Never ever underestimate the power of an FA Cup semi-final to get the blood flowing, the arms and legs tingling, the hairs on the back of the neck standing upright and the butterflies playing paddleball in the pit of your stomach.
This is where the old tournament morphs from a colossal celebration of giant-killers, minnows and spanner-throwers to a festival of top class, edge-of-your-seat, high octane classy football. The last four left standing. Between 1981 and 2011 this meant the part of the tournament that you looked on impassively, objectively, forlornly, if you were a Manchester City fan, perhaps attempting to back one or other in their quest to get past the behemoths. Things, as we all know, have changed a little but to this City fan it is far too early in the process of transformation from ugly duckling also-ran to giant bestriding the world stage to begin contemplating games like this Sunday's as "just another cup tie".
A Chelsea fan sent me a message this morning regarding their "18 semi finals in the last 10 years". It is impossible to comprehend how these people have not died of happiness already. How does one take that level of fun and games without immediately entering into a giddy fit of spontaneous self-combustion?
Chelsea, let it be recorded, were as inept and crumbly as City throughout the 70s and 80s, in some instances even worse. The modern histories of the two clubs bear a striking resemblance, in fact, to those of us who remember the scene back in the early 70s. Chelsea beat Real Madrid in 1971 to be crowned European Cup Winners Cup winners (I love that title. No wonder they did away with that competition), beating City in an all-English semi-final, whilst the Sky Blues had hoisted the same trophy a year earlier in the rain-lashed Prater Stadium in Vienna. In the mid-to-late 70s, as Liverpool took a fierce grip of domestic affairs, both clubs began a slide that would see them relegated more than once to the old second division. As Osgood was replaced by Steve Finnieston and Franny Lee morphed into Duncan Davidson, the hopes and self-esteem of the two clubs' followers hit the lower decks.
These were terrible times, with dwindling audiences, the ever-growing threat of violence (particularly after watching Gordon Dalziel and Ken McNaught on a Saturday afternoon) and a drifting chasm between Chelsea and City and the big boys preening themselves at the top of the pile (Watford, Luton Town, Coventry City and the like).
In the 90s, buoyed by cash from maverick chairman Ken Bates and wealthy backer Mathew Harding, Chelsea made a good fist of the early Premier League era. City, backed by Franny Lee's toilet roll riches, went swiftly and irrevocably down the pan. The Second Division was again our home, but worse was to come. The smell of decay reached a new high as the Blues sank further down the u-bend to the third level of professional football. The only link at this stage to our West London rivals was the size of the crowds, with City's 30,000 home gates in the old Third Division matching anything the clubs outside the top six in the Premier League could manage. On the back of this incredible upsurge of loyalty and passion, City fought their way up again. As the roubles rolled into Chelsea's coffers, petrodollars floated into City's.
Now European football's elite acknowledges that these two sides, built on dual histories of solid attacking football and breathtakingly fragile business acumen, are now up there with the biggest and the best, the trophy hunters and the glamour boys. For my Chelsea friend and his 18 semi-finals, this might already be wearing a little thin, but for the Sky Blues at Wembley on Sunday, the emotions will be intense, the feelings electric. Aside from the over-emotional state we may well be in, the statistics produce a fierce ice-cold logic:
- City have played in 12 FA Cup semi-finals, winning nine, including the last seven we have taken part in. The last five have been won 1-0, versus Villa (1934 - I know, I know), Sunderland (1955), Spurs (1956), Everton (1969), Ipswich (1981) and Manchester United (2011, still trembling from that one).
- After no semi-final appearances at all following the heroic defeat of Ipswich in 1981 right up to the United game in 2011, City now embark on their 4th such game in 4 years, including the two League Cup semis lost to United and Liverpool respectively.
This represents a sea change in the expectations and the reality of the match going Manchester City supporter. Whilst Chelsea fans these days have the aura of people well at ease with this finery and frippery, City supporters still stare in bewilderment at the developing roll of honour from the last three years. To many it is a pitifully short list to get excited about, but to those of us who have sat through the pain and the torment, shouted ourselves hoarse at places the reader can only imagine in their darkest dreams, these are golden days in the warm sunlight of success. These are the days that we thought would never come, days that we will all hold dear until we breathe our last gulps of air on this mortal coil.
You can read more on the Odd Couple, Chelsea and City, and their parallel triumphs and despairs here: http://downthekippaxsteps.blogspot.pt/2013/04/an-odd-couple-looking-for-romance.html