Friday, January 6, 2017

ROMARK: THE CURSE OF BIG MAL

It is with a little sadness that we today remember Romark and his remarkable FA Cup curse.

In case anyone forgets, Romark was a legend in his own crystal ball during the 70s.

A man with just as much psychic ability, Malcolm Allison, had uncovered this mysterious Shayman (massive City-pun coming in approximately 7 paragraphs) during his spell as head honcho at Crystal Palace in the mid-70s.

Big Mal, hands more than full with champagne bottles and bunny girls from the Playboy Club, forgot to pay Romark's modest bill, however, and the soothsayer got the severest of humps, revolving his eyes in different directions and placing a curse on Mal's young and eager Palace side. On the eve of their 1976 FA Cup semi-final against Southampton, Romark -evidently a man who enjoyed looking into the past as well as the future- contacted Lawrie McMenemy's secretary and arranged to meet up with the Southampton supremo. McMenemy could hardly refuse a man with such an obvious penchant for storing grievances. He is widely quoted thus:


"When he came in, his eyes immediately struck me. He had peripheral vision, both eyes staring in different directions. He surprised everyone by asking for two chairs to be placed in the centre of the room facing away from each other two yards apart, then got an apprentice to put his head on one and heels on the other. When he took the chairs away, the lad stayed suspended in mid air. I was even asked to sit on the lad's stomach and still he stayed suspended. George Horsfall, our reserve-team trainer, came in shortly afterwards and, after telling him what had happened, he did the trick all over again. He wouldn't tell us how it had been done, but George was born in India and it may well have had something to do with the old Indian rope trick."

Whether the apprentice was suspended by the golden filaments of Mordor or Romark had a set of bathroom mirrors stashed in his underpants, the trick worked a treat on Southampton, filling them with a strange "energy" that not only saw them past Allison's oddly unblinking Palace, but imbued enough turquoise light in the players to see off staunch favourites Manchester United in the Wembley final itself.

Some will still remember as schoolkids, watching Bobby Stokes stroke the winner. The pass through to him had arrived in his stride from Jimmy McCalliog, who, when afforded an intimate close-up after the goal, appeared to have a middle eye shining brightly on his forehead. In an instant, it was gone. It was that fast. I may have been the only one watching Cup Final Grandstand that day that actually saw it. My nurse says this is an entirely possible scenario.

Romark's work was not yet done, however. The curse, as these things often do, transferred itself to Allison himself, who went back to City in the late seventies with startling failure and abject embarrassment just a funny glance and an oddly pointed finger away.

On the eve of the infamous FA Cup third-round tie at Fourth Division Halifax, to be played at The Shay (told you to look out for it) the Halifax manager George Kirby enlisted Romark's assistance once again. Not being a man to miss a pay check or an opportunity to get revenge on previous poor payers, Romark accepted and brought his mirrors and rope set north to West Yorkshire.

Halifax striker John Smith recalled an odd meeting two days before the tie:

"I'm sat there with this guy called Romark, and he was saying … 'you will go to sleep now, John Smith, and then you'll overcome the power of Manchester City. You will play the greatest game of your life, John Smith. When I count to three, you'll wake up again.' I was trying not to laugh and I'm thinking, what's all this about? What a load of nonsense."

Naturally enough, Smith would subsequently lay on the winner for Paul Hendrie in a 1-0 win for the home side, although "overcoming the power of Manchester City" was not confined to Halifax in those tumultuous days. Shrewsbury and a host of other less than fragrant opponents also found it within themselves to beat City, Romark or no Romark. Smith was flabbergasted. "All the headlines, though, were about that hypnotist," said Smith, "but we beat Manchester City through courage, hard work and belief.", said the Halifax man whilst hovering three metres above his sofa, drinking orange juice without a cup.

Romark later tried to prove his powers to the unforgiving public on Ilford High Street by driving blindfolded down the road. His intrepid journey reached a rather predictable (unless you couldn't see the future too clearly) end after approximately 20 yards when he drove miserably into the back of a police van.

"That van was parked in a place that logic told me it wouldn't be," he said afterwards, looking at the wretched vehicle, slotted hopelessly alongside the pavement, parallel with the curb, within the little yellow lines and with its hazard lights flashing for good measure.
Paul Hendrie exits the tunnel at Halifax

It was too late to save Big Mal, however, who got the bullet from City shortly after. Unlike Mel Machin, Peter Swales may well have claimed at the time that Mal had too much "repartee" with just about everyone. This was the problem.

After being imprisoned for embezzling his mother, Romark died of a stroke in 1982. Didn't see that one coming, did he? Was this the end of the curse?

When City left Maine Road, it was felt that this was another moment of release, as unhelpful gypsies had been said to have buried an upside down horseshoe with a picture of Gary Neville's great grandfather Neville Neville Neville attached to it. Surely, the move to a new stadium would also bring an end to the Gypsy Curse laid so many eons ago?

Well, maybe, maybe not. What we do know is Manchester City have at last laid the ghost of the FA Cup to rest. The fading images of Paul Power gleefully waggling his arms over his head as he set off for the Holte End fencing, already awash with amateur mountaineers and escape artists in blue scarves, can be put to one side. In the name of Romark and old man Neville, City fans will hope there is no dark stranger with a wall eye and a bag of spoons at the entrance to the London Stadium this evening. 

City, after all, have been wholly capable of mucking things up without help or hindrance from a higher plane.

Monday, January 2, 2017

ANFIELD RAP

This article first appeared on the pages of the Irish Examiner

And so the pain goes on for City at Anfield, the ground they just cannot function properly in.

A paralysis takes over, a numbness of the mind sets in, a deep-rooted fear takes a grip that is so all-pervading, that countless upgrades of manager, regime, and playing staff have changed absolutely nothing.

2003 - The last time
And so it was that City introduced Pep Guardiola to the Anfield rap sheet: two league wins here since 1956 and no sign of the this incredible tsunami of bad fortune and ill will being either slowed, stopped or turned around.

In fact in the first half it was simply more of the same. City playing with geriatric full backs against a side so energised that it looked like the first takes from yet another Keystone Cops movie.
"Throw in the Benny Hill theme tune and we were off. Liverpool’s high pressing, relentless approach to the match meant City had little or no time to move, think or breathe, during a first half that flowed in one direction only."
Once again, as had happened against Arsenal, the opposition’s first meaningful attack of the game brought a goal, a towering header from Georginio Wijnaldum.

However, you had to dissect its source and course to see how City, and one player in particular, had contributed.

With a ball played long up the left, Aleksander Kolarov produced a cushioned pass inside to nobody in particular.

This loose ball was picked up, carried and dispatched across the park in a matter of seconds to the marauding Adam Lallana, who ran at a bamboozled Pablo Zabaleta.

The Argentinian is a City stalwart and should not really be put through this final season of embarrassment, his legs getting slower and slower as the opposition get nippier and nippier.
Standing off Lallana to give a him a decent sight of the penalty area, Zabaleta watched in horror as the ball was played in for Wijnaldum to leap like a salmon and score. Underneath him, meanwhile, leaping like a fish attached to a rucksack full of bricks was Kolarov, the original culprit of lost possession.

You can read the rest of this article here

Monday, December 12, 2016

THREE MEN IN A BOAT

When is a two goal deficit an absolute thrashing?

It’s a question that probably troubled Plato, Kant nor Confucius unduly, but nevertheless it’s one that was rebounding around the precincts of the King Power Stadium on Saturday with impressive velocity.

City, finishing with an Aleksander Kolarov-inspired flourish, had reduced a four goal difference to two. However, anything that needs inspiration from Aleksander Kolarov in his present mind-set, is in significant trouble. Kolarov started the season as a surprisingly, if momentarily, adept mini-clone of Franz Beckenbauer, back in the sunny days of autumn when Pep Gaurdiola could pull rabbits out of people’s hats and produce playing cards from behind Dimitri Seluk’s luxurious alpaca-wool collars.

For those that dote on pain, who dote on the pleasure of the absence of pleasure, not smoothness but conflict, there is quite a party warming up. The word fraud is banging about under the clouds and it won't go away. Just where do City take it from here, with their multi-million pound defenders that look like they are running through custard with breeze blocks strapped to their backs?

Since that beguiling start, the Catalan has come face to face with what is commonly termed “The wet Tuesday in Stoke factor”, the wonderfully British concept that you just can’t beat the Premier League, with its idiosyncratic Anthony Taylors, its hurricane-force football, its sweary, fully-committed crowds and its blustery push and shove. You cannot, as a self-aware foreigner in jet black knitwear, simply swagger in and take control of the whole glorious landscape with a nonchalant wink tot he ranks of pressmen and a shrug of those continentally sloped shoulders.You can't sip non-committally from your distilled water bottle as a hitherto eunuch-infested Leicester are striding through your defence like silverback gorilas on heat.
A proper Premier League apprenticeship will include a grilling from a hostile press, who are beginning to think you’re not the real deal, humbling experiences at odd places where the locals bang plastic clappers together ferociously and have their eyes positioned too close to each other and others where they boo some of your players with the fervour of a pitchfork mob looking for witches to burn; a thick pall of crisis is thrown over everything you try to do. Your desperate fate will finally be sealed when a man you have never heard of called Spam Collymore appears to shout you down with discordant words and pointy fingers.

It may also rain quite a lot on your days off. There will be baked potatoes overflowing with baked beans masquerading as meals. People will find your shoes effete.  
Señor Guardiola has reached this junction. There are signs for Purgatory County, for nearby Ignominious Retreat and, still there, but a little bent and scorched by the wind, one for the village of Little Redemption.

Where Pep’s Reliant Robin turns next is anybody’s guess. In a way, unmapped scurrying has always been a temptation too far for Manchester City, so there can be no great surprise that – even with the world’s greatest coach at the helm of the Good Ship City -- it continues to buck on the high seas like something about to head swiftly and incontrovertibly for the seabed.
What Pep Did Next is a book yet to be written, but you can bet your bottom dollar this chapter of bullet ridden cars and twisted corpses in the street will not last too many more pages. January will open windows and the fresh air of winter will blow all over us and sharpen our senses. Some of those impressive athletes sliding haplessly around at Leicester at the weekend, will be receiving bad news with their Christmas cards. Those manning the backlines in their own irrepressible way over the last few weeks will fear the postman’s knock most. Messrs Otamendi, Zabaleta, Kolarov and Clichy would do well to stay well away from the letter box.

Seldom has a team with so much star quality managed to defend like an under 10s eleven after eating too many bags of peanuts. The spots in front of their eyes are real enough. The gaps too. The sound of gnashing teeth is real as well. In fact the only things that seem unreal are the early season reports praising them all to the skies. Kolarov is not Franco Baresi after all. Gael Clichy is still trying to pass to the moon. Zabaleta, bless him, is not Pavel Nedved, nor anymore, is he a rugged modern copy of Tony Book. At Leicester in fact, he played what looked dangerously like a farewell concert. Yaya Toure is no Edin Dzeko and Nicolas Otamendi is not a full cup of tea.
Pep must now make his mind up. The tinkering has brought us so far. It has been fun, and then not so much. It has opened eyes but now it is opening them too wide. The man whose teams  have conceded  7 defeats (Barcelona 08-09), 4 (Barcelona 09-10), 6 (Barcelona 10-11), 4 (Barcelona 11-12), 6 (Bayern 13-14), 9 (Bayern 14-15) and 4 Bayern 15-16) has already conjured 5 in early December as a first effort in Manchester. To stop the rot, he may well have to ask Txiki for yet more pocket money, but if it helps avoid the necessity for a Clichy-Otamendi-Kolarov axis of evil against 53-goal Monaco in the Champions League, we will all breathe a sigh of relief.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

TENDER IS THE NIGHT

The great noises of football rang out at the Etihad. Grunting, chafing and wailing, mainly.

The smell was of burning rubber. Whether this emanated from the tyres of Antony Taylor's getaway car - revving like a lunatic infront of the City superstore - or the pile of used Goodyear Ultra Grips being prepared to put on his tribute bonfire further up the concourse was unclear.

A four point lead had been gained by the visitors, but it had been a match that could quite easily have delivered City their first home league win in four attempts.

After three slovenly 1-1 draws with Southampton, Everton, where the Dutchman Stekelenburg had the game of his life and a Middlesbrough side, which had spent the first 65 minutes shuffling about infront of their own penalty box, City had now more or less gifted a serious title rival three points. It came in a small sequinned box with sky blue ribbons on it. Inside - you imagined - Antonio Conte and his willing young men might find the rest of Nicolas Otamendi's brain, a sprig of heather and Gael Clichy's allegorical novel "How To Pass To The Moon".

Chelsea, lest anybody be fooled, are a tenacious and well drilled unit under Antonio Conte. Their midfield terriers are excellent and in Victor Moses, they had an outstanding, if slightly surprising, man of the match. The winger played studiously as a full back and was the Johnny on the spot time after time to block, clear or nullify a variety of potent City threats.
Clichy contemplates the moon.

Those threats had come streaming down the flanks, where Jesus Navas linked well early on with Kevin de Bruyne, speed of foot and lightness of touch taking them away from flashing legs. On the opposite flank, once Leroy Sane had cleared his brain of surprise to be playing, he too cast aside his jittery start, opening his thighs and showing his class, as David Coleman might once upon a time have said.

Oddly, it was De Bruyne's profligacy and selfishness - charcteristics not usually attributed to the Belgian - that would turn the game rapidly and completely in Chelsea's favour in the opening scenes of the second half.

With "Anthony Taylor of Altrincham" showing up strongly in the first half for the visitors, City may well have felt slightly hard done by. Certainly the wall of opprobrium shifting gaily down the stands towards the hapless man in black might have confirmed for him that he was having a particularly short-sighted day. If refereeing is about flow and control, vision and understanding, Taylor was revealing a blind river vole's grip on such skills out on the park.

David Luiz's obvious body charge on Sergio Aguero might have gained a free kick on another day and possibly a red card from another official, but here it merited only a shrug and a look of oranges, lemons and plums from the official. When Aleksander Kolarov attempted something similar on Eden Hazard later on, he was shown an immediate and friskily demonstrated yellow card. Nicolas Otamendi, starting authoritatively, but soon to descend the rungs to danger level defending, also received a yellow from the suddenly fussy official for a perfectly clean tackle in the first half.

"Just about deserve the lead at half time, but Anthony Taylor is a constant threat for them" - Ric Turner on Twitter

For a moment Taylor stood over him in savage triumph, not the tiniest pang of doubt pulling at his taught features. He was at once master of ceremonies and harbinger of good news. The messenger with the bald head. You felt, even if you sloshed a pail of freezing water in his face, he wouldn't wake from his exultant reveries. 

Despite this, City were making decent inroads and, as the half finished, finally got some reward, as Navas's dangerous centre looped in off the unfortunate Gary Cahill. Marcos Alonso, so long so strong on the left flank for Chelsea, had stood off Navas just enough to allow his cross to make it into the box.

The match swung on two elements at the beginning of the second half, one unusual, the other painfully familiar: First De Bruyne was central in spurning two gilt-edged chances. With Sane driving forward through the middle, he set the Belgian free and advanced into the box for the simple cut back which would have been side-footed home. Instead De Bruyne shot inside Courtois' near post and his countryman saved.

Here he comes, airborne and taught.
Even worse was to come as Navas outpaced Alonso and centred brilliantly but at pace. De Bruyne's outsretched foot reached it but the pace of the delivery took his simple side-foot high onto the upper part of the bar and away for a goal kick. It felt just a matter of time before City wrapped the points.

Instead, a useful onslaught exploded into bits.

Within seconds, Otamendi had been royally dealt with by Diego Costa and Chelsea were level. One on one, Costa dealt with his defender like a fat child unwrapping a KitKat after a difficult hour without snacks. A second aberration for the Argentine came straight after, as the same player turned him like an ageing tango partner and set up Willian for the second. Otamendi displays simple principles of dive and thud, frequently containing therein his own doom, written in stark capital letters. Here they were again, this time in neon for effect.

Nothing was going right. Red cards followed as City's patience finally frayed.

A match that was in the palm of their hands now rested in Chelsea's back pocket.

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