You see, in my capacity as Ambassador for City in The Community, aside of handing out Ferrero Rocher to all and sundry, I had been passed the African baton and told to make this happen. And, while this was undoubtedly a privilege, I hadn’t taken into account the murky, rocky, pothole-ridden road that lay ahead.
My duties were basically as follows. Sourcing the bus (with Tony Griffith’s help) all the way from Antwerp; making ten phone calls and as many e-mails to iron out problems such as the fluctuating Euro; checking the bus could cope with the terrain of Freetown; confirming the chassis number; flying Howard Burr out to Belgium to confirm the bus was in order; insuring the bus from portside in Antwerp to Manchester; confirming import costs; finding a holding company with containers to fit; getting the bus’ signage sorted out; packing the bus up, and finally organising shipping from Manchester to Felixstowe and then on to West Africa. All this and we hadn’t even packed a pair of socks yet!
In spite of this, the sight of the bus with its eye-catching signage (courtesy of Dave at Barclay Signs in Reddish), as well as the boxes full of kit, spectacles, boots, trainers, books and even computers (all donated by fans) it soon became apparent that the trip would have a profound impact upon the lives of people in Freetown and Manchester alike. This primary motive was something that, in the chaos of the build up, had temporarily been forgotten.
Our good mate Neil Cole from Endemol felt that this venture was to be a special one. He recounted to me the sense of excitement he felt whilst filming the bus being loaded into the container at Uniexpress on Hyde Road, prior to making its long journey from Ardwick to Freetown.
As I’m sure you will have seen from my travelling partners’ accounts, the road trips in and around Sierra Leone epitomised the project as a whole; stuttering, slow, occasionally frustrating and, at times, seemingly impassable. However, we soon acclimatised to the way of life in Freetown, and became educated by our guides as to how to work to Salonean time (makes Jamaican time seem urgent). The time came to work out our team formation and plan of attack as our first meal in Freetown beckoned. The waiter, who by a twist of fate was called Toure, became our breakfast entertainment in a Manuel style. No order was ever the same as requested and, when it did come, was usually cold. However, when it came to giving out shirts, our waiter suddenly found an extra gear. That said, we wouldn’t have had Toure any other way; he was priceless.
Our fortunes, sadly, took a turn for the worst when we perused our itinerary for the week. Not only was the ship behind schedule, it had not properly docked in Conakry (the penultimate stop before Freetown). We’d done everything by the book from our end, having heeded the advice of African exporters on the necessity of arriving on time to take control of your cargo, as well as getting all of the paperwork in place . The date of arrival of the boat today at 2pm; check. The duty on the cargo in place through the advice from the Embassy; check. The insurance in negotiations; check. The registration money ready on departure of the vehicle from the docks; check. The hand-over of the bus and the delivery of the kit; check. And, last but not least, the very talented Neil with his camera at the ready; check. But, due to bad weather there was no boat, no container and most importantly, no bus. Our best laid plans were now up in the air.
Our first chance to meet our hosts - Armani and our very competent driver Ibrahim (or Brian to us) took place on the Friday morning. Two very happy young men appeared by the breakfast table, their eyes dancing with excitement, as the day that had been planned for years by Tony and Armani was almost at hand. We sat and chatted for a short time before jumping into the car to Freetown. First stop was the training ground of Manchester City Sierra Leone FC. It was the possible’s versus the probables on a ‘pitch’ that could only be described as like the surface of the moon. In spite of this, twenty-two lean, fit footballers played a game of attractive football. Following the final whistle, they sat with legs crossed as I complimented them on the impressive way they had conducted themselves, offering one or two pointers to improve their game. After a resounding chorus of City Till I Die, we braced ourselves for the trip back to our hotel through the vibrant streets of the capital.
Meanwhile, back on planet Conakry, It first came to our attention that the ship had been delayed at its penultimate stop due to bad weather, but as the week yawned into the weekend, it became apparent via our internet tracker that our ship’s passage had been severely hampered by the dredging of the port itself. This costing us, in total, four days.
Luckily for us, we had a team of guys who, with a lifetime of supporting Manchester City behind them, had the steely determination and a ‘glass half-full’ attitude necessary for us to push on. All of us had taken a turn to appear on Radio Freetown which covered the whole of West Africa, and the support for us and Manchester City was growing by the day. We talked about the association between supporters and the high regard in which the club holds our loyal and unswerving fan base, and this seemed to strike a chord with the Saloneans. We spoke of the bus, and its role for the team and the community. The locals could see that this was a marvellous gesture; wherever we travelled, people would shout, ‘We love Man City, we love Man City’.
We met with so many influential people who believed in what we were doing. From the country’s Sports Minister and his secretary, to Arne Johansen (the Swedish and Norwegian consul and his wife) whose home had once been owned by Simon Mann, infamous for his failed coup d’état in 2004. The people who made the most profound impression on us, however, were Armani and his family. They were all there to greet us on the Sunday before we went to a makeshift cinema to see the boys in Blue play Sunderland. Such genuine warmth and gratitude was humbling, and seeing a family with such little material possessions have so much pride and positivity gave us all a reality check. From here the Freetown Odeon beckoned, but this cinema was devoid of popcorn and trailers. Instead, we arrived to a hut on stilts with three 22- inch TV screens showing the Premiership in all of its glory, with City v Sunderland on screens 1 and 3 and Liverpool v West Brom sandwiched in between.
The passion of the Africans spilled over every five minutes, with various bets having been laid on scores and scorers. The atmosphere was electric as our fellow cinemagoers chatted about the possible champions-to-be, the failed England world cup exploits, and the African players on show. This was the highlight of their week, just like ours, and the buzz as Adebayor came on to the pitch for the last thirty minutes was fascinating to behold.
And so on to our final day. A very early start (not easy after a night of Manchester-style gale force winds and rain) was followed by a lot of tying of loose ends. The climax to our venture was the trip down to the port where our ship, the Claes Maesk, had docked and was ready (in Salonean time), to be offloaded. The captain and the port authorities duly confirmed that the container carrying our precious cargo was ready and waiting, but that there would still be a three-day wait until Armani and the team (and the wider City community) could truly appreciate its contents. A mixture of emotions spilled out amongst the Manchester contingent; whilst we were relieved that the bus had arrived safe and sound, we were frustrated that, through no fault of our own, the timing hadn’t been quite right. With the job all but completed, we headed off back to the hotel to pick up our bags and to embark on the long journey, via boat and BMI, back to Blighty.
I really hadn’t known what to expect from my trip to Sierra Leone. Yet, in spite of the abject poverty, I found a heartland of very resilient people harbouring a burning passion for football. The Saloneans are enriched by the beautiful game, and my life is richer for spending such a rewarding time with them.