The day Mancunians paint London town red (and blue)

City and United head south tomorrow for an FA Cup semi-final –but will there be chaos on the road to Wembley?
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The Independent Football

Eric Cantona said Manchester was united by "an insane love of football, of celebration and music". Tomorrow, 60,000 Mancunians will be united by satnavs, railway timetables and the fear of roadworks on the M6. The football is guaranteed and for half of those who empty the city for the Wembley semi-final so are the celebrations. The music is more questionable but expect to hear Manchester City's battle hymn "Blue Moon" belted out at service stations from Knutsford to Toddington.

United's great helmsman, Sir Alex Ferguson, has never been a force for unity within Manchester. However, his observation that dragging 60,000 football supporters on a 320-mile round trip for a semi-final that might have been staged in Liverpool or Birmingham would lead to "total chaos" drew nods of appreciation from Trafford Bar in the south to Crumpsall in the north.

Nobody can put forward a convincing reason as to why it is necessary to stage an FA Cup semi-final between two Manchester clubs at Wembley, which was once reserved exclusively for finals. Ferguson argued that since Old Trafford, the second-biggest football stadium in the country, cannot be used, as it is Manchester United's home ground, then Anfield or Villa Park should have been pressed into service.

That, however, is starkly at odds with the FA's requirement to recoup the £757m cost of building the new Wembley and why it signed a 30-year-plus contract for the stadium to be used for all FA Cup semi-finals. The debate will reopen in 2044, when Ferguson will be 103 and may still be denying reports he is about to retire.

Those who choose not to travel can watch the game on a big screen, but since that is outside City's stadium at Eastlands, the welcome to anyone wearing red may be sharp.

For the rest, the carbon footprint will be substantial although none will match that of City fan Peter McDonald, 59, who is travelling from Perth in Western Australia. Once the game is done, he will be flying straight back without visiting family and friends in his native city. He said: "It may seem mad, but I thought there would be no chance of a ticket for the final so I am best off going to the semi, which will be a bigger game anyway."

Manchester may be united by football but it is divided about how to get there. There will be no separate service stations for City and United fans along the M6 as had been suggested, although the battle between Moto (M&S and Costa Coffee) and Welcome Break (dangling Waitrose and KFC in front of supporters) will be fought with an intensity that Wembley would be hard to match. British Airways, weighing in with its "All Day Deli" – in reality a cup of coffee and a sandwich – reported "a much heavier than usual" demand on its Manchester to London shuttle. Virgin Trains, which operates the West Coast Main Line, said 41 per cent of the 10,975 seats that would get supporters to Euston in time for kick-off on Saturday had been reserved. There are only 2,634 seats on trains available after the game.

It is 20 years since Wembley was first used for a semi-final, to accommodate ticket demand for a north London encounter between Arsenal and Tottenham, settled by a stunning free-kick from Paul Gascoigne. In 1993 Sheffield decamped to London to see Wednesday overcome United. When in 1986, Everton and Liverpool met in the final, the Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish recalled seeing both sets of supporters "climbing through windows, dropping down ropes and pulling each other up; bunking in on the most famous stadium in the world". Typically Scouse, he thought.

Wembley has upped its security since then and the Manchester derby is likelier to be a nastier affair than its Merseyside counterpart. At the Stretford End of Old Trafford, home to United's die-hard support, there is a banner in the shape of a car's odometer, counting up the years City have gone without a trophy.

Those who stop at Hilton Park Services on the way down might like to know that it was being built in 1969, the year Manchester City last won the FA Cup.

FA Cup facts and figures

* There will be 250 officers on trains and at stations en route, while Scotland Yard and Greater Manchester Police will be using undercover "spotters" in the crowds to weed out troublemakers. The Metropolitan Police has already written to 196 people under football banning orders warning them to stay away. Alcohol has been outlawed on trains.

* 90,000 tickets have been sold for the game: 32,000 to fans of each side, with the remaining 26,000 to corporate sponsors and member clubs of the Football Association. The cheapest ticket costs £45, the most expensive £115, meaning each club's supporters will spend more than £2m just to get in to the stadium.

* Barry Hayton, who runs Hayton's coach company, will be putting on 35 coaches for City supporters, and said 75 per cent of the coaches leaving Manchester will be for the blue half. "We're going to stagger stops to avoid flashpoints and congestion," he said.

* Pubs around the ground are allocated to rival teams. The Green Man is expecting 3,000 City fans on Saturday, and has ordered in four times its usual stock. United fans will be more dispersed, with the Crock of Gold full to its 120 capacity, while another 300 going to the First Class Sports Bar.

* Wembley may be a neutral venue, but one team has the advantage. Old Trafford is a mere 191.7 miles from the fabled stadium by road, the City of Manchester Stadium (home of Manchester City) is 203.1.

* British Transport Police estimate that 10,000 fans will be travelling down by train. 30 trains are due to depart Manchester on Saturday but only five are returning after the match. "It's a fairly late kick-off and we are limited to how many trains we can physically get back during an evening," said a spokesman for Virgin Trains.

* Were all the fans to come from Manchester itself (something the blue faithful would certainly dispute about their rivals) up to a quarter of the city's 380,000 population could be leaving for the game.

* City's ball came out of the bowl first when the draw was made, and so they are the "home" team for the semi-final. As a result, United fans have been allocated the East End, normally reserved for away fans when England are in residence, and will probably wear black shorts rather than their usual white. When the new Wembley Stadium first started hosting football matches, there was a run of games in which teams in the West End won, but the FA insists the score is now even.

* Ric Turner from City supporters' group Blue Moon estimates that about 200 coaches will be travelling to London. Mr Turner said: "We're taking 31,000 fans down in total and the majority of those will be travelling from Manchester, of course."



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