By Andrew Leci
Day 8 - Emotionally drained
What a day. What tension. What excitement. What drama. Honestly, both personally and vicariously, I think I've run the gamut of emotions today.
From being surrounded by Manchester United supporters in and outside Old Trafford, waiting for, and then watching the events unfold at the Sports Direct Arena (formerly known as St James' Park), to being in the stadium for the match against Swansea, I've experienced hope, expectation, optimism, euphoria, disappointment, anguish, anger, resignation, cheerful optimism, outrageous overreaching optimism, mild euphoria, resignation, disappointment, ennui and depression, all within the space of about 5 hours.
How good can a season in the Barclays Premier League get...for the neutral?
Up to 70 minutes (almost) of the game between Newcastle and Manchester City, the title was still so much in the balance that the dandruff from a gnat could have tilted the balance.
Up stepped Man City's player of the season (my opinion, sue me if you don't agree) Toure (of the Y variety) to change the face of the game, and tilt the championship race irrevocably (perhaps) in Manchester City's favour.
The mood at Old Trafford for the Swansea game was, not surprisingly, muted at the start - Utd going into the game needing to win, and score 10 goals to catch their increasingly decibel-emanating neighbours.
The strange thing was, there were plenty of Man Utd supporters who thought that their team could actually pull it off, despite an anaemic first 25 minutes during which the Red Devils seemed to be getting used to the fact that the title was lost.
When Ashley Young scored 4 minutes before the break, all the talk at OT was "8 more, we can do this..." the scene had reached such proportions. The fact that Swansea didn't rise (or fall) into the role of pantomime saps, kind of spoiled the party, but that's what happens when genuine competition takes place.
What a day, as I said, and it started with the long drive north-west from London to Manchester with all the attendant glamour of a ‘lunch stop' at a motorway service station in deepest darkest Staffordshire.
The mood in the press lounge at Old Trafford was singular - never seen so many seasoned hacks paying so much attention to the happenings of one game, before covering those of the next - but that's how this season has panned out.
We are going down to the final 90 minutes of the season, and the momentum, as well as the goal difference, is very much with Manchester City.
"Do Manchester City have one hand on the trophy?" Sir Alex Ferguson was asked before the game against Swansea.
"No," he replied, "they have two hands on it."
Having said all this, it only needs Man City to slip up just a bit next weekend, and you just know that United will be there to pounce.
My onsite trip is complete (until I get the email from my boss telling me that I have to stay in the UK until the final weekend of the season, because, hey, it's down to the wire, and seeing as you're there, you may as well stay, etc...) and it's been, as ever, exhausting, rewarding, frustrating, fun, and about as glamorous as a cheese sandwich and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps.
Day 7 - A slightly stressful FA Cup final
Slightly stressful. Two words that sum up today.
We got stuck in horrendous traffic on the way to Wembley, and it looked as though we were going to miss our pitch-side slot. We took the decision to dump the car (not literally) and walk, and almost jogged the last mile to the stadium. Oh these onsite assignments can be so glamorous...
Managed to make it, and get our accreditation through, and rescue Nigel Spackman from a hoard of fans wanting to get his autograph, take his picture or discuss tactics - it didn't help that Nigel played with such success for both Chelsea and Liverpool, so he was in demand from every quarter.
All went well on the day though, eventually, and Nigel is such a good person to have pitch-side. Whatever you throw at him, he always has an answer or several, and the fact that he has a foot in both camps makes for interesting discourse.
It turned out to be a cracking game, played in a great atmosphere, and perhaps the best team won on the day - just about.
Chelsea were the better team in the first half, and Liverpool responded well in the second. No doubt the clamour for goal-line technology will increase in volume after Andy Carroll's header was adjudged not to have crossed the line, but replays show that the referee's assistant got it right - just about.
Got the chance to interview Roberto Di Matteo after the game, and I have to say that (whether it's a front or not) he seems to be taking everything with a degree of calm. I'm sure that as soon as the final whistle blew at Wembley, Roberto's mind was already on Munich on the 19th of May.
Winning the FA Cup for a fourth time in six seasons is a great accomplishment for Chelsea. Should Di Matteo lead them to their first-ever UEFA Champions League crown... you would have to say that he's in with a decent shout of getting the job on a full-time basis.
Hoping to get a few hours of sleep before heading up to Manchester first thing on Sunday morning. It's going to be a fascinating day in the Barclays Premier League.
Manchester United went second after their defeat at The Etihad on Monday; and they're going second on Sunday as well.
Day 6 - The calm before the storm
It has, thankfully, been a quiet day. Getting access to players (or managers) of either Chelsea or Liverpool, especially after their midweek defeats, has proved impossible.
There's plenty of talk about the final though, with many people coming to the realisation that the FA Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday is a massive game for both clubs.
Chelsea could turn out to have an outstanding season.
4th place in the BPL, an FA Cup triumph, and their first ever UEFA Champions League crown would be an almost unbelievable haul from a campaign that has been more stop-start than a narcoleptic snail.
Having said that, 4th place in the league looks unlikely, and although you're only 90 minutes away from winning a cup final, you're also an equal amount of time away from losing it.
Conceivably, Chelsea could end up this season with 2 major trophies. Equally conceivably, they could bag no silverware at all, and fail to secure qualification for the UCL.
In the latter scenario transpires, and I'll provide a little understatement here, Roman Abramovich will not be pleased.
An FA Cup win though could provide Chelsea with the kind of momentum they need to go into the Champions League Final (I'm going to rule them out for 4th spot, as their chances of getting there are hanging by the slenderest of threads after the midweek defeat against Newcastle).
Liverpool are in a similar situation, but different.
A second piece of silverware, after bagging the Carling Cup in February, would make for a decent season. The focus of attention will be taken off Liverpool's league exploits this campaign, which have been disappointing (another understatement), and Kenny Dalglish, no doubt, will be given the full backing of the owners to continue his exertions on the work in progress.
It's become a huge game on Saturday, and it's one that's going to define the season for two great clubs.
Off to Wembley tomorrow to report pitch-side, and then probably annoy you all by butting in to the commentary for a few seconds during the course of the match. Fret not though, Nigel Spackman will be alongside me throughout (phew...) and who better to talk about the game than a man who's played for both clubs.
Sunday's a big day in the BPL, but I'm trying to take things one day at a time.
On the social front, I did manage to catch up with John Dykes, for a quick afternoon ‘cup of tea'. We talked about football for a while, strangely enough, and then about football. It was fun, as always.
Day 5 - On the way to Wembley
Not only was I on the road to Wembley this morning, I actually arrived - unlike all but two of the nearly 800 teams that started this season's FA Cup campaign.
The stadium itself is a spectacular sight, even for those who continue to mourn the old one - those iconic twin towers; the cauldron-like atmosphere despite the fact that some spectators were half a mile from others.
The fact that it was (still is, although vastly different) the venue where England secured their first (and only) World Cup triumph back in 1966, has endeared it to English football fans. It remains as the national stadium, and it hosts the FA Cup Final - an event as indelible on the calendar of every English sports fan as the Grand National, the Boat Race and the first day of the cricket season.
Ahead of the big match between Chelsea and Liverpool on Saturday, we got a chance to tour the stadium, and shot some pieces pitch-side, in the tunnel, in the away dressing room, and climbing the steps to the place at which the Cup is presented.
Just in case anyone was wondering why Chelsea get the ‘home' dressing room for this one, and Liverpool will be putting their boots on ‘away', the FA allocates changing facilities in alphabetical order. Arsenal will probably be keen to make some appearances soon, although Yeovil won't be rushing it.
Another interesting aspect of the New Wembley are the steps leading up to the level where the Cup and the medals are handed out.
In the old stadium, there used to be 39 (no connection to John Buchan's novel, I have been informed), and these days there are 107. Winners, no doubt, will be galloping up them to receive their spoils, even after 90 (maybe 120 minutes of football on a very big pitch), while for the losers...I'm sorry, the "runners-up", the climb must feel like Everest, without oxygen.
We tried to do some Vox Pops outside the stadium, but there were very few people about, and those who were didn't speak a word of English. The stadium is a tourist destination, and people come from far and wide to do the tour, and have their picture taken in front of the statue of Sir Bobby Moore (yes, I did too...). Unfortunately, none of them seemed to have particular allegiances to either Chelsea or Liverpool, so despite my best efforts in French (and Finnish, which nearly Finnished me off) we beat a retreat.
The pitch has been a factor at the new Wembley, with it cutting up badly in the first couple of years, but that problem appears to have been solved.
Here's a nice little gobbet for you - the grass is now 3% synthetic (as at The Emirates Stadium).
I don't think anyone will have any complaints with the playing surface on Saturday; it looked perfect. But it is a very big pitch, and the lush grass will take it out of the players, whether extra time is required or not.
I must admit that it was a thrill standing in the tunnel, and imagining the scene in a couple of days' time, as John Terry and Steven Gerrard prepare to lead their teams out.
I had this fantasy of getting kitted up, slipping into the line, and hoping that no one noticed as I took to the field and got introduced to a member of the British royalty (no royalty this year, by the way - Jimmy Armfield will be the Chief Guest).
I just think it would be amusing when the captain got round to my place in the line-up and said, "Your Majesty, this is...er...who the hell are you?" The fantasy ends quickly; in disappointment and possibly with a court case.
Oh yes, and the highlight of the day...especially after all the flak I have taken following my allegedly disparaging comments about the appointment of Roy Hodgson as the new England manager...as we were waiting at the FA reception at Wembley, who should walk in?
Yup, Roy himself, looking very relaxed and comfortable in his new role. It would have been nice to sit down with him and have a cup of tea and a biscuit, but somehow I imagine that he had more important things to do.
Day 4 - A day out with the Cup
Spent the day with the FA Cup.
It wasn't just the two of us over a quiet candlelit dinner, there were other people involved.
There comes a time, just before the FA Cup Final, when the trophy itself changes hands. Last year's winners, Manchester City hand it back to the FA for onward presentation to the new winners.
But before that can occur, the famous old silver pot has to get a bit of a brush up.
It spends a year touring the world, raising money for charity (travelling Business Class, no doubt) and does take a bit of a battering. So it returns to the FA's designated silversmiths for a bit of spit and polish before its re-appearance as the star of the show at Wembley on the big day.
We attended an event at a very chic shopping arcade in London's West End for the handing over, and very posh it was too. Some of football's glitterati were there, while Liverpool were represented by Jan Molby (a two-time winner) and Chelsea by John Hollins (a legend for the club who was instrumental in their first ever FA Cup triumph back in 1970).
Got the chance to interview them both, and they were utterly charming - Jan is a big unit, and the fact that he had such a fantastic partnership in midfield for Liverpool, with ESPN STAR Sports' very own Steve McMahon, made for an excellent opening gambit. Not many people know this, but Jan was made an "Honorary Scouser" by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool. He was, and remains an iconic figure on Merseyside.
John Hollins played almost 600 games for Chelsea, and had a major role in one of the most dramatic Cup Finals of the 20th Century - Chelsea eventually beating Leeds United after a replay.
The decisive game, played at Old Trafford was a feisty affair, and it's been calculated (in retrospect...duh!) that had it been played according to modern standards of refereeing, 20 yellow cards and 5 reds would have been dished out. It was all-out assault, on a peat bog of a pitch. How the game has changed.
Still, I got as close to the FA Cup as I'm ever likely to get (it was my dream, as a child, to lift it at Wembley), and met two players that I grew up watching and admiring, and I also came to understand how the trophy manages to look in such good shape year in and year out.
It's off to Wembley tomorrow to shoot some stuff at the stadium. I hope they let me on the pitch. I've brought my boots and everything.
Day 3 - The derby still dominates the headlines
Not surprisingly, there has been a huge amount of fallout in the UK after Manchester City's win over United.
The press has been highly critical of Sir Alex Ferguson's tactics - perhaps unfairly (but then British hacks always need something to get their teeth into, and tactical foul-ups from Sir Alex over the last 25 years have been so few and far between that they certainly deserve mention).
One interesting take on the issue has been that if Manchester United never send a team out to play for a draw, then don't set up as though you want to.
Or, if you are going to set up as such, then just go ahead and play for a draw and try not to pretend that you're trying to do anything else.
Perhaps Manchester United fell into the gap; needing the draw; setting up for the draw; but not being prepared to play for the draw.
In any event, the result was not good for United, and Sir Alex wasn't a happy man. Mancini continues to refuse to be drawn (excuse the pun) on his side's chances of taking the title; still insisting that the advantage is with United.
It was interesting that the fallout from the "biggest Manchester derby in the history of history" came on the same day as the announcement of the new England manager... Roy somebody, apparently.
I'm reminded of a British political scandal some years back, when a PR consultant recommended a day to announce some bad government news concurrent with a global disaster, knowing that people would either ignore it or not notice it.
I can't help thinking that the FA may have adopted a similar approach.
I have nothing whatsoever against Roy... whats-his-name, but he doesn't stir the blood, or induce excitement. I don't look forward to seeing the teams he puts out or the tactics he comes up with, as I didn't when he was the boss at Liverpool, or West Brom.
Anyway, he's a "safe pair of hands", and wasn't in court a couple of months ago, and has never even been suspected of doing anything outlandish or... exciting, and let's not forget his managerial credentials of having guided Malmo to 5 successive Swedish league titles back in the 1980s.
And I certainly won't mention that taking up the England job will be his 20th managerial appointment in a career spanning 36 years.
Travelling down from Manchester on Tuesday, to London, and the train was filled with people who had been at the derby.
Interestingly, Manchester United supporters remain confident of securing the title.
Manchester City supporters don't seem to dare to believe that they may be on the verge of their first league title since 1968.
They'll be a shift of focus on Wednesday, as we move from BPL concerns to those of the FA Cup. I'll be meeting the trophy on Wednesday, and one or two other people.
Day 2 - Derby fails to live up to expectations
As with many things in life, the reality didn't quite live up to the expectations.
The "biggest Manchester derby in history" wasn't the spectacle we had hoped for, although it was full of passion and intensity, and not without incident.
Manchester United fans will be disappointed with the result, which now leaves Sir Alex Ferguson's men playing catch-up. I suspect they may be even more disappointed with the manner of the defeat - I can't remember Joe Hart having to make a save.
Our pre-match pitchside pieces went reasonably well - we bagged former Manchester City player Paul Walsh for an insight, but the teams had yet to be announced, so we spent a while speculating on how things might pan out.
Once the teams were named, however, I had to do a bit of guesswork as to how the United team would be deployed. One thing was for sure, and that was that Sir Alex Ferguson wasn't attempting to go for it - flooding the midfield and leaving Wayne Rooney to plough a lone furrow up front.
It didn't work. City dominated possession, and ultimately, even SAF's Plans B and C, weren't effective enough - Danny Welbeck, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young didn't seem to be able to get into the game quickly enough to make an impact.
Much credit must go to City who were positive and supremely well-disciplined from the outset, and didn't allow any United players time on the ball. In David Silva, Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero, they also had players of such great skill and vision, that they were a constant threat in and around the box.
Yaya Toure was immense, in so many ways.
I don't think anyone (other than die-hard, myopic Manchester United supporters) would quibble with the result.
Did post-match interviews with Roberto Mancini and Gael Clichy - couldn't resist opening with Mancini: "So, Roberto, do you still think that you have no chance for the title?"
And I have to say, he is continuing to play it very cool indeed. He suggested that United still had the advantage, taking into consideration their remaining games, compared to City's problematic match on Sunday at Champions League-chasing Newcastle.
I do think though that he is beginning to protest too much. If Manchester City win their last two games of the season, they will be champions, and that's something that looked very unlikely a few weeks ago.
City have now won four on the bounce and scored 14 goals in the process.
United have dropped eight points in their last four matches, and are now second in the table.
There really has been a very significant swing. 8 points, to be precise.
It's down to London tomorrow and something to do with FA Cup medals. Will reveal all later.
Day 1 - Manchester madness
From 35 degrees of blazing sunshine in South East Asia, to 5 degrees of cold, wind and rain in Manchester is never an easy transition for someone who doesn't own a coat.
Such is life though for someone embarking on an ad-hoc onsite assignment (brought forward by results in the Barclays Premier League last weekend).
Despite the fact that the second Manchester derby of the season had been dismissed in certain quarters as almost a non-event, recent happenings in the BPL have turned Monday's encounter into a title decider.
No surprises then that all the talk in Manchester (in every bar/restaurant/place of communal gathering - entered into solely for research purposes) is about the game at The Etihad Stadium on Monday night, when Manchesters City and United fight it out for what will be the game of the season.
Fortunately, and with expert forward planning, we gained access to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, and managed to shoot a couple of PTCs (pieces to camera) before the rain came down too heavily, or the wind blew us away and consigned us to flotsam.
Our reporter in the UK, Andy May, trundled up from his home town, and we had a chat pitch-side (teeth chattering, fists grimly clenching microphones, him talking about a recent trip to Madrid, me reminiscing about 90% humidity), before I got the chance to talk to former Manchester City and England star Peter Reid.
Peter's tactical analysis is legendary, and the fact that he found the game almost impossible to call says much about the encounter. We talked about United's possible need to bolster the midfield, and strengthen the back-line, but significantly perhaps, the only tactical decisions that City have to make involve the deployment of their existing resources.
Balotelli, despite being back from suspension, surely won't get the nod to start (not after the performances of Carlos Tevez since his return to the fold) and when Tevez and Aguero start together (only 4 times this season) City score goals (15).
The question that will intrigue us all up to kick-off is how positive Roberto Mancini will be, and how Sir Alex Ferguson will attempt, if ever he does, to double-guess his counterpart, and possibly gain the edge.
The city of Manchester is abuzz. I'm delighted and honoured to be able to report to you pitch-side from The Etihad Stadium on Monday, ahead of what promises to be one of the most enthralling fixtures in this, or any other, season.