to absorb the fantastic few hours that I’d experienced, I made my way to the front exit gates.
“Did you enjoy that?”, was the question from the smiling, female gate attendant. “Oh yes…” I replied “…but back to reality now” and pointing to Asda over the road I added that I had to do the ‘weekly shop’.


In the pub…

The irony that I then got to my local to find ½-a-dozen Manyoo fans round a table talking very loud and being very scathing towards Manchester City. So much so, in fact, I finally broke from reading my newspaper to text some fellow Blues the following:
The City Academy launch: Full of optimistic, bright-future talk from City and non-City officials alike.  My local: Full of afternoon-pissed, loud, embittered Manyoo fans spending 85% of their football talk-time taking about - and slagging off - Manchester City. Says it all really…
It amused me actually.
From past to present and looking very much to the future...
Great day all round, fantastic Football Club.

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