Manchester City fans have a long-standing relationship with inflatables.
The club has been associated with waving blow-up bananas at Maine Road since the 1980s, adding to the impression in neutral circles that City fans were slightly unhinged. In fairness, you’d have had to be supporting them during their 90s banter era.
Yet balloons have become black-listed among the blue-inclined Mancunians since a comical incident during an FA Cup match at Sheffield United in 2008.
In the first half of their fourth-round tie, Sheffield United’s opener was aided by the presence of half a dozen balloons that had drifted into the penalty area. To add insult to injury, the accusing articles had been released by City supporters.
The sight of Joe Hart, before he became a self-appointed Mr Motivator, furiously stamping on the physical representations of City’s premature joy was a sight that shall live long in the memory.
Before we continue, context is needed. After years of underachievement, City started the 2007-08 season in red-hot form. Backed by money from new owner Thaksin Shinawatra, manager Sven-Goran Eriksson had assembled a group of talented, albeit enigmatic, individuals in east Manchester.
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The likes of Elano, Martin Petrov, Vedran Corluka and Geovanni provided some foreign glamour to a decidedly meat-and-potatoes squad. To the delight of their raucous fanbase, Manchester United were beaten in August and by Christmas, City were right in the mix for a Champions League slot.
However, an FA Cup run seemed a more likely run to success. Fellow big-spenders West Ham were dispatched after a third-round replay to set up a tie at Championship side Sheffield United.
With only six other top-flight clubs remaining in the cup by kick-off, City fans were decidedly giddy with expectation; 7,000 of them travelled across the Pennines to Bramall Lane.
Their opponents were in disarray. After a controversial relegation the year before, the Blades were floundering in Championship obscurity. Bryan Robson, having only succeeded Neil Warnock in the dugout eight months earlier, was under severe pressure by the City game and was coming off the back of a 2-0 defeat to fierce rivals Sheffield Wednesday.
Robson’s prioritising of the Championship was reflected by a rotated starting XI. Perhaps due to their underwhelming league form, Bramall Lane was under two thirds full for the visit of City. Those Blades fans who attended were treated to a stirring performance from their team.
Fielding definitive journeyman Jon Stead up front, supported by experienced duo Keith Gillispie and Gary Speed from the flanks, Sheffield United tore into their higher-ranked opponents.
Stead, left completely unmarked in the area by the City…