During my recent half term holiday, I went on a massive football binge attending 5 games in the space of 8 days: Accrington Stanley v Plymouth, Man City reserves v Tranmere Rovers reserves (I only went to witness former Swansea player Andy Robinson) and Stoke V Swansea. The other two games I attended came on the Wednesday and Thursday of my half term holiday and I had not planned to go either game until a couple of hours before kick off. The Wednesday game was a Europa League tie between Manchester City and Porto at the Etihad Stadium and the following day I attended another Europa League game between Manchester United and Dutch giants Ajax at Old Trafford. I had visited both grounds before and had good days out at both. On the Thursday, I began to ponder on the bus towards Old Trafford, which ground I preferred: City’s modern Etihad or the United’s ever evolving Old Trafford? I’ve really loved my trips to the Etihad Stadium…but then again, a trip to United’s historic ground is also an incredible experience….but which is better?…There’s only one way to find out….. FIGHT!! (Or I could just write accounts of my days spent at both grounds, reflect on the experiences and come to a decision to whether I preferred City or United’s matchday experience.)
The Etihad Stadium
My first experiences of the Etihad Stadium came during my first weekend of living in Liverpool; on a train journey back from watching Swansea lose at Elland Road, our train began to roll into Manchester Piccadilly station; To my left was an elegantly shaped structure, with a radiant blue light piercing the Mancunian night sky. I did not even recognise it as a football stadium at first, although I was immediately drawn to it. There is no denying that the Etihad Stadium is one of, if not the best looking stadium in the whole country – a far cry from the club’s old Maine Road ground.
Not many people know this about me, but the first football match I ever attended was at the club’s famously atmospheric Maine Road. As an 8 year old I witnessed an astonishing game of football between City and Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle which ended in a 3-3 draw. Ferdinand, Asprillia, Albert, Quinn, Rosler, Curle, great names from the early years of the Premier League all featured that day, but the undisputed main man on the day was little Georgi Kinkladze who delivered one of the most mercurial performances I can ever remember witnessing.
Maine Road was located in the infamous Moss Side area of Manchester. The ground was barraged on every side by terrace housing, almost as if the ground had forced its way into the streets. Many commented that one of the chief reasons why Manchester City embody the working class of Manchester was because of the grounds proximity to the working people who supported the club. The ground gathered a reputation as a tough place to go for away teams and fans thanks largely to the intimidating atmosphere created by the fans. After 80 years of calling Maine Road home, the club decided to relocate to the newly built City of Manchester Stadium which was built for 2002 Commonwealth Games held in Manchester. The idea of moving away from Maine Road left many City fans distraught because of the strong attachment they had with the place. However, many fans welcomed the move from South Manchester back to East of Manchester where the club had originated. In fact, many fans reacted angrily to moving to Maine Road in the first place; the 1922 switch to the Moss Side ground from Hyde Road was met with detest from fans because of the shift away from City’s traditional East Manchester fan base.
Following the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Manchester City had a lot of work to do to convert the stadium from a stadium designed for athletics to a football-purpose stadium. £20million later and the removal of the stadium’s running track and an operation to make the stands steeper so that the fans were closer to the pitch (this also boosted by the capacity by 10,000 seats) and City were ready to move into their new abode. The stadium, also known by fans as Eastlands, has been home to the club since the 2002-03 season. The first game at the stadium was a glamour friendly against Barcelona and the first competitive game there was a far less glamorous UEFA cup qualifying game against Welsh side TNS (I actually attended the 2nd leg of this European tie at the Millennium Stadium).
The fans have taken a couple of seasons to become accustomed to their new environment, but in recent times the stadium has begun to generate a lot more atmosphere, perhaps coinciding with the club’s improvement on the pitch. The stadium became the Etihad Stadium in July 2011 after Manchester City secured a ten-year sponsorship with Etihad Airways.
I moved to Manchester in August 2011 ready to start my new job in a school on the western point of Greater Manchester; I decided to move up on a Saturday afternoon in preparation for Swansea City’s Premier League debut on the Monday night. In the 2 days before the game I tried to acquaint myself quickly with the city, but come Monday I was still uncertain of where to go, so to initiate myself with the city I decided to begin my matchday buildup at 2pm, 6 hours before kick off.
We began our prematch indulgences in Deansgate,starting in Wetherspoons and Las Iguanas. There was not a Swansea fan in sight, but the City fans were all very welcoming and congratulatory about our promotion. Although I also felt that they were just being nice to us because they were expecting their multimillion pound team to decimate little Swansea City.
We wandered further up Deansgate taking in The Craven Arms and the Ape and Apple. In The Ape and Apple we met a knowledgeable Mackem who had spent much of his life living in South Wales, and educated me on ‘dos and don’ts’ of Manchester living. Still, no Swansea fans to be seen though. We decided to head towards Piccadilly Gardens and we were accompanied by our new Sunderland friend who assured us he knew a ‘shortcut’ through the back streets of Manchester City Centre pointing out any points of interest on the way through the streets. We came to the Shakespeare pub just off Market Street and said our goodbyes to our Mackem pal. Then, the start of a repetitive process began, on approaching the Shakespeare, two bouncers appeared and diverted us away as they spotted the glowing orange Swansea away shirt I was wearing. On walking through Piccadilly Gardens this was repeated a few times, even with bouncers coming out from pubs we were not even going in telling us to go away.
Eventually we spotted a Swansea flag flying from The B Lounge and we finally rendezvoused with the Jack Army. Having finally found a welcoming pub, it turned out they were a lot less accommodating than we first thought as they claimed that they were not allowed to have anyone sitting in or outside the pub wearing a Swansea City shirt. Thankfully, it was a lovely Summer afternoon in Manchester so many of the Jack Army basked in the Manchester sunshine shirtless in the pub’s outside drinking area. It soon transpired that the rash greetings we were getting from bouncers and barmen was down to the Manchester riots that had occurred the week before; the police had decided to put extra strict measures on the city’s first Premier League football match of the season to avert any possible trouble and had made local pubs/bars enforce harsher rulings on away fans.
After discussing our hopes and ambitions for the incoming Premiership season (we were all still amazed at saying that) we hopped into a taxi and took the 10 minute taxi journey to Manchester’s Sport City, where the centre piece is the impressive Etihad Stadium. The last game of football I had attended, bar a meaningless Liberty Stadium friendly, was at Wembley for Swansea’s euphoric Play-Off final victory, but the Etihad stands up to Wembley in every way apart from its capacity – I would even argue that from the outside it is a much more attractive spectacle.
We arrived at the ground around 30 minutes before kick off and headed straight into the stadium via a long-winded conversation with a female steward who wanted to know why the Swansea fans were all talking about someone called ‘Jack’? Having given a quick history of the club’s nickname, I made it to the bar and I was actually surprised to find that the cost wasn’t too crazy (although this may have come since my last stadium visit was to Wembley). The atmosphere was electric on the concourse and there was a real sense amongst Swansea’s away support that no matter what happened on the pitch, they could say they were there for the club’s first steps in the illustrious Premier League. The fans had already sussed out what would probably be Swansea’s starting XI, but many were speculating what superstar line up Manchester City would unveil: Balotelli or Dzeko up front? Or maybe even new £38million pound signing Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero? The inclusion of the little Argentinian was the main topic of conversation amongst City fans, as they had already considered the result a foregone conclusion.
We went to our seats 10 minutes before our Premier kick-off to take in the atmosphere; Manchester City who had been dubbed by their arch nemesis, Sir Alex Ferguson, as the ‘noisy neighbours’ were not very noisy at all with the Jack Army launching into a rapturous chorus of their promotion campaign favourite ‘Hymns and Arias’ drowning out any other sound in the magnificent stadium. I must admit though, I am a big fan of City anthem ‘Blue Moon’ which the City fans sung before kick-off. The Swans fans were still taking in the novelty of their new surroundings with many fans getting excited about little things, such as seeing the team wear the Premier League emblems on their sleeves rather than the Football League ones and walking out under the Premier League banner; we were even the spectatcle of Sky Sports’ famous Monday Night Football! This was the big time!
The game kicked off and predictably Manchester City looked the more lethal in the early stages. One of Swansea’s star performers during the promotion campaign was Dutch goalkeeper Dorus De Vries, who set off for Wolves in the summer after his contract expired. Many fans despaired at this departure as the goalie was almost a perfect fit for the club’s style of football. He was replaced by a new £1.5million Dutch goalkeeper who had even played for the Dutch national team. Any concerns about the loss of De Vries were soon put to bed by half-time with Swans fans witnessing a goalkeeping master class from their new signing – the Premier League was emphatically introduced to Michel Vorm.
After the first overwhelming opening 20 minutes, the Swans began to find their passing feet and the City faithful were beginning to get frustrated at being out passed by players such as Leon Britton and Ashley Williams, who had just come up from the doldrums of the Championship.
0-0 at half time and the Jack Army was in joyous mood with much of the talk on the concourse being about the new guy between the sticks: Dorus who? By the end of the night, Michel Vorm would have broken a Premiership record for the most saves ever in a Premiership game (11 saves in one match); this record would become a good reflection on the second half of the game. Swansea’s cheek of actually trying to play football on City’s turf and actually frustrating the team wound up the City players and fans, so the team would enter the second half and take the game to Swansea.
After more heroics from Vorm, the deadlock was eventually broken by the persistent Edin Dzeko. City now had their tails up although Swansea were still clinging on. Then, Aguero happened. ‘Kun’ entered the action in the 59th minute and he was soon causing havoc. He scored his first goal in English football (against a Welsh club) in the 67th minute with a simple tap in and three minutes later he lifted a superb ball over Vorm, setting up an empty net for David Silva to score into. Aguero saved his best until the 90th minute; as his team mates sprawled around the tired looking Swansea defence, Aguero chose not to pass to any of them and unleashed an unstoppable 25 yard rocket into the bottom corner. 31 minutes of Sergio Aguero has to go down as the greatest debut I’ve ever witnessed in the flesh (just pipping Gorka Pintado’s magnificent debut against Nottingham Forest).
Swansea could hold their heads high and most City fans on the walk back to the city centre in the pouring rain were very complimentary about Swansea’s team and our passionate fans. The game was turned on its head by a player that cost more than Swansea’s Liberty Stadium after all. Swansea would get their revenge at said stadium 7 months later.
6 months after that wet night at the Etihad Stadium, I was enjoying my half term holiday sitting in Starbucks drinking a latte and reading the day’s Guardian. There was a lot of talk of the two Manchester clubs playing in the Europa League and out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the Manchester City v Porto game was actually being played on that day and at the early time of 17:00. With such an early kick off, I decided to check ticket prices on my Blackberry and I soon found out that tickets were being sold for £17! With the likes of Silva, Aguero, Toure and co. set to play I thought it was too much of a bargain to miss out.
I arrived at Etihad Stadium by 15:30, having only found out there was even a game there that day 40 minutes before. My second visit to the stadium would further enhance my positive opinion of the place, as I got to experience the City Square. Having gone straight into the away end on my last visit, this time I had an hour and half to spend before the kick-off. City Square acts as the club’s very own impressive fanzone area attached directly to the stadium; there are a series of bars named after City legends circled around the club’s super store with a variety of burger vans and more upmarket looking food stands scattered around the ‘square’. I entered the area via the very light blue walkway known as Joe Mercer Way and made my way to one of the bars via the ticket office. After 10 minutes at City Square I began thinking to myself that it was like being at a music festival; just as this thought crossed my mind a local Mancunian adorned in City colours band stepped onto a stage behind the superstore to entertain the prematch crowds. The huge screens placed around City Square showed highlights from the first-leg game against Porto (which City won 2-1) and highlights of City’s season so far; my personal favourite video was a reel of all of David Silva’s assists for the club.
There was a brilliant mood around the place with City and Porto fans mingling together chatting over their plastic cup pints. I decided to join them at the bar, where pints were at standard football ground prices. The atmosphere was so relaxed that I even opened up to some City fans that I had been sat in the away end of the Etihad for the first game of the season; the men I was speaking to even opened into long outpourings of respect for the Swans claiming we were the “best fans ever to visit the Etihad”. The afternoon in the sunshine of City Square was great fun and I was almost disappointed that I to walk away having bought a ticket to attend a football match. Although I was soon excited about entering the stadium – that was the exciting part..literally entering the stadium. Having witnessed them on my first visit to stadium, I would now have the opportunity to navigate my way to the Etihad’s top tier via the “twirly towers” (as I dubbed them) that lead to the top of the stadium. Having made the dizzying walk to the top, I found my seat and settled down ready to watch the game.
It soon became apparent that many of the people around me were not City fans, but actually Ajax fans that had arrived in the city a day early for their game against Manchester United and had decided to take in a game. I was also disappointed to find the enigmatic Mario Balotelli on the bench having not seen him feature in the Swansea fixture (he would not come off the bench either). The 5 o’clock kick off meant that many City fans were still making their way into the stadium after kick-off having rushed from work. Unfortunately these people would miss the opening goal scored by that man again, Kun Aguero, within 19 seconds with a low shot past Helton. I was beginning to think I was a good luck charm for the little Argentinian. After the goal, the game turned into an excellent display of fast passing football with some excellent performances all over the pitch. Half time arrived in a flash and I began thinking that I made a brilliant decision to come to the game – £17!
The second half continued in a similar vein with both sides playing excellent flowing football. Although the City fans greeted Porto attacker, Hulk, with chants of “You’re not incredible” I was actually very impressed with the confident performance being delivered by the Brazilian as he seemed to at times try to single-handedly drag the Portuguese team back into the tie. Porto were beginning to look the more dangerous, but 15 minutes from the end Aguero slid in substitute Edin Dzeko to make the game 2-0 and to seal the tie. Porto defender Rolando protested vehemently whilst City celebrated the goal and got himself a 2nd yellow card and a sending off.
Shortly after, man of the match, David Silva added a third having been set up by debutant David Pizarro who had come off the bench, before Pizarro added a debut goal to go with his impressive 10 minute cameo to make it 4-0.
I made the walk back to Manchester city centre, once again, in the pouring rain. As great as my two experiences have been at the Etihad Stadium, there is one factor that made both experiences much richer: David Silva. There is not much I can say about the player that has not be said before, but I will certainly say that he is the best player I have ever seen play live. The headlines were stolen by Aguero on his impressive debut against Swansea, but Silva was the true star that night, as he glided through Swansea’s midfield setting up chance after chance only for City’s strikers to miss or be denied by Vorm. During the Porto game where I was sat towards the top of the stadium, it was mesmerising to watch Silva’s movement as he did not stop looking for space for a team-mate to find him. I’m pretty sure he did not give the ball away once during the whole 90 minutes.
Overall, The Etihad Stadium is easily one of my favourite stadiums in the country and I would recommend a visit to anyone, unless you are of a United-persuasion. My trip to Old Trafford the next day would have a lot to live up to!
Highlights: The design of the stadium, the “twirly towers”, near city centre, City Square Fanzone, friendly fans, Blue Moon (I really like it as a football song) David Silva, seeing two 4-0 games at the stadium
Low Points: Not many away friendly pubs –strict bouncers, atmosphere is very hit and miss, always seems to rain heavily on the walk home!