A few days ago, a guy who must be in his 50s turned to face the directors’ box when time was called on Manchester City’s draw with Chelsea. I have used words to the effect of ‘sort it out’. Over and over again.
City were 15 unbeaten in all competitions at that point, 16 now after victory over Brentford, and still very much in their latest title race. There is general unease at performances among the fanbase but it seemed striking that any ire would be projected towards those upstairs.
But this one supporter – and it was only one – felt it necessary and that presented an interesting scenario.
Spoiler? An easy conclusion yet it is hard to reconcile that given he’d presumably been watching them before the takeover and there is no match-going fan I’ve ever encountered who owns those traits.
Pent-up anxiety at what is around them, a rampant Liverpool and Arsenal, is perhaps a better description.
City fans have been unusually worried about their team’s performances this season
Pep Guardiola has previously criticized the lack of vocal support at the Etihad
The Spaniard urged City fans to make their voices heard against Liverpool in November
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In the pubs from Didsbury to Denton, they talk about enjoying the ride for as long as it lasts – some even suggesting they wouldn’t mind the worst-possible punishment from these Premier League charges hanging over them and swapping a European tour for one of the EFL.
Chief executive Ferran Soriano, you imagine, holds a slightly different view on that.
Whatever the fella’s problem from Saturday, maybe that is what the Etihad Stadium needs at the moment. A bit of uncomfortable bite.
It’s a place that is often maligned, unfairly most of the time, and why City ironically sing about ’empty seats at home’.
Over the past few weeks, social media has hosted an image of one end doctored to make it appear sparse. There was a video of players arriving off their team bus to hundreds rather than thousands of supporters outside the main entrance in the pouring rain used to mock the club.
Rivals constantly beat the ‘plastics’ drum.
And while that is nonsense – the Etihad is no different to any other Premier League ground, with its varying problems at the hands of modern football – there is something in how the die-hards have reacted to all the silverware.
They’ve never really liked to criticize, not en masse. Pep Guardiola has brought a style never seen before, the trophies flow, and there is a gratefulness for that.
When City hasn’t clicked in the past, the response has been subdued rather than critical. The attitude in the stands has always been one of caution to condemn.
Even with some questioning team selections, in Pep they trust. How can you not after all this time? History tells them that it is best.
On Tuesday, that did begin to turn after an early nervousness – on the grass and terraces – that had threatened to engulf the whole evening.
Brentford were strong, creating decent chances themselves, and City’s rhythm wasn’t smooth, as it hadn’t been for spells against Chelsea. Squeaky bums on blue seats, to alter an old phrase from across town.
Howls met Ederson when he refused to launch a counter with a quick throw. Guardiola theatrically appealed for calm from the crowd for an extended period of time, pointing out that he wanted to settle the game down.
City were back to winning ways on Tuesday night with a 1-0 victory over Brentford
Erling Haaland scored the only goal of the game, as City closed the gap to league leaders Liverpool to one point
That in itself didn’t ignite things but the pattern eventually did. Guardiola, who has had a few uncomfortable moments with the fans during his time, responded positively to some exasperation in the second half, geeing them up further, to make it louder.
There doesn’t seem any real harm in visceral frustration as long as it doesn’t take over. It helped jolt the champions into action against Brentford, while Guardiola seemed invigorated by the reaction.
‘Our people, we appreciate – the crowd was full again,’ the Catalan said.
‘In the moments we suffer they were behind us. I had the feeling that every time we are here that our crowd knows we are at the end of the season, that now the next games here are (Manchester) United, Copenhagen and Arsenal.
‘So I’m pretty sure they will be there to make the contribution that we need.’
Guardiola expects the Etihad to be at its loudest when City play against Manchester United and Arsenal next month
In that, he’s referencing what the place was like this time last year and moments of Tuesday brought back memories of that. The Etihad was nasty, a bear pit, as Real Madrid, Arsenal, Liverpool and Bayern Munich all cowered. All of them went for threes and fours.
Real’s Federico Valverde was recently asked to pick the most difficult stadium he’s ever played in and the one regularly derided was his choice. ‘The fans, the way City play,’ he answered.
And he’s seen them all. Last year was an Etihad like never seen before.
Guardiola knows that even a side as splendid as his need 53,000 others as they again fight on three fronts. The truly big nights lie in wait and some antagonism might just do the trick in helping City find their groove before those arrive.