So often as an away fan, you can feel unwelcome with two groups: home fans looking for trouble, and police forces looking for trouble to stop. Last night, despite the underlying tension around Gigg Lane, Greater Manchester Police were out in force to make sure that the talking points were on the pitch. Like a good referee, policing at football matches is best when visibly present but unnoticed, however it feels appropriate to appreciate the boys (and girls) in blue last night.
In the afternoon, a statement was circled, instructing fans to "behave themselves". It seemed once more as if all would be tarred with the hooligan brush, patronised as has been the case on many occasions. The event itself couldn't have been more different.
We parked up and left the car to a greeting of "evening lads, home or away?" Immediately I thought we'd found trouble, but I was wrong. A police officer wanted to give us a nod in the right direction of the best away fans' pub. When I told him we had a mini Manny Rd with us, we even shared a joke and suggested it might have been a good pre-emptive medicine for the 90 minutes ahead. We were pointed the best way to get to the away end (longer but floodlit and away from potential ambush).
In the ground, the Wanderers fans began to filter in from around 7pm. A cute merry band of young Bury fans were gathered to their left, complete with drum and flares aplenty. Any time one of these balloons decided to set one off, a steward or officer calmly disposed of it, without searching for the culprits. When Bolton fans did the same in the second half, the police responded in a similar fashion. Hazard removed, tension avoided.
When you've got a jam packed away end, it's just a fact of football life that some fans don't end up at their allocated seats. Some had to congregate behind the goal. Again, rather than force the fans back, GMP officers stood at a reasonable distance and made sure fans could not encroach on the pitch. Gigg Lane hasn't seen 8,000 fans since FC United of Manchester played there in a ground share; this was not an ordinary match day operation for the force, but their game plan worked just as well as Parky's, and much better than David "Synergy" Flitcroft's.
At the end of the game, Bolton fans were held back for a period of 20 minutes or so. Fans were given prior warning, and with the game won, a small number of away fans, particularly those with young families, were allowed to leave. No absolutist "letter of the law" approach, but a pragmatism that let younger Wanderers beat the traffic and listen to the soothing tone of Jack Dearden for their Tuesday night lullaby.
When the Wanderers fans were eventually let out, the notorious alleys and side streets which are prime locations for an ambush had been blocked off, with the Bury fans long since dispersed. We weren't patronised with a walking tour back to the coaches, but the safety of fans was ensured.
Back at the car, a group of home fans, fetchingly clad in their Stone Island clobber, awaited a lift home from mummy when they arrived to see the White Boar pub (and all others in the area) closed for business. They were keeping the company of a Tactical Aid Unit vehicle and two officers on horseback. Two of these lovely scoundrels decided to follow the Manny Rd's to their car, only to turn around and see that they were not alone. Two officers had decided to follow suit, and make sure these lovely lads got home safely. Strangely enough, they suddenly remembered that they'd left their Nike baseball caps back with their pals on the street corner, and turned on their heels.
Too often the police have been criticised for their attitude and behaviour towards away fans, and often rightly so. Too often, we're treated as an unfortunate element of a match day, all wanting a drink and a scrap. Last night, we were welcome, respected, and most importantly, safe. For that, Neil Danns comes an agonising second for his cutting pass through his own defence in the first half, and GMP getting my Man of the Match award.