Football killed my favourite uncle. Theo was a Manchester United fan. He knew he shouldn’t watch the FA Cup final in 1985 because he had a dicky heart. So he waited till it was all over to turn on the telly. Only it wasn’t – the teams were deadlocked at 0-0 and the match had gone into extra time. Norman Whiteside scored the winner for United. Theo had a heart attack and died. It was shocking to lose such a lovely man. But what a way to go.
Like all great matches, this one swung like a demented pendulum
Theo also had a soft spot for my team, Manchester City. There was a time when he had season tickets for both clubs. Imagine if he’d been around for Wednesday night’s match. He could have had nine hearties – and that’s a modest count. It’s hard for me to admit this when I’m so gnarled and bitter, deflated and despairing and full of self-loathing – it’s only bloody football, so why am I feeling any of the former? – but this was football at its best. Pure, palpitating theatre.
The best sport is always dangerous to watch. It is drama in its purest form: raw, unrehearsed and unknowable. And, of course, fans are watching with a supreme vested interest. Shakespeare might be the bee’s bollocks when it comes to literary drama, but most of us are not watching Hamlet desperately hoping that the prince is going to smack one past Claudius in the last minute so we can hold our head up high and go into work singing: “We’re Hamlet till we die”, or “1-0 to the Danish prince”.
For those of you with more important things to bother about, Man City beat Tottenham Hotspur 4-3 in the quarter-finals of Europe’s most prestigious football competition, having lost 1-0 in the first leg in London a week ago. That meant we lost the tie because we’d not scored an away goal.
But that’s only the beginning of it. Like all great matches, this one swung like a demented pendulum: 1-0 to City (four minutes: hope), 1-1 (seven minutes: dejection), 2-1 to Spurs (10 minutes: it’s all over), 2-2 (11 minutes: amusement), 3-2 to City (21 minutes: madness, this is our night), 4-2 to City (59 minutes: this really is our night – we’re bouncing, giddy, breathless, in Uncle Theo territory), 4-3 to City (73 minutes: sickening, but there’s still 20 odd minutes left), 5-3 to City (93 minutes and 20 seconds: Raheem Sterling hat-trick, no oxygen to the brain nor blood to the heart, we’re dancing and collapsing at the same time). Only it wasn’t 5-3. The goal was ruled out by the video assistant referee (VAR) for offside. Silence. Cold, bleak, unutterably miserable silence. End of game.
And even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Spurs’ winning goal (OK, the third goal, which saw them through) looked like a handball – only the very technology that was supposed to bring dubious decisions to an end dubiously ruled it was a fair goal.
Like the most memorable football matches, it was a combination of brilliant attacking flair, swaying fortunes, superb strikes, appalling defending, injustices (apparent or real), giddy highs, abject lows, hoarse voices, palpitations and migraines. Hubris for the winners, desolation row for the losers.
I suppose it’s a consolation that whenever City go out of the Champions League we do so with brio (two years ago we went out in the last 16 on away goals after drawing 6-6 with Monaco over two legs). I suppose it’s only fair to be reminded we are fallible – that after going 35 years without a trophy between 1976 and 2011, we’re still susceptible to City-itis. I suppose it’s healthy to be given a lesson in humility, and to be beaten by a less cash-rich team. And I suppose it’s a comfort to have taken part in one of the greatest football matches ever, and to know that if we win our final six matches of the season we will complete an unprecedented domestic treble. It just doesn’t feel that way at the moment.
• Simon Hattenstone is a features writer for the Guardian