24 Hours.

by CBallinger

ponzies

1

 

I won’t go in to details but my day suffered a severe setback due to a lack of toilet paper. The rush is on but I remember to pick up a good book, my weed and a spare t-shirt. Times like these call only for ESSENTIALS. I have less than 24 hours in Manchester and I needn’t be tied down by luggage. My plan is to step from the train, meet a friend, find eats and booze and get to the game, in the hope to watch Manchester City win their first league title in my lifetime. That sounds a little grand. I just want to see the SCENES.

Delay has cost me the luxury time I needed to buy booze and snacks for the journey. Trepidation will be the theme of the day and so the tube ride to London Euston is a nervy one as I hope not to be scuppered by any delays. I don’t really want to start worrying until 3pm, when City have to beat a team fighting for survival in their own bid for success.

The tube slides smoothly and I have a few spare minutes to find booze in Euston. No obvious option. I can see a bar. But then, hope. I take long straight strides on short legs across the atrium of the station towards a sign reading ‘Marks and Spencers Food’. Experience tells me I can find fancy drink here so I hit the place at pace, as the train leaves in minutes.

It’s a quick turnaround and I’m clinking my way towards the platform with a bottle of Cornish IPA, a bottle of London Porter and one of Irish Stout. I find I don’t quite fit in with the crowd on the train, most preferring Australian Foster’s. Swill! Still I can only be happy that the football fans on the train are quietly sipping pisswater lager than bellowing ‘chants’ all over the place. My earphones can only block out so much.

I have a real selection headache when it comes to the booze, as I’m not sure which to get at first. Which is truly a breakfast beer? The stout is the closest thing to breakfast as it has an iron content akin to black pudding, but I go with the IPA and get on with a bit of reading. 3 hours to pass in this transitional place. Everyone’s a football fan of some persuasion. No specific crowd. No bravery yet on show.

Home. I head straight to my favourite pub as the friend I’m meeting is still on a bus from South Manchester. Known to most as ‘Coos’, the man providing me with a ticket and company for today’s game is a mild-mannered suburban stoner, rich in imagination and wit. We share various passions, most notably for weed, Manchester City and luxurious booze.

Port Street Beer House is in the back streets of the Rainy City’s ‘art’ district known as the Northern Quarter. A truly great area, filled with street art and beautiful buildings. With its cobbled streets and elegant fire escapes, it’s no wonder Hollywood have been in attendance recently, using the narrow streets as 1940s Brooklyn.

The bar is sparsely populated and I take care over my decision, settling on a glass of something light, citrusy and STRONG whilst I wait for Coos. With less than a couple of hours ‘til kick off we intend to observe our usual match day rituals: drinking, snacking and smoking a joint along the canals that point the way to the stadium that lies just outside the city centre.

I’ve dealt with my first beer by the time Coos arrives, and happily find myself back at the bar again selecting something strong to give this day the blur it deserves. Surreal Stout it is. I’m a real sucker for decent beer-badge artwork and Magic Rock seem to always get it right. We slurp our booze and head on to Port Street’s sister bar, Common, to find virtuous snacks and further drink.

Here we encounter the first issue of the day. My boy Coos is wearing a Man City shirt and the doorman doesn’t like it. I understand why there’s a blanket prejudice on football colours in bars but it doesn’t mean I like it. In this case, the doorman starts saying ‘no way, man,’ he’s American. We can see the bar is quiet and we just give him the “look-at-us” glare. I’m in Chelsea boots and skinny jeans and Coos is a long-hair. No trouble here. He deliberates. And takes a phone call. And then says all is well, but Coos MUST zip up his coat.   

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As I’m getting a bit distracted by the build-up, I’ll gloss over a section of time here. Food goes like this: Open Pastrami Sandwich. Slice of rye bread, cream cheese, pastrami, sauerkraut and American mustard. Pickles, coleslaw, fries. I’ll struggle to ever eat a more perfect meal. Measured to perfection and perfectly delicious.

Manchester has some wonderful waterways, lined by old mills that are now expensive homes. It’s a strange and beautiful thing that has happened to Manchester and one reflected in the football club of concern. Previously a grimy industrial city known only for cotton, guns and music, Manchester has become a fully modern metropolis. After the IRA bombing of 1996, Manchester somehow staggered to its feet, attracted investment and stepped up its claim to be England’s ‘2nd city’. Hopefully that’s the last time I say second and city again today.

At our preferred section of waterway, a square pool by some renovated mills, we perch and smoke a joint. Being stoned at a match football is great and bewildering, adding a personal challenge wildly different from that experienced by the players. The challenge is to remain FOCUSED. With racing thoughts and constant stimulation, it’s difficult to keep my eye on the ball. With such a big stage, there’s always something to attract my attention. Like that time I missed a goal but I saw City substitute Elano give his gloves to a tiny ball-girl as he warmed up. And people said he was a bastard. I liked him. Mercurial talents are my favourite. Who truly values CONSISTENCY?

 ‘I like your earring.’

‘Thanks man, I went to Claire’s Accessories yesterday.’

 This is nature of conversation as we exchange blows with a friendly conical foe. A time-check tells us that we’re going to really have to shift if we’re to only miss a few minutes of the game. Side thought:

I think wandering around cities mildly pissed and stoned is the only way to exist. Simple, pure enjoyment in every place and thing. Humans become barely comprehendible, which is certainly comforting.

It seems time and an aggressive wind are against us. We push up Great Ancoats Street unable to re-light a joint that has already simultaneously made my legs heavy and light. And those athletes think they have it bad. I crack out my remaining beer, the stout, for energy as we power-shamble towards the stadium.

 

2

 

We’re late, of course, I’m rarely on time for anything. The positive here is we have to sit through less football. Not that it shouldn’t be entertaining, but I’m just impatient for the RESULT. The only other people on the street are City fans, bizarrely walking in the wrong direction, and The Police. Looking wonderfully non-threatening in their lemon jackets, we don’t consider that we should attempt to hide the beer or joint.

They bundle into a van and move off, we continue at calf-burning pace towards the stadium, awaiting some sort of cheer. Predictably, for those not blissfully stoned, the Police van pulls up next to us.

‘You’re going to have to drink that quickly or give it to us.’

I’m confused. I take a final swig and hand over the dregs. As the silky Irish booze is poured onto the street I can think of nothing to say but,

‘You should’ve had some of that of, it’s delicious.’ All I get in reply is a half-hearted comment in the region of ‘if only…’, his cardboard cuntstable face barely experiencing any emotion at all. And on we shamble, my calves tearing at the seams of my effeminate jeans. 

At the stadium we swipe in with our gold cards. No queuing for us, everyone else is already at their seats, snacking on their nails. Now to tackle the spiral ramp to our tier. My legs think I’m the biggest prick alive. I always think these smooth concrete slopes would make for a great skate video. Which leads me to think about writing a skate heist film. The skaters would heist a diamond from the stadium on show by the sheik. Classic stuff.

These digressions help me all the way to my seat. I’m not sure if the looks I get are due to the lateness or my shoulder bag. Anyway, the first thing that always strikes me on arrival is the SCALE of things. This place is huge and the people are packed in, getting as loud as possible. We sit on the second tier of the stadium, in a corner under a huge video screen. The away fans are near by and leading the encouragement. I must try to concentrate.

It’s a fact that scarves became popular at football grounds not due to the weather but due to the uncompromising smell of MALE. Beer fart and hot dog; the stench of disappointed, directionless children and door-excused black eyes.

To the sport! The narrative layers are rich here, with an ex-manager and three ex-players on the opposing side. There’s little real resentment other than towards pantomime bastard Joey Barton.

‘You horrible little prick.’ This from a very surly, small, sad-looking man. The anger is palpable, everyone is unhappy. Stress is building up everywhere and these men can’t even smoke.

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‘Surely we’ve got enough money to pay these off.’ Is he joking? This day has already been PAID for, cheating wouldn’t really make anyone feel better. Or would it? Everything is pinned on the eleven men on the field, they have to make all of these people happy.

This seems simple. City just have to show they’re better at football. But still, there’s little give from QPR and City seem to favour balls of floated nothingness in and around the box. There’s only groans and impatience. The crowd will not help today, they are waiting, waiting to FEEL something.

Oh Pablo! What a wonderful man. City edge in front, the strike coming from full-back Pablo Zabaleta.  Its fair to say that footballers are generally a shower of cunts, so to see one of the good guys do well really adds to the experience. I’ve been modeling my style of play on that of the little Argentinean since before I even knew he existed. We even have a similar haircut.

I Poznan, mainly because I have to. A lesson I quickly learned about this dance found on a cold Thursday evening is that if you don’t join in, the horror comes out. One of two things is certain to happen. The most frequent is that when the crowd turn their backs to the field of play, they turn their faces on you. Immediately in front of you will appear the bouncing face, generally, of a male Mancunian. They’ll look delighted, engaged in frivolous, unifying behaviour. Submitting a spectacle to those on the pitch, a waving mass of blue, a tidal wave of celebration. However, the face will see you and turn to a scowl. You’re the dickhead. Just like the time you went to a Halloween party without fancy dress and people are like ‘well, don’t you look stupid?’

‘Not really. Have you SEEN my jacket. You’re wearing a bin liner. Fuck off. Where’s the drink?’

Alternatively, the guy next to you bouncing up and down will take you roughly by the shoulder, spin you around, and keep bouncing, all the while with a vice-like grip on your shoulder. He may even break skin. He doesn’t give a SHIT. The geezer next to us oozes insanity; a pure, true dickhead of fictional proportions. Cue ball bald in a baseball cap with a satanic goatee and hated of everything. These kind are all around, willing to shout anything that could potentially damage another; amoral monologues are literally spat out at will.

This guy is the worst because he can turn on YOU. Being at the game, I’m surrounded by the type of guys that I’d be terrified of in other circumstance. The people who want my phone, the people who don’t like the way I looked at them, the people I can usually avoid because they’re in estates and Yate’s. But due to the unifying factor of shared preference we stand together as one.

But THIS motherfucker turns on his own frequently, but is covered by the fact he’s only ever trying to encourage the TEAM.

‘SING THEN YOU CUNTS!’

Mental health issues abound in this church, like any other. And they sing to their gods with fervour, belief in what transpires in 90 minutes, and all of the associated drama.

 

3

 

Half time bullshit. All of the worst bits of TV brought into the stadium and done badly. All hyperbole and self-celebratory shite. Bring back Kick For Cash. Oh, and get cheaper, danker pies. These places are hell for the thirsty. Everything is labourious and expensive. There must be a better way! I don’t want to spend 15 minutes in a bar queue to have to neck my fiver pint in 30 seconds. Life should be enjoyable.

The production team are enjoying themselves too much and this prick on the screen is all kinds of too much. They think that City have it in the bag, they’re peeling away, delighted. I’m not sure anything is in the bag, so to speak, there’s much football to be played.

It’s not long before people are making a meal of their half-time words. I’m barely paying attention at all when a City player does something stupid and the scores are leveled. So-Lean Lescott acting like he’s stoned again. The QPR fans take their time to experience excitement. The players revel in everything, all except Nedum Ohuoha and Shaun Wright-Philips, both of whom retreat back to wait for the restart. Former City players, and still City fans, they show the class that football generally lacks. Nice guys of the game, I was saddened by both of their sales.

Another sale in the past had saddened me at the time, another sale of a gifted youngster, that man Joey Barton. The Liverpudlian thug. The tidy, half-talented midfielder. The man with his boots always held high and late. The combative ball-player. The guy from Twitter trying to redeem his value by quoting the Smiths. Barton was always a favourite of mine, right up to the point he starting having scraps in McDonalds and rearranging the faces of failing Frenchmen.

At this very point, Barton has seemingly done it all and survived, he’s still on a millionaires wage despite having the profile of the biggest prick alive. If he’s one simply prone to self-destructive acts, he proves it now. Live and for our entertainment, Joseph multiplies past crimes quickly, attacking several footballers at once in a fit of rage. He even goes for the good guys, and that’ll never do. The City pantomime continues. And my mind wanders effortlessly.

For a while it seems as though nothing is happening. The crowd stand and say little but negatives and everyone shuffles uncomfortably. They can feel the past enrobing them, they can hear the Monday morning jokes of FOREVER. The bitter taste of disappointment and hangover is tingling on tongues. History repeats and sadness wins. Another QPR goal goes in and that prick from half time now looks sillier than ever. He counted the chickens all wrong.

Everything blue. Everyone blue. Such ample trepidation. Narrative construction. Concepts of ‘history’ and ‘fate’. Ideals of honour and courage painted black and white. The Red Tops dance with glee at every slip and fuck-up. The rest over-analyse and evaluate. Everything RATED. This is everything. I’ve seen it in numbers, in WORTH. We’ve been told to believe, we’re in this #together.

Products pulsate relentlessly, all too rich for me. I truly can’t afford to be here. But these PEOPLE, the honest working folk of a town, painting their bodies with idols and symbols, the most deeply religious of people, they give everything to be here. The Ancients had it right, SUBDUGATE THEM WITH CHARACTER. The only thing of any real value. Everything is on the line. Money and emotions. Wives could be saved.

The crowd roar a chorus of “We’re not really here.” A City-specific joke on the nature of barely believing the things they see. Quite an existential concept. Or maybe they don’t see it that way.

I’m almost happy for the quietness, I’ve had a headache for some time and it’s throbbing like a mushrooming cock. My crown is troubled by that breakfast booze. Look what happens when I don’t get a brew in the morning. Inevitable doom looms. The biggest jeopardy being a personal one; my boy Coos doesn’t take defeat well, I could lose him to a sadness coma. Celebration spliffs become sleepy depression.

With a hint of that moment in ’99 when I realised that City were definitely the team for me, Dzeko does a Horlock and gets the team moving back in the right direction. Lovely Edin, derided by dickheads for inconsistency and a rapist’s touch, is the goalscorer in the right place at the right time.

‘FEED DZEKO AND HE WILL SCORE! FEED DZEK-OH AND HE WILL SCORE!’ The crowd don’t sing this, but they should, it’s a riff on a classic.

And so the game ends with all of the drama forever associated with Manchester City. But instead of the sadness and stupidity of the past, we place our optimism in the strangest and most unpredictable of places. Balotelli is on. The enigmatic, clowning wonderkid. A bit of aggressive bustling later and the ball falls to Aguero and he does what he does. He’s a smash addict. So potent he disguises all of his missed chances.

As the ball hits the net the people get basic and the curse is lifted. We celebrate and shout and gaze in wonder. Everyone in the stadium is happy, even the QPR fans, as other results mean they get to watch their team be beaten regularly again next season. Oh Mark, ARE you any good?

The game ends and everything is put into place for the structured celebrations and the presentation of the trophy that means everything to the players; it’s the reason they accepted hundreds of thousands of pounds to ply their trade in East Manchester.
If only we could see live picture of the likes of Rio and Rooney, then we could double our joy. Still, the party is here and now. Some barely know how react, Man City fans are sorely out of practice for this kind of thing. Still, they know when the time is right to get on the pitch, when numbers are big and punishments unlikely.

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I exchange jubilation with Coos and the fans around us. It’s odd, we celebrate a victory far removed from us, as realistically we personally didn’t achieve a thing. Stranger still is the music; snippets of the original songs that popular football chants are derived from. That and Queen. ‘We Are The Champions’ blares and stirs nothing in me that will make me sing along. The crowd feels otherwise, shouting the lyrics to everything, striving to feel the most satisfaction possible. Later, everyone will drink and encourage that true, physical feeling of success. Predictably, Lescott is first to the booze. He definitely smokes bud.

We watch the players and staff parade around the pitch, thanking the crowd and showing us their children.

‘Look kids, adoration. I’m paid for this.’

The last time I heard this music I was at Old Trafford, caged, witnessing jubilation and experiencing defeat. This time everyone’s ear to ear with joy. I can barely decide how to behave. The big ups have taken it out of me. It’s time to get out, to get into the streets and get as quickly as possible to a bar.

 

4

 

Somewhere, Manchester United players are crying into their shirts, having had victory shifted away from them in an instant. Across Manchester, their fans seethe, many having never felt a true loss to their rivals. One man, however, is completely unmoved and seemingly unaware of everything. Stood at a bus stop, on the temporarily closed main road back to the city stands a strange man, and the first United fan we see. His bones are almost showing through his ill-fitting suit, and his pencil moustache is the only action on a face that gives an impression of nothing. The odd gent has accesssorised with a briefcase and a shapeless black baseball cap that only reads UNITED in red cotton. His back is to traffic and I feel I’m the only person to notice this bizarre waif. I show Coos and we power ahead, I can’t be here when the wrong people notice this character. 

The plan for this trip came as a result of a visit from Coos earlier in the week. We were buoyed by Yaya Toure’s brace against Newcastle and adventured to Camden to find coloured papers to create a tribute spliff to the Ivorian. As a result, I still have some orange papers that went towards making the thing. So our next tribute is to Nigel De Jong; a short, thick orange weed stick that we blast on the canal-walk back to the City. We wash it down with a tasteless but thematic bottle of Heineken.

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Back to the beer house! The doorman doesn’t seem to want to let us in, but our ‘good guy’ faces win the day again. The scene inside is oppressive in its joy. The barstaff are  pinned at the back of the room, hearing everything they don’t want to hear, over and over again. Bellowing orders, voicing frustration at having to have patience. The finest beer house in the city is packed to the pumps and the dicks all want the same thing, lager.

‘Do you have anything that’s like Fosters?’

‘What’s the closest thing to lager?’

Some have the idea that the place is FANCY, so ask ‘Stella?’ All of this is saddening the staff and putting real distance between me and some kind of Black IPA I have my eye on. Bunch of savages. We just want to raise a glass of something delicious to the City boys.

The fart cloud is brewing again. Burger van snacks and tasteless, gassy lagers fermenting to awful levels. You can TASTE the stench. Experience tells me that from behind the bar its getting too much. They can barely breathe back there. Or hear. Noise levels are through the roof. These people are ELATED – they must be heard. They found reason for celebration and they’re letting everyone know about it. I’m in on the celebration, but I squirm at the obnoxiousness. Maybe these jeans are too tight, they smooth my crotch over too much, my cock is barely swinging at all.

I finally get to the bar and try to be as friendly-faced as possible and to order something that shows I’m not with THEM. It’s too late, the staff has turned, they truly can’t be arsed with these people. I sense a shut-down. Still, I get some drink in the form of Code Black, a deceptive dark IPA that I peer over and watch the scenes of the close-down play out. Coos and I just can’t match the jubilation of the crowd, we’re that stoned step back from everything. A veil of inner thought stands between the information all around us. Blissful digression.

It’s time to get out of here and my feelings are that there’ll only be further bullshit in the city. We jump a train back to Didsbury and head to a local pub to get a pint of Blue Moon to celebrate the win. By this point my headache is still gripping tightly and my dancing brain is still shrinking away from my skull. Still, I slosh down some water and get involved with the white beer and hope for the best. Before long, we’re back in the streets with stolen glasses in our jackets, our trophies of the day.

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As darkness draws in, I realise I’m home for the first time in ages and have yet to see my mother. I do try to be a good son so I have a final pint with old Coos before sampling a new gourmet burger joint. A food-filled carrier bag in hand, I share a familiar friendly journey with a local taxi driver, one of these men I’ve spent rambling times with, talking about any crap from football to genocide. If I’m gonna share a room with someone, we may as well talk. The end of the journey is great when I remember that Manchester taxis are cheap as fuck. It’s really expensive to leave the house in London.

Home is perfect as I watch Match of The Day with my mum, see my dog and do all of that homecoming catch up shit that makes living away worth doing. Repackaged for television, the day’s events take on a new gloss. I’m fairly certain this was worth the energy and expense, if only for those times of exploration and the excitement of adventure. And with this I can claim my own victory. I love football, in all its madness and audacity, but there’s no truer entertainment than a cutting across a city, with a beer and a partner and a delicate buzz on everything. If Manchester has taught me anything, it’s to choose your gang members well and to ALWAYS remember your weed.

Story By Craig Ballinger

Lead Image By Richard Manders/Man Trout Ink

Big thanks to the boy Coos Huse.

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