After this game, I turned to Ross and uttered a sentiment that had pretty well never crossed my lips before: “Well, at least I’m not a Man United fan”.
Postponed from its original Saturday kick-off due to Birmingham’s Europa League fixture the previous Thursday, this game was kicking off around the time Sergio Aguero put Manchester City 3-0 up during the most significant Premier League game in nearly a decade. We won’t immediately claim any kind of significance for the first game of Derek McInnes’ tenure at Ashton Gate – but it might be worth exploring why our defeat, which left us bottom of the second tier, was less painful than the champions’, which left them second in the top tier.
The first factor of course is the margin; 6-1 is considerably worse than 2-0, although I’d argue that goals aren’t equally weighted when it comes to how a result makes you feel. 3-0 isn’t precisely three times worse than 1-0. Indeed conceding a second goal deep into stoppage time was a real kick in the teeth, more than doubling the day’s disappointment; losing 2-0 on a day that should have been about the new boss is a heavy blow the way a 1-0 defeat against just relegated Brum wouldn’t have been.
Then there’s the significance of the game. Birmingham mean nothing in particular to us, in fact it’s nice to be playing them rather than their neighbours Walsall. Manchester City, of course, have a significance to United that would take a longer essay than this to unpack. Particularly now that a game between them is a genuine top-of-the-table clash – United simultaneously dropped three points and handed three to their direct rivals for a prize.
So it’s about context. I don’t think it’s just the context of being neighbours in both the geographical and tabular senses, though. It’s the context of a 6-1 defeat in the history of United, and particularly their history under Alex Ferguson.
United have a very particular set of expectations. High enough to start with, one would imagine that they dipped during the 26 years they went without winning the league, only for their consistent success during the Premier League era to raise them to new heights. We’ve a very different set, and expectations necessarily temper the highs and lows of victory and defeat. If we beat the 14th placed side in the league 2-1 at home through a dodgy 90th minute penalty, I’ll remain pretty pleased for the following days and probably talk about “fortitude” and “wanting it” a lot. If United do, their fans will of course celebrate immediately, but then worry about needing a penalty, and not being able to put away Sunderland at home, and so on.
Equally, when we lost to Hull in the playoff final I was devastated, of course; but a few pints later that evening I was able to feel the satisfaction of having finished fourth in the league, able to look back on a marvellous campaign. If United finish fourth this season I doubt their fans will take the same succour. But if Tottenham take that fourth spot they’ll be delighted – not least because they’ll have to finish ahead of Arsenal to do. Relative.
There’s a case to be made, therefore, that any complaints about manner of position or of defeat betray a sense of entitlement – as if a club somehow inherently deserve more than they get. It’s one of the least appealing behavioural modes of any football club or fan, so I’ll try to avoid slipping into it. It’s undeniable, though, that a fan’s inherent sense of where they ‘belong’ is recalibrated in a matter of seasons, even games; at the most extreme, not by results at all but by an unwonted infusion of cash. (Chairmen are perhaps even more prone to this sudden recalibration than fans; witness Sven’s dismissal just today for ‘only’ taking Leicester – League One a couple of years ago! – to two points off the playoffs.)
So Manchester City fans, right now, are probably experiencing an even sweeter type of exultancy at their lofty position five points clear of their nearest challenger, simply because it’s far less usual for them to be there than it would be for their neighbours. But these fans really must enjoy every scintilla of the feeling while it lasts. Even if they win the league, even if they win the Champions League, it may never get better than this. They’re cruising a little ahead of expectations right now – yes, yes, lots of money spent, but six one at Old Trafford! – but won’t be forever. Expectations will evolve to suit the new environmental pressures quickly than anyone will be prepared for.
Perhaps United will have to adjust to this sort of thing, too. Perhaps we will; perhaps we already have. One thing I can take from our current league form is that when that next win finally does come, even the nastiest, scrappiest, least deserved 1-0 win will taste better than a lot of 3- and 4-0s hitherto. (Oh, who am I kidding, we’re Bristol City: 3-1 and 4-2 at best.)
We blame football for tempering every silver lining with a cloud, putting out the red carpet then pulling it away; but I think it’s our fault as mercurial, kneejerk, over-excitable fans.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.