Saturday, November 15, 2014

RED MIST



Through the impenetrable whirring and static of Manchester City’s failed attempt to beat CSKA Moscow at the Etihad on 5th November, it became apparent that something unusual – even by City’s extravagant standards – was transpiring before our casually leaking eyes.

As the ineffable referee Tasos Sidiropoulos - enjoying an evening of bashful myopia - brandished more and more cards, it became increasingly evident that somebody would soon be heading for the proverbial early bath. Sure enough of the six yellow cards produced, two turned to red. That both were for City and both totally deserved told its own story of the Herculean frustration circulating around the ground.

The first, waved in front of Fernandinho for a piece of what has long been termed professionalism and has lately become taking one for the team, but could equally have been named "breathtaking stupidity", reduced City to ten when a little momentum was being built in a difficult phase of the game. The second, awarded to the towering Yaya Touré for face-swatting an opponent temerous enough to try to get in his way, was also as indisputable as the combined works of Sugar Ray Leonard.

Hartford: purveyor of prolonged dissent
Leaving City with nine men against a quietly competent Russian side, who had not only looked over their homework but also underlined the important bits and gone through it all with a highlighter pen, the home side finished the game in seven states of disarray. To put a tidy tin lid on it all, manager Manuel Pellegrini -quizzed as ever to the ninth degree in the post match press conference - could not quite put his finger on what it was that was provoking his side to play like eleven (or in turn ten, then nine) strangers. 

For all his positive attributes of Champions League expertise and cunning South American tactics, here was a man, visibly ageing before the cameras, with no answers whatsoever for The Sun, The Mirror nor even the man in the revolving hat from the Daily Star.

The shambles took some of us immediately and thrillingly back to previous occasions when City had misbehaved on this grand scale. It only takes the slightest provocation for some of us to absolutely wallow in it, you see. Only three times in the last 40 years have the Blues been reduced to nine men, Asa Hartford, Kevin Bond, Richard Edghill, Andy Dibble, Richard Dunne and Gelson Fernandes being the block-headed miscreants involved.

When the initial anger regarding the sendings off subsides, City manager Mark Hughes will be left to reflect on the fact that his side remain consistent only in their inconsistency….” Phil Dawles, BBC online, after City v Spurs 2008-09

Supporting City was always to worship at the altar of the unexpected during All Saints Festival of the Haphazard and the CSKA match proved that City still have it very much in them to enter that particular church brim full of gifts and harvest offerings. When it comes to unlikely scenarios and improbable story lines, it is almost as if the club hasn’t changed at all, in fact. Bless them for that if it is even partly true.

"Getting yourself sent off when your team is trailing by three goals is not a lot different to desertimg a beaten army..." Steve Curry, Daily Express, September 1982
In September 1982 the portents of doom were perhaps more obvious than any of us standing on those shallow rickety terraces of Upton Park, West Ham, cared to realise at the time. That City's front line was no longer populated by the likes of Brian Kidd and Rodney Marsh but instead by David Cross, a man who looked like he had been on Marta Reid's cabbage leaves and watercress diet, was bad enough. That one of the dismissed on this occasion had spent his formative years being spoon fed semolina by the team manager was another sign. If boss John Bond's son couldn't manage to stay on the pitch, what chance did we have? Naturally enough City went down to the 2nd division at the end of a season spent ignoring bad omens and absent-mindedly tripping up gypsy soothsayers. David Cross contributed a single digit total of goals and a heap of memories tinged with the whiff of gunpowder and horse manure.

That Bond junior had been sent off for kicking Hammers hard man Billy Bonds was surely daft enough. Asa Hartford joined him emptying the Dettol into the team bath after a bout of  what the Daily Express called "prolonged dissent" led to the meltdown of referee David Letts' patience.

Strangely, in a nod to recent times, assistant manager John Benson later mentioned that it could have been a "case of mistaken identity" in Hartford's case, mirroring the CSKA game when the extravagantly monikered Pontus Wernbloom escaped a red of his own after the referee decided to punish Sergei Ignashevich for the already yellow carded Swede's 77th minute indiscretion. The correct decision by the muddled ref at that point would have leveled the match at ten v ten. Instead, seconds later it was nine v eleven and chaos resumed.

In 1994, things were a lot more stable. Chairman Peter Swales had been overthrown by ex-player Franny Lee, boss Brian Horton wore the look of the man who has been given one too many votes of confidence and City were heading towards a two year date with destiny that would start a slide into Division Three. Nothing at all to get worked up about then...

Again, as you might expect, a referee, this time the pebbled-glassed Gary Willard (no, exactly) was at the centre of things, removing 'keeper Andy Dibble, a tree trunk-thighed Welshman with a penchant for tomfoolery, for what at the time looked like a perfectly executed sliding tackle. Even Les Ferdinand, the player dispossessed, called Dibble's intervention "a fair challenge, he got to the ball before me". 

Gerry Francis, the QPR manager, had written in his programme notes for the need for video analysis to aid referees (see how long this potato has been burning away in the oven) and, as ever, irony was stalking City brandishing its stopwatch. As Barry Flatman, writing in the Express said, "Richard Edghill was dismissed for two cautionable offences and Bardsley was booked for dissent, yet basic lip readers could judge that half a dozen others got away with much stronger language...".

To cap a strange day in the life of a strange club, Paul Walsh scored a bizarre goal, taking goalkeeper Tony Roberts' full blooded clearance full on and, without knowing it, being repsonsible for the ball cannoning backwards into the goal.

Naturally, nine man City won two one.



City's history is so littered with these unpredictable outcomes, it is surprising there are any words left in the average dictionary to describe variations on a recurring theme. Suffice to say, all of this guff and nonsense just refuses to go away and for that, in a particularly curious way, we should be eternally grateful.


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Thursday, November 6, 2014

MENTAL TSARS




CSKA Moscow V Manchester City  
21st October 2014


“Moscow Moscow what a lovely town”



So, the draw was made and my wish for 3 new Countries to visit was not to be realised. This was always going to be a long shot but Germany, Italy and Russia again! To be fair Germany is a great place to visit, football or otherwise. Munich is fabulous, end of.  Rome in December? What is there not to like about that? Apart from the potential to have some part of my anatomy punctured with a sharp implement, I can’t wait for that fixture. As inviting as both Germany and Italy are to me I went to Moscow last season, and yes I had a fabulous time, met some great new friends and discovered a whole new culture of which, though, a large part of the population still harks back to the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s. This time around I was not as apprehensive about getting around the place, the food, the people and most importantly the match and ground itself. After all I knew what to expect.

I booked my flights and hotel not long after the draw was made. Thanks to Stelios airways I got a great deal on flights, so I thought I would splash out on a decent hotel round the corner from the Kremlin. Rude not to really I thought, especially as the Metro system is not that easy to understand and if I can walk to many places of interest then that would be preferable. The Visa application form I have to admit I did find easier this time round, however I did have to do it again after deciding I was Ukrainian and not from the United Kingdom. Well they are next to each other on the drop down menu. On my return from the game in Munich said form was sent off and returned within the week. In the words of one of my friends, “What could possibly go wrong”?

As with most teams CSKA have a minority of idiots that support/follow them. This had already led to a meeting of UEFA to decide that they must play a game behind closed doors with the possibility of more sanctions if there were any further problems with their fans. Unfortunately further problems were exactly what they had in Rome the same night we played Bayern. A few days later (now less than 2 weeks to the fixture with us) UEFA decided they must play OUR match behind closed doors in Moscow.

Well, nothing that UEFA do these days should surprise me, but to make this decision days before I was due to fly out beggared belief. So, ok…this means that UEFA will refund the £700 I have paid out I assume? Er…no, of course not. Although it is UEFA, who have refused me entry to the ground and the reason I have paid out my hard earned money, arranged holidays from work and generally turned my life upside down for UEFA to say they have no responsibility for what now would be a pointless trip.

Merci, Monsieur Platini.

Although I am fortunate enough to travel to all the European games I am in no way a financially comfortable individual. I do not have what most people would call “Normal” holidays throughout the year. These trips following City are my vacations, or Vocation if you prefer? 
 
I never for one minute imagined that UEFA would reimburse me so splashing £700 for absolutely no reason but to now sit on my backside at home was never going to seriously be an option for me.

A few days prior to flying out, City sent out an email invite to attend an event at the Stadium on the afternoon/night of the match. Food, drink, entertainment etc was all paid for and the match would be shown on a big screen. Now considering this decision to play the game behind closed doors had nothing to do with the club, personally I thought this was a decent gesture, it was however never going to make up for not being in Moscow to see Gods Own Club. Several emails passed between myself and the club and there was a 30 minute phone call two days before I was due to fly. As much as I appreciated the time they took to try to encourage me not to go to Moscow, lets face it….Not going was not really an option.

4 am Sunday 19th October 2014, the alarm goes off which in the big scheme of things is normally what it should do. Unfortunately it is 30 minutes after I have already woken up, which in turn is probably only a few hours since I managed to get to sleep. Every European trip follows the same giddy routine. I’m like a kid on the way to Disneyland. The night before I have checked, double checked and checked several more times that I have my passport in a place where I cannot miss it in the morning. So when I get up I check it is still there, well just in case the passport ghost has come and nicked it, you can’t be too careful.

Taxi turns up and at 05:30 I’m on my way to Manchester Airport for this morning’s direct flight. I’m not expecting many Blues at the airport, most will have been able to cancel the trips they had organised, mine was non refundable. Once boarded I reckon about 20 or so City are on the flight, some I know and a few I recognise but only on nodding terms. Flight goes without hitch, and remarkably lands 40 minutes early! Not bad on a flight that was only going to take 3 hrs 40 mins anyway. Captain speedy pants makes a good landing and its off to get the Aeroport Express.

My first encounter with the locals is a lovely young Russian Lady called Anna. (see photo above). She had just landed from Kuala Lumpar where she had been working for three months and was on her way home to just outside Moscow. We got chatting and it made the 40 minute direct train journey into Moscow most enjoyable, well it did for me anyway! My hotel was only about 15 minutes walk from the station and thanks to the wonders of Google Earth I had “virtually” walked the route several times. Weather wasn’t too cold at this point, which was just as well as I had not packed a “big coat “. The intention was to buy one out there, best laid plans and all that. Checked in, hotel was as nice as it looked on the interweb and chilled for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Monday 20th October 2014 proved to be probably my favourite day of the trip. I woke up refreshed and took full advantage of the inclusive breakfast. It had snowed overnight which added to the giddiness. I decided over another pastry that I would make today my “out all day/night” day. I left the hotel at Midday and headed out into the cold, snowy air.

The walk into town along the river although very cold and wintry is simply outstanding. Every turn brings a new view of a domed shaped building. The Kremlin walls getting closer and the iconic St.Basil’s looking like a giant Christmas tree decoration. In reality R*d Square is much smaller than when you see it on the television with the parades and various Presidents of the past giving the salute. No matter your opinion of the Russian’s and the government’s views on things that normal society would find abhorrent, it really is a moment to just stand and look around at this place in history.

I decide to do the Kremlin tour. This is a must if you ever get the chance. An outstanding array of several buildings of architectural wonder. My favourite place was the Armoury, truly spectacular artefacts fill the place. As a tip, use the audio guide but then when it’s finished walk round again at your own pace. Several hours later, tour done it’s now getting dark outside and food is on the agenda.

When I visited last year I went to a Mexican restaurant La Cantina, the food was great last year so I thought I might as well give it a try again. Seemed a safe bet and I wasn’t to be disappointed. Although it was difficult trying to explain I wanted the Draught Guiness in a “long glass and not one that was the type used in “The Indoor League”. One for the oldies there. I settled for a Desperado!

Another aspect of the place that hadn’t changed was the delightful young lady who visited the table enquiring if I would like a “shot”. I do hope she didn’t get a chill in those what can only be described as ever disappearing denim shorts!  Food and drink consumed it’s time to head off into the night. Even though It’s a 30 minute walk round the strange streets of Moscow, I settle for heading to the Hard Rock Café where I know a few blues are meeting up.

I get to the Hard Rock but unfortunately they are not there, I remember the John Bull is close by and head there. Again, they are nowhere to be seen. I go in for a Guiness and a few blues are in who invite me to join them at their table. I can only thank them for their hospitality for the next hour or so. Times ticking on and I am at least an hour’s walk from my hotel but they mention they are heading round the corner to a 24 hour BOGOF sports bar where there are other blues. A few names I recognise and decide to join them. When in Rome and all that, well Moscow anyway.

The rest of the night is a mixture of laughs, and well….having a few drinks. In the bar was our Russian organiser Alex, Giant of a man whose broken English bordered on robotic but the bloke is quite simply first class. He has organised the office block which the Bayern fans have used 2 weeks previously. For this we will pay a deposit of 500 roubles. The remainder will be paid on the coach the next day. I left about 3am with Cheryl and Col in a taxi. They get out at their hotel and I am then left with a Russian Lewis Hamilton. Not in looks but I’m glad I had my seat belt on!

Always a sign of a good night when you miss breakfast, I eventually get mine at 1pm in the hotel bar. Much needed it was and time to reflect on the previous day’s events and look forward to what was supposed to be a day to remember. However, it soon becomes clear on social media that the police have put a stop to our plans. This is not how the day should be going. 
"What do you mean we can't get in?"

I leave to meet our Alex at about 4pm for the 15 minute walk to the bus. A Russian television crew come on board and want an interview. Neil C takes up the microphone on our behalf and in his best telephone voice gives an assured performance.  After an hour’s wait the coach leaves for an unknown destination and we embark on a crawl through heavy traffic around the back streets of Moscow. We eventually arrive at the bar. It is situated next to the banks of the river and first impressions are not positive. Sited near an industrial estate and the bleak windswept river surroundings does not bode well. Across the river we see the forlorn disused floodlights of the old Torpedo Moscow ground. We cross the road to “Jimmy’s Bar” where we find the aforementioned television crew are waiting to film our arrival. A few smiles for the cameras later and we make our way into the bar.

The old saying of never judge a book by its cover is very true. The previous year in Moscow we stumbled across a hidden gem of a bar near the Khimki Arena called Platform 13. This time “Jimmy’s” has stepped up to the plate….and glass. Fabulous inside with several rooms for dining and a giant screen in the room that we are to use. Alex has done well. The next couple of hours are quite flat for me. As we watch the game it becomes apparent that some CSKA fans are in the ground. This leaves a sour taste. And of course the match itself ends poorly for us.

The 2nd half performance is hard to understand. The TV crew film the remaining hours we spend watching the game. I do hope they did not put subtitles on for the Russian viewers! The night is punctuated by the dulcet tones of Neil C and Paul giving renditions of “Moscow, Moscow what a lovely town”. This little ditty sticks in the head for several days.

"Houston, we do not have lift-off..."
We leave at about 22:30 to catch “a bus” back into Moscow. 30 minutes later and in temperatures that are now on the edge of freezing my wotsits off and the bus arrives. After endearing ourselves to the locals on board for 10 minutes we get back to Pavalatskaya. I decide to head back to my hotel whilst the rest get a Metro back to the BOGOF bar. On the walk back I notice a few more unsavoury characters out and about than the previous night and its fair to say my steps are a little quicker! Couple of drinks in the bar and due to the time difference I get to watch one of the later Champions League games.

Wednesday morning, unlike the the previous day I am up in time for breakfast. My mood after last night’s result is a bit flat but I am determined to get out and about later. Being of a certain age space travel was something always in the media in the late 60’s and 70’s and has always fascinated me. So, a trip on the metro to the Cosmonaut museum is on the cards today. I navigate my way there at lunchtime and without getting lost which in itself is worthy of a mention. Houston Control would be proud.

The temperature has dipped even further today so even though there is a vast park area around the museum it’s not somewhere I spend too long. Inside I find space geek heaven and several hours later I leave happy in the knowledge I made it my choice of venue for the day. Table for one in the evening at the hotel restaurant and a couple of drinks and a relaxing night.

23rd October and it’s the day to set off home. I go back into R*d Square for one last time and it’s dropped to -10. Really pleased I didn’t bring my big coat at this point. I head for the Peoples Museum on the edge of the square. Apart from anything else it’s warm in there. An hour or two later after looking at Lenin, Stalin and WW1 artefacts it’s time to leave. The hotel is vacated around 4pm and it’s on to the return leg on the Aeroport express. This time Anna is nowhere to be seen and the 40 minutes journey is accompanied by Tracy, John and of course Cheryl and Colin are on board. Back in the airport I use the last of my roubles on some chocolate and its homeward bound. All in all, a trip that has been interesting, fun and surprising.  Interesting for the places I have visited, fun for the people I have met along the way, old and new, and surprising for the fact I get slightly drunk for the 2nd time in about 15 years. Did I mention I don’t drink much?

I leave with a sense of anger and disappointment to the hierarchy within the walls of UEFA who have deprived me of watching City in Europe through no fault of my own. Their lack of thought and compassion for travelling supporters is quite frankly disgraceful. They should hang their heads in shame.

прощай Moscow, until the next draw.

Moscow Moscow what a lovely town


Saturday, November 1, 2014

COCKS OF THE NORTH

The Manchester Derby arrives again with those steady trophy winning megaliths getting ready to try and deal with their nearest and dearest upstart puppy neighbours. The wannabes, the noise merchants, the great unwashed. The team full of household names squaring up to a rush job hotch potch sellotape and pritt buddy attempt to get rich quick. The seamless wonderboys, all sleak and gleaming, against the rag tag army where anything can and often does happen. The pin-your-last-fiver-on-us brigade versus the cup for cock ups eleven.

But which is which these days?

A sea change that caught Alex Ferguson on the hop has not only happend in his lifetime but, rudely, impolitely, whilst his revolving chair is still comfortingly warm with that little dent in the middle where his regal Glaswegian backside once nestled.

Football, dynamic unpredictable vortex that it is, has sucked us all in and thrown us out the other side in somebody else's trousers.

Current Manchester Status actually has the record league champions portrayed as a somehwat humbled band of hucksters, down on their luck and clawing their way towards the light in a painful, belly-scraping operation along the Chester Road. City, the proud cocks, the dominant beasts, all feathers and strut, are Kings of the North with their two titles in three years (also two in 46 years, but let's skip the fine print for now) and slew of other baubles and trophies that have been collected since the desert sandstorm blew in over Moss Side.

If only power shifts were so simple.

Fast it most certainly has been. To see the two clubs juxtapoosed as they are today less than two years since Ferguson departed the scene muttering and grunting is a fair eye-opener. The speed and height of City's climb and United's descent has been eye-wateringly decisive, crunchingly distinct.

And yet. Football's delicious ability to trip up the arrogant, to dispose with the cock-sure and put leeches in the bed of he who carps to long and too loud, means the first Manchester Derby of season 2014-15 brings together an all-conquering City side in the middle of a giant stutter the like of which has not been seen for seasons and a down-on-their-luck United side actually beginning to believe that the nightmare of the past season and a bit could be evaporating to reveal a clear blue horizon to aim at.

City fans are fretting away and so are United's. As ever the potential for spilled custard is immense.

City's recent form is that of the addled old man heading home sideways from Yates Wine Lodge whilst United have a gleam in their eye that can only come from a period off the fizzy stuff. The Reds are suddenly realising things aren't as bad as they may have thought. Despite this, the calibre of player on both sides means there will be no falling to press speculation of pitfalls and the tittle tattle of the latest majestic swerves of common opinion. Van Persie, Aguero, Kompany, Rooney are seasoned pros who know just how good they are and what they are capable of in the collective from.

The Blues may have followed up a dreary second half in Moscow and an unhinged performance at West Ham by producing something even less appetizing to go out of the Capital One Cup against Newcastle reserves, but they are better than this and we all know it. More importanly Mr Van Gaal and his cohorts know it too, as does Señor Pellegrini.

City in recent years have specialised in shattering records that have stood for decades. The FA Cup victory v Stoke after waiting to replicate the feeling of 1969, a first League Cup win since 1976, a league title after 44 years twiddling thumbs and wringing hands. It is also 44 years since City recorded four consecutive derby victories. Not since those Malcolm Allison-inspired days of bravado when the coach would saunter gently up to the packed terraces of the Stretford End before the start of the game and raise the number of fingers that he thought City would win by have City had such a clear upper hand. Even the United victory in 2012 masks what went before it, another City double and the great six-one.

When one thinks back to the harrowing mid-nineties, when United's rise to be the first Premier League power coincided with a City fall from grace that swept us all away to the 3rd division, the shift is seismic. Nobody in their right mind could have come up with this scenario whilst watching André Kanchelskis whip in three in a truly horrible 5-0 defeat at Old Trafford in 1994. To dream of a time when City could easily outflank their rivals in this twice-yearly festival of insults and abuse would have been akin to signing up for enrolment at the local funny farm.

Since the heady days of Allison and Joe Mercer, when the Blues were top dogs in the city, only a spell in the mid-to-late seventies really felt like something approaching parity might be reached. In that vibrant, unfettered atmosphere of early segregation on the terraces, with United still fresh from a brief sojourn in the 2nd division and City at the top of thei powers, the tension and expectation was colossal. Since then, the Resd have wracked up their twenty win advantage in the history of this fixture, going great stretches of the 80s and 90s untouched by City's slingshots and puny arrows.

Time, though, stands still for no one.

So here we all are. Still sane, still alive. Hair a bit scorched, clothes dishevelled, ever so slightly the worse for wear, admittedly, but still here, hearts beating and eyes shining bright with hope and fear in equal measure. Manchester City have outgrown those days of tremble and bluster. They stand now as the team to be measured against, even if your name happens to be Manchester United.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

QUÉ PASA, MANUEL?



Since trooping in at the sort-of-empty Arena Khimki after 45 minutes of CSKA-City, looking well pleased with themselves, City's players' fortunes have taken a distinct downturn, encompassing a second half cave-in in Moscow, a little disorientation practice in East London and the nightmare warm-up for the weekend’s derby match getting turfed out of the League Cup by a Newcastle reserve side. There seem suddenly to be five issues at play here:


1. Semi-Shambolic Defence



Only three clean sheets in fifteen competitive games so far this season tells its own story. Let your minds drift back to the dozy sun-drenched display in the Community Shield, too quickly dismissed as a training exercise for the reserves. Since then, City have bombed against Stoke, CSKA, Newcastle, West Ham and, to a degree, Roma. The defence is not playing well, is not gelling and looks uncertain and nervy. Even the two accepted bulwarks Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta have looked jittery of late. Of the others, Eliaquim Mangala has revealed enough to suggest he will be the business alongside his captain at some point in the future, but the young Frenchman is having a baptism of fire at the moment. Fast in the tackle, speedy taking the ball forward, he has displayed the innate passing ability of Albert Tatlock of late.
At left back the choice between an off form Gael Clichy and out of sorts Aleksandar Kolarov looks like the proverbial Morton’s fork. Some will say chopping and changing doesn’t help, but that is the reality of clubs competing on many fronts these days and City have not just been thrust among the movers and shakers and should really have got used to it. Now that the “choice” of trophies is down to three for City, irony offers the manager more chance to play the same back four more frequently.



2.
Summer Signings



Question: Of Willy Caballero, Fernando, Mangala and Bacary Sagna, which has settled most seamlessly? Exactly, the answer is Frank Lampard. While the new second ‘keeper has looked ok in his brief spells in the limelight, the other three have all had their hairy moments. Fernando has been caught napping by a combination of the furious pace of the English game (TM) and the strange slow pirouettes being daintily enacted by his midfield partner Yaya Touré and, while Mangala is never going to have a problem with the concept of speed, his brain appears to be playing catch-up with his legs, which is not always a pretty sight. Sagna is perhaps the most mal-adjusted of the lot, looking ponderous, nervous and hesitant in his appearances so far, displaying none of the rampaging qualities showcased by Pablo Zabaleta in the same position over recent years. Where the Argentinean fires fearlessly up and down the flank, Sagna is almost static in comparison. Where he flies into tackles, Sagna stands off and gets beaten to the ball. Time will help Mangala and Fernando, both of whom need to be allowed to adapt after arriving from the apparently genteel non-combat fields of Porto*, but Sagna has been a Premier League regular for years.

* a club that has of course hit above its weight in Europe with no problems at all over the years and sparred toe to toe with Europe’s greatest for far longer than City, but still...


3. YaYa & Fernandinho



With a rock-like defence fronted by a two man defensive midfield axis, City have been sitting pretty and sitting tight for three seasons now. That axis has been put into doubt – and this may well be having a debilitating effect on Issue 1 above – by the stuttering form of last season’s first choices for these two berths, Yaya Touré and Fernandinho. The latter appears still to be shell-shocked from his experience with Brazil in the World Cup, where he was singled out by the fervent and excitable domestic press as a scapegoat for their failures (along with the more high profile and obvious target of Fred), whilst the former’s gentle meandering has provided perhaps the contrast of them all with last season. Put mildly, Yaya Touré’s 2013-14 effort was an astonishing masterwork of the complete midfielder’s range. Add to this the fact that he has been responsible for so many of City’s highest efforts since the FA Cup breakthrough in 2011 (where his goals knocked United out of that unforgettable semi final and won the Cup against Stoke) that a certain amount of slack must be cut. The oft-documented shenanigans with his white suited agent suggest a lack of drive to continue with City’s well versed targets. This is becoming all too obvious in the big man’s distracted displays whilst grazing amongst the midfield carnage. Touré is a real City legend, but he is in some danger of ending his career in Manchester on a slightly sour note.



4. Champions League



A lot of steamy talk about this too. The owners love it. The Ipad warriors love it. The half and half scarvers love it. Mastercard love it. Heineken loves it, presumably in responsible doses. The club wants it. The manager’s good at it. But the fans either dislike it or at best are ambivalent to it. The forced removals from treasured specs, the high prices, the wall to wall stadium makeovers, the adulation of stars, the clammy media interest, the tourists and their strange antics. There is a lot here that City’s much talked about working class, low income, ageing, traditionalist, no-farting about support can get their teeth into, but it is not just that.
That would be too simple. Most have waited for the chance to see the Blues lock horns with Bayern Munich for several generations, but have quickly been forced to see a competition which throws us together with the Bavarian giants three times in four years with a certain amount of cynicism. The seeding, those pots, the smug faces, the ranks of suited octogenarians fawning over Cristiano and Lionel and Zlatan, oh God, Zlatan.The natural feeling seems to be to tell them to man up, cut the crap about who can and cannot be drawn together and throw all those damn balls in ONE BIG HIGHLY POLISHED GLASS BATH. Then if we come out in the same block as Liverpool, Real and Atlético, so be it. It’s still better than knowing who you will play before the draw has even been made, because of a dearth of possibilities after taking country clashes, tv schedule requirements, Eastern European war zones, Michel Platini's all-time favourite conference venues and any number of other fatuous excuses to make sure Real and Barcelona prevail out of the equation.



5. Manuel Pellegrini



This is the big one. Is he here for the long haul? Is he capable of getting angry? Can he really do the Champions League? Does he have an engineering degree and where the hell is Valparaiso anyway? And, whilst we're at it, why go without a replacement for Negredo when all the pups have been loaned out? So many questions with too many question marks flying at a dangerously low level. The manager's age and experience tell us that the Chilean is not here for the long haul. As Alan Pardew once noted, he is getting on a bit. A lot of speculation about City’s plans for turning Patrick Vieira into a Pep Guardiola with a French accent has surfaced of late, but the reality is probably different. The reality is probably Pep Guardiola with a Spanish accent, if it’s at all possible, although the papers will have you believe that United are at the front of that particular queue too (as well as the ones for Klopp, Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo). Ironically, whilst nobody suggests Pellegrini is anything other than secure right now, City’s chances of landing such as Guardiola or Ancelotti or Simeone are better soon rather than later, as the likes of Mourinho and Van Gaal are not about to move on just yet. This means manager hungry Chelsea and star magnets Manchester United are not in the market for any of the A Class bosses, who might become available shortly. As things stand, Jurgen Klopp may well be the first of that bunch, but does that fit City’s game plan and will there be a vacancy at the Etihad before the end of this season anyway?  Let us hope not. Because, if all this blows over and is looked back on in May as a mere storm in a teacup, it will mean that City’s Charming Man has charmed another trophy out of the trees for the faithful to stare at. He will go a long way to calming some already rumbling stomachs by maintaining City's recent excellent record against this weekend's visitors from over the border.

Monday, October 27, 2014

GEORDIE SURE




Wednesday 30th November 1994 and Wednesday 22nd December 1994. Coca Cola Cup 3rd Round -- Newcastle United.





Any


~ thoughts the notoriously boisterous Geordies may have had of raising the roof on their arrival for the League Cup tie at Maine Road in 1994-95 would have been quickly put on hold, as the away fans were being housed on a desultory looking single tier of what would eventually become the New Kippax. At this stage of proceedings it was a damp slab of concrete where the away fans could spend 90 thrilling minutes getting absolutely soaked. Two more floors would be added by the end of the season, but the view across the pitch from the Main Stand at this point of construction offered the familiar tenements and alleyways in unfamiliar nakedness.
 
Newcastle under the embrace-all leadership of Kevin Keegan were a breath of fresh air in 1994, with a typically unbalanced side featuring the mercurial Peter Beardsley, the subtle feet of Philipe Albert, Rule Fox and Scott Sellars, plus the flapping ponytail of Darren Peacock. Ex-City prospect John Beresford was at left back and future City striker Andy Cole partnered Beardsley in the goal-getting, whilst a Londoner by the name of Rob Lee was sowing the seeds of a wonderful love affair with the black and white legions. This Newcastle vintage was still uninhibited and free from the grave title jitters which would line everyone's faces a year hence.

Fresh from being knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Athletic Bilbao (after a promising start to the campaign had included a thrilling away pummeling of Antwerp and - at one point - a three goal lead over the Basques), Newcastle had hit something of a mini barren spell, losing consecutive games to Manchester United and Joe Kinnear’s Wimbledon.

City, meanwhile, in the grip of a Brian Horton-led crusade for unhinged wing-play, had the likes of Quinn, Rosler, Walsh, Summerbee and Peter Beagrie, sometimes all at the same time. The latter, a capture from Everton, was proving to be an old-fashioned flankman of the most exhilirating kind and had pulverised a weak-limbed Tottenham side in a highly acclaimed 5-2 league victory at Maine Road. 

This was to be an old fashioned coupling of two sides that didn’t really care too much for defence, the Blues revealing this trait admirably in a 0-5 roasting at Old Trafford that has lasted the test of 20 years as a permanent stain on Horton’s good work whilst at the club.

With the visitors crippled by a growing injury list, most home fans foresaw a chance to progress, but what transpired was an attritional evening for the Blues, spent trying to keep up with a very lively Newcastle side. The visitors were ahead inside eleven minutes, when a diagonal ball from Beardsley found the City defence admiring life with gentle detachment from the noise and spray around them. Nielsen headed back and Jeffrey hooked in. The stone blocks of David Brightwell and Steve Lomas hardly twitched as the North Stand behind them rose to attempt a wake-up call before it was too late.

With Andy Hill injured and Cole smacking the bar, City were in danger of capitulating in the same dreary way they had to André Kanchelskis three weeks earlier in a nightmare evening at Old Trafford. The first half substitution of the limping Hill for yet another striker in Uwe Rosler  would be the key, however, as the German bravely forced in Niall Quinn’s flick after 68 minutes, bringing the tie nicely to a raucous boil.

No more goals were scored, necessitating a replay on Tyneside three weeks later, by which time the draw for the quarter finals had been made. That memorable smell of the Wembley urinals was beginning to play on everyone’s nostrils as the numbered balls came tumbling out of the velvet bag:.
 
Bolton Wanderers v Norwich City; Swindon Town v Millwall ;Liverpool v Arsenal 

Crystal Palace v City or Newcastle

With Liverpool and Arsenal being paired together, every other club left in the draw could now really start attempting to replace hope with focus.

By the time of the replay, some three weeks later, the two sides had managed this in the League:

  •  Ipswich 1 City 2; Tottenham 4 Newcastle 2
  • City 1 Arsenal 2
  • West Ham 3 City 0;  Coventry 0 Newcastle 0

Despite shaky form, Newcastle were 3rd and City 8th as they squared up to each other at a freezing cold St James’ Park on the last Wednesday before Christmas. As Rob Palmer’s ITV commentary would successfully fail to avoid saying, someone was in for an early Christmas present and the recipient of Santa's seasonal hug was not to be who most were expecting.

This was a match that Newcastle might readily have reached double figures in, such was the weight of chances created, but sterling work at the back by youngster John Foster and the slightly unusual defensive bulwark created by a Kernaghan-Brightwell-Vonk axis of blunder kept the rampaging home side out. With Andy Dibble brave in between the posts and the St James’ fates remaining fickle, City not only survived, but ventured forth to seize the moment.

Rosler, obviously liberated by the arrival of part-time car dealer and countryman Maurizio Gaudino, pilfered a first goal, as bodies fell in the Newcastle area like skittles in a wind tunnel. When Niall Quinn’s comical airshot flicked the ball gently into the path of Paul Walsh off the giant's flailing thighs later on, the diminutive Londoner only had to tap in to complete an astonishing and unlikely win.

As sometimes happened during Brian Horton’s goal-strewn reign at Maine Road, City had prospered despite themselves, with a patched up team and seemingly against hopeless odds. The home crowd filed out unable to believe what they had seen, whilst City prepared  for a triumphal march on the semi finals. All that stood in the way now was a brittle and eminently beatable Crystal Palace. 

The story of that particular night, a 4-0 drubbing, Steve Lomas out sprarko in the mud and the longest trip home ever would - like those ever-fragrant Wembley urinals - have to wait for another time.




Wednesday, October 15, 2014

COLD FRONT IN WARSAW



The papers stacked on the makeshift negotiating table had all been signed, as had a small tower of documents promising the Polish delegates more washing machines than they could possibly make proper use of. Paper cups half full of Polish vodka and tiny cups of tar-like coffee littered the shiny surface. Men in military fatigues moved listlessly in the background. Manchester City secretary Bernard Halford wrung his hands together, stood and prepared to shake hands with a row of officials on a deal that was utterly unique.

Ex-army colonel and Poland World Cup captain Kaziu Deyna would be coming to Manchester after all.

City’s squad these days comprises almost only international players, but three decades ago, it was far from the case. 35 years ago this week, a very different kind of international player was stepping out for City and – after a slow and difficult start -- winning over the locals with his grace and commitment.

On 13th October 1979, Polish World Cup captain Kaziu Deyna scored the winner against European champions Nottingham Forest at a packed Maine Road. Richard Bott’s Daily Express report on the match began thus: “The fellow whose mischievous wit prompted him to send up City in a local newspaper advertisement as ‘a set of clockwork clowns’ for sale at 5 pounds, must number among the world’s biggest fools this morning...”

Malcolm Allison's stuttering first campaign back in charge of the Blues was in danger of falling somewhat flat until Deyna stepped in and influenced the plot with winning goals in the Forest and Middlesbrough home games within four days. Some will remember him swinging on the crossbar after his late winner against Boro in midweek, but more will recall his fantastic display against champions Forest.

The Pole's match winning performances lifted City to mid-table, in those days a not unreasonable level of achievement for a club used to sliding casually from one disaster to another under the frivolous second coming of Allison.

Deyna, hailing from a tiny village in northern Poland, was a player of consummate skill, referred to on one occasion by West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer as the complete footballer. At City he was to bed down with a gathering of team mates from a distinctly lower calibre, but the patient probing and effortless passing soon won him more time and space on the pitch and raucous praise rolling down from the terraces. His style, at once casual and effortlessly effective was a little like a taller more languid version of what David Silva brings to City in the modern era.

He really was that good.

The difference between 1979 and 2015 was that Deyna shared a midfield berth with Tony Henry and Ged Keegan, while Silva can rely on Yaya Touré and Fernandinho for assistance. Never underestimate the necessity for others to be on your own wavelength in order to look the part.

Deyna sneaks onto the official team photo in Football Monthly wearing his tie and jacket
It was said of the Polish captain that he had been born with two brains, one in his head and one in his feet. Certainly in the brainless muddle of English top flight footbal in the late seventies, he needed both brains to be working at their swiftest to keep him ahead of the omnipresent hatchet men that each side in division one employed to do their midfield dirty business for them.

Before his much heralded arrival in England, Deyna had led Poland to Olympic gold in 1972, played his part in his country's 1974 qualification ahead of England -- the Wembley draw between the two countries got cautious old Alf Ramsey the sack -- helped orchestrate a magnificent Polish effort in West Germany that summer, when his country surprised everyone by beating Argentina and Italy on their way to a well deserved 3rd place and graced both the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and the midfield of Legia Warsaw for many years without ever truly being appreciated by the home fans.

This lack of appreciation on the part of his fellow Poles slowly developed into maltreatment, with Deyna verbally abused in the green shirt of Legia and even the red of his national side much as Beckenbauer had been in Germany for representing the hated aristocrats of Bayern Munich.

This was part of the reason why, at the age of 32, he would finally receive an opportunity to play abroad, at the time forbidden in Communist Bloc countries. The irony of Deyna’s transfer was that City’s first target had actually been his younger international team mate Zbigniew Boniek, who had not only had a wonderful World Cup in Argentina (and would go on to really shine at Spain '82, leading to a high profile career scoring goals at Juventus), but had also been responsible almost single-handedly for knocking City out of the UEFA Cup in 1977 with his club side Widzew Lodz. Boniek's transfer was rendered impossible owing to the player’s age, but Deyna's was eventually sanctioned by the Polish authorities.

In the end the package that City successfully negotiated for Deyna inolved around 100,000 pounds plus a small hill of domestic appliances and office equipment that were tricky to obtain in Poland. City had their man, Legia had their Rank Xerox photocopiers.

In the first week of November 1978 the Manchester Evening News published a series of articles entitled ‘The Deyna Dossier’, with ace reporter Peter Gardner returning from the snow-clad steppes to report in hushed tones of this mystical import. There were black and white images of snow clad streets with huddled groups that might have leapt straight from a spy novel. The fuss was immense.

Despite not speaking English and finding it difficult to settle, Deyna managed a total of 38 appearances over a period of three seasons, an amount that surely would have been higher had Allison and others shown more faith in his ability.

His stay at City was punctuated by appearances in a side that was as solid as gossamer thread. He poked goals where he could, threaded passes through impossible angles and then watched as his team mates trotted into each other and collapsed. A 3-2 home defeat by a Wolves side months away from relegation and a repeat score at Maine Road against a Chelsea side so desperately decrepit that master striker Peter Osgood played at centre half, meant that Deyna's introduction to English football was an impossible muddle of disaster and farce. Even his debut in yet another home defeat to Ipswich Town featured Kenny Clements breaking his leg in an inoccuous looking challenge.

Eventually Deyna moved on to the United States to play in NASL, where he made a home for himself and his family, later going into coaching. However, on 1st September 1989 a car being driven by the ex-City star was involved in a fatal accident, as he failed to stop -- or even brake -- on seeing a parked truck ahead of him. The quiet, unassuming and modest star from Poland was dead with just 50 cents in his pocket. Stories quickly circulated that alcohol had been the cause of the accident and that a police breathaliser proved it. Inside the back of the car a total of 22 footballs were found. If nothing else, in what seems to have been a life deteriorating swiftly towards its sad conclusion, Kaziu Deyna still had a love of the sport, which had brought him fame if not fortune.

For all City supporters lucky enough to have seen him play that day against Nottingham Forest, memories of a fantastically balanced player persist. That he left us at such a premature stage remains a sadness which will never properly be cured.

Kaziu Deyna, gone but not forgotten.

Peter Swales has just sold another Grundig

Friday, October 10, 2014

A LONG STANDING ADDICTION TO ATTACK


Mention the name Stuart Pearce to Manchester City fans and the reaction of most will be to blanche visibly and to start gurgling about how their hair began falling out in tufts during season 2006-07. Pearce, whose managerial style included a painfully high waist band to his shell-suit trousers and a bean-stuffed toy horse on the touchline, provided the blue half of Manchester with a side roughly in his own image. It defended with its sleeves rolled up, epitomised by the giant trundling Richard Dunne, whose defensive style was to lather any incoming balls into the stratosphere (and when that went wrong, which it customarily did, slice great haphazard shot clearances back over a startled Nicky Weaver in goal) , its midfield panache came in roughly sliced chunks of Joey Barton, a flailing obsessively hormone-impacted man even then (who would end up the club's top scorer that year with six goals and a suspended jail sentence) and its attack, well its attack almost did not exist at all in the form that normal people make their value judgements. When your reliance for goals depends on a supply line from a midfield run by the heavy-set (and, thanks to Barton, black-eyed) Ousmane Dabo to the chunky-thighed, distinctly one-paced Bernardo Corradi and the stick-legged DeMarcus Beasley, you just knew you were in for a long season.

And how very long it was.

In season 2006-07, City limped home in 14th place, were knocked out of the League Cup in the second round during a somewhat complicated evening in Chesterfield where the uninitiated might have thought that Pearce's dinosaur tactics would have worked a treat, and dropped pathetically from the FA Cup at Blackburn with a performance that still gives many of us heartburn thinking about it ten years later. The Blackburn match, with a full-blooded and expectant away phalanx of some 9,000 roaring them on, was perhaps the nadir. As ever, it was the hope that knocked us all flat.

To top it all off nicely, Ben Thatcher put his elbow through Pedro Mendes' cheekbone in a piece of thuggery that sat well alongside the parched football on offer, the team offered home fans a grand total of ten goals all season (not a single one after a struggling New Year's Day victory over pre-jinx Everton) and those foolhardy enough to watch the Blues away had to put up with them playing in yellow shirts, the colour of cowardice, late night vomit and tinned custard.

Matt Mills, Hatem Trabelsi, Sun Jihai. Matt Mills, Hatem Trabelsi, Sun Jihai. 


No, they're still there.

A season that would feature so many horrific performances can hardly throw up highlights, but a 4-0 defeat at Wigan and a 0-0 draw at home to a stubbornly useless Charlton when almost 60% of the crowd were asleep by half time, stick particularly unwelcomingly to the front of the memory. That both adversaries were titled Athletic during a season when City's one and only attribute was a vaguely misdirected athleticism, lent its own little fragrant ironies to the plot.

Perhaps worst of all, though, worse than the games where goal attempts could be counted on the fingers of a one fingered tree sloth, worse than seeing Dabo and Barton square up to each other over some training ground shunt - during the match - worse even than the manager's platitudes that "I fought we did alright ye know", was the fact that this was very much a slight to City's rich history of eye-watering attack, to-hell-with-worrying, if they score three we'll score five mentality.

That Pearce's black period of introspection, following on directly from Kevin Keegan's startling eight-man attack team of 2001-4, only served to make the paucity of it all jab you even more firmly in the eyes.



But to understand where City's modern heritage comes from, we must travel a little further back, to the late sixties, a period in Manchester's development packed with good music, short hemlines and scorchingly attractive football from both sides of the Great Mancunian Divide. United were European champions, whilst City were top dogs domestically. It was a time when Best and Summerbee ran clothes boutiques together and Malcolm Allison, City's ebullient manager, would take to the touchlines dressed in open necked shirts, flapping swathes of sheepskin and puffing on the largest of Havana cigars.

The blue smoke arcing out over the touchline at Maine Road from the cramped little dugouts was synonymous with the fast heeled approach of City's devastating attacking machine. The afore-mentioned Summerbee, one of the first hard tackling wingers, would serve a cornucopia of passes to a strike force of Francis Lee and Neil Young, whilst the supply line was kept red hot by the charging presence of Colin Bell in midfield, a tireless, elegant player who played a genre of the game that was twenty years ahead of its time, and the quixotic, chaotic Tony Coleman on the other side, whose brilliant, anarchic brain worked on a different plain to the rest of us.

City's swashbuckling presence in a series of cup finals and at the top of the first division lasted for four years, a goal-strewn period of such unmitigated joy that its end could only bring confusion and withdrawal amongst the Blues support. It is a period to which forty and fifty-something year old supporters still hark back to with a tear in the eye: an age of innocence and unsurpassed success. The last hurrah came in 1974, when City failed to break down a workaday Wolves side in the League Cup Final, despite fielding an attack of Denis Law, Rodney Marsh, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee. By this time, Allison had left in a cloud of evaporating champagne bubbles, to be replaced by a man for whom the title dour and tough might have been invented: the chisel faced Ron Saunders.

Saunders, a man for whom the stiff necked values of the armed services formed the front row of every team talk, lasted little time at a club which had got used to the rich taste of cavalier football. His replacement, ex-right back and captain Tony Book, would -given time- usher in the next great wave of attacking football in City's history. By the 1976-77 season, Book had stocked City's attack with more sumptuous attacking talent. It would lever the club back up to runners-up spot behind the all-conquering Liverpool side of Bob Paisley, finishing a solitary point behind the Merseysiders.

City hit the grass running most weeks, with a four man attack, comprised of two wingers and two central strikers. Peter Barnes on the left, a quicksilver in and out merchant, was complimented on the opposite flank by the menacing, goal scoring Dennis Tueart, a kind of prototype wide man-cum-goal-getter. In the centre marauded Brain Kidd and Joe Royle and- a little later. England man Mike Channon. All would end up in Don Revie's England sides, a testament to the depth and width of City's attacking quality as the 70s bore to an end.

Sadly, apart from a raft of heart-warming memories, including a 6-2 demolition of Chelsea and a 5-0 home thrutching of Leicester when Brian Kidd helped himself to four, Book's legacy remained stubbornly at an exhiliratingly won League Cup against flu-ridden Newcastle in 1976, which featured a winning goal of such improbable impudence from Dennis Tueart, that it made up for the lack of trophies elsewhere. Tueart, with his back to goal, flung himself at Tommy Booth's knock-down and won the cup with one of the most photogenic goals ever delivered to the lush Wembley turf.

Little were City fans to know, but the gradual fading of that Tueart and Barnes-inspired City side would leave a twenty-five year hole into which all hopes would disappear without trace.

By the time the football fates had dragged the club through various mind-numbing relegations, false dawns and a near-terminal brush with the third tier of English professional football, owner John Wardle was persuaded that something bright and less challenging was needed to lighten the mood somewhat. In stepped the king of light and less challenging, Kevin Keegan, a man who believed so much in the "you score three, we'll score five" theory that he stocked the City midfield entirely with creative talent. In one goal-heavy season in 2001-02, City's 110th in League football and the last to date spent outside the top division, all - or at least most - of the traumas of the past twenty years were washed away.

As opposed to Stuart Pearce's later tenure as track-suited, fist waver in chief on the touchlines, 2001-02 saw the self same Pearce lining up at left back in Keegan's side and opening the season in delirious, fun-drenched style with a looping debut free kick in a cavalcade of attacking intent on live television. Sadly, this was to be a season almost entirely lost to the bewildering and cavernous black hole known as ITV Digital. Those that didn't make it to Hillsborough, for example, missed a 6-2 away win that involved the sumptuous prodding and poking in midfield of perhaps English football's most unlikely tandem, the French Algerian Ali Benarbia and the mercurial Israeli Eyal Berkovic. Leaving political differences firmly to one side, the pair conjured pretty football of the highest order, as they fed the willing front running of Shaun Goater and an electric-heeled Darren Huckerby with an array of through balls, dinked crosses and goals on a plate that fair took the breath away. Add the speed and panache of pocket dynamo Shaun Wright Phillips on the right wing and you had a goal scoring machine of the highest efficiency.


Adversity was sneered at, unlikely odds thrown out with the dish water. A braying home only crowd at the New Den? No problem, sir: three sparkling goals and a sublime team goal celebration in front of the empty stand where the City support should have been ranked was all that was called for. Man sent off after only ten minutes of the game with Norwich? No problem, sir: an absolute battering with a man less for 80 minutes and a totally deserved 3-1 to the Blues was the outcome. Joe Royle's Cup for Cock Ups seemed to have been melted down and remoulded as a bronze bust to attacking verve.

Of course, as with all Kevin Keegan adventures, the baddies get you in the end. Not a ten foot giant, nor a carbuncle-nosed witch, but the Evolution of Staurt Pearce, like dropping in an ice bath full of Gila monsters after swimming in the tepid waters of the Maldives.

Joe Royle scores v United in 1975
Nothing lasts for ever, however, especially if it is built around Steven Ireland and Darius Vassell, so City moved on and -- thanks to the luck of the Gods -- found a benefactor interested in the finer things in life. The modern day City, shaped and produced by the crafty old hands of Manuel Pellegrini, is a faithful reproduction of all that has been good from the Allison, Book and Keegan eras. Gone is the arrogance of the Allison period, gone are the near misses of the late 70s side that promised so much but flattered to deceive and gone too are the alarming defensive frailties of the Keegan side built solely on a capacity to attack.

In choosing Pellegrini, City have landed on a coach, who is faithful to the club's history, but is hell bent on
improving it.

The wildly ambitious five trophies in five years mantra does not phase him. In his first season, under the heavy weight of expectation, his City side carried off the Premier League and League Cup double, whilst playing some of the most wonderfully fluid football in modern English football history. The sight of a jinking, pirouetting David Silva, a stampeding Yaya Touré and the blitzkrieg attack of Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko reminds one royally and wholly of good times gone by and of the startling propensity this club has often had to eschew an overly cautious approach and attack attack attack.

About Me

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Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; bitter, confused and maladjusted. Watching City since 1974 with fluctuating amounts of disbelief.

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