The Etihad Stadium is familiar with the sound of booing – these days the supporters of Manchester City like to begin nearly every match by booing the competition organisers – but to hear the home fans booing their own was a new one. It sounded as though the City fans who hadn’t invaded the pitch at full-time to celebrate their fifth title in six years were annoyed with the ones who had. The club had issued a warning against precisely this last week, threatening stadium bans all round to anyone who went on the pitch without authorisation. In the event, those who made it out there could look around and know there was safety in numbers.
In its 20 years of service the Etihad has seen some memorable pitch invasions. In 2012 Sergio Agüero scored the title-winning goal in the last seconds and a joyous mass burst from the stands to celebrate City’s first title in 34 years. It happened again last year, after another astonishing 3-2 comeback win. One City fan was so overcome with happiness that he decided to assault Villa’s keeper Robin Olsen – which is what prompted last week’s please-don’t-invade-the-pitch memo to fans.
But how can you expect people to listen to an edict like that when they have content to generate? As the crowd ran on you noticed nearly everyone had one arm raised holding up a phone to film the moment – a big difference with 2012 when few of the pitch invaders were taking videos.
2012 was the year when smartphone ownership tipped over the 50 per cent mark in the UK. It was that year that I first remember seeing a crowd behaving this way – apparently more concerned with filming the moment than experiencing it – when Michael Ring and Pat Hickey dragged Katie Taylor to a pub in Kings Cross to appear in front of a roomful of drunk Irish fans the night she won her Olympic gold medal. The phone arms protruded and swayed above the crowd as it pushed forward towards the stage, like tentacles on a horror movie blob – a sight then alien and now totally commonplace.
The 2012 pitch invasion was a genuine, spontaneous explosion of joy, whereas the 2023 edition felt a bit more like a simulation of one for the cameras. Admittedly it’s getting harder to tell the difference. It’s hard to believe, however, that your fifth title in six seasons hits quite the same way. This is not unique to City. Repeated success becomes routine.
Look at the images this weekend from the Allianz Arena in Munich as Bayern self-destructed at home to Leipzig in their penultimate game. As Dominik Szoboszlai scored to make it 3-1 to Leipzig, aerial cameras outside showed thousands of Bayern fans had already left the ground and were streaming towards the train station. They couldn’t be bothered with it. They’ve won the title for the last 10 years. Even a lot of Bayern fans surely now think it’s about time Dortmund won a league. When you win something 11 years in a row you start to wonder if it’s even worth winning.
Not that City have reached that stage just yet. These are heady days for the club, who have joined the small group of teams to have won three consecutive league titles, and are poised over the next three weeks to eclipse their greatest rivals’ greatest achievement. In statistical terms City’s likely Treble looks far more emphatic than Manchester United’s. Alex Ferguson’s team won the league that year with the meagre tally of 79 points, a number that makes them sound like Harold Abrahams winning the 1924 Olympic 100m in 10.6 seconds.
Yet for those who remember it, United’s treble had a miraculous quality that is starkly absent from City’s cruise to glory. “It’s amazing what you’ve done, winning 12 consecutive games,” Sky Sports’ Dave Jones informed Jack Grealish in a pitchside interview. Is it really? A run like this would have been amazing a few years ago, but City have made it feel routine.
City have been hard done by in one respect – which is that none of their rivals proved capable of putting up the kind of fight teams like Arsenal, Barcelona and Bayern gave Manchester United in 1999. Arteta’s Arsenal gave it a good go but collapsed on the home straight.
Collapse has been a widespread theme this season, with Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham all falling towards mid-table. In the 21 years that the Premier League has been sending four teams to the Champions League this will be the first time that as many as three of them will have failed to qualify for the following season’s competition.
City, the only survivors from last year’s four, are immune from such collapses. A darkly comic detail of their campaign is that they have not lost since February 5th, the day before the Premier League announced they were charging them with 115 breaches of financial rules. It’s been remarkable over the last few weeks to see commentators credit Guardiola with using the charges to foster an “us-against-the-world” siege mentality in the squad, as though it was some foolishly disrespectful thing a rival player or manager had said about them, rather than an allegation that their success has been built on years of systematic cheating.
Is this really what we are being asked to applaud?