The last time Manchester City played Barcelona, I got Shaun Goater to sign the match program. It was ten seasons ago and Ronaldinho and co. had rolled into town for the commemorative opening match at City’s new home, The City of Manchester Stadium.
Goater, the Bermudan striker, had left City for Reading at the end of the previous season after scoring 103 goals in 212 appearances during five years at the club. He’d arrived on a £400,000 transfer from Bristol City and achieved lifelong cult status with City fans for his never-say-die, bundle-it-in, keep-on-fighting attitude through the yoyo years.
The fans’ anthem, to the tune of the Welsh hymn Bread of Heaven, summed up everything about City in the managerial years of Joe Royle and Kevin Keegan: a bit daft but endearing and full of passion and ironic self-belief: "Feed the goat, feed the goat, feed the goat and he will score."
My favorite Goater moment happened on the last derby day against Manchester United at Maine Road in 2002. He somehow managed to rob self-proclaimed City hater Gary Neville near the corner flag, cut inside and squeeze the ball past United’s keeper Fabien Barthez from a seemingly impossible angle. He got another and City beat United 3-1. Eternal hero status secured.
Inevitably, United went on to become champions and City just avoided the drop.
The following August, Goater was back for the official stadium opening and signing autographs near the tunnel as Barcelona’s superstars strolled out into the former Commonwealth Games stadium in drizzly, ramshackle east Manchester. The warm applause they got from the City fans somehow emphasized the gulf between the clubs.
They were and are the glamor side of Spain who win titles and European trophies for fun, attracting the best players from Europe and South America and playing a swaggering style of football that makes true fans everywhere want to wear that famous red and blue shirt.
Even better, World Player of the Year Ronaldinho was in his pomp and had the nerve to have just turned down Manchester United to join Barcelona from Paris St Germain. Such a snub was always going to make him a City favorite at the new stadium. Nobody could quite believe the Brazilian was here and playing against the Blues, even if it was just a pre-season leg-stretcher.
By the next time I bumped into Goater, City’s world had been turned upside down.
It was at Wembley Stadium at the FA Cup final of 2011. By then, the 'Goat' had quit playing and had become a City ambassador. There he was in his official club blazer, being mobbed by fans in the concourse as he made his way to the VIP area before City’s first major cup final for 35 years.
The man who’d made him an ambassador was Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, commonly known as Sheikh Mansour, the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, minister of presidential affairs and member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. The man who reinvented Manchester City.
Every City fan remembers where they were when they found out the man who held Abu Dhabi’s straining purse strings had bought the club from the always controversial Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2008.
I was on the way back from the canteen at Sky TV in west London when Keith, the Sky Sports News news editor, stopped me and said, "Have you heard? That sheikh has just done the deal and bought City." No doubt thousands of City fans had the same response as me: "Right. Is he for real or is going to have a laugh and move on?" Keith replied: "He’s for real. This is going to be amazing." As usual, he was right.
The sale was completed on transfer deadline day. By midnight, City fans were celebrating the scarcely credible news that manager Mark Hughes had signed Brazilian wonderkid Robinho from Real Madrid for £33 million. Nobody could believe it. Neither could anyone else. Even Robinho seemed to think he’d signed for United when he mixed up the teams at a news conference.
But there he was, standing next to Hughes at City’s London office beaming away with a sky blue number 10 shirt. He even scored in it, 13 minutes into his debut, a free kick in a home defeat to Chelsea. As it turned out, even though the club was under unimaginably wealthy new ownership, Robinho was classic old school City - brilliant, lazy and prone to disappearing both on and off the pitch. The day in January 2010 when he came on as a sub against Everton after nine minutes only to be subbed himself after an hour summed him up.
But his high-profile signing marked the beginning of the 'New City'. A moneyed City that could attract top-class players, expect to beat the top four Premier League teams and maybe, just maybe, qualify for the Champions League to play teams like Barcelona for real. Or even Real.
It took a while. There was the 'City-itis' end to the 2010 season when Tottenham Hotspur claimed England’s last Champions League place by a whisker. City’s wait went on.
But the 2011 FA Cup Final against Stoke City was an important milestone.
Not only had City beaten United and seen that perennial pain in the neck Paul Scholes sent off in the Wembley semi, they also had - in Yaya Toure - a world-class player who’d left Barcelona for Manchester. His goal fifteen minutes from the end changed everything. Unbelievably, there was Carlos Tevez, a former United title-winner, lifting the trophy that marked the start of a new era of silverware for City.
After that, the joke was over.
City had elbowed their way into Europe’s elite.
There they were lining up against Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Napoli in their first Uefa Champions League group. And there I was ambling around the ruins of Pompeii before watching Vincent Kompany lead out City ahead of that famous Champions League anthem in chaotic, charismatic Naples.
A season later they were back again, this time as English Premier League champions, the ghost of City’s fiascos of the past finally vanquished by Sergio Aguero’s last kick of the season title-winner against Queens Park Rangers in 2012 – a goal so astonishing I was convinced it was going to be disallowed a full ten seconds after the stadium, now called the Etihad of course, erupted like Mount Vesuvius in Naples two thousand years ago. Aguero suddenly looked like a bargain at a reported £35 million – the equivalent of around 87 Shaun Goaters.
This time they were undone by three other European league champions – Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax of Amsterdam.
It took another season, ending as runners-up to United, before group qualification was secured for the first time by seeing off Plzen, CSKA Moscow and, spectacularly, the European champions Bayern Munich on their own ground.
Yes, there have been a few glitches along the way. Roberto Mancini, the man who came from Italy to manage Man City, paid the price for two seasons of failure to get out of the group stages, failure to get on with key players and failure to beat soon-to-be-relegated Wigan in last season’s FA Cup Final.
But in Manuel Pellegrini, City might - just might - have found the manager to do what was unthinkable a decade ago. An unprecedented quadruple is still being talked about for now.
A big win in the FA Cup against Chelsea on Saturday and a home draw against last season’s winners Wigan in the quarterfinal means that impossible dream still lives on. And the dreams keep getting bigger.
The ground Barcelona opened in 2003 is set to expand its capacity to 62,000 within two years. On Tuesday night, when Messi walks onto the pitch in front of 46,000 fans in the unfashionable east end of Manchester, it will mark another step on City’s £650 million petrol-powered journey.
Ten seasons ago, City won that friendly 2-1. Nicolas Anelka scored the first goal at the new stadium. Meaningless fun.
It’ll be anything but on Tuesday.