PHIL Holme was on the way out of the Etihad Stadium as Manchester City drifted into injury time on Sunday, 2-1 down to QPR and having lost their golden chance to land their first league title since 1968.
He’d come all the way from the new home in southern Spain he shares with wife Heather (nee Armstrong), originally from Brownstown, to be with his 20 mates from the Portadown branch of the City fan club.
At the tender age of eight, Phil - a founder member of the Portadown club - had been to their last successful league decider at Newcastle 44 years ago when Neil Young, Mike Summerbee and Francis Lee scored the goals to help City to a 4-3 victory. (Rivals Manchester United lost at Sunderland all those years ago and blew their chances).
Minutes earlier at the Etihad, he’d stood shoulder-to-should with the Portadown Branch chairman Ashley Rutherford high in the stand as they bemoaned, “Here we go again”, and the news came through from Sunderland where United had won 1-0 and apparently retained the title.
“Phil had obviously had his fill of it,” said Ashley. “He couldn’t even speak. One minute I looked round and he was in the depths of despair beside me. The next he had vanished. His only thought was to catch the plane back to Spain and try to overcome another crushing defeat.”
But wait! Down at the exit, Phil watched as an Edin Dzecko header gave City the equaliser, and admitted he could hardly raise a cheer. “I thought to myself - ah, well, that takes the bad look off it and we won’t lose, so I decided to endure the dying moments of our failed bid for glory.”
And then, Sergio Aguero seized on a pass from ‘bad boy’ Mario Balotelli, hammered home the winner and the stadium erupted. The Premiership trophy has emigrated across Manchester.
“Like everyone else, my depression changed to tears of joy,” said Phil. “I couldn’t believe what had happened. The ’68 victory was nail-biting as City held onto their lead at St James’s Park, but it was nothing compared to this. None of us could believe our eyes.”
The tale of two City fans had real parallels over the years. Phil was born in Manchester, but spent a large chunk of his life in Portadown (30 years), while Ashley was born in Northern Ireland but spent part of his childhood with an uncle in Manchester where he lived and breathed City. “I remember Newcastle ’68, but I wasn’t there,” he reflected.
“I cried real tears, too,” said Ashley as he took in the incredible scene down on the pitch, and so, too, did most of the town’s Sky Blues fans who’d earlier reached the limit of their endurance.
Men like Jim Dunlop, Alan Murray, George Taylor, Gary Kerr, Davy McDowell, Gary Winter... They’d all flown across the Irish Sea expecting to see the demolition of QPR who were vying with Bolton Wanderers to avoid ‘the drop’ into the Championship.
City of course dropped two leagues at the turn of the millennium and bounced back up again to eventual greatness, with Roberto Mancini having taken over as manager, and Middle East oil money financing them.
Said Ashley, “We all went over to the Etihad with high hopes of an easy win, a procession. I honestly thought we’d walk it. And when Pablo Zabeleta notched our first goal in the first half after a nervy start, we thought the floodgates would open and we were on a real high.
“But then QPR equalised shortly after the interval, and scored a second after they were down to 10 men (Joey Barton was red-carded) and we were in the depths of despair as it drifted into injury time.”
Davy McDowell commented, “I never known emotion like it. We’ve had to suffer United all these years. They were so arrogant that they didn’t even ‘slag’ us any more - they just saw us as a joke.
“The jubilation, the presentation to captain Vincent Kompany were all like a fantasy after all those barren years, and it’s even better to know that we beat United twice over the season, including the 6-1 thrashing that established the goal difference when we’d finished equal on 89 points. It’s all like a dream.”
Some stayed over for the open-top bus victory parade through Manchester on Monday, but Phil was soon on the plane to Spain, confident that City’s reign at the top was just beginning. “The balance of power in Manchester has shifted,” he insisted. “And long may we reign.”
Around seven United fans from Portadown managed to get tickets to the Sunderland match, where just 2.200 Old Trafford faithful were accommodated. TV pictures showed one such fan - Mickey Walker - full of good cheer as it looked like going their way. But neither he - nor any of the other six - wanted to comment.
And on the road to Southern Spain, Phil Holme was reflecting on 1968, on 1970, when City won the Cup Winners Cup and the millennium relegation and promotion in the topsy-turvy history of the Sky Blues.
“No sign of the blues now,” he smiled from his sunshine home. “This was the greatest day in our history - and the most mind-boggling.”