THE first started to leave shortly before the completion of 90 minutes, their faces set rigid and their eyes to the ground, already steeling themselves for the humiliation and ridicule that will have been familiar for them as Manchester City supporters. Some of them will have been at the end of Joe Mercer Way when the goal that changed their lives forever was scored.
They had come to see their team's final conquest and left more convinced than ever that the club with the capacity for cock-ups had trumped even its own inglorious history with the title just within their grasp. Then, with less than four minutes of injury-time remaining, City put their reputation for calamity behind them forever while the unbelievers were already on their way home.
They did so in circumstances as dramatic as Arsenal's title win at Anfield 23 years ago. Their two goals in injury-time were the club's 1999 Nou Camp moment. The moment they can play on a loop in the club museum. As Sergio Aguero's 94th-minute winner went in, you could not ignore that feeling football retains to confound and amaze.
Later it was Vincent Kompany who put those few minutes into perspective later. "I've said it before, miracles do happen in Manchester. The difference was this one was on our side of the road". Print the T-shirts now. It seems City have their "Football, bloody hell" quotation.
The place had gone berserk. A goal behind as 90 minutes were up against a 10-man Queen's Park Rangers team parked in their own area, City had looked progressively less likely to score. They looked, for all the £800m investment in the squad, staff and infrastructure, for all the famous international footballers, like a team paralysed by their own history.
The manner in which they shattered that old narrative was extraordinary. The substitute Edin Dzeko headed in David Silva's corner with one minute and 15 seconds played of time added on at the end of the half. Then, as City embarked on their decisive match-winning attack, news reached the QPR staff that Bolton had drawn with Stoke City and Kevin Hitchcock, among others, celebrated wildly.
Did it have a momentary effect on the Rangers players, knowing that their depleted last stand, without the red-carded Joey Barton for the last 35 minutes, had not been in vain? It had been a heroic effort from the remaining players but when Aguero ran at them one last time, exchanged passes with substitute Mario Balotelli and eluded Nedum Onuoha's lunge before scoring, that was that.
It would have been an emotional afternoon had City scored two goals in either half and spent the last 30 minutes passing the ball among themselves. In the event, the City fans had a brief painful reminder of what the rest of their lives had been like before the antidote was delivered like a jolt to the system. Up to that moment, the vast majority had completely lost belief. The stadium was preparing for the worst.
It ended in one of those old school pitch invasions that were a staple of the pre-Premier League days when football stadiums - for better and worse - were less strictly-regulated places. There was no malice in this one. Grown men kissed the turf and slid on their knees. Others embraced stewards and one chap waved a stanchion plucked from the goal. Eventually they were persuaded to leave peacefully.
How the hell did we get here? It seemed that for a long time the real action in this dramatic last day of the Premier League was taking place elsewhere. City were anxious. QPR had adopted the same approach that Chelsea took against Barcelona at the Nou Camp and were succeeding in forcing the home side to go to the wings to find space. Quite simply, it was not working for City and when they finally scored they had still not created a wealth of chances.
Pablo Zabaleta scored six minutes before half-time but it was largely down to Paddy Kenny's ineffective attempt to keep the ball out after Silva and Yaya Touré had worked an opening. City did not have the momentum to steamroll their opposition. Touré had been struggling with a hamstring problem for some time and in the moments after the goal he hobbled off.
It had to be a defensive error that let in Rangers, they had offered so little in attack with a 4-5-1 formation requiring Bobby Zamora to drop in behind the ball and leave Djibril Cissé to play in his own. Shaun Wright-Phillips' ball intended to loop over the City defence, came off Joleon Lescott's head and into Cissé's path, and he finished brilliantly.
Even then, there was a reasonable expectation that City could find their way out of this. They have dropped just two points at home in the league all season. When Barton was sent off just before the hour it looked like the path had cleared for them. Any other day, this would all have been about Barton and his inability to control his vicious temper, but this was not just any other day.
The pictures are still inconclusive but it looked like Carlos Tevez could have struck Barton first. What was not in doubt was that the QPR midfielder responded with an elbow and Tevez went down. It was the flag of assistant Andy Garratt to which referee Mike Dean responded and he sent the player off.
With his face contorted with anger, Barton thrust his knee into the back of Aguero and had to be dragged off the pitch for his own good. Suddenly there was chaos. Roberto Mancini, the City manager, tried to intervene and, worryingly, so too did Balotelli.
It might have affected City who conceded the second goal when substitute Armand Traoré, sent on in the aftermath of Barton's red card, ran past Gaël Clichy and crossed for Jamie Mackie to head home. As the clock ticked down it was Kenny who did the most to keep out City. Then, in injury-time, Dzeko headed in Silva's corner and Aguero scored a goal even more famous at the club now than Paul Dickov's late equaliser against Gillingham at Wembley in 1999.
Some fans were still in the stadium after the last players had left the pitch and the staff had begun clearing up the streamers. For those who experienced City's first title in 44 years from outside the stadium having left early, perhaps that was for the best. There could be no more fitting tribute to their club's crazy day.
Man City: HART, ZABALETA, KOMPANY, LESCOTT, CLICHY, NASRI, Y TOURE, BARRY, SILVA, AGUERO, TEVEZ
QPR: KENNY, TAIWO, FERDINAND, HILL, ONUOHA, WRIGHT-PHILLIPS, DERRY, BARTON, MACKIE, CISSE, ZAMORA
Scorers. Man City: Zabaleta 39, Dzeko 90, Aguero 90. QPR: Cissé 48, Mackie 66
Substitutes: Man City De Jong (Y Touré, 44), Dzeko (Barry, 69), Balotelli (Tevez, 75). QPR Traoré (Cissé, 59), Bothroyd (Zamora, 76). Booked: Man City Aguero. QPR Bothroyd. Sent off QPR Barton (55).
Man of the match Aguero. Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Man City 60% QPR 40%.
Attempts on target: Man City 24 QPR 3.
Referee M Dean (Wirral). Attendance 48,000.