Friday, May 26, 2017

DOUBLE VISION

So City clearly mean business this summer.

Memories of tepid summer months drinking warm ale and watching a succession of half-cocked FFP-inspired signings troop into the Etihad is a thing of the past. Bruno Zuculini, Scott Sinclair and the brittle boned Jack (Daniels) Rodwell have already in one fell swoop been eclipsed before the 2017 close season has even had the chance to get started.

Arsene Wenger’s yearly tilt at the FA Cup final has not yet taken place and City have shelled out a cool £45m on Monaco whizzkid Bernardo Silva.

Manuel Pellegrini’s summer sprees were heavily blighted by the restrictions of UEFA’s once popular and now invisible FFP legislation, which brought City’s enthusiastic squad building to frequent standstill to allow the likes of Manchester United, Milan and other giants-we-want-to-see-on-telly to try to catch up on a European level. Even with the deadweight of at least two summers of forced bargain hunting, City have stayed in front of Manchester United on a domestic and international level for the last four seasons.  

In the wake of a tearful farewell to stalwart full back Pablo Zabaleta, the club has announced in quick-fire succession respective farewells to Willy Caballero, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy and Jesus Navas. The former and latter will be warmly remembered for their heroics at Wembley in the penalty shoot-out with Liverpool in 2016, while Clichy’s presence at all of the club’s recent triumphs marks him down as one of the foot soldiers of change. Sagna’s unremarkable stint at right back will be less vividly remembered. Navas’s whirling first minute rocket against Tottenham and his ability to run fast as a hare in any straight line you pointed him in were also memorable, but his wild eyed frenzy of encouragement during the League Cup final penalty shoot out will go down in the history of Moments People Came Out Of Their Shells.  

Fear not, however, that brother Pep is allowing the cold practicalities of replacing Sagna and Clichy to get in the way of traditional fantasy football, for his first signing is the kind of zippy breath of fresh air that some might say the club already has something of a copyright on. Joining the ferocious forward momentum of Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, David Silva, Leroy Sane, Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling is a player who could peel an orange with his booted foot.

Bernardo Silva, of good Benfica stock, another in a line of super-talented youths moved on in rude haste by the Lisbon giants , managed only three games for the Eagles, before being stolen away by Monaco for what was then considered the tempting fee of £15m. That he is now a €60m player must be hurting slightly in the Benfica boardroom, where they enjoy the sound of the cash tills ringing, right now.

For City, what on the surface may look suspiciously like the cake that received too many eggs, the truth as ever is a little different. David Silva, long City’s main creative source and a one man instrument of chaos behind the front runners for City, may well be considered to have one more really top season left in him before the gentle rot of old age sets in. Looking at how countrymen Iniesta and Xavi survived well beyond Silva’s somewhat paltry 31 years, you are tempted to think the Catalan intends playing two Silvas at the same time next season. Not only the age-old commentators nightmare, but dangerously close to luxury overload for those basking in the wan sun of early Autumn at the Etihad next season.

Silva, David, also needs to be put into perspective. Continually overlooked for personal accolades and baubles, he has been a force of stability and creativity in the City middle orders for years. Whenever the little Spaniard absented himself, City’s creative momentum slowed to a dribble. Despite the great wealth of talent at the club, there seemed few others who could carve out chances in the way the Spaniard did with monotonous ease. When De Bruyne - another whose eye for gaps surpassed that of his team mates - stepped up to be counted, he appeared to have his shoelaces tied together for much of last season, only emerging from his heavy-footedness when spring’s sunshine fell once again across his freckled face.

The Silva B has of course already left his calling card with City fans, running the show so convincingly in the Champions League tie at the Etihad last February that it fare took the breath away. In a pulsating, almost comical 5-3 City win, Monaco had taken the game to their hosts with Silva very much to the forefront. His effortless gliding from the right flank in to the hole behind the main striker was almost balletic, a dancing shimmying fusion of David Silva’s clever movement and economic passing with Eden Hazard’s snaking speed-slaloms. It was an intoxicating mix that only petered out halfway through the second half, when City retook a firm grip of his area of the field. Silva had put in an exceptional shift, but tellingly had run out of steam at the critical moment.

That David Silva eventually wrested back control and turned a sumptuous game round in City’s favour showed the Spanish master still to be a step ahead of his heir apparent, but the gap is narrowing rapidly.

Rejuvenation and renewal is -- one short month after the Wembley blow-out to Arsene Wenger’s nervous Arsenal -- in the air. Guardiola is planting the seeds for future harvests in Manchester: With John Stones (22), Sterling (22), Sane (21) and Jesus (20), the club is shepherding the best of the next generation through the Etihad portals. Bernardo Silva is also 22 prospective full back signing Bernard Mendy is 21. Patrick Roberts (20) after a fast and furious season at Celtic may also be knocking at the door.

Without simplifying the newly acquired Silva’s likely input to “David Silva Mark II”, the ex-Monaco midfielder shares the innate ability to open up the tightest defences, but might be more prone to doing it with a sharp burst of pace or a slaloming dribble than David Silva’s neat pirouettes and eye-of-the-needle passing. He will also bring another commodity that Silva often lacked: the ability to contribute goals to the cause. Where the Spaniard often shrivels and burns in front of goal, the Portuguese is happy to oblige. Born as a playmaker in Benfica’s academy at Seixal, he has drifted to the right wing under the aegis of Leonardo Jardim at Monaco. He can play a little bit everywhere, including as a false 9, as witnessed at the European Under 21 championships two years ago.

Portuguese football expert Rui Miguel Martins agrees City’s newest recruit will be a huge asset, saying:
Bernardo Silva's greatest attributes are his innate understanding of the game, close control and ability to deliver that final pass. He has been a playmaker or number 10 (at Benfica), used on the right wing (at Monaco) and as a false 9 for his country. If you are looking for a like-for-like example than I would look no further than David Silva or Edin Hazard."

Guardiola will have had the Portuguese on the radar for some time but the Champions League games last season must have gone a long way to convincing him of the player’s craft and big game abilities.

Martins continues, "Bernardo Silva left Benfica having only made three appearances for the club, originally on loan. In January 2015, Monaco eventually decided to make the deal permanent for little over €15million. At the time, many fans of the Portuguese club felt that they had allowed a diamond to slip straight through their fingers. And I think that is exactly what happened.”

Like Renato Sanches before him, Silva left at an early age to find fame and fortune away from the Estádio da Luz. While Sanches has stagnated in Bayern’s reserves, Silva took the clever stepping stone of the French Ligue and has reaped the benefits of growing organically and gradually to become one of the very brightest prospect in European football. Under Guardiola his star is set to climb higher again.

City’s own growth has been more meteoric than organic in recent years, but the clear evidence is that long-term planning is in place. In short, what seems a luxury signing will surely come to be seen as a masterstroke by Guardiola and his paymasters. A Silva as heir apparent to a Silva may offer tight lexicographical symmetry, but it will be nothing to the dynamism, trickery and pace the newcomer will bring to City’s forward movement. Seeing double can make you go cross-eyed and next season is already threatening to be a sight for sore eyes at the Etihad.

Friday, March 17, 2017

HIS MASTER'S VOICE


It has long been wondered by the good and wise just how much professional footballers take with them onto the pitch from the pre-match discussions, dressing room briefings and intimately detailed weekly coaching sessions. Is all that advice and planning thrown out with the bath water or do the players stick religiously to the plan? Can Gael Clichy bear to peel off his massive headphones to take in the trainer’s advice or is it all just a little bit too tedious?

City’s recent dive into the shenanigans of top class football has brought several examples of this kind of behaviour to light.

On the august occasion of the club’s inaugural away game in the Champions League, you might have been forgiven for thinking the players would have been 100% focussed on what little piece of history they might be able to carve out for the club in the auspicious surroundings of Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena.

Instead, and despite the gallant galloping of an unrestrained Micah Richards, the spotlight on that evening fell squarely on the rugged features of Carlos El Apache Tevez.  Gaining his nickname from the dusty squalor of Fuerte Apache in Buenos Aires, where he was brought up, rather than the fiercely autonomous Indian marauders of the same name, Tevez chose the occasion to ignore Roberto Mancini’s instructions to warm up and prepare to come on as a substitute. It is still unclear to this day whether the troubled Charles had equated the forced removal of his namesakes from the parched foothills of the Rio Verde with his deportation from the warmth of the subs’ cubicle for the icy night of the Allianz pitch.
We can perhaps assume that historical metaphor was not amongst the highest elements in his skill set and he was purely being a stubborn little shit.

For those of us watching high in the stands, with maliciously little thought for the trials and tribulations of the Coyotero and Tonto as they were chased out of New Mexico, and indeed little awareness of the general kerfuffle developing down on the touchline around dear old non-plussed Carlitos, the part this scene played in City’s eventual downfall was not at all clear.

However, it soon became painfully evident that the player had totally disregarded his manager’s demands and had instead sat back down in the dugout with the face of the small child whose Golden Grahams have just been devoured by the family Jack Russell.

Edin Dzeko got whiff of the stale odours of mutiny floating around the touchline and had his own hissy fit on being subbed off later in the same game. Mancini, dreaming of a nice plate of spaghetti alle vongole, could only shake his head and brush those flowing locks back behind his ears.
If that was not bad enough for the Italian, his abrasive style did not fall well with some of Tevez’s team mates and by the time his managerial stint in Manchester was coming to an end, it was more than just Tevez and Dzeko that had seemingly had enough of the Italian’s beloved arm waving and touchline histrionics. They then chose the 2013 FA Cup final to down tools. It was the most public possible dereliction of duty and secured Wigan Athletic their only major trophy in 80 years of trying.

Mancini had overseen a wonderful transformation of the club from self-deprecating shot-in-the-foot merchants to gliding trophy winners. Only here, the bullet-ridden boots were being worn with pride once again.

Charles hid behind the others until Teacher had left
The question of player power has arisen again after last week’s desperate Champions League exit to Monaco, a side with well drilled but little heralded players of still tender years. Portuguese coach Leonardo Jardim has done a fabulous job in a tricky situation, where the club asked him to ditch high earners and watch as they sold  many of the squad’s jewels and replaced them with eager kids. The difference here bites you in the bum like Carlos Tevez’s Jack Russell. The kids obviously listen. They take in the coach’s bons mots and act upon them. They keep their shape and run their little legs off, because that’s what Dom Leonardo told them to do.

City’s recruitment process down the years has brought in star after star. Some have been more humble than others. The likes of Adebayor and Yaya Toure, backed by eccentric agents, with world domination and other fripperies in mind, have been harder to handle than the afore-mentioned galloping Richards and trundling Gareth Barry. Even simple Yorkshiremen James Milner had his moments of mental illumination.

It is perhaps telling that Liverpool’s emergency full back now states: “Winning two titles at City, we had some good players, but as a team this (Liverpool side) is probably the best I’ve played in."

Tte two titles that Milner played a role in gathering at the Etihad witnessed some of the most exciting moments of football that City fans have seen in generations. However, the underlying feeling that the club has underachieved, despite it going through what has now probably developed into the best period in its history, will not die away.

Mancini’s cup final embarrassment was just an amuse bouche, as it turned out. The main course was to be served under Manuel Pellegrini’s stuttering tutorship and the dessert is being thrown our way as we speak.

Pellegrini launched himself at us with a Keeganesque spree of attacking football that had everyone gasping for breath. It was of course all too good to be true and – once the euphoria of a League and League Cup double had faded away – years two and three were an abject exercise in underperforming. How To Get a Thimble of Juice Out of a Warehouse full of Grapefruit.

Did the players do as they please? Who knows. Big egos, big dressing room characters and a manager, who apparently would not and could not say boo to a goose. By the end of his three year jaunt, City were playing on memory. The last year was saved by a dramatic success in the League Cup final against Liverpool, but it had also petered out in the league in a season when all the major threats to City had fallen away, leaving an embarrassed and surprised Leicester to take the crown that nobody seemed to want.

Pep Guardiola was brought in after a long and arduous chase to put all of this nonsense to bed. Which player, young or old, apache or monk's assistant, could ignore the teachings of the Word’s Greatest Coach © after all? Which idiot could cock a snook at a man, who had led, nay constructed, that fabulous Barcelona side of pass and glide, who had moved smoothly onto Munich by way of New York and built another dynasty there?  The man was untouchable. If he said Kolarov’s going centre half, that’s exactly what’s going to happen and we’ll all stand and applaud the foresight that nobody else seemed to possess.
Only the suave Catalan had underestimated the failing-power of Manchester City. The power to fail, that is. The historical willingness to aim that twelve bore at your own feet and press the trigger. The mavericks, cretins and ne’r do wells that have inhabited this club’s sumptuous history would never have had it any other way, and indeed neither would a lot of the supporters.

Goody two shoes waits for the shit to hit the fan

However, in Gael Clichy’s words this week, that the players did not take Gaurdiola’s advice seriously and did not heed his words to avoid sitting deep against an energetic bunch, who clearly intended  to run City ragged, the whole foul-smelling soup has been stirred up again.

The massive underachievement that forms the bedrock of City’s renaissance may be a weird kind of oxymoron, but it remains a fact that the club has missed out on as much silverware in the last seven years as it has actually brought home.




Thursday, March 16, 2017

THE JOURNALISTS: Richard Bott

PART 4: Liverpool (Home)

Richard Bott was a name found attached to City's match reports for nearly twenty years.  As the Sunday Express Chief Northern Sports Writer, he penned pieces on City's mesmeric ups and downs between 1974 and 1989. As a result, his name is synonymous with many a memorable event involving the club during frequently tumultuous times in Moss Side.

Starting his career as early as 1955, the young Bott was employed by the Harrogate Advertiser group 1955-59, the Coventry Evening Telegraph 1959-60, Birmingham Evening Despatch 1960-63, Yorkshire Evening Post 1963-64 and the Daily Mail, before finding a permanent home at the Sunday Express.

On October 29th 1977, Bott was despatched to Maine Road, as usual, to report on the day's most attractive fixture between City and League and European champions Liverpool. What he and the near-50,000 crowd shoe-horned into Maine Road that afternoon witnessed would turn out to be one of the matches of the 77-78 season.



Friday, March 10, 2017

STARBURST

When Ian Ross launched into his Guardian report on Middlesbrough's 5th round FA Cup win at Maine Road in 1997, there was not the thinnest slice of irony intended in his opening gambit:


That the luscious pageant of the rich and famous were wearing red shirts on this occasion shows how quickly football moves on. With a side containing the shimmering diamonds of Juninho, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Craig Hignett, Boro were on their way to Wembley.

City, meanwhile, had - we were told - travelled a long way to be in a position to lose 0-1 to Middlesbrough on their own pitch. With a team packed with the following luminaries, it might have been considered quite something that it only finished one-nil:

Margetson, McGoldrick, Ingram, Lomas, Symons, Brightwell, Summerbee, Brown, Crooks, Kinkladze, Rosler.

If this City side had travelled a long way, it was tempting to ask where in that case they had actually come from. What Mr Ross didn't know was where they were going next, also at breakneck speed. After a lucky 13th place finish, the following season would see City go down to the third tier of English football, where even Martin Margetson might have been expected to have found his feet.

It would be a time when the faithful were introduced to bright new names, Gary Mason, Barry Conlon and the aptly named Kakhaber Tskhadadze. attractive new venues, The Racecourse Ground, Moss Lane and Layer Road as well as some invigorating new sensations, smouldering, chafing and disintegrating.

The football juggernaut trundles on in its own inimitable way, leaving odd bits of historical debris in its wake.






Tuesday, March 7, 2017

THE JOURNALISTS: Paul Fitzpatrick

PART 3: STOKE CITY (home)

In the early 70s, football journalism was a very diferent beast to what millions of football followers consume today. Many papers did not even have a sports department, relying on staffers and assorted wordsmiths to plug the gaps, when intermittent sports coverage needed some attention.

When they did turn their gaze on sweaty athletes, the broadsheets covered a variety of sports with almost equal amounts of column inches, meaning you could get your football fix on a page that had just as many column inches given over to a seemingly insignificant hockey match and the latest soaked participants at the Badminton Horse Trials.

Seemingly momentous events were often covered by a single hack with the most rudimentary means of filing his reports back to base in Fleet Street. The Guardian operated slightly differently to the others at this time in that it was a company with a controlling trust, namely the Scott Trust. It sought to be a business, but with a generally leftist moral tone in its attitude towards the governments of the day.

According to John Samuel  in his accounts of what those innovative days were like, "Different people had different ideas for the tone. It varied from Jo Grimond to Karl Marx. Strictly, it had no sports department, certainly not in a Fleet Street sense. There were fine writers – Pat Ward-Thomas, Denys Rowbotham, John Rodda, David Frost, Eric Todd – but in a limited number of activities....

In amongst these esteemed writers came Paul Fitzpatrick, who would write on football and cricket for the Guardian and Observer for more than a decade, breaking the Kerry Packer cricket scandal story in April 1979.

His football writing was what you would have expected from the Guardian, erudite, with cadence and clarity and gets a mention in Daniel Taylor's illuminating account of Nottingham Forest's rise to European elite status, I Believe In Miracles, as one of the first writer's to acknowledge Forest's talent in that surprise season of 1977-78, when they took the top flight by storm.

Here we see him struggling manfully with a dreary 0-0 draw between City and Stoke at Maine Road in the 1973-74 season.


Within two months of writing this match report, Fitzpatrick had been sent to Newcastle to report on the FA Cup 6th round tie between United and the then second division Nottingham Forest. An unlikely match to produce a full-blown riot, Fitzpatrick witnessed some of the most turbulent crowd scenes from an utterly unstable decade, describing them thus:

"Only a spark was needed to set alight combustible feelings, and a balding middle-aged looking pugilist provided it. His paunch exposed, his shirt flying, this heavyweight bare-knuckle fighter set his arms flailing like a windmill and at least five policemen were needed to cool his ardour and pin him to the muddy turf. But the damage had been done and the crowd went haring down the pitch to the Gallowgate end..."

"Combustible feelings"

Saturday, February 4, 2017

THE JOURNALISTS: Derek Potter

PART 2, SWANSEA Home

As football writer for the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror in the 60s, 70s and 80s, Derek Potter often found himself at Maine Road, reporting on City's antics in decades of sharply contrasting ups and downs. Across the city boundary, it was Potter who broke the story that Robert Maxwell was attempting to buy Manchester United, while he also penned a column for the United Review for a time, at the behest of his Express colleague James Lawton, the author of the critically acclaimed Forever Boys.

Potter was still reporting on City into the 1980s (this 4-0 win over Swansea occurred in 1981). He remained a highly respected reporter at the Express's Ancoats Street headquarters until taking up a new challenge with the Today newspaper in the mid 80s. Potter died in 2006 at the age of 75. In 2010 his posthumously published book When Football Was Fun appeared on the bookshelves.

Kevin Reeves celebrates one of his two goals in the 4-0 win over Swansea





Friday, February 3, 2017

THE JOURNALISTS: John Moynihan

PART 1: WEST HAM (away)

John Moynihan worked for 12 years at the Daily Telegraph. Author of the Soccer Syndrome, his writing was crisp, colourful and authoritative. Here's what he said about City's visit to Upton Park in August 1977:

 

Other Tedious Stuff

Poets and Lyricists