The stale concoction of beer, smoke and urine made the gangways of Maine Road an intoxicating place for a kid. Football was my first look into the adult world: seeing the anxiety, joy, anger and despair that I was only infrequently acquainted with at home.
I used to live spitting distance from Maine Road on Platt Lane, near to Manchester City’s training ground. The terraced houses lining the roads were a sign of the working class area and fan base of a club steeped in the history of a city based on industry.
The walk from Wilmslow Road, known locally as the Curry Mile – where fans would indulge in spice and booze whether win, lose or draw – allowed a few glimpses of four mismatched stands that had been cobbled together over decades by architects with a blatant disregard for what was already there.
The Kippax overlooked the rest of the ground, having been rebuilt following the Taylor Report recommendations, with its overbearing stature a representation of the riches brought by the Premier League era. It was opposite the Main Stand, constructed to look like a permanent marquee, that gave Maine Road a unique visage thanks to a curved white roof that was more suited to a Formula One track than a football stadium.
Back then the club shop was a small office where fans could buy a keyring or get their shirt stamped with a material that cracked as soon as you bent your back. City were run by a man who rented TVs for a living, while the rivals across the city were already starting to take over the world. But that didn’t matter; what we had was ours.
Every other Saturday a horde of Mancunians would descend on Moss Side, an area known only for football and gun crime. A key ritual was to pay the local kids enough money to ensure they wouldn’t let your tyres down, before joining the masses bustling down the narrow streets.
Maine Road wasn’t always the happiest place to be. City slipped down the leagues, and the ground became the home of sighs and groans as the football managed to consistently get worse each season.
One of the more memorable periods of failure was when Joe Royle decided discontented fans were making the players nervous, and moved the pre-match warm-up to a nearby primary school sports hall. It was a strange sight to see soon-to-be third tier footballers run onto a minibus, like a stag do on a day at the races, to take the 100 yard journey back to the players’ entrance.
Gallows humour was a constant while the football slumped, but the atmosphere in general was what made it home. When things were half decent the roar of supporters was enough to intimidate any opposition. If the crowd was behind City then it felt as if victory was inevitable.
But Royle also had something of a point; when things were going against the team, the audible groaning followed by long spells of silence intimidated the club’s own mediocre players.
When things were at their worst many fans would spend more time at the bar than in their seats. There was a stream of people who honed the half-time walk to have just enough time to down two pints and hit the urinal trough with questionable accuracy.
The pitch was home to glory, failure and downright incompetence. There was Georgi Kinkladze’s weaving run through the Southampton defence before dinking the ball over Dave Beasant. The Georgian’s mesmerising wizardry could always bring the masses to their feet, an occasion not seen before.
But that was quickly followed by the low of falling out of the Premier League in 1996 thanks to the backroom staff not knowing the score at Southampton and instructing Steve Lomas to waste time against Liverpool by keeping the ball in the corner.
Then there was Jamie Pollock’s unforgettable own goal as he calmly took on two players in the wrong direction before heading the ball over Martyn Margetson to bring the crowd to their feet once more. It was a moment that encapsulated the previous five years of football at Maine Road and will forever be cherished by those who were there to witness it.
As City slowly became more competent on the pitch, returning to the top flight and signing the likes of Nicolas Anelka, they were gifted the prospect of moving to the City of Manchester Stadium after the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
In contrast, it is a relatively standard, formulaic stadium made for the modern world. Out of town and out of sight, but offering a convenient escape route to the future, the spaceship-like structure couldn’t be refused by a club housed in a dilapidated ground with little chance of building a new one on their own dime.
There would be a long farewell, and the 2002-03 season is fondly remembered for beating United at home, City’s first Premier League victory against their rivals. It would have been a fitting moment to send off the old stadium.
Instead, after an impressive return to the top flight, Maine Road was waved off in a fashion befitting of City in the 1990s, as they suffered a 1-0 defeat to Southampton, followed up by a bizarre music festival at the end, including a Blues Brothers tribute act.
City fans waited as long as possible, slipping out at the end, taking what they could in memorabilia. There was no pathos as they left. The ground was outdated and looked archaic. But it was ours, and to leave as losers was more than City could ask for.