Friday, September 22, 2017


 "John Bond's cup runneth over, but Malcolm Allison's remains as dry as a bone..."
Malcolm Allison marches towards the Kippax pre-game 
So went the opening line of Colin Malam’s pithy match report for the Sunday Telegraph in January 1981.

The match of some considerable drama that had just been completed on the soaking wet Maine Road pitch, between Manchester City and Crystal Palace sides as evenly matched as this weekend's fixture appears to make them, had finished 4-0 to the home side. It was to be the beginning of a legendary FA Cup run that would take in never-to-be-forgotten matches with Norwich (an uproarious six-nil pasting), Peterborough (with 28,000 packing the 4th division club’s old London Road ground), two mammoth quarter final ties with Everton, played out in front of an aggregate crowd of well over 100,000 people, and a semi final with the then all-conquering Ipswich Town, who had been on route for a treble of trophies before being sent packing by a dogged City performance at Villa Park.

The final with Tottenham, the centenary FA Cup Final would also be drenched in sweat and drama, but – at this point in January -- that was still some four months away.

The reason for the autumnal change of management at Maine Road in 1980-81 was on this occasion sitting in the dugout not ten metres away from where ex-Norwich boos Bond and his assistants John Benson and John Sainty (the beknighted "Three Johns") were busy arranging their sheepskin coats and flasks of coffee.

The incumbent of that small plastic and steel arrangement in front of the Main Stand had in fact only just sat down, having spent those typically tense pre-match minutes striding out across the Maine Road mud towards the heaving Kippax terraces on the opposite side of the ground, to take the adulation of an expectant and thoroughly wound-up 39,000 crowd.

If ever there was a game that required the hackneyed you could cut the atmopshere with a knife, it was this one.

The 3rd round tie between City and Palace that set up the run to Wembley 1981 was not so much a game about the two clubs but a deeply intriguing look into the psyche of the two managers. What made them tick, what made their relationship so unique, how they had come to be on opposite sides on this grand occasion.

City, under the atsute management of Bond, had taken off – pilfering 20 points from a possible 26 in the league since his arrival the previous October. The side that he had inherited his opponent on this occasion had been at its lowest ebb for some time, with debilitating cup exits at Shrewsbury and Halifax still very clear in the mind from the previous two seasons.

Back down at pitch level, the Kippax was still in a tumult. It was difficult to remember an opposition manager having the gaul to walk arms aloft towards the centre circle, clapping his hands ostentatiously above his head and receiving exactly the same back from the mass of hands and faces staring back at him from the great swaying steps. It was one of the moments of the decade at Maine Road, an unforgettable sight and an unforgettable moment that sent chills down the spine.

It was later captured in the ultra intrusive Granada TV documentary CITY!, a crushingly honest look at those last barren days of a City managerial career that was utterly doomed.

The exclamation mark after the club’s name in the Granada documentary has never really gone away. It would have come as very little surprise during those 70s and 80s of self-inflicted carnage to see City appear on the results boards as Manchester City!, so serpentine and entangled had the club’s attempts at normality become.

The man in the middle of the pitch with two minutes to go to kick-off was of course Malcolm Allison, sacked by City’s genius chairman Peter Swales, the used television mogul from Altrincham, just two months earlier. The very same Allison, who had been mentor to John Bond from their days playing together at West Ham United in the 50s and still the larger than life character that City fans had grown to love and respect for the drama-laden trophy years he had brought to Maine Road between 1967 and 1970.

Allison it was, as a pupil of the magnificent Hungarian national side of the 50s with its strutting Puskas and twinkle toes Hidgekuti, had introduced to City's training regime elements that would - thirty years later - earn Arsene Wenger wide-eyed plaudits at Arsenal.

Under Allison's 1981 regime, however, a succession of terrible results had brought the famous coach's City tenure to a sad end. A chaotic three-nil home defeat to Liverpool where Allison inexplicably told his players to choose their own tactics to face the champions and a dismal midweek loss at Elland Road against an equally appalling post-glory Leeds United led chairman Peter Swales to pull the rug from under the coach's expensively clad feet.

Football is a game that seldom stands still and – as Allison saw the thousands of hands returning to their pockets on the Kippax -  he made his way back towards the Main Stand, where the teams were about to enter the fray and the various elements of the coaching staff were jostling for pseats in the tiny dugouts that predated today's sponsored aircraft seats.

As he did so, the crowd rose again, an upswell of noise from the Kippax telling Allison in no uncertain terms that his moment had now come and gone, that he would forever have a place in the hearts of the faithful but that now he was here as Leader of the Opposition.

Suddenly a chant rolled down off the great terrace behind him, creating one of the most poignant moments in what was the beginning of the twilight of Allison’s career as a respected coach."Johnny Bond, Johnny Bond, Johnny Bond," was the repeated refrain as Big Mal wedged his frame wistfully into the tiny dugout.

His face was stretched and his eyes carried a sad glaze as he made himself comfortable. He would take Palace down to the second division at the end of the season and would later lead Middlesbrough in an ill-fated spell in the North East

reporter: “Mal, Middlesbrough is not really a champagne and cigars sort of town is it?” –  Allison: “When you’re winning, any town is a champagne and cigars sort of town”).

His Palace side on this occasion, beaten thoroughly by his old love Manchester City, managed by his old pupil John Bond, must have left Allison with one of the saddest memories of his late career. The feeling that his life at the forefront of British football was coming to an end must have been horribly tangible for a man used to making things work so effortlessly.

As Malam had written in his post-match report, Bond’s cup ranneth over, whilst Allison’s remained dry as a bone. What delicious irony that would have been to Allison, the original Dartford gunslinger, of champagne and bunny girls fame. Few were the occasions that Big Mal’s cup was anything other than full to the brim.


The cup run, from Palace, via Norwich and Peterbough to Everton and Ipswich. Halcyon days.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


1993-94 Pre-season friendly: City 2-4 Feyenoord. Gary Flitcroft in action against future manager Peter Bosz
As City prepare to launch their 2017-18 assault on European football’s top prize, manager Pep Guardiola and his staff will be well aware of the pressure facing them to make serious advances towards the oft-stated designs of the club’s ambitious owners.

The money lavished on clear player upgrades this summer speaks volumes for the ambition of Guardiola, the club and the owners. Champions League success evidently ranks as highly as winning the Premier League.
Despite a sticky start in the competition, when tough draws came thick and fast, City’s steady progress since 2008 means the club is now in a good position to press on in its attempts to beat the semifinal reached in 2015-16. That match, woefully tossed away without the semblance of a proper fight against Real Madrid represents City’s only foray beyond the round of 16 so far.
City were passive-aggressive in Madrid in 2015-16
Although City are now the most consistent of England’s representatives in this competition, since Arsenal’s belated failure to qualify, they must push on to convince that they are anything other than slightly green and hopeful challengers.

The might of Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona and Juventus awaits them in the latter rounds and, to stand a chance against their like, City must put in a convincing pre-Christmas stint in the group stage.

Starting with this week’s tricky-looking tie in De Kuip to play a resurgent Feyenoord side, City have once again been pitched into a group that looks extremely even. Napoli and Shakthar Donetsk are hardly mugs when it comes to continental competition and City will need to repeat their league form to progress.

Feyenoord have started their domestic season even better than City with four straight wins that see them out in front of the pack in the Dutch Eredivisie. Having eclipsed Ajax last season, the Rotterdammers will be keen to impress on their return to the big stage. This will be their first game in the Champions League since 2002.

Programme cover from City v FC Twente, UEFA Cup 1978-79. (1-1 away, 3-2 home)

City European history against Dutch sides is short, having played FC Twente home and away in 1978 and 3-2 again in the lop-sided group format of 2008 when only a home game was played against the same side. That was the weird season City played 16 ties just to get to the quarter-final stage, where Hamburg was a step too far. Trips to the Faroe Islands and three games against Danish opposition (Copenhagen, Aalborg and Mydtjylland) made it the oddest season on record for City on the continent.
As far as the Champions League is concerned, the story is equally brief: Ajax home and away and memories of a crushing failure in Roberto Mancini’s last season of 2012-13.

Having lost unluckily in Madrid against Real (2-3), City had been extremely fortunate to draw at home to a rampant Borussia Dortmund – they would go on to contest the Wembley final with Bayern that season --and were then faced with two matches back-to-back against the Dutch champions, which would decide whether they had a chance of progressing or not.

In those two matches everything went wrong, with City well beaten in Amsterdam (1-3) after leading through Samir Nasri’s opener and pegged back to 2-2 at the Etihad, thus putting an early lid on their ambitions for another season. Those were also certainly happier times for Ajax boss Frank de Boer, enjoying the kind of stage and backing palpably lacking at the more prosaic surrounds of Crystal Palace this autumn.
Curiously, given Guardiola's start this season with a three-man back line, Mancini also opted for a similar set-up at the Ajax Arena, a shape criticised by right back Micah Richards after the game, who stated he and his team mates had not had enough time to master the new formation.
"The players just want to play. It's a hard system because we're not used to it but I think the players prefer a 4-4-2 but he's the manager and we do what he says." -  Micah Richards
The 1-3 final score in Amsterdam represented the biggest defeat City had tasted in competitive European history until last season’s dismantling at the Camp Nou (0-4). In fact the amount of goals scored both for and against in last season’s tournament will be cause for concern for Guardiola and his staff. A total of A total of 24 goals were scored and 16 conceded in City’s 10 competitive games, which included a play-off drubbing of Steaua Bucharest (5-0), another five goal haul against Monaco (5-3), a big win against Borussia Monchengladbach (4-0), a thrillingly entertaining draw at Celtic (3-3) and the afore-mentioned drubbing in Barcelona.
City’s 5-0 thrashing of Liverpool last weekend points to a season, where even more goals are on the cards, but Guardiola will be keen to staunch the flow at the other end. Another match with a big 5 in it features a link to this game. Feyenoord coach Gianni van Bronkhurst was in the Arsenal side that cantered to a 5-1 win at City in 2003.

Programme cover: pre-season friendly 2003-4 in Aarhus
While all the goals were flashing in last season's Champions League campaign, one thing remained stable: City's inability to get an away win. This now totals seven games without a win away from home in the Champions League. While away draws are fine if they are paired consistently with home wins, it is a run Guardiola will want to put an end to before it gets any more noteworthy.

With injury doubts once again circling around captain Vincent company and Nicolas Otamendi’s woeful lack of pace shown up by the roasting he got from Mohamed Salah, the Catalan’s insistence on three at the back and gung-ho attacking may be tempered on this occasion.
Away games in European competition are perhaps not the best place to throw caution to the wind and a steady, successful start to the group stage is essential to take some of the pressure off, as the season hots up. Guardiola only has to look back to the fateful season when City last played Dutch opposition to see how the club sank after a poor start. There was no coming back from the single point haul from the two Ajax games and City were eliminated at the group stage.

So the bejewelled story of Pep Guardiola and the Champions League starts another chapter. 25 years on from his glorious introduction as a young Barcelona player in the season the club finally won the tournament for the first time, it is perhaps time for the Catalan to add another personal milestone in his close relationship with the trophy. As far as City’s relationship with the Champions League goes, another tilt at the latter stages seems overdue. The long glittering road to Kiev begins this week at the coalface in Rotterdam.
1993-94 Pre-season friendly at Eastlands: City 2-4 Feyenoord
2003-04 Pre-season friendly in Aarhus, Denmark: City 2-1 Feyenoord

Friday, September 8, 2017


Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were each convinced that a good goalkeeper ---Peter Shilton, Peter Schmeichel and David Seaman at their respective title winning Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and Arsenal sides  -- could save their sides between 10 and 15 points a season.

As City prepare to face Liverpool this weekend, the long history of goalkeepers, good and bad, that has wrapped itself around these two clubs, may make this old saying even more poignant.  In City’s case, the big question is: have they finally found the man, who can do for them exactly what Messrs Schmeichel, Seaman and Shilton did before him and be a deciding factor in the Premier League title returning to the Etihad for a third time in seven years?

After all, the afore-mentioned 15 points that those managers believed a proper keeper could save them represent the exact difference between City and title winners Chelsea last season.
City’s recent problems in this position are well documented: from Joe Hart, England’s first choice and a regular at the Etihad since his breakthrough in 2007-08 to his immediate replacement Claudio Bravo, Chile’s record cap holder, things have not always gone smoothly between the sticks for the club.

This is nothing new of course. As far back as the last time City featured in the trophy-winning highlights back in the late sixties and early seventies, the goalkeeping position provided a proper headache for Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer.
Joe Corrigan, putting on weight quicker than his profession required, failed to take off successfully - both metaphorically and literally - and found himself dropped. In those nascent glory years, the gloves flew between Harry Dowd, Corrigan and Ken Mulhearn. The latter was the main keeper for the title season of 67-68, while Dowd regained his place to feature in the FA Cup final v Leicester in 1969. Corrigan was in the side the next season for the double triumph in the League Cup and Cup Winners' Cup and was also between the sticks for City's 1976 League Cup triumph over Newcastle, plus the 1981 FA Cup final defeat to Tottenham after a replay, where he was the BBC's Man of the Match(es).
A lot had happened in between, however. 
By 1973 the battle for a flabby and nervous Corrigan was to wrest the number one jersey from Ron Healey and the expensively acquired Keith MacRae, a £100,000 buy (imagine that) from Motherwell, of all places. A succession of managers around that time did not rate Corrigan and even some of his team mates had had enough of his occasional gaffes, Mike Doyle purportedly asking the management what Corrigan was doing still in the side.   
That he fought back, regained his place in the first team and – by the mid seventies – had found a slot in the England squad, was testament to his incredible willpower and attitude. That he never made it past a meagre total of 9 international caps was down to the bad luck of finding himself competing with the afore-mentioned Shilton and a certain Ray Clemence of Liverpool.

Clemence stood between the posts at Anfield nearly 500 times during the seventies, before giving way to Bruce Grabelaar, a moustachioed Zimbabwean who had fought in the jungles of central Africa before finding an unlikely place in British professional football.

Grobelaar was the archetypal “eccentric goalkeeper”, often leaving his line to perform the kind of duties today’s goalkeepers are regularly expected to do, but in an era, when the backpass could be picked up and defences did not expect the man at the back to frolic from goal and start playing the ball to feet. Grobelaar seemed to be making up the goalkeeper's art as he went along and this often led to embarrassing failure.

In one such event, in 1981, City came to Anfield fully expecting to get their annual pasting, but came away with one of those rare away wins, partly because of Grobelaar's antics in the home goal. Coming way too far for a high ball, he was stranded in no man's land when the foray resulted in a missed catch, as City's Steve Kinsey looped the ball towards goal, forcing Phil Thompson to palm it over the bar.

Kevin Bond's penalty conversion helped City towards a 3-1 win that was as rare as hens' teeth.

Corrigan, watching from a safe distance at the opposite end that day, will have had uneasy flashbacks to his own dark days.

Claudio Bravo arrived at City just over 12 months ago knowing exactly what to expect. Guardiola, an advocate of so-called sweeper keepers, had brought him to England to do what he professed Hart could not manage: come out, use his feet, pass and set attacks in motion with alert, adept balls to his midfielders. 
This was quickly shown to be a flawed exercise, with Bravo caught horribly in an early season Grobelaaresque act of hot headedness in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford. The game left a
All the way from Motherwell
mark on the Chilean, who became steadily more erratic and less convincing as the season progressed, to the extent that he eventually lost his place in the first team to Hart’s old understudy Willy Caballero.

This was arguably one of the major turning points in Guardiola’s first attempt at trophy winning in England. With an already shaky defence shot of confidence, a major Achilles heel had been uncovered and was duly attacked as City’s weak point by a variety of canny opponents.
To their credit, City have moved to correct the weakness.

Bravo’s much heralded arrival had initially pushed fan favourite Hart out to Torino on loan and subsequently West Ham, where he is still trying manfully to shore up his battered reputation.
That Bravo is still at the club comes about as a result of the impasse with Hart. The Chilean, meanwhile, relegated to second choice by the expensive acquisition of Ederson Morais from Benfica, has witnessed a sturdy and reliable start by his new Brazilian team mate.

The calmness and authority that was so obviously missing last season as Bravo’s confidence ebbed away like the evening tide, is now there for all to see. After opening matches with little to do at Brighton and at home to Everton, the young goalkeeper found himself in the thick of a truly crazy game at Bournemouth, which required maximum concentration and huge agility to help his side to the most hard-earned of three points.
That his concentration did not waver was one thing. That he was able – when called upon – to pull off the kind of elastic saves that seemed for the most part of last season to be beyond his predecessor, bodes well for the future.

Having proved his worth against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the Champions League for Benfica in 2016, Ederson simply has to keep doing what he did in those two closely fought quarter-final matches: racing from his goal, passing accurately and confidently to feet and launching searing counter-attacks with incredibly accurate drop kicks to the wings.
If he can do all of this at City, those 15 extra points – exactly the margin of failure last season -- might just make all the difference to City's challenge in 2017-18.

An abridged version of this article featured on the ESPNFC website here

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Faced with a blanket defence from a team making their debut in a noisy Amex, City produced a remarkably composed display, strangling any vigour the home side could muster almost at birth. Brighton, full of the vim and vigour that comes from a sunny opening day 34 years after the last top flight outing, were predictably well supported, but just could not break clear of City's tight grip.

To illustrate this, it was the 44th minute before Brighton got their first touch inside City's penalty area, a weak header from an erroneously awarded free kick out on City's left flank. Up to this point Ederson's only view of the ball had been watching it travel between his defenders and his midfielders like a shuttlecock in an evenly contested game of badminton.

It had taken the home side an entire half to have a single touch in the opposition area.

Despite Brighton's extremely blunt attack, there was plenty of enthusiasm from the South coast side. However, 22% possession by the end again underlined how dominant City were. To emphasise Brighton's supine state, by the end goalkeeper Mat Ryan had made more passes (27) than anybody else in his team.

City set up as expected with Danilo and Kyle Walker as flank players to a midfield anchored by Fernandinho and further populated by David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. Each of these players had an important role to play as the game developed, with Walker and Danilo often as far advanced as Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus in attack. Walker in particular had a lively game, successfully marrying a marauding attacking profile with the ability to motor back and snuff out any Brighton threats on his flank.

Danilo's contribution was more in attack and he played well for the first forty minutes or so, giving Solly March much to think about. Despite this, his penchant for the right foot was much in evidence and the urge to cut in and use it stopped him from passing his marker down the outside, which Leroy Sane would immediately try to do (without success it must be said) when he came on later in the second half.

Silva meanwhile did his usual thing, prodding and passing all day long, the conduit for the quick movement of the ball from left to right and back again, as City searched for an opening. De Bruyne too, after one or two fluffed early passes, was prominent in trying to lever an opening in front of a wall of midfielders backed by a second line of defenders.

In all of this, Fernandinho's first half saw him almost redundant, sitting in the hole in front of the back three of, from left to right, Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Vincent Kompany. If Brighton had not upped their game at the start of the second half (minutes 50 - 55 saw the only proper "sustained" threat of the game from them) it might have been Fernandinho giving way. More active defensively, the Brazilian also began to get forward more in the second half and eventually had an important role to play in City's victory, playing the teasing cross in from the right that Lewis Dunk headed into his own net under pressure from Gabriel Jesus.

The back three looked solid enough but judgement will have to wait until they are put under proper pressure. Otamendi's penchant for sleepy moments and Stones's propensity for casual balls out (he was caught once here, producing a sloppy short pass that was intercepted) mean there will be hairy moments but here there were none.

Behind them Ederson might as well have been sunning himself on the Copacabana, caipirinha in hand, so little was he called upon. His first kick out went to a Brighton player, however, and his first punch was missed, so maybe the drinks trolley should stay in its place for the time being. He was fast out to deliver attack-building passes and dealt competently with anything that came into his area, mostly back passes from Kompany, Stones and Otamendi, it must be said.

Up front Jesus showed some moments of great skill - one flick over the bewildered Lewis Dunk left the unhappy defender looking like a bollard on the famous pier - but also displayed an inability to get the ball in the net when provided with good chances. His four opportunities included a free header in front of goal which Mat Ryan wafted away, but really should have been the opener. Both he and Aguero were active in harrying Brighton's brief possession, which played a major part in unsettling the Brighton defence and led to numerous misplaced passes out towards midfield from the home side.

The Brazilian was brave enough to go in for a ball that was bouncing high and get his head (then, by mistake, a hand) to a wonderfully flighted through ball from De Bruyne, which was correctly ruled out by Michael Oliver, but harshly deemed a yellow card offence by the otherwise competent official.

His partner in attack was also active. Aguero's persistence in both tracking back and in holding possession in the face of a wall of opposition players was laudable and led directly to the second goal. Aguero's mazy run seemed to finally come to an end in a thick forest of legs, but a rebound brought the ball back to him and on he ploughed until the ball could be released wide for Fernandinho's cross for the well aimed own goal header.

The chasing down of all early Brighton possession by City's front two was essential in harrying the home side out of its rhythm. The resultant loose balls in advanced midfield were meat and drink to Silva and De Bruyne, constantly mopping up and putting City back onto the attack.

In all, a suffocating performance by City, showing great patience in the face of a side that showed the expected exuberance, but had little more to offer than that. It will be a long season for Brighton if they cannot find more in attack than the theatrical Knockeart, who came on and dived twice, and the injury-prone Murray.

City's seventh consecutive opening day win sets them up nicely for the visit of an Everton side that will test their defence more, but will allow the free runners down the flanks more opportunity to fly. Much more will be gleaned on the new structure's stability to survive pressure and exert serious damage on the opposition in this fixture.

In the meantime, the used subs her, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, will be busy wondering exactly where they fit in, in Guardiola's new scheme of things. With Benjamin Mendy sure to take Danilo's place on the left, there is currently little space for this most talented of trios beyond second half impact as substitutes. Injuries and tactical preening will no doubt affect this in due course.

You can read my player ratings for ESPN here.

Friday, July 14, 2017


So, where did all of this silliness begin?

Was it Peter Swales’s fault?

It always used to be, back in the old days when City were a solid laughing stock and almost everyone loved them for it. "You did what?! You sold Asa Hartford, Brian Kidd, Dennis Tueart, Peter Barnes, Dave Watson and Gary Owen and replaced them with Dave Wiffill and Paul Sugrue. Michael Robinson and Bobby Shinton. Have you gone out of your tiny mind?"
We still had Lee, of course, but it was Stuart not Francis and in any case the noise from everyone laughing wouldn’t let you appreciate his quietly ineffective outings up the right flank anyway..

And so it came to pass that Swales, in his ever-more desperate urge to catch Manchester United, who would each summer scoop up the close season’s most expensive purchase (be it Bryan Robson for nearly two million, Paul Ince in a controversial move from West Ham, where he had the red shirt on so quickly he was officially still a Hammers player when he fronted the press photographers, Gary Pallister for today’s equivalent of £50m or the expensive crab-like movements of Ray Wilkins), kept on upping the ante.

Just as in the world of politics, people have developed short memories. Either that or they weren’t born in those heady days of parkas and black and white tellies. Or maybe they wisely choose not to do the research. Liverpool in the 70s and United in the 80s and 90s, dominated the transfer market completely, cherry picking whoever they wanted. The fees paid pushed the market ever upwards and produced in the likes of Swales, Freddy Shepherd at Newcastle and Doug Ellis at Villa a paranoid need to try and tag along.

City were a busted flush, broke and laughable, going through the motions one last time with Trevor Francis, nicked from the grasp of – you guessed it – United in a last bid to wrest control in 1981. As any finance expert or inhabitant of the Emirates forecourt will tell you, however, false economies and overstretched budgets don’t work unless you have a solid Plan B.

When Francis’s well-publicised proneness to injury resurfaced, City were sunk. Gary Buckley and Aage Hariede were hardly like-for-like replacement. Without Francis, City looked utterly threadbare and were banished to the second division with a team shorn of its great stars and manned instead by the likes of Ian Davies, Chris Jones and a 39-year old John Ryan. They had been 2nd in November after a 2-0 win over Southampton at Maine Road and now here they were, descending into the relegation places for the first time that season on the very last day of the campaign, dumped there by Raddy Antic’s 84th minute winner for Luton Town.
Even that had been done adhering to the great Manchester City Book of Comedy. Eddie Large on the bench, David Pleat in his fawn suit and slip-ons, Luton Town singing on Match of the Day while wearing straw hats, we had the lot. Those trying to overturn the nº 41 on Clarement Road afterwards, however, had not stayed for the punchline.
Our chips and gravy had gone sour.

The following years brought meagre signings with new boss Billy McNeil’s hands tied behind his back. Miraculously, City resurfaced in the top flight within two years with Jim Tolmie, Derek Parlane, Neil McNab, Gordon Dalziel, Graeme Sinclair and Duncan Davidson the next-to-nothing signings that carried the ship forward, unsteady step by unsteady step.

City returned south two seasons later and began an even bigger descent in the mid-90s that took the club to the edge of oblivion, otherwise known as the Moss Rose, Macclesfield. League games against Bury, Stockport, Lincoln, York and Wrexham represented the coldest of showers for the great unwashed of the old Kippax terraces.

Broke and disheartened, we could only watch from afar as United and Liverpool continued their decades-long splurges, joined by a new moneyed elite of Arsenal (organic) Chelsea, buoyed first by Mathew Harding’s largesse then the windfall of Roman Abramovic’s surprise oil and steel windfall. Even Leeds were up there with the big hitters, spending money their erudite chairman Peter Ridsdale didn’t even know they had (they didn’t have it, as it turned out).

The Premier League’s dawn had occurred with City present at the 1992 curtain raisers, but soon the bandwagon laden with money was heading off over the horizon like a cartoon charabanc with City tied to a tree in dead man’s gulch.

David Bernstein, the first man at Maine Road, who could do O level arithmetic, steadied the ship in the third tier. Still City’s signings (Danny Allsopp, Danny Tiatto) were distinctly Argos to United’s Rue St Honoré purchases of Matt Stam, Jesper Blomquist and – just to show they still held onto a vague sense of humour – Karel Poborsky.
Standing room only at Macclesfield

City crawled back, carried by a wave of gritty enthusiasm from the terraces. Those “invisible” fans that turned up in ever-increasing numbers the worse things got carried the club forward. Astute buys and growing momentum sent the club back in the right direction. By the time City found themselves consolidating under the arclights of the Premier League again, foreign investors were beginning to hover, rightly seeing the club as one of English football's great investment opportunities.

Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed dictator of Thailand with an ill-gotten penny or two to stash away, took over from John Wardle and David Makin, whose financial backing in the lean years had been crucial to City’s survival. Still loved by many fans for their authentic otherworldlyness, City had ramped up their devil-may-care image with Kevin Keegan, bringing all out attack and a return to boom and bust transfers to the club. Robbie Fowler’s switch in particular nearly brought the house down again, Keegan insisting on “one more sweetie before dinner”. The irony of taking on a rotund Fowler from Leeds, at this point imploding under the pressure of Ridsdale’s unusual accounting (he had the most expensive goldfish in English football, which - unlike Leeds - could swim), was eye-watering. Shinawatra’s entrance bolstered coffers about to pop open once again, but all was not well.

An 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough topped a previous last day of the season game with the same opponents, when UEFA Cup football was missed by the width of a post, red faced Fowler missing the injury time penalty that would have put City into Europe. With manager Stuart Pearce employing David James up front, City were once again everyone’s favourite laughing stock: harmless, feather-light on the brain and unerringly impotent, they were present day Newcastle and Leeds rolled into one, fluffy, desperate ball of lightly powdered intrigue.

In the 90s, as the club ricocheted from one disaster to another, the idea of the 5th Column surfaced. There had always been boardroom insiders, members of the press, moles and snipers, all trying to disable the club’s attempts at walking in a straight line. For the most part, City hadn’t required any help, but they were there, dark and shadowy figures lurking in the corridors if push came to shove.

As Shinawatra’s wobbly morals came under the spotlight, the club once again reached a turning point. Premier League mobility required great amounts of money and the Thai was spending more and more of his to keep himself out of jail. Then suddenly a seismic shift that is still wobbling the league like a jelly nearly a decade later.

September 1st 2008.

Never look back. Lightning had struck in Manchester and we were all a little singed.

Transfer deadline day was hijacked by City, as they were first bought outright by the hitherto unheard of Sheikh Mansour from Abu Dhabi, then joined the fun and games of the last four hours of deadline day to turn it into a soap opera of the highest calibre. Pushing United beyond £30 million for Dimitar Berbatov was the first bit of jiggery pokery. City then hijacked Robinho’s move to Chelsea from Real Madrid, morphing from high end slapstick to shoot-to-kill in the space needed for a gentle period of tiffin.

Welcomed at first at the top table, City’s attempts to buy impressively had involved The Jo Experiment and other trips into surreal places with Emanuel Adebayor and unofficial club mascot Glauber Berti. City were in the club but they were on the outside still, with their wonky cheque book and their over-polished shoes.  

The public reaction was mainly glee that a proper club could make it rich, that a daft club could maybe try to upset the applecart, that the Champions League cartel of United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, the perennial qualifiers, might just have a fly dropped in their ointment at some stage in the future.

The problems really started when City started to beat United. With Alex “not in my lifetime” Ferguson still in charge, these so-called noisy neighbours and classless oiks started to get the better of his megalith United. Gently at first, then cataclysmically with an FA Cup semi final win, then a 6-1 win at Old Trafford that nearly reduced him to retirement on the spot and the crushing 1-0 win to turn the title race into a two-horse race. That United had come to the Etihad to defend said it all. The lame ponies had turned into galloping stallions and United were getting trampled underfoot. Up front, City's riches had enabled the purchase of Carlos Tevez from United too, a painful reminder despite the Argentinean's obvious penchant for trouble, that the tables had been turned.

Which is where the 5th column re-emerges. The mainstream press, brought up on the need to satiate United’s millions of followers with anodine puff pieces about their heroes, had a major issue on their hands. City were grabbing all the back page space for themselves and it was not because they were bankrupt, relegated or knocked out of the cup by a soothsayer. Now it was serious.
At some point between City’s earth shattering first Premier League win, at United’s expense of course, and their second two years later under the less voluble Manuel Pellegrini, something changed. Good will towards the new elite ebbed away to be replaced by a casual hatred for their vulgar spending sprees. The press looked for any angle that could paint a negative picture.

< 2002: Rio Ferdinand is unveiled at United for a record fee of £28m (rising to £33m), breaking the British record transfer fee for the third time in 13 months after the arrivals of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron. The press reported it calmly and objectively.
Nowadays, in these incredible days of indecipherable transfer fees that have more noughts
on the end than a NASA winter budget, City’s dealings are treated like the movements of a serial killer. Where others have the transfer fee announced, City’s are increased by wages and add-ons that might never happen. The headlines are about vulgarity and astonishment, despite others spending more and yet others spending eye-watering figures on players that have hardly made their names in the sport. Arsene Wenger has invented the term financial doping just for City, apparently oblivious to everyone else doing the same. Fans the length and breadth of the country survive on the frothy tabloid oxygen of hyperbole and dishonesty. Lines are skewed, numbers are massaged, all in the name of clickbait and the furtherance of the new wave of Emptihad grossness that should apparently now make us all deeply nauseous.
And they're right. It is all a little nauseous. It is a little vulgar. It is a little astonishing. But it has always been a little like this. As the Premier League cash cow has gradually grown its great swinging, vein-flecked udders, we have all been splashed with milk. However hard we try to make City's ventures worse than anyone else's, however, Everton spraying £25m all over Burnley for Michael Keane, Chelsea leaking £40m for Bakayoko and Manchester United testing the boundaries of decency with £31m for Lindelöf and a king's ransom for Lukaku are all just as "bad", if it is indeed possible or useful to try and compare these things. Certainly it is City that are stirring the emotions right now and stirring them vigorously. That Lukaku's monster fee produced mainly glee and excitement from the press was predicable. That City's desperate swoop for a full back needs Mirror stalwarts David Anderson AND David O'Donnell to co-write a piece humping the price up to over double its actual worth just serves to underline how far City's star has fallen. Infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy, as Frankie Howerd might have said.   

From those timid days of Paul Sugrue, of the virgin Bobby Shinton and Peter Swales purchasing Kazimierz Deyna from Legia Warsaw with a trailer full of fridge freezers from Altrincham, from Romark tipping Big Mal’s City out of the FA Cup ona quagmire in Halifax, from Nick Fenton belting the ball onto the roof v Notts County and Jamie Pollock morphing into Ronaldinho just to score the best own goal in history, City have emerged into the dazzling white light at the top of the football mountain.
But even here they have found darkness.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Where today's star signings emerge through a tunnel of confetti and flashbulbs (or not in the case of Dani Alves) to pose in the new season kit wearing the bewildered smiles of the unfathomably rich, back in the day, those blinking and grimacing at the thought that they had been snapped up by the mighty Manchester City were lucky if they received a moist embrace from secretary Bernard Halford. When he wasn't busy inventing new ways to cock up the club's ticketing systems, Bernard always seemed to be the one available for the smiling-newcomer-with.pen photos that would be in the next morning's Daily Mirror. The affable arm around the shoulder; the bespectacled I'm-dealing-with-this glance, this was Bernard territory.

There might have been a slight chance of a chummy slap on the shoulders from Jimmy Frizzell or a quick photo shoot in the broom cupboard with a bic and a couple of sheets of strategically placed A4. If you were really unlucky you might get an immediate bit of elite coaching from the passing Stuart Pearce or even a state-of-the-moment racing tip from Alan Ball. You would do well not to try and engage Mel Machin in optimistic new season conversation, though.

Among the fans, there was no daily scramble to gather sense from the minutiae of the Gazzetto dello Sport's coverage of Torino's pay rebel centre forward or sweaty hours spent trying to get Google to produce a reliable translation of A Bola's tightly sprung rumour mill. The Daily Express would tell you in the morning: it would be either on or off.

OFF; This is not to say that in the late seventies, there weren't some moments of fake news. Here the Sunday Express is sure City are closing in on a deal for West Ham's Rolls Royce midfielder Trevor Brooking. Nothing came of the early summer rumour and City ended up with a forward instead. For the same fee, Mike Channon brought his windmill arm goal celebration, which at the time seemed worth the fee on its own.

Malcolm Allison looks sane enough in this summer 1979 shot, but in fact his mind was doing little cartwheels, having sold Dave Watson, Peter Barnes, Gary Owen and Asa Hartford. The top class replacements? Bobby Shinton, of Wrexham, and Michael Robinson, from Preston. These were the first signs that Big Mal's second coming was about to take a different direction to the guaranteed success route that all had presumed City were embarking on.

Shinton, having uprooted not a single tree in low profile stints at Walsall and Wrexham, was suddenly deemed to be worth £300,000 of City's money, the same amount that had brought in England forward Mike Channon a couple of summers earlier.

It was a bright new phase for the club that would see Paul Sugrue, Dave Wiffill, John Ryan and a number of other luminaries arrive to help the smooth transition from erstwhile trophy candidates to rampaging relegation fodder.

There were near misses aplenty in the years that followed, as City's pulling powers diminished faster than Mr Halford's hairline. Even Middlesbrough's pocket dynamo Stan Cummins, not destined to achieve ever-lasting fame, but nevertheless an integral part of a deeply embarrassing game at Maine Road for newly promoted Sunderland in 1979, decided the lure of Crystal Palace too much to resist. This far City's stock had tumbled.

Graham Baker gets the Bernard Halford Treatment.
Bargain signing Gordon Dalziel has to make do with Derek Parlane and a Tartan teddy bear, as Bernard is out shopping.

By the time Billy McNeill shipped up from Celtic, City's idea of a summer transfer involved anyone with four limbs who cost nothing. Bargain Basement was the name of the game, especially if it was Scottish stock. McNeil pulled in Derek Parlane from Bulova in Hong Kong, Neil McNab and Jim Tolmie, who had been wasting his days in Belgium, playing for Lokeren. In that first horrific season in Division Two, all played a significant role in pulling City together again. Indeed McNab stayed on to grace the first division when City finally returned in 1985.
There had been times when City pushed the boat out, with great initial results and disastrous long term effects. Trevor Francis's arrival in 1981 was the eventual catalyst for City's relegation and subsequent bargain shopping. peter Swales, always trying to haul City up to United's level, broke the bank for Francis, but then discovered that his cod economics left the club without a penny for anything else. Francis was initially brilliant, then frequently injured and his purchase was the last million pound summer excitement for many years. 
On arriving in the First Division for the 1985-86 season, Swales loosened the purse strings a little to allow McNeill to scale up his buying to Nigel Johnson of Rotherham. With him arrived City fan Mark Lillis from Huddersfield and ex-United stalwart Sammy McIlroy. In this picture for Shoot magazine, McIlroy looks as pleased about it as most City fans were. At least Johnson can't believe his luck.
Derek Parlane gets the Jimmy Frizzell/Bernard Halford/bic/strategically placed A4 treatment: very nearly a full house.

By the early 90s City's spending power had still not returned, with swap deals covering the fact that Swales was still hunting for the cash he had stashed away under the Maine Road floorboards. Here fan favourites "Dissa" Pointon and Steve Redmond are sacrificed for the speed and tenacity of Ricky Holden.
City make a big splash for John Deehan, Andy Dibble, Bryan Gayle, Wayne Biggins and Nigel Gleghorn. Be still, our beating hearts.

FAKE NEWS: Three that got away: Pat Jennings, Joe Jordan and Kevin Drinkell.

Modern times have ushered in new ways. The assembled crowd, the triumphal arch, the regal wave, the Welcome to Manchester, the hullaballoo, the tweaking of other people's noses, the popping flashbulbs, the glamour and the glitz of the meet the public sessions and the glorious moment of first contact with the acrylic garment that bears your name.

Ben Thatcher offers his innocent face to the snappers as named shirts become a feature

Emmanuel Adebayor waves to those members of the 30-strong crowd outside, who haven't been frightened away by his headwear.

Carlos Tevez is ushered inside as his headwear is deemed too scary for members of the public to come into contact with. There was also the prospect of a lightly fuming Alex Ferguson loitering outside with a harpoon gun.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Tony Book holds aloft the 1976 League Cup with Mike Doyle.
With Manchester City’s players reassembling for the first stretches of pre-season training, the inevitable pressure cooker of being a manager at the pointy end of the Premier League begins its annual growth spurt.

Having Pep Guardiola as manager means City can relax a little, as there are few better options to have in control of your club’s immediate playing destiny.

Having begun his tenure in Manchester with an unprecedented blank sheet, Guardiola is being widely predicted to bring home the bacon this time round.
Despite the high expectations, one might expect his unsullied reputation to win him more time than most.
The Catalan’s simple target is to relaunch City as a major domestic force after a lull in proceedings under predecessor Manuel Pellegrini and introduce the club to the very highest echelons of European football. And try to keep them there.

Manchester City is a very different animal to the one that languished in the old second division in the mid-sixties, down on its luck and without a hope in its heart. Attendances had fallen to an all-time low (today’s imbecilic jibes about empty stadiums would have been apt to use properly in those threadbare times) and City’s playing staff lacked the style and grit to haul it out of the morass.

Along came Joe Mercer, persuaded to give management another go after spells of decidedly average plodding at Sheffield United and Aston Villa. Suffering with ill health and advised against the move, Mercer stubbornly took the job, famously saying that “Football can live without me, but I cannot live without football.” The date was 13th July 1965.

With the help of his highly strung but technically superb assistant Malcolm Allison, Mercer hauled City back into the top flight. By 1967-68, they were league champions, topping off a marvellous season with a thrilling 4-3 win at Newcastle to gain the title. It had been almost exactly three years from beginning to glory. More was to come in City’s hitherto most prolific trophy-winning phase, with the Mercer-Allison duo claiming the FA Cup, the League Cup and City’s only European success to date, the Cup Winners’ Cup.

When Allison took the reins himself after a boardroom coup had ousted Mercer, it was thought only a matter of time before more glory came City’s way. In fact the experiment was an abject failure, with Mercer’s old assistant presiding over the gradual crumbling of an empire. City won nothing under Allison’s sole charge and, within two years, he had gone to Crystal Palace. 

When he returned almost a decade later tasked with reigniting the flames of glory, he doused them completely and was ousted after presiding over the dismantling of a promising late seventies side built by ex-Mercer era full back and captain Tony Book. Book had taken charge in 1974 and, within two seasons, had constructed a side to win the League Cup in 1976. It was to be City’s last trophy until the FA Cup win over Stoke in 2011 under Roberto Mancini’s stewardship.

Before Mancini, the likes of Kevin Keegan, Sven Goran Erikssen and Mark Hughes had all come up short, failing to break the 44-year trophy embargo placed on the club by the football fates.

Mancini had arrived to a hail of plaudits in December 2009 and proved a relatively quick worker, immediately pitching City into the League Cup semifinals and finally breaking the club’s trophy hoodoo at the end of his first full season in charge. A season later, the coveted first league title since Mercer and Allison was achieved, before Mancini’s reign ended with Cup Final defeat to Wigan in May 2013.

Patience then success for Joe Mercer
His successor Pellegrini was put under immediate pressure to come up with the goods with a five-trophies-in five-years mandate from the owners. In double quick time the Chilean delivered a second Premier League title and a League Cup win, repeating the latter in his third season in charge.

As City’s hunger for trophies has grown, so the need for instant results has been magnified. For a club that infamously munched its way through a total of 15 managers during Alex Ferguson’s sole tenure across the city boundary, it could reasonably be said that patience has long been a rare commodity in the sky blue boardroom.

These days the stakes are higher and the sums of money spent on each season’s assault on trophies match them cent for cent. City’s stability (they are the most consistent top six finisher in the modern era of 2010-2017) has ushered in a new period of expectation and with it the pressure is inflated.  

If Guardiola’s legacy is to create the grand festival of success that all yearn for, the coming season will begin to define it. His reputation precedes him. His supporters await the fulfilment of City’s long-hatched plan for a new Belle Epoque. But time waits for no man.
This article first appeared on ESPNFC's website on 10th July 2017

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