Manchester City kick off their Premier League campaign at The Hawthorns with the 2,700-strong travelling support hoping City will bounce the Boing Boing Baggies and bag three precious points.
The new season sees a record 40,000+ season ticket holders at an impressively expanded Etihad Stadium, now boasting a 55,000 capacity.
On the expectation of glories still to come, City’s support base continues to grow exponentially, aided by the City Group’s global reach via New York City, Melbourne and Yokohama.
Closer to home, the Sky Blues faithful have always been a passionate, resilient, some might say, masochistic bunch, weathering life in the third tier of English football, but still averaging gates of 28,000 at dear old Maine Road.
Even the most jaundiced Swamp dweller from Trafford Borough would be hard pressed not to acknowledge the staying power of the devoted followers of their hated noisy neighbours.
In fairness every club has its share of ‘superfans’ – those valiant individuals who somehow defy the odds to attend virtually every game, both home and away.
Manchester City is blessed with many of this persuasion and, on the dawn of the new season, Read But Never Red has singled out Sean Riley as a shining example of what being a ‘True Blue’ entails.
How many City fans can lay claim to the sublime feelings of witnessing a City win at Old Trafford and seeing United relegated at their first ever live game?
Sean Riley is a man who wears such a badge of honour. The Denis Law Back Heel Derby on 27th April, 1974, was how life as a Manchester City fan began for young Citizen Riley at the tender age of just nine-years old.
After such giddy beginnings he could hardly have envisaged what was to come riding the Manchester City rollercoaster – complete with dizzying highs and gut-churning lows.
Passionate, articulate, knowledgeable – he’d scoff, self effacingly at being labelled intelligent – Sean is the embodiment of all that’s best about being a City fan.
Now closing in on attending 2,000 City matches since that most memorable of debuts at The Swamp, he’s convinced the best is yet to come.
Only the distasteful combination of Russian racists and UEFA incompetency has stood in the way of Sean witnessing, first hand, every City game since April 1989.
When UEFA ordered the malevolent Muscovites of CSKA to play their Champions League home tie against City behind closed doors last winter, it brought to an end a run of 1,258 consecutive games for Sean, spanning 25 years & 6 months.
He’d managed to overcome previous bans on away fans by going ‘covert’ at Luton, Millwall and Manchester United, but he’d have to have been Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible movie character, Ethan Hunt, to fulfil the Moscow assignment.
The missed game is a topic of obvious irritation, but he is philosophical about his addiction to City and refreshingly magnanimous towards those who aren’t such prolific match-goers.
“I’m extremely honoured to have earned the privilege to go to close to 2,000 City games in my life, with hopefully many more to come.
“ I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that I’ve enjoyed good health and held decent jobs, but any City fan who goes, as and when they can, is every bit as much a fan in my eyes.”
Like any City supporter with even half a brain cell, Sean is eternally grateful for the transformation in the club’s fortunes since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover in September 2008.
Naturally, the Aguerrooo Moment on that fateful day in May 2012, is etched indelibly into his memory palace, but Sean goes all the way back to 1976 for what he describes as the ‘defining moment in his footballing life.’
Dennis Tueart’s spectacular match winner in the League Cup Final against Newcastle had the same effect on a 10-year old Riley, as Sergio’s 93.20 strike against QPR did on a new generation of Blues.
“Dennis was, and will always remain, my footballing idol. All our current stars, the likes of Sergio, David Silva, Zaba, Yaya, Vinny - all will rightly take their place in the Hall of Fame, but I’m a Tueart man...that overhead kick meant so much on that day at Wembley...I can’t really put it into words.”
When you ask about the highlights of following City, you quickly cotton on that Sean’s love for his club is matched only by his loathing for what he describes as ‘That lot, down the road.’
He’s the off the pitch equivalent of the fabled Mike Doyle, City’s warhorse defender, the most decorated medal winner in the club’s history– a fixture of the Mercer-Allison era – who loved nothing more than antagonising the Trafford troglodytes.
“I cherish every Manchester Derby win as though it were my last. They’ve had the upper hand for decades, but now we’re starting to re-dress the balance, and not before time.”
He cites the 6-1 win at Old Trafford and the 5-1 Maine Road drubbings of Manure as holding extra special significance, but adds: “Don’t forget the night we pummelled them 4-0 on our way to that League Cup Final in 1976 – it could have been 10 that night as well, men against boys in front of 50,182 on Moss Side.
“Up until recently I hated going to Old Trafford, but our win in 2008 – the 50th Munich Anniversary derby – was a standout moment. To be amongst ‘The Impeccables’ (the 3,000 City fans who observed the one minute silence in immaculate fashion) and then to go on and win 2-1, well and truly p*ssed on their parade.”
And, as much as he would like City to emulate United’s track record of titles and cups, he wants the club to do it the ‘right way’.
He says the win at all costs mentality clubs – no names needed – tend to be unpleasant on and off the pitch – with no class or etiquette and a distinct lack of decorum.
“The difference between us and them is we know how to enjoy and celebrate success, whilst showing humility and respect to others.
“The media worship at the altar of all things United and the graceless manner in which they achieved everything (note the past tense.)
“Our fans have built a reputation for being fair minded and for having a great sense of humour in the face of adversity. I hope and pray our pursuit of honours and glory doesn’t come at a price, one where we lose our perspective.
“If the day comes when we end up like the crowd down the road, then I’d seriously consider if I wanted to remain part of it. I always want City to win, but only by fair means."
Of course the 1-0 FA Cup semi final win over United paved the way for City’s first major trophy in 35-years, beating Stoke 1-0 in the 2011 Final – a pivotal moment and the foundation stone for success under the Abu Dhabi ownership.
The famous old cup competition also gives rise to one of Sean’s most cherished nights when, from 3-0 down and a man sent off at half time, Kevin Keegan’s City pulled off a spectacular 4-3 3rd Round Replay win against Tottenham.
“That comeback at White Hart Lane encapsulated the full spectrum of what it’s like to be a City fan. Some Blues were singing ‘We’re gonna win 4-3’ at the interval and somebody actually had a bet on it! Real Roy of the Rovers stuff.”
He cherishes many of the European trips, albeit the results haven’t always worked out as City would have wished.
Two occasions stand out, firstly the trip to the Faroes after City had sneaked in through the catflap of the backdoor to the pre-qualifiers of the Europa League via the Fair Play route under Sven Goran Eriksson!
Sean uses one word for the whole experience ‘surreal’.
When pressed for his best European night, he plumps for the 3-2 Champions League win away to Bayern Munich in December 2013.
“We went 2-0 down inside seven minutes and the effort and application shown by the team that night was just outstanding, against a team who hardly ever lose at home.”
Equally he looks back on the past ‘fortysomething’ years with a huge degree of affection, notwithstanding the ‘Typical City’ tag, where you could bet your bottom dollar City would somehow contrive to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory...with alarming regularity.
There were glorious failures such as losing out to Liverpool by a point for the League title in 1976/77 – a season when City were deprived of an injured Colin Bell. Had ‘Nijinsky’ been fit, City would have romped past Bob Paisley’s famous winners.
The euphoria of that spectacular 4-3 win at Spurs went some way to healing the hurt of City’s defeat in the replay of the Centenary Cup Final in 1981. City went down 3-2 to Tottenham on a Thursday night at Wembley, five days after dominating the initial 1-1 draw.
Still at school, Sean along with half of his class went off sick on the Thursday, arriving back in Manchester at 4am Friday. The next day the bleary-eyed and disgruntled Sean and his mates all received detention.
Another Wembley defeat – losing the 1974 League Cup Final against Wolves – had him in tears, but it was all part of the enriching pursuit of supporting City.
The various relegations – right down to the third tier of English football – the old Second Division – have given Sean plenty of scope to visit some of the minnows of the domestic game, including Lincoln, Wycombe and York.
He’s even turned up at the wrong stadium a couple of times!
“Our first visit to Boothferry Park in Hull saw us go to one of the rugby grounds. We saw floodlights and assumed we were there, only for it to be Hull Kingston Rovers or Hull RFC – to this day I still can’t remember.
“Likewise on a trip to Cambridge. Initially we rolled up at Cambridge City’s place before dashing over a farmer’s field to Abbey Stadium. The farmer’s cabbage crop took a bit of a pasting.”
He cites a self deprecating sense of humour, especially on away days, as one of the key elements of the City support.
‘Humour has been a critical component in our ability to survive the decades of disappointment and under achievement. It’s part of our DNA and we have to retain it – it helps you come to terms with things when they don’t go your way.
“The same goes for the old songs, some which might not even make much sense to a new generation of fans – they provide a certain balance and proportion.
“Away at Bramall Lane one year, we were getting thumped and the Sheffield United Kop were chanting ‘We hate Wednesday!’ 5,000 Blues instantly responded with ‘We hate Saturday!’
“Of course that was before Sky and BT had us playing all over the place to accommodate their Sunday, Monday and midweek schedules.”
The romantic streak in him laments the passing of Maine Road and the true family feeling associated with City of old.
“I do miss the old days at times. I’d jump at the opportunity to go back to Maine Road, but that’s my heart speaking, not my head. I realise we had to move on to achieve what we're doing now.
“I just hope the Club continues to be sympathetic to its core fan base. A club – any club – is nothing without its fans, and our owners would do well to remember this as they take City onto greater heights.”
Come Monday night, Sean will be at West Bromwich Albion, with the same dream in his heart as that of a nine year old boy, who gloried in seeing the Blue Moon set over the Dark Side. He won’t however, be standing alone.
By David Walker
Behind every great man is a great woman. On that basis this article is dedicated to Jane Riley - described by Sean as ‘the best wife in the world, a Moston girl and a true blue’ - who herself has followed City, home & away for many seasons.
www.readbutneverred.com @ReadButNeverRed @djwskyblu