Date: 21st May 2008 at 9:24am
Written by:

This is an article written by a good friend of mine who travels over land and sea with Arsenal, but who was at the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester last week. Much of the media coverage in the ensuing week has been damning of Galsgow Rangers FC, as ever, there are two sides to every story, and this is an accpunt sent to me by that friend, who wishes to remain anonymous. I would point out in closing that neither myself, Rocky, Wingers or Simmo wrote this, we are simply the medium so, DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGERS!

A note to UEFA on what really matters when choosing a venue for a final (and it is not tax)

Those of us born on the island of Ireland are generally considered the most inherently complex individuals inhabiting the British Isles. I would discourage attempts by others to deconstruct us, as such attempts are usually less rewarding, more confusing. But in my case I offer you a metaphor. Before I do so, I would point out that I am very happily married, with two fantastic sons, one of whom I am proud to hear asking when he can attend Arsenal matches with me, the other whom I hope to hear the same from when he can actually speak. However, think of Arsenal as a wife whom I fell madly in love with 30 years ago, and with whom I remain appropriately besotted in a usually rewarding relationship. But I also have my blood family, in my case (Glasgow) Rangers. Now, most people see much less of their blood relations once they marry, but still turn up diligently for big family occasions. Hence why I found myself at the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester on Wednesday evening, the biggest post-birth occasion in Rangers` ‘life`. It is also how I came to learn first hand that the city of Manchester, at this point in time, seems not fit for the purpose of staging a European final. Such was the overwhelming opinion of Rangers fans on Wednesday night and into ‘departure time` for many on Thursday morning. Let me explain why:

It was surely obvious to all that an enormous number of Rangers fans would make their way to the city, most of whom would be ticketless given the ludicrous allocation of 13,000 official tickets for each team. The journey from Glasgow down the M6 would have proven no deterrent. Indeed, despite the best efforts of Rangers to discourage ticketless fans from travelling, the Manchester authorities took it upon themselves to actually entice a larger invasion than William Wallace mustered centuries before by announcing that three fan-parks would be created in the city centre, with big screens showing the match in its entirety. A week or more before the match it was already estimated that a ticketless 100,000 would make the journey South. By 4pm word in the Piccadilly area was that nearer 200,000 had travelled. By 4.15pm those present were considering a quarter of a million people a conservative estimate. By then many central Mancunian businesses had seen sense and sent their collective workforce home. However, what we were not prepared for was the bus companies effectively doing the same, as it was at exactly that time that people in yellow jackets started slithering between the convulsing sunburnt Rangers bodies and affixing notices to every conceivable erection advising that buses would from that point no longer be picking up in the usual Piccadilly area.

I managed to get a seat on what I believe to have been one of the final buses from the city centre to the City of Manchester Stadium. The stadium itself is an excellent venue for a major final, save for being too small in capacity. It is impossible to have a bad view, and the UEFA exclusion zone set up a small distance away from the stadium itself did what it was supposed to do. Unlike Paris in 2006, there was a plentiful supply of programmes. But there is no denying that a capacity of 45,000 is not enough while UEFA continues to pursue its approach of allocating only 13,000 to each club and roughly the same number by open ballot online in March and April. I can`t complain too much about that, as that is how I came by my ticket, at face value (there were rumours circulating that tickets were changing hands in the city centre for up to £7,000 about four hours before kick-off, also that cans of beer were trading for £10 as the city`s pubs and supermarkets gradually ran dry). But I found myself in a section probably 90% clad in Zenit shirts. So much for segregation, particularly in view of the reputation of Zenit fans for aggression.

The match passed smoothly. For me, the wrong result ensued. But what I next did not expect to discover was that it was expected that the majority of the crowd should walk back to central Manchester, a city that had by that time already been embroiled in three hours of rioting, without a single police officer or steward visible to me along the route. Creating, arguably, a life-threatening ‘Manchester cauldron`. For those who do not know, the reason for the rioting was that the big screen in the Piccadilly Gardens fan-zone had expired, permanently, fifteen minutes prior to kick-off. I am not making any excuse for violent disorder, but if you can imagine the prospect of not seeing the greatest night in your club`s history because you have actually been lured down to Manchester to watch in football`s communal spirit on a big screen, when you could have watched it on television at home or in a local pub with friends, then you have some idea of why events transpired as they did.

Eventually getting back to the Piccadilly district, and wondering how I would get back to my hotel (only) at Manchester Airport, I was bemused to find that Manchester`s taxi drivers had joined Manchester`s bus drivers on their night off. I was therefore delighted to just make it on time onto the 10:46 train to the airport. I was standing sandwiched sardine-like in a manner that would usually have me ‘waiting for the next one` on my commute across London to work each day (but football somehow transcends those priorities). The doors shut, it got hot and uncomfortable, and then the train driver got off and went home (God knows how). We remained stuck on that train for two hours, with not a single announcement as to what was happening, and with people calling what seemed like not only train enquiries but the police to find out when we would be ‘rescued`. It did not take long for us to realise that the same thing had happened to other trains at other platforms. An obvious theory that we were being ‘parked`, where we could cause least trouble, by the relevant local authorities dawned on many of us shortly thereafter. We did observe one curious lengthy charge by alarmingly clad riot police (have you seen the latest fashion?) along a neighbouring platform and up a ramp, but could not see what they could possibly be off to attend to. It was all rather reminiscent of the Praetorian Guard scene in The Life of Brian.

Eventually trains started running again and I made it back to my £184 per night hotel room at just before 3am. The serious sequence of aircraft taking off about 100 feet above my roof started at about 6am. Manchester hotels are another story altogether. Rumour has it that all rooms within a 20 mile radius were sold out after the quarter-final. My experiences leave me not doubting the veracity of such a claim.

On Thursday morning I surveyed central Manchester. I had plenty of time to as all trains to London between 10am and 12:45pm were cancelled due to power failure between Milton Keynes and Bletchley. I am no stone-blaster or glazier (no pun intended), but I believe that damage has been caused that will take a long time to repair, at least that which does not prove permanent. The entire city smelt like a pungent urinal. I read Gordon Brown`s assertion that the Government and its limbs would have to consider exercising powers available to it to control alcohol assumption at such events. But, as is so often the case these days, he seems to me to have missed the point completely. First, the main problem was not the alcohol consumed (though I am sure it contributed), but the city`s authorities making promises they could not honour to ticketless fans on the biggest night of their football lives. Second, from where I was milling, I could see controls being used, such as people being prohibited from being in possession of more than two cans of beer at a given time.

In short, however many Rangers fans made the journey to Manchester, the consensus was that the city is not capable of hosting an event of this magnitude. There was general awareness, and incredulity, that the city had hosted the Champions League Final in 2003. But most wrote that off on the basis that clearly less fans travelled from Milan and Turin. But to be able to host such an event a city needs to be able to cater for the possibility that a ‘local` team, but one sufficiently distant that its supporters would require adequate local public transport and accommodation, might make the final. The failure of the big screen can be put down to bad luck, but in these two crucial respects Manchester was found lacking when it mattered.

I am still mulling over whether London is suitably equipped for these events, particularly in the light of Arsenal`s failed bid for the 2010 UEFA Cup Final. I believe it probably is, given its size and various districts through which fans can disperse themselves. But in a year when Arsenal reportedly lost that final due to player-impacting tax reasons, I have become acutely aware that there are so much more important issues to be taken into account first. Issues which could prevent the injury, or worse, of the fans, the police (not forgetting that many of them were injured) and locals.