It is hard to imagine Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain being regaled with the tale of when Steve Lomas shepherded the ball by the corner flag to haphazardly preserve a result that would seal Manchester City’s relegation. They may not realise the fans’ anthem “We’re Not Really Here” found life amid the gallows humour that accompanied the subsequent tour of English football’s pyramid, not to mention jokes about blue Oxo Cubes.
There is, therefore, a certain irony that these two men from Barcelona, with hard-forged reputations as two of the game’s finest administrators and brought to Manchester to oversee period of clinical dominance mapped out amid the opulence of Abu Dhabi, have over the past few weeks or so –unwittingly or otherwise – presided over a farce that is unmistakably “Typical City”.
By way of a quick recap, it became clear the goose of the manager who ended the club’s 35-year trophy drought and 44-year wait for a league title was well and truly cooked on the eve of the FA Cup final against soon-to-be relegated Wigan; his players appeared at Wembley in a dishevelled daze and fell to a deserved defeat, 72 hours on from the initial stories so fatal to that cup bid Roberto Mancini was sacked; a day later, around an hour before the managerless Blues beat Reading 2-0, first-team coach David Platt moved on; over the rest of the week, amid a deluge of newspaper stories about a riven dressing room at the point of mutiny during Mancini’s final months, a raft of other first-team staff left the Etihad Stadium before Norwich arrived to claim a 3-2 win against their disjointed hosts amid left-back Aleksander Kolarov quarrelling with home supporters.
Standing back from that in black and white, one is confronted with an undeniably unseemly mess. But from the wreckage emerged a perhaps surprising conclusion in some quarters – woeful timing apart, perhaps Soriano, Begiristain and chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak were correct to place Sheikh Mansour’s finger on the trigger and end Mancini’s glittering three-and-a-half-year reign.
As Manuel Pellegrini waits in the wings, there are obvious parallels to be drawn from when Mancini usurped Mark Hughes in December 2009. An underachieving group of expensively assembled players forced the owners’ hands to bring in a manager they view as an upgrade. Put simply, Mancini is better than Hughes, Pellegrini is better than Mancini and Manchester City continue to progress.
Under performance in the 2012/13 season is impossible to argue against, even for Mancini’s staunchest supporters. Aside from the redoubtable Pablo Zabaleta and James Milner, it is difficult to identify a player who has improved on their title-winning campaign 12 months earlier. Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero were the backbone of that triumph and have all fallen short. Such collective failure from big names means the manager must come under scrutiny and, in this context, Pellegrini’s reputation as a shrewd tactician who always gets the maximum from his charges is appealing. City have undoubtedly been less than the sum of their parts this term.
Of course, Mancini can point towards his often-made argument that City made the mistake of failing to improve from a position of strength by not bringing in the players he wanted last summer. Results at home and in Europe make his case virtually water-tight, but the former Italy international must himself carry the can for woeful misjudgements. Surely there were better second or third choices than Scott Sinclair and Javi Garcia? If a failure to bring in Mancini’s primary transfer targets weakened City then his ill-conceived back-up plans merely compounded the situation.
An intriguing subtext to the manager’s grumblings over acquisitions and direction of ire towards director of football Brian Marwood is the latter’s move to the role of academy director and Begiristain’s installation in his place last October. Careful what you wish for, Roberto.
Of course, Marwood was far from the only City employee to feel the sharp end of Mancini’s tongue. Criticism of key players such as Joe Hart and Samir Nasri, not always without justification, became an increasingly uncomfortable feature of the season and meant reports of squad members ready to pop champagne corks at the news of their manager’s imminent demise hardly came as a surprise.
While some of Mancini’s jibes appeared to have a positive impact and others were tongue-in-cheek (he would, perhaps knowingly, head a reasonable queue of City fans wanting to punch Nasri in the face), angrily questioning Kompany for playing 90 for Belgium following a two-month injury absence felt like an unnecessary and reckless act of bridge burning.
Kompany is an influential and highly impressive leader who nailed his colours to the Mancini mast during City’s troubled early post-Hughes days. No doubt a conversation between the two was in order; a public flogging, not so much. A popular and respected dressing room figure, Kompany has cut a dejected and sullen figure over recent weeks and it is irresistible not to read between the lines.
So, with Mancini’s allies among the playing staff dwindling, perhaps Soriano and Begiristain felt backed into a corner. If this is the case, they have set one or two precedents that may well come back to haunt them.
There are numerous examples in the modern game of player power being king and of confrontational management styles having a limited shelf life, irrespective of success. The similarities between Mancini’s latest downfall and his exit from Inter Milan are there for all to see. But City’s players now know a manager giving them a hard time can have his position brought into question if they don’t like it. What happens the next time this occurs? Also, what happens the next time Pellegrini or anyone else finishes second in an incredibly difficult league to win? Dangerous, dangerous precedents that are somewhat at odds with the desire for a “holistic approach” and associated stability.
Indeed, Gael Clichy had some interesting thoughts on the matter when he became the first member of a disgruntled squad to stick his head above the parapet in New York last week. It is safe to say talk of mutiny was not in the air.
“It’s always difficult – a manager has to be a manager. Once you become a friend of the players, that’s when you can have trouble,” he told the Manchester Evening News.
“I prefer to have trouble because the manager is respected and is hard with the players than a manager who is having trouble because he is friends with the players.
“He brought most of us to the club. If he bought you it means that he likes you. A player that he just bought can’t really say he had a problem.”
Also in the column against Mancini’s dismissal is the wanton surrender of a clear strategic advantage. For all the talk of David Moyes being an ideal successor to Sir Alex Ferguson and the impressive efficiency with which Manchester United implemented their succession plan, City’s closest rivals find themselves in a state of upheaval and uncertainty unknown to them for a generation. With Chelsea also set to change managers, City had a serial winner with three and half years under his belt at the helm. Now the Blues are in a similar state of flux, with an unhelpful dollop or two of damaging fall-out to boot.
And there lies the final black mark against Soriano and Begiristain – Mancini wins things. Lots of things. Everywhere he’s managed. Critics of Mancini can point towards favourable circumstances and demonstrable character flaws, but the cold, hard facts are he is a winner and a fiercely determined one in a game where “show us your medals” can end many an argument. This season’s failing will have burnt and past experience points towards a manic desire to correct them. Regardless of whether some noses are put out of joint in the process, that man sounds like an asset.
Equally, an embattled playing group could be more likely to find solace under the sympathetic and encouraging methods espoused by Pellegrini if, as expected the 59-year-old Chilean brings his glowing reputation to Manchester. No one can be certain whether Manchester City have taken a step backwards to embark upon a couple forwards or if this whole episode is the first of a few paces in reverse.
Reports that moves for major signings – such as Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Fernandinho, Napoli striker Edinson Cavani and the jewel in Pellegrini’s Malaga side, Isco – are well underway come as welcome news. Pellegrini ideally needs all the key components in place for the start of pre-season training next month. There will be fences to mend and fires to put out. The unity demonstrated in 2012’s title push, branded with the hashtag #together by City’s official website, echoes like a call from a different age.
Soriano and Begiristain must secure their chosen manager and targets quickly, not least to demonstrate competence. The men from the Camp Nou can no longer be granted the luxury of a blind belief that the club will prosper in their hands having produced an unwelcome demonstration that “Typical City” is alive and well.
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In Sweden the derby build up began over a week ago with adverts drawing out in length after last week’s Champions League games. Flights from Abu Dhabi have been reported much higher than usual. The clamour for tickets is unprecedented. Put quite simply: game on.
@VincentKompany advised us last week that over 650 million viewers worldwide will watch this derby. To be one of the privileged 47,000 (and change) supporters who will go to the match, I’m left wandering, “how on earth do I enjoy it?”
As I ponder pre-match strategy I recall interviewing Paul Lake on the day that Sergio Aguero arrived at the club. The question I was desperate to ask was whether he thought we would ever see Tevez and Aguero playing alongside each other.
And here we are now potentially relying on this pair to win us the league. Dreaming about them linking up to win the derby has occupied a lot of my spare time lately. If I think about the possibilities for long enough, add in the stadium atmosphere and some imaginary commentary, I can actually almost bring myself to tears!
It’s like being a kid again imagining all the goals and re-living past memories. But as the game approaches so do all of the grown-up fears. Fear of failure, fear of nerve-jangling moments, fear of the unknown.
Then a big consideration arrives. We led the league for a long time, gave it up, and thought we were out of contention. We stuck together and we’ve been given another chance. If we take it this time, having given it up once will we give it up again? Could this really be it?
I’ve concluded that I probably won’t enjoy this game until and unless we reach the final whistle having got the three points. I’ve decided on a pre-match glass of single malt Scotch to calm the nerves and limiting twitter monitoring to short bursts before I get too sick with excitement. Bring it on.
Now then, now then, now then, then now, come on...enough already! The battery of press attacks against Manchester City over the last few days has reached a fever pitch. But this is a good thing. A very good thing.
Blues enthusiasm hit rock bottom for the season after the Sunderland game and it became open season for reporters, many of whom had been sharpening their knives all season long waiting for this moment. Licking their lips, they had the articles primed and ready, all their sad headline-writers had to do was come up with some predictable pap of a banner and they could hit send.
This is perfect timing. Not only is Mancini under fire but stories abound on much of the team, the perfect tonic to unite the dressing room. Crisis at the Etihad, panic, Mancini to be sacked, get the army helmets out and dig in because this is one of the worst seasons I can remember for a long time. We broke the Premier League record with 20 consecutive home wins after the incredible comeback at Chelsea - you know what these really are dark days indeed.
I was most struck in midweek by one of the laziest articles I've ever seen written in a newspaper. Struck because my reaction to it would have been much more angry in days gone by. Instead, I felt a feeling of elation as Chief Football Writer of London's main daily was reduced to 'gutter press' status with his weak and feeble cheap shot.
"City are a ridiculous club," was his opening gambit in his tirade against the Blues on 4th April (article here). No but hang on. It gets better. "Having been willing to sacrifice most conventional football principles in a desperate and often ugly pursuit of silverware, they made their fast-tracked assault on the game’s elite all about the winning."
And you thought that was bad? "At a time when football is finally realising its general approach to financial management is utterly unsustainable, City’s largesse is grotesque if unaccompanied by any deeper philosophy or commitment to win in the right way and exhibiting a strong moral compass."
Now we're in tears laughing are we not?! This is extraordinary! A London-based Chief Football Correspondent entering into the world of morals, philosophy, and life navigation. Is this a covert application for Martin Samuel's job at the Daily Mail?! You'll never get it James, he's too good!
Manchester City's owners have exhibited humility, kept their wealth well under wraps in Manchester, and as the country recovers from being on its knees they are busy planning an urban regeneration that is bigger than any government project in the area. Job creation, positive growth, a long-term commitment to a local community, a long-term commitment to a proud football club. There's plenty more deeper James, if you had bothered to dig that deep.
Mark Ogden reminded us this morning that he doesn't write the headlines. A closer inspection of his article that led with the headline, "Is it all getting too much for Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini" revealed a balanced article written by someone who could be bothered to recall his memory of Mancini's past efforts.
But if London's evening daily could only produce empty fag packets, then Manchester's daily didn't do much better. After much speculation about the front page headline, we were left to consider for what seemed like an eternally long nano-second how bad builders can occasionally be (article link). How very dull.
The best thing about this "exclusive" was that it was attributed to three MEN writers. It took three of them?!
What does all of this tell you about Manchester City in this moment? That we're good.
Good enough to win the title? As Buzzer said earlier today, "it ain't over till the fat lady sings."
All the best,
If you haven't already purchased Paul Lake's book, "I'm Not Really Here", then do so - it's a cracker.
In the first part release of this interview, shot in one of the platinum boxes at the Etihad stadium, MCFCfans explores the Madchester scene in more detail and sets the scene of the injury that was to dominate the rest of his life.
“I’m Not Really Here” published by Century - click the book cover above to buy or here to buy