THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Rob Chapman reports on how Manchester responded to Euro fever

Pre-tournament whinging gets under way in earnest with the Germans deciding that the grass at their Cheshire training complex is too “knobbly” and has glass in it. The jessies. Don’t they know that sprinkling glass in the goal mouth is part of the keeper’s rite of passage round these parts?

Up in Old Trafford’s new Vertigo stand the lack of oxygen deludes us neutrals into thinking that the Czech Republic can contain Vogts’ lot. Deciding that “Play up you former communists who are now tentatively embracing a mixed economy” might not scan, we settle for “Come on you reds”. Before kick off we suffer death by AOR from the mighty PA and Martin Edwards gets a resounding booing. So business as usual at OT.

“Checky Checky Checky” we sing for about half an hour until Germany score twice in five minutes and we duly note the Czechs’ lack of inspiration and obvious desire to go nowhere in this tournament. On the German-packed bus back into Manchester it all goes quiet as we ride through what’s left of the Hulme projects. Stuttgart fans gazing warily at the graffiti aren’t to know that with only a few dedicated crustie inhabitants left they are more likely to suffer death by juggling than anything else.

The Czechs are dead knowledgeable about English football. Decidedly upbeat despite their defeat they want to know where the City ground is. “There,” I say, pointing behind the palatial opulence of Kwiksave. “Ah, Division One next year,” one announced to a top deck full of moody Mancs. “Sshhh,” I gesture theatrically, suppressing a grin. Many Czech fans I spoke to are only staying for ten days. It’s all they can afford. Some are travelling down to each game from B-and-Bs in Scotland where it’s cheaper.

Six days later, looking forward to England v Scotland, I’m sitting eating breakfast in my flat three miles south of the city centre when I hear a loud dull thud. Sounds like building workers dropping stuff into a skip several streets away.

Wrong! Despite all the media hype about the Germany v Russia game being called off because of the IRA bomb, foreign fans don’t go home. They just wearily relocate to new late night drinking dens outside the police cordon. On the Sunday an Italian couple are being allowed through the blue and white ribbon to see if they still have a car. “I bet you’re really glad you came to Manchester, aren’t you?” says the WPC cheerily.

The desperate xenophobic rantings of the Daily Mirror and their ilk are certainly at odds with the Euro vibe evident in Manchester this summer (collapse of Arndale notwithstanding). The much-trumpeted dance club invasion hasn’t transpired, but the ‘last orders 4 am’ pub one has. I don’t know what the Croatian is for ‘you’re my best mate, you are’, but there have been times over the past couple of weeks when I wish I did.

For much of the Germany v Croatia game most of us neutrals are still buzzing after England’s victory over Spain, and the few dull moments in the best game seen at Old Trafford are filled with roars of “Enger-land”. One of the biggest cock-ups of the tournament has been ticket allocation and stories abound of scams, desperate touts, and corporate stayaways. Mates who arrived ticketless for Russia v Germany secured, for five pounds sterling, seats ten rows from the touchline. Comforting news for those of us watching the animated subbuteo from our vantage points in the Himalayas. The announcement of the “official” attendance of 43,412 is greeted by ironic jeers as we gaze at the acres of empty seats at each goal end.

On the way back from the game I direct a group of anxious Croatians to Piccadilly Station. England could have been playing them next week and now they are homeward bound, dour and despondent. I get them to their train and exchange the universal language of thumbs up with people I’ll never see again. Call me a sentimental old sod, but it brings a lump to the throat.

For the France v Czech game (official attendance 43,877, guffaw guffaw) I’m down at pitch level next to some hospitality ticket holders and their French clients. How could I tell? Oh, mobile phone conversations that aren’t about drugs or touted trade, looking at their watches every five minutes, the general demeanour and reactions of those who have never attended a game in their lives. Naturally they leave before full time, although in this instance who can blame them after the dullest game of the tournament?

There appear to be about 200 people in the entire East stand, some of whom unfurl a flag saying: “Hello Malta. We are here.” The debacle of a match only comes to life when a section of the crowd attempts to get up a rousing chorus of “Oooh-aah Eric,” which brings dormant club rivalries to the surface and ‘divides’ the neutrals somewhat.

And so we end where we began with Germany v the Czech Republic. On the way to that first OT match I fulfilled the fantasy of a lifetime. You know that cheap journo device where foreign correspondents in some far flung war-torn area always seem to get picked up by a wise old cabbie who speaks in aphorisms? “My country is like a mighty oak that has turned into a tiny acorn,” they will say. Well I tried it for myself. “What do you think of the Germans’ chances?” I said to my taxi driver (or ‘taxi’ driver, as we call them in Manchester.)

Spotting some of our eccentrically-attired Bavarian chums, he looked thoughtful and wound down the window. “Eh, yer sad 

From WSC 114 August 1996. What was happening this month

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