The long awaited return of fans to the Etihad Stadium is just around the corner.
In line with the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, 10,000 City supporters will be welcomed back through the turnstiles to witness our final Premier League match of the season.
And that excitement will no doubt reach fever pitch when Pep Guardiola’s men lift the Premier League trophy following our clash with Everton on Sunday 23 May.
All being well, it will also bring an end to a 14-month period of empty stadiums, closed pubs and bans on household mixing as the world tentatively emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2020/2021 season will forever be cemented in time as a truly unique campaign, but one constant has remained throughout.
Whether it be in amongst the pandemonium of a matchday at the Etihad Stadium or from the comfort of our own home, our insatiable passion for the beautiful game has never dimmed.
In many circumstances, it has taken on an even greater responsibility, offering a constant and unwavering distraction from the world’s many trials and tribulations.
Together with Amazon Prime Video, celebrated football photographer Stuart Roy Clarke, who has captured some of City’s most iconic moments, hopes to demonstrate this point in a very special project.
The Homes of Football 2020/21 aims to encapsulate the intricate and multifaceted emotions that only football can convey, culminating in an outdoor exhibition at Manchester’s National Football Museum during the week of 24 May.
To achieve this, Clarke traveled the length and breadth of the country during Amazon Prime’s exclusive coverage of the Premier League over the festive period, *photographing supporters as they cheered on their team from the comfort of their living room.
It presented a new challenge for Clarke who, with over 30 years’ experience of crowd photography under his belt, thought he’d seen it all before.
Nonetheless, he soon noticed plenty of common sights that had edged their way back into people’s living rooms from the terraces.
“One of the big changes was you had animals and pets, dogs and cats of course,” he recalled.
“We’re people at home you know, you wouldn’t get those at a football match!
“I’m used to sunshine or a lot of light, floodlights, atmosphere, big crowds and it’s the opposite, I’m in a small space in the middle of winter.
“Fortunately it was around Christmas time so there was a bit of colour around the houses. It was a dream, I’m having to pinch myself that we did it.
“But lots of other things were pretty similar, there was still a lot of emotion, people on the edge of their seats not knowing what’s going to happen.
“And superstitions almost, ‘sit in this chair, do this, wear this’… that was similar to match going and it was a fantastic thing to be doing.
“In each instance there wasn’t a big film crew, it was me in the corner and they really forgot about me.
"They were very nice and maybe at half-time offered me a cup of tea, but generally they forgot I was there which is what I wanted.”
Given our march towards a third Premier League title in four seasons, it seems almost implausible that City were ninth in the table before the festive period.
Nonetheless, that was the reality when Clarke photographed Manchester City supporters as we locked horns with Southampton on Saturday 19 December.
With hindsight, that 1-0 triumph on the South Coast has taken on a huge significance, setting the wheels in motion for a truly phenomenal 21-match winning run which propelled us to the summit.
At the time, thoughts of the title were quixotic at best, but that didn’t detract from the nerves and ecstasy that were on show in equal measure from City fans Dougal, Cath, Susan and Ollie.
“It’s got to evoke something of that club, and Dougal and Cath have been going since they were kids,” Clarke declared.
“Dougal was quite jolly, Cath was the opposite, she was screaming and so emotional and fearful for the result!
“It was very cosy and I think they loved the photos, I absolutely loved being in their company.
“And the other couple were Susan and her son Ollie who live in a more modern house not so far away in Manchester, and when I hotfooted it there that was lovely too.
“Ollie gave his mum a hug during the game and was a little bit nervous, I thought that was quite beautiful.”
City 3-2 QPR
Extreme joy and elation from City fans is far from an alien concept for Clarke who, as part of an illustrious career behind the lens, has captured some of the Club’s most iconic moments in the past 30 years.
There have been many twists and turns in our journey over the past three decades, but one moment unquestionably sticks out.
“Sunday 13th May 2012 is etched in my mind,” he reflects on our first top flight title in 44 years, secured by *that* Sergio Aguero goal.
“When the great day came in 2012, City actually invited me along, I was allowed on the concourse where the emotion would be.
“None of us could have imagined the drama, it is the most standout domestic game I’ve been to in 30 years.
“The great emotion of that day, the Aguero day, was people could be just a few feet from me and looking almost through me.
“They weren’t interested in me, they were interested in the occasion.”
Blackburn 1-4 city
If 2012 was the conclusion of a phenomenal journey to the top of the Premier League, then our 4-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers in May 2000 was perhaps its prologue.
The win at Ewood Park secured a return to the promised land, and thousands of City supporters travelled to North Lancashire in party mood to witness it.
And Clarke’s famous photograph from that day, Goalkeeper’s view of the crowd, is embedded into the minds of many supporters of a certain generation.
A moment of collective exuberant elation and relief, frozen in time in perpetuity.
Clarke revealed that the snapshot was a moment of inspiration after seeing Nicky Weaver - penalty hero in our historic Division Two play-off final just 12 months earlier - celebrate with fans.
“The goalie was sticking his head through the net at the moment City rattled in the third one, he went bananas,” he recalled.
“I said the most amazing game I went to was 2012, but that one isn’t too far behind.
“It turned out half the ground at Ewood Park were City fans, they were going crazy!
“The famous aspect of it is the guy with his crutches in the air so it looks a bit biblical - like suddenly he’s been able to walk, rejoicing in the goal, he’s found an elevation.
“But it was also special because it was a big panoramic image. In those days 20 years ago the camera I had was one where the lens moved around.
“It was quite peculiar camera, these days almost anyone can take pictures like that on their mobile phones but in the day, me with this camera was unique, I was the witness to it.
“I love this project because I feel that again. Who else went around all 20 Premier League clubs during lockdown? I doubt anyone else did.”
As Clarke alludes to, football is one of the great levellers in society where, for at least 90 minutes per week from August to May, millions of people across the world experience the same emotions.
Although it focuses solely on the top flight, he believes that football supporters of any club, from any level, will be able to establish a connection with the project.
“I’ve always believed in this great association of clubs, this country is so unique,” Clarke remarked.
“When I took these pictures, in photographing Cath and Dougal, I didn’t see that they were a three headed beast so different from your fans at say, Chesterfield.
“Any football fan that comes along will probably see something about supporting football and their club.
“We’ve got this amazing pyramid of 7000 clubs, that’s what’s given me the joy over 30 years.”
The Home of Football project is available to view from Monday 24 May at the National Football Museum in Manchester.
Further information on the project will be released in the coming days.
*All images were captured in a COVID-compliant way, with tests prior to and on the day of shooting, as well as full PPE and distancing.