Friday, September 30, 2011

TEST DRIVING THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Oktoberfest. Champions League. Manchester City.

There. I've done it. All three together in one line. And what, as they say in these enlightened times, is not to like about that? Well, as it transpired, after an event-filled trip, quite a large sack-full of things, but more, much more of that later.

Marienplatz gets a makeover
For many many years the prospect of a tilt at the assembled tents of the Munchener Oktoberfest has been on my list of things to do before I reach the age where half a shandy sets me off whistling uncontrollably and dribbling down my jacket, but never in my wildest dreams had I thought that I might get there on the grounds that City were playing in the very same town at the very same time in the Truly Awe-Inspiring UEFA All-Singing All-Dancing (and ever-so slightly Plastic Fantastic) Champions League. Truly the world is a mad and challenging place to live in.

Arriving in Munich without pre-booked accommodation during this yearly splurge on beer and pretzels is nothing short of junior school naivety, but various visits to the interweb had revealed a lot of places who didn't want to take anymore monies ("nicht verfugbar" I took to mean something like "this hotelier is so satiated with dollars and euros, he's not listening to your plaintive calls anymore") and those who did but rather liked the idea of charging the uninitiated (and likely unwashed at this rate) between €285 (the best I found, only of course using the word "best" in a kind of double-hit reverse euphemism) and the somewhat extravagant €2300 (Danke sehr, Kempinsky Palast, but absolutely nein danke). So, with the growing realisation that in this particular Champions League city, bed looked like being a bench at the Hauptbahnhof alongside Fritzie der Alkoholiker and the rest of the Madly Shouting Men, I trailed into the Pension Lindner with my champions league tail firmly between my legs. One last attempt.

Five minutes later I am listening to middle-distant chants of "Best team in the land and all the world" as I nuzzle my first glass of Paulaner, a reasonably priced bed secured against the odds at the last moment. Thank you, Frau Frerick, you fragrant and accommodating woman.

Bring on the sausage
Close enough to Marienplatz to smell the salty breath of Albion's finest as they pillaged their way through to the only bar selling Heineken. Far enough away for some exercise before the deluge of pretzels and sausage. German beer is curiously satisfactory stuff: it has passed the Rheinheitsgebot to be with us (the age-old purity law, which states anybody producing beer containing more than hops, barley, water and yeast will go to prison and think about their folly for a very long time), it looks the real deal in its wildly condensating vase-shaped glasses, tastes as you'd expect anything brewed in the Vaterland to taste (clean, functional and doing exactly what it says on the tin, or, in this case, the barrel). Pretzels on the other hand, are the Ed Milliband of tabletop snacks: crusty on top, tasteless and leave you with a damp, flat feeling of impending flatulence. So it was a quick dive into a bowl of the world reknowned Gulash-suppe (thick spicy beef and vegetable stew) and, naturally, a quick brattie. Bratwurst must be accompanied by senf (mustard) and a bun, nothing more. Excellent food, filling, tasty and quintessentially German. That is until the sneaky waitress, taking huge and swift advantage of my bus driver's German, supplied me with a small set of bratwurst delicately placed on a hill of sauerkraut. That is plainly bending the rules and would have dire consequences later in the evening.
Ready for take-off, captain

The thing with sauerkraut, essentially rotting vinegary cabbage kept under control only by way of lights and mirrors, is that - when accompanied by Paulaner Pils, sausages and spicy gulasch soup, wearers of pointy Oktoberfest hats are more than likely to blow them off the top of their heads every time they hiccup. There I was nicely set up for the football, just waiting to get a quick spell of blocked tubes on the U-bahn and half of Munich would be cordoned off.

Round the corner at the Andechser am Dom Cafe the Andechser Helle tasted like it had been sieved through the fairest Bavarian barmaid's dirndl and the packed terrace offered a view of the boisterous singing section gathered across the road in front of the obligatory Killians Irish Pub. I spied the waitresses as they watched our lot serenading Uwe Rosler's grandpa: one shook her head sighing "die Englander", another asked "is there a game on tonight?" whilst her colleague assured her that, sure enough "Manchester were in town to play FCBayern". Marvellous stuff. To say the good folk of Munich are stiff would be grossly unfair but they do at times reveal the cosmopolitan cultural flexibility of a bed board. As the waitresses formed a huddle to argue about how the Champions League group format actually works (I kid you not), a heavily inebriated pair, one Mancunian, the other Bavarian, both shaven headed and in their late forties, swayed back to their seats. The Bavarian, arm around the shoulders of the City fan was saying "this is your first time in the Champions League isn't it?" like a concerned Mother preparing her son for the first day at school. All sights and sounds, and indeed smells, to make the heart leap. Trixie, the head waitress, wearing one of those delapidated faces that middle aged German women with a career of waiting on tables sometimes have, looked into my bloodshot eyes and asked "You are English.Why do you show your bottoms in public?". There are few handy answers at times like this. I muttered that it was one of our national past-times and dispatched her for more beer.

Like any afternoon in the sun drinking alcohol, however, at some point the mind turns to weightier matters. Where do I go now? How do the turnstiles in the underground work? Will the sauerkraut have its revenge? Will I well up thinking of Barney Daniels and Geoff Lomax when the Champions League music cranks into action and why does this drunk tramp think I'm his new besty mate? So many questions and very few answers. This was to be the case during the following two hours as well.

The Allianz Arena sits atop a hill by the Autobahn at Frotmanning, a faceless suburb near the ringroad. There is quite literally nothing there at all. It could be the moon and, just to ram home the metaphor, the stadium does a passable impersonation of Thunderbird Two, after making an emergency landing in a German meadow. Like many of us, the stadium was white when we arrived and red when we departed. I thought at first this was to mock our embarrassment, but apparently it also goes blue for 1860, who, I was told by Danny and Mona, a couple of enthusiastic Bayern supporters, Bayern are currently trying to evict. "Neighbours," they insisted, "who needs them?!" Quite so...

Is that Tevez down there
I know I should have, at this point, been awe-struck by the surroundings, but this is where Champions League morphs into World Cup, and morphs again into Barclays Premier League Plus and morphs again into any giant marketing exercise you care to mention. Besides the very familiar advertising, the stadium catering is dealt with by the main sponsors, leaving you with a non-selection of mainly tasteless, overpriced and garishly packaged drinks and food that anybody on the planet would recognise. The seats in this ground are uniform grey whilst Bayern continue their eviction-cum-strangulation of 1860, the tannoy plays upbeat Euro-trash-soft rock and Bayern's Stadium announcer, full of guttural bonhommie and fake tan smarmyness, is obviously a man enamoured of his own charms. As he addressed the City fans over the tannoy, you could feel something disagreeable was about to happen:  "ja ent now a bit of English, ja, real cock-er-ney English ha ha!". Give the man a bone for that one. Cockney English?  Cock-er-ney English?

The Bayern Ultras are a busy lot in a plastic sort of way too. The noise is undeniable, but I have never seen such well dressed, close-shaven, side parting ultras in all my life. They even have a chant from a Boney M song, a frightening enough thing in itself. Mental note to self: try to remember the "Rivers of Babylon" lyrics in case it kicks off in town later. "No wait, no fighting, listen to this. I remember Zion! mmmm mmmm mmmmm, mmmm, mmmmm". I can just see it all unfolding, a trail of immaculately groomed German ultras charging through the allies roaring "Show me your motion tra la la la la" and the rest of us, Manchester City's pride and glory, chanting back over our shoulders as we regroup for battle: "She looks like a sugar in a plum. Plum plum". It must be the Paulaner.

Thankfully there is palpable tension despite the unerring politeness and friendliness of all the locals and the slack, misplaced jokes of Tannoy Man. It is all incredibly civilised, sanitised and UCL prim and proper. This is already beginning to feel like heading into the Amazon for the first time and finding in a clearing in the dense forest that you have battled through for days to be confronted with the Big Burper Sunshine Motel. What, no pygmies with arrows through their noses and an I'm-going-to-eat-you look in their swollen eyes? Everyone's eating Whoppers here too? Whilst on the subject of burpers...that sauerkraut has now had time to ferment a little more. Acid redux meets Jonny Fartpants. I may have found a way to get the locals annoyed after all.

Look at me now, Mum
So to the match, if we must. A blast it would be to see the stars out there trying to cope with the occasion. For my own part, nerves were settling fine as the drinks boy took my mind off the troubles at hand, a spotty fellow of about 17, his was the job not even a spotty teenager should be subjected to: selling drinks was, some possessor of a larger brain than my own had decided, not his only purpose. There was to be an element of entertainment, one might be tempted to say comedy (if this weren't Germany of course), but that would be to demean the man's efforts. As well as an aluminium tray of tasty looking Champions League Drinks, the lad had a bright yellow balloon attached to his person. On it the single word "Thirsty?". His mam would have been so proud to know where he had got to. "Bit of studying to do tonight, ma! Back after the mat....er after the library shuts". Here he is anyway, in all his finery. A good man doing a complicated job.

City came out of the blocks as one would have expected a side set up so aggressively, with Silva prominent, first having his legs taken away by Boateng for what looked like a penalty, then playing in Dzeko for what looked like a goal. Sadly, neither materialised into anything more concrete than little bubbles of sauerkraut air. By the time Micah Richards was sent flying in the box, again the culprit was Boateng, doing his best to recapture his MCFC form, City's bright start was petering out and Bayern were beginning to get their game together. Only there was a problem: Bayern's quick passing was even quicker than City's. The ball flashed between Muller, Ribery, Schweinsteiger and Kroos like it was on a string with fire attached to it. Suddenly City were being swamped and the noise from The Tidy Boys grew to a howl. I noted that nobody, by this time, was singing, "hoorah, hoorah, it's a holi- holiday, a happy time for everyone, holi-holiday" and had cranked up the atmosphere to a howling gale of noise.

Two goals came quickly at the end of this barrage, both opportunist tap-ins from the reconstructed Gomez, after Hart had saved brilliantly and the defence had refused his requests to clear. Two nil at half time and 63,000 locals backslapping and high fiving all around me.

The second half was worse, much worse, but without the logical pay-off of several more Bayern goals. As City descended into a riot of strange substitutions (little did we know of the pantomime being acted out down on the touchline, despite some odd text messages from mates watching tv at home), Bayern seemed to content themselves with the two-goal lead. De Jong finally re-emerged to give the midfield a semblance of togetherness and City's patient passing game, which had unsettled the hosts for the opening 20 minutes, gradually returned to action. Kolarov, another of Mancini's willing subs, was put through and fired tamely wide when he should have scored his and City's second Champions League goal of the season. It was not to be and a two goal margin was the least a snappy, fast-moving Bayern side deserved. We were left with the sobering thought that David Silva had been shackled by Ribery, who had also managed to be the creative spark under the home side's explosive attacking. What a game the ugly little French gnome had had. I also wondered what or who had tampered with Yaya's compass, as his display of bewildered midfield shimmy-shammying and frustrated arm antics had become quite a spectacle by the end.    


It was left to the bleary-eyed City support, stuffed into the u-bahn on line 6 back to town to sum the evening up. This was done nicely by Harry, so electrified by his evening's entertainment that both his voice and his balance were shot through. In a gruff voice much like the under-appreciated male member of Boney M, he attempted a chant of "we're here, we're there..." which quickly petered out, before refilling his plastic Budweiser cup with a steaming brew of his own. As he lifted the warm cup to make a toast, half the occupants of carriage 27 leapt to the side. "Who's yer best player?" he slurred at the nearest Bayern fans. "Who is it?". "Tonight Ribery. He took shitty City apart!" came the confident teutonic response. "Aye, right, chum. Not wrong there. Here's to Michel Ribery. He'll be playing for us come January!"



CHAMPIONS LEAGUE TEST DRIVE - THE RESULTS
         Settling down for a beer in foreign climes: 10
         Sauerkraut under your wurst: 3
         Paulaner Pils and Andechser Helle: 9
         Frau Frerick at the Pension Lindner: 9
         Harry and the ubahn relief: 2
         Hospitality: 10
         Champions league hymn playing whilst Manchester City line up: ha, put a price on that!

German enthusiasm

Thursday, September 29, 2011

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

Señor Tevez,

I have written to you before ("Dear Carlos...", back in the days where we were still trying to understand each other) but this time it is something entirely different. This time it is personal, it's gone too far and there's no room for first names anymore.

You see, whilst we have desperately being trying to understand each other (you have been trying to understand my position, haven't you, Señor?), our relationship seems to have taken what the medical experts call "a distinct turn for the worse". It may not quite be on life support but that big bag full of apple juice hanging there is a saline drip. You know what that means, don't you? Let me explain the situation a little. I hope you will excuse me using English, a widely spoken world language, and presume that you will get my drift, understand the gist. If not, my lawyers will be happy to attach a Spanish translation at a small extra cost to your good self.



File under "Expenses: beer, pretzels"


Speaking of lawyers, the main body of this letter is in fact a statement constructed by them on my behalf, as I don't want this to turn into a slanging match, which it almost surely would if I was left to my own simple devices. So, here is what they have to say:

Bell, Doyle, Pardoe & Book Associates at Law
CLAIM FOR COMPENSATION: €1500 Travel expenses, accommodation, food and
ahem- drink, plus emotional and / or psychological damage, stress, distress, time off work, ridicule from colleagues, barmy emails etc. 

 ++++++++++++++++++++++

1) This is to notify you that our client wishes to issue a claim for compensation, owing to the fact that, having spent the heretofore mentioned sums, hereafter named "the almost total utter waste of money", on a long, arduous, complicated, time-consuming, harrowing and, last but not least, expensive trip to the city of Munich, Southern Germany, to see you and your colleagues play in the UEFA Champions League Football Tournament (C), and having watched his team, Manchester City lose to a well organised and superior opponent, discovered that the shambolic substitutions during aforementioned match were down partly or totally to your own refusal to take to the pitch when your employers deemed it necessary.This, in itself an act of flagrant and rumbustious non-alignment with team needs, was worsened by the unlawful drugging of Mr Samir Nasri's pre-match ice tea, causing him to believe he was Ged Brannan for long spells of the first half. 

The breach of your own contract set down in 1) set a precedent, a chain reaction, if you please, involving my client and many thousands of others in the same or similar situations. That being that my client, hereinafter referred to as "Busted Flush", having spent time, monies, energy and spiritual and psychological resources to be present at said competitive event, was witness to a non-event, or at least an event lessened in its authenticity by the non-compliance of Señor Tevez to his work contract, and the mutually agreed obligations therein, with Manchester City football club, in effect rendering my client's own three day absence from his workplace an act of in flagrante fraud itself. Waving one's arms and grinding one's not in considerable lower jaw just made everything much worse, resulting in the normally peaceful Mr E. Dzeko to self-combust dangerously close to his colleagues. 

3) Dereliction of duty. Breach of contract. Non-compliance. 2nd degree via via embezzlement (made this one up). Your acts have, for twelve months or so, proceeded to explore the very outer limits of what might be deemed contractually acceptable behaviour, by an individual or an employee in the light of the law, as it stands in the European Community vis-à-vis contractual obligation to perform duties to an employer. Your indefensible behaviour in Germany NOW JUSTIFIES A CLAIM FOR COMPENSATION OF SAID MONIES, SPENT IN THE KNOWLEDGE THAT ALL EMPLOYEES OF MANCHESTER CITY WOULD BE AVAILABLE FOR WORK DUTY, IF DEEMED NECESSARY BY THEIR DIRECT MANAGER OR SUPERVISOR AND THAT ALL EMPLOYEES WOULD TRY THEIR DARNDEST TO SMACK ONE IN THE OPPONENT'S ONION BAG. As Law 3111.08 of the 1958 amended contract law of the UK Government Constitution states, "all persons of able body shall be required to work time, shifts or small periods or phases... as of the contractually agreed points laid out for both employer and employee in said work contract, especially if Gareth Barry is being given the runaround, a chasing and/or made to look pedestrian by a small Frenchman with daft hair. In the event that Yaya Touré loses his compass bearings entirely at the same time as the above, we reserve the right to double compensation and a lot more beer...".

4) In light of above, compensation is sought to lighten the psychological and economic carnage inflicted upon my client by your actions or - in fact - non-actions in the aforementioned scenario. A lot of beer was spilled, Sauerkraut was eaten on the premise that it was the culturally correct thing to do - despite the obvious and various dangers to the consumer's well-being - and local barmaids were spoken to in a controversial and chummy manner. None of which would have happened if prior knowledge of your dicky fit had existed.

5) In light of possible complaints that the defendant was acting on either a) The Law of the Jungle, b) The Law of Fuerte Apache (it has a law? Any laws at all?) or c) The Law according to Kia Joorabchian, we the undersigned hereby revoke our spiritual attachment to The Football Club and any individuals understood to give The Same a bad name. 

6) Gah, ok, in the obvious event the undersigned just cant seem to get The Football Club out of his system, thus rendering 5) wholly ineffective, it is stated that note has been taken of the defendant's behaviour and, in the event that his sticker appears in any of the plaintiff's sons' Panini Champions League Albums, said sticker will go directly and swiftly into the kitchen bin.
        

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

THE ALTERNATIVE TOP 10 CITY NOVELS

We all remember reading our first Noddy book and thinking "what an alarming bullshitter and man of dubious morals Big Ears is" but here are some more classics which really should have pride of place on any self-respecting City fan's book shelf.

1.  Zen and the Art of First Team Squad Maintenance: Surreal story following our unlikely comic hero, Peters Whale, who finds that his cheque book has a hole in it after a mysterious virus breaks out in his Cuban heels, works its way through his (sparse) body hair and into his jacket pocket, where it weaves itself into his imitation leather wallet melting it in seconds. Whale, noticing that his entire fortune of £27,15 has been eaten by the bug, manfully takes the decision to sell the unsellable Paul Stewart in order to fund his teams scuttling progress towards the second division.  
2.  The Lion, The Witch and The Scoreboard: Set in 1980s Manchester, the occupants of a damp yet homely corner of the inner city are treated to afternoons craning their necks to watch the antics of a piece of wildly malfunctioning electronic gadgetry, bought on the cheap from a television mogul with clapped-out hair in Altrincham. All is well until one night, midway through a sporting contest a strange message flashes up: Mnchhhhter Cyyy 1 Ox—ddd 3. Sco-e- Clenncy Clammentts.
Grrrrrrrr
3.  Giorgios The Greek Here we have created for our delight one of the great characters of modern fiction. Giorgios, a strapping Greek God with the modern yet mythical powers of being able to seem smaller than he really is, more meek than a Greek and as terrifyingly thrusting as an Aegean bath sponge, arrives in Northern Europe with a brace on his teeth and a band in his hair and proceeds to lay waste to monks, play havoc with traffic wardens and make football supporters everywhere doubt their very ability to stand still and see life for what it is: a mirage.
4.  For Whom The Bell Tolls: Nijinsky is a thoroughbred racehorse going about his classy business when he is cruelly attacked in his prime by a less than noble Scottish butcher, looking to sell illegal sausages to the people of Cowdenbeath. Heart-rending epic of this noble beast’s fight to regain his pride, his fitness and his running power. After a tremendous struggle against the odds, he makes a tentative comeback to the tracks in a Christmas run-out with Newcastle. How will the public react when they see him? What will the sausage butcher say in his defence? Where do we go from here? How many tissues can a grown man get through?        
5.  Our Man in the Parkside: Fascinating tale of the work of a humourless yet efficient man boldly doing a job that nobody appreciates. He is there for work every day, does as he’s told and earns only a pittance. he is on the door come rain come shine with only a Pint of Boddingtons as company. It is an existence of searing tedium and mind-altering monotony with a total lack of respect from those he comes into contact with, until finally he gets the chance one dark Wednesday evening to beat a lost Stoke City fan to a complete pulp.  
6.  Premiership Down: A group of young rabbits get caught in the forest with their rabbit pants down and, despite the best efforts of Bobtail Tiatto, everyone in the warren catches mixamatosis and dies a really excruciating death. An allegorical thriller for all the family stand to enjoy.
7.  Existentialism and Human Absurdism by Jean Paul Alain Balle: The author tries to imagine what it would be like if one of his acquaintances, an average, red-headed Irishman with strangely unattractive ears and eyes that say "I've sat on a pin", tried to attach himself to a simple stick of wood with a little yellow flag waving from it. Would he still exist as a mere man with nothing between his sticky-out ears? Would he suddenly become a flagpole himself? Or would City simply be relegated as usual?
Dibs goes up for a corner
     8.  One Flew Over the Dibble’s Head: Intriguing tale based on a real story, where a hapless Welsh lothario is caught once too often with his pants down and arm up in the air with Gary Crosby heading back to the centre circle, leading to him gaining a reputation as a womaniser and enormous liability. One man’s lonely struggle to clear his name, score in Fridays and keep a clean sheet on Saturdays. 
9.  Willy Wonker and the Bog Roll Factory: Children’s story with a dark twist. The owner of the factory appears harmless and friendly at first, but children are taken in by his chuckle brother voice, his page-boy haircut and stripy shirts with white collars only to find that he has tricked them all into buying season tickets to watch a team, which contains a liquorish stick named Alan Kernaghan.
      10. Mr Potato Head Has a Wonky Hip: 4th in a series of pre-school learners, following on from Mr Potato Head Goes Up and Down, Mr Potato Head Takes City To Court and Mr Potato Head Makes Fatuous Excuses. Here, tiring of being a figure of fun in a children’s book, Potato gets serious and finally loses both his credibility and his balance, requiring him to lean heavily on Kevin Horlock, when his entire staff jump on him one afternoon in Blackburn. All proceeds to charity.   
____________________________________________________________________________
      Coming soon: "Paddy Crerand Ha Ha Ha"

Sunday, September 18, 2011

PER FILO E PER SEGNO

FOLLOWING EVERY THREAD IN THE TAILOR'S TRADE
9 Or So Questions Post Fulham

1. Why, dear Mr Mancini, did you replace City's best player - David Silva - with City's best journeyman - Pablo Zabaleta - with the score delicately set at 2-1, thus sending out a message to the worthy triers of Fulham to try a little harder and, in one fell swoop, replacing the hitherto fully functioning and delightfully fragrant Manchester chicken tikka-taka for a somewhat more stodgy and less than fluid Gorton goat biryani?

2. Why, caro Roberto, did a few of your "Napoli boys" not receive the invitation to take a little light rest, after running their honed legs off last Wednesday night? The nervousness that you told us about and the 90-odd minutes of debutant Champions League scurrying around surely left one or two of them a little heavy in the calves and thighs. And, why, by the way, Roberto, do you then tell the giggling press that we are struggling with a squad which is light in places?

"...and Brightwell was a little slow to move out there..."
3. Why, funny Mr Clattenburg, do you always seem to have your whistle stuck in your back pocket when a City player is molested but can make a whistling sound through your back end if necessary when a City player attempts a little bit of the old light fandango himself?

4. Why, Mr Dzeko, did our mutual friend Mr Clattenburg not give a foul for the assault on your person by Sidwell, instead choosing to view it as a piece of gentlemanly half of one half of the other argie-bargy, leading up to Fulham's cleanly struck straight-line oh deary-me how-did-that-go-in equaliser?

5. Why, in the name of Ronnie Corbett, even if the three points that were close to being "in the bag" eventually escaped and became desultory one, do so many people have to shoot off as if the side has lost to Barnet? Do they really not remember? Do they really not understand?

6. Why, dear God, if I look at Pablo Zabaleta and scrunch up my eyes very tight, does he begin to resemble Brian Horton after that cup tie at Newcastle when David Brightwell played like a bag and a half of quick drying (slow turning) cement?

7. Why is it possible, Mr Jol, that Fulham, after a tasty European outing of their own on Thursday and with a squad thinner than a cream cracker, could run like the clappers for 94 minutes, where some of our boys could not?

8. Why, Mr Hart, did you choose to wear Fernando Torres' old fashioned kicking-around-the-corner boots, which made your clearances head towards magnetic north?

9. Why, Mr De Jong, has it taken people this long to recognise the salient and crystal clear point that an MCFC midfield without your rapier thrusts and juggernaut slideys is a midfield heading towards its own goal chasing the opposition fella that "got away"?

and finally

9 and a half. Why is David Platt?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

EUROPEAN COMMUNITY

THOSE GLORY GLORY NIGHTS....

Kevin Keegan, the English jewel in the crown of West German football is backing Manchester City to topple Borussia Monchengladbach in the UEFA Cup quarter final...” 

So announced the Daily Express on Friday 19th January, the day of the draw for the last eight for what was then the third of UEFA’s yearly tournaments. This was January 1979, to be more precise, the last time the name of Manchester City was seen spinning around in UEFA’s little glass vases with any great regularity. In those days, City’s ex-manager was still the bubble-permed double European Footballer of the Year and City’s opponents were one of the strongest teams in (then West) Germany, rather than the rag-tag side that scraped through the relegation play-offs in the Bundesliga last season. Times move on and, more than 30 years later, City are once again edging into the limelight, helped this season by being drawn in the most evenly matched and interesting of all the Champions League groups. Napoli, Villareal and Bayern will present the Blues with a not inconsiderable barrier, but this is not the first time that the path to glory has been marked with Europe's finest.

Bell smashes in v. Twente
Back in 1979 City had already dealt admirably with Twente Enschede, Standard Liege and AC Milan, all big European hitters at the time, raising hopes that some glory could still be salvaged from a season which had flopped badly. Malcolm Allison’s second coming had proved to be a disaster and the Blues, tipped at the start of the campaign to be in the final shake-up for the title, were well adrift in lower mid-table. The Germans of Borussia Moenchengladbach were not without their problems either, slowly decreasing in power from the mighty outfit which had dominated the Bundesliga in the early 70s and jousted with Liverpool in UEFA and European Cup finals in recent years (many still remembered with awe Keegan’s last match in a Liverpool shirt as he gave the limpet marking of German stopper Bertie Vogts the test of its powers in Rome as Liverpool took the European crown on that famous night in 1977). This was a side steeped in experience and well used to the glory of winning titles and cups.

Gary Owen leaves his mark in Liege
Typical of Allison’s approach in this period, faced with the dilemma of who was to replace the suspended Gary Owen (Owen had kung-fu kicked his way into a red card in Liege in the second round the previous November), the maverick Allison opted to give the 18 year-old Nicky Reid a debut and ask him to man-mark the then-footballer of the year Alan Simonsen. Only Big Mal could have come to a well-thought-out conclusion like this when Colin Bell and Kaziu Deyna, European veterans both, were ready and willing to come in for Owen and shore up the middle of the park. Allison - as is commonly accepted - preferred the moves of the gambler, however, and the raw Reid was chosen to play.

Reid played well enough in the first leg, considering the almighty burden bestowed upon him (Allison would launch Tommy Caton with similar disregard for the youngster’s well-being at the start of the next season), but City struggled to get through a rugged German rearguard, backed by some great keeping from the giant Wolfgang Kneib. City, unable to build on the 25th minute lead given to them by Mike Channon, were pegged back mid-way through the second period, when Simonsen’s trickery on the wing opened up a chance for Ewald Lienen to equalise crisply. The Germans tested Corrigan towards the end and Bruns’ shot smacked off a post and with City losing their shape and composure (not for the first time in this European campaign). 

Kidd heads in at a misty San Siro
For reasons known only to himself, Paul Power then started a multi-player punch-up after a robust challenge on the keeper left players squaring up to each other ominously. By the end, Borussia were not entirely alone being pleased with the 1-1 draw. Allison later commented that “I would not say they were defensive, let’s just say they got all eleven players behind the ball every time we came within 40 yards of their goal!”.

The second leg in front of the towering old cliff-edge terraces of a Bokelberg packed to its 35,000 capacity, saw a gutsy City performance undone by sheer bad luck just before the interval. With the game ebbing and flowing and little to choose between the sides, Tony Henry sent a screaming shot onto the Borussia post in the 44th minute. The ball cannoned free to some distance from the home goal. Picking up the loose ball, the Germans swept straight up-field and Kulik buried a shot to send his side in at the interval one-up. Allison would later say that “the goal just before half time broke our neck” but in truth City were to take quite a hammering in the second half, with the Danes Simonsen and Kalle Del’Haye attacking down either flank in mesmerising fashion. By the 72nd minute City were three goals down, Bruns and the menacing Del’Haye adding to the German total, and heading swiftly for the exit. It had been a titanic struggle but the Germans on this form held just too many aces for the Blues to deal with. Deyna’s belated introduction for the struggling Nicky Reid sparked a revival and his sweetly struck volley from Channon’s pass brought City back into the game. The tie was already won by then, however. 

City had been steamrollered in the second half by the all-out attacking wing-play of Udo Lattek’s Borussia, who would go on to win the UEFA Cup that very season against Eintracht Frankfurt in the final. It had been a fantastic journey through to the quarter-finals, illuminating what might have been in an increasingly disappointing season. The 3-2 win over twente, a blistering 4-0 defeat of Standard and the never-to-be-forgotten games with AC Milan (2-2 in the San Siro, 3-0 at Maine Road on one of those truly unforgettable European nights when the noise cascading down off the Kippax would have woken the dead). This was to be the last season of European glory for the Blues, who went into steady decline from there.


Recent efforts in the rejigged Europa League have brought the amusing (Lokeren away), the bizarre (Faero Islands) and the occasional moment of big time tension (Hamburg home), but little sign of what was experienced in those heady days of 1979. Now, City stand on the threshold of something entirely different. The pot with the big ears beckons. The music, the banners, the stadium drapery, the wall-to-wall media coverage that comes with the Champions League will now engulf a wide-eyed Manchester City too. 



No one present at either match against Borussia Monchengladbach all those years ago could possibly have realised at the time how many years of torment were to follow before the Blues once again graced the Big Fields of continental Europe. That most surely is about to be put right.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

BOARD STIFF

Cook, Swales and Maddock: A History of Bombastic Eloquence

Happily, Manchester City has always been a club capable of putting its foot, be it clad with the latest Predator football boot, or slightly scuffed brogue, firmly into its waiting mouth. Players and directors alike have always revealed a capacity to entertain, amaze and shock in almost equal measures down the years and followers of the great sky blue soap opera have been comfortable with a bit of self-deprecation to bounce away any derision from outside.

The latest brouhaha surrounding the club leaves only a sour taste in the mouth, however. Gary Cook, the club's self-styled larger than life business guru, the type of man who you will find glad-handing countless strangers in suits, holding forth about this that and the extremely tedious other at networking lunches in three star convention centres and playing the big shouldered noise clapping staff into position for the latest ill-judged bonding exercise. He is the hugely embarrassing boss that we've all had at one time or another. When he speaks it is at a volume used only by self-confident people who are used to being listened to by large audiences. When he laughs, it is with that air-filled exaggeration that makes normal people disappear to the toilets for a smoke. When he enthuses it is with such hyperbole that it makes the hairs stand up inside your underpants. David Brent meets Fats Waller meets Tony Blair. It takes a special kind of human being to parp loudly and lastingly in public about subject matter he or she holds only a tenuous grasp of. To stride around representing a megalith like Nike, or for that matter the new global-reach Manchester City, takes balls, guts, bravado and a handsome slice of bullshittery and the great trouble with this cosmically inflammable combination is that, every time you pull it off, you wing it, you are surrounded by rosy shining faces clapping their little hands off, it eases a little more helium into the tank. These people eventually float around thinking they are part-owners of Planet Earth and can act as its spokesperson.

City have been blessed with some earth-shatteringly multi-dimensional boardroom mavericks during the club's rich and varied history. The first to really make his mark in the modern era was Peter J Swales, a man made for the monochrome era of the early 70s with his rugged tie-died comb-over making him look like he was trundling around the breeze block precincts of Altrincham with a lightly ravaged raccoon atop his bonce. The hair we would come to accept in the way you accept a pet dog that always arches his back for a dump in the most preposterously public places, but Mr Swales was never content to simply look absurd; he wanted to sound absurd too.

Never was this more apparent than the classic moment when the quietly spoken Mel Machin's promising but forever-understated reign came to an abrupt Swalesian end. Machin was the sort of guy that, after watching his team put 10 past Huddersfield, would say in a voice that required the collected presspack to nuzzle in to within 10 centimetres of his mouth, "I think the boys did a good job today and we'll be back again on Monday to prepare for Swindon Town". Cue startled hacks, mouths open, pencils mid air, wondering what to say next. Swales noticed this and, as was his style, sacked Machin swiftly and with no mercy. When he faced the press pack himself, it was down to Machin's apparent "lack of repartee with the crowd". You see, like Cook, Swales was one of those clever men, who could be hilariously funny (and smile along with the joke) without completely realising how truly entertaining he was being.

(below) Swales, looking like a player in the Cuban Missile Crisis, gets his bushy-haired man. Ian Niven's lively hairpiece can clearly be seen enjoying itself in the background

In the startlingly bold Granada tv film "City" from 1980, which happened across a story whilst innocently documenting the backroom shuffling of a big time football club, we saw the machinations of Swales and his bald-headed tea drinking cavaliers as Big Mal was ushered out of office and replaced by John Bond. Bond's job interview, filmed in full, is a gem of televisual romance from that bygone era. Watching it now is like seeing a black and white episode of What Happened to the Likely Lads: you watch it and feel your jaw dropping open as you realise the 70s was as close to today's society as living on Mars. Bond, all stacked hair (much to Swales' evident jealousy) and Norfolk burr, runs through a short catalogue of comically inept phrases to describe how he motivates, propels and dresses up a team, a club, a whole population. Swales and his grey-suited sexagenarians nod and smoke, tut and hiccup. In closed quorum, they begin another round of tea drinking, tutting and nodding. Ian Niven, a small man with a lively hairpiece, refuses to budge from his Pro-Mal stance. "I'm not saying (whether I like him or not) but I'll back anything you say or do, Mr Chairman" he fizzles. "Right that's settled then," says Swales, "Get him back in". Bond enters and sits. Swales: "Very good, that, John. We've listened to what you said and we've been very impressed and we'd like to offer you the job on the proviso that we, er, (starts to look sheepish for the first time in 25 years) can sort out the er compensation side of things with Norwich". And so, on the basis of ten minutes of trite one-liners and the hollow 70s version of Gary Cook's clipped management-speak, Bond is in and, naturally enough, two years later, out again. This was very much how Peter Swales, Altrincham's most successful and most high-profile television set salesman, operated. Speak, sack, think, in that order. Rest. Breathe. Call press conference. Speak, sack, think. Repeat to fade.

Swales may not have had many attributes, but he was a survivor and, for all the out-takes and slip-ups, he was still hanging on grimly to office in 1993, when - true to form - he sacked Peter Reid after three games of the new season. It is not recorded exactly what his problem was, but Reid almost certainly lacked "repartee" with the board, which by now included the cake-faced journalist John Maddock, hired as a buffer between the by-now bedraggled looking Swales (the raccoon combover supplanted by a set of thin, wet eels lined up in asymmetric novelty across the famous bald expanse) and manager Reid. "I am not the mouthpiece for Peter Swales," Maddock blustered to nobody's belief, "Make no mistake about this I am the new supremo at Maine Road with a specific mandate from the board". Reid was gone the next day, replaced by the invisible Brian Horton. Maddock himself lasted a gaff-strewn couple of months before falling on his own quill pen. Swales too was soon gone, a giant career of verbal tomfoolery and savage firings behind him for good.

Which, by a rather circuitous route, brings us back to square one. Cook, the super-garrulous chief exec who thinks a Thai dictator who has "disappeared" thousands of the country's criminals and likes the idea of adorning the match programme with his nicely oval face, is a "good golf partner". Would he have swung a haphazard four iron wit Pol Pot, one wonders, or indulged in a quiet game of Pictionary with Richard Nixon. We will perhaps never know. What is certain, is that, once again, the good and sometimes comical reputation of Manchester City is once again in the spotlight.

"Charismatic" leader
Cook is no more evil than, say, Ken Bates, no more plotting than Peter Kenyon, no more lame than Bill Kenwright. Indeed he has brought about change on a scale that most supporters could not have dreamed about three short years ago. Yes, the funds available have made him look good and generous, but as a man charged with driving the club's off the field activities forward, most would say he has been a big success. As a human being entrusted with not making the club a laughing stock with his quips, quotes and grimaces, he has been significantly less successful. It is with a grandiloquence that marries pomposity with ridicule that such figures come unstuck. This latest episode now paints the picture not only of a man with decidedly poor taste in jokes, but also one with an ill-considered plan for what to some might appear to be an attempt at cover-up. That will no doubt come out with the wash when lawyers and I.T.experts get their call. In the meantime, the irascible PJ Swales would no doubt have considered it the opportune moment to stand slowly from his swivel chair and say "Well, Gary, lad, you've done great, we appreciate that, really do, but I'm going to have to ask you to get your stuff.. No hard feelings is there". Mr Cook will be pleased that the trigger finger of Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak is decidedly less fidgety.

Friday, September 2, 2011

SHAUN WRIGHT-PHILLIPS: LAST OF A KIND


   "He is about as far from the stereotypical young footballer as it is possible to get. There are no flash cars, no designer clothes and definitely no visits to night clubs..." Chris Bailey, MEN, after Shaun Wright-Phillips' derby debut at Maine Road, November 18th 2000
  
There's an unusual and slightly haunting image of Shaun Wright- Phillips that I have in the back of my mind and it will not go away. It is not of the little man climbing off the bench, raw and enthusiastic, for his debut in 1999. Not the vaguely ridiculous robot moves he threw after scorching the top of the net in the last minute of an epic 4-1 inaugural Eastlands derby win. Not the scintillating pace and drive of his goals coming in from the right wing against Bolton, Fulham, Bradford. Nor is it the delightful cameo he produced at the Stadium of Light on his second debut in August 2008. The picture in my mind is of a diminutive figure in jeans and obligatory gangsta tee-shirt, somewhere in London in the early hours of yet another Premier League Night Out. Shaun's eyes are blurred and he looks like he is about to stumble off the curb. Stuffed into the waistband of his bedraggled jeans is a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels.

Without doubt, Jack Daniels would not have been a name close to either his heart or his lips when he set out on the unlikely road to success at Nottingham Forest's academy in the late nineties. For a lad so diminutive, even the tenuous but slightly overworked link to ex-Arsenal legend Ian Wright would not have been of any great assistance, if this tiny man could not persuade Those That Know that being as tall as a leprechaun is not necessarily a deterrent to playing top flight football. There were certainly many who doubted in those early days. Kenny Dalglish and Alex Ferguson are living proof that the football gene pool does not always leap successfully from one generation to the next.

After a 6-0 demolition of Sheffield United at the beginning of 1999-00, it was decided that the time had come for the little reserve winger from London to dip his feet. Burnley away in the Worthington Cup. The first leg had already been won 5-0 and the bony kid came on in the 69th minute to replace Terry Cooke for his first taste of the big time. 3,647 people witnessed the act, hardly the big stage that he had dreamed of. That night he wore a pair of shorts that reached below his knees. His short-sleeved shirt came down over his elbows. there was hardly any shaun Wright-Philips to see at all.

As City hit the top of the table with a 1-0 win at Walsall, it was clear that Joe Royle's men had a good chance of cruising straight through from the old 3rd tier to the Premier league. A serious resurrection was well under way. As a result of this, Wright-Phillips was used sparingly in that glorious free-flowing season, which ended at Ewood Park with emotion, fans and goals overflowing in all directions.

He did not have long to wait to make his league bow during that same season. It came in the salubrious surroundings of Vale Park, on a gloomy Winter afternoon in the Potteries, where City won 2-1 with late goals from the foot of Vale defender Snijders and City left back Danny Granville. Chris Bailey wrote of the debut thus in the Manchester Evening news: "...teenage Wright-Phillips, living proof that you don't have to be a muscle-bound six footer to create havoc on a football field...". This ability to be small yet big would assist the new City winger in a career that would ultimately take him all the way up to the giddy heights of international football. At no point did any critic cite a lack of inches as something that might hold him back.

His first full start in the league came a week later in an exhilarating 4-2 win over alan ball's Portsmouth, kept his place for the trip to QPR a week later (1-1) and was an unused sub for the 1-0 win at table toppers Charlton Athletic on 20th November. With Joe Royle bringing in strikers in his own mould (the bruiser Lee Peacock and the bruised Bob "Binman" Taylor) plus Mark Kennedy's terrific form on the left wing, first team starts were sparse for the youngster as City's promotion rush began to take serious shape. With an increasingly immovable front two of Goater and Dickov (the latter looking collosal alongside Wright-Phillips), starts were at a premium.When he realised that Royle also fancied Lee Mills and Danny Allsopp ahead of him, Wright-Philips may have had his first doubts about City, but better was to come in the season that followed and an award of Young City Player of the Year made up for the lack of starts in the second half of the season.

Despite City's return to the Big League seeming a little premature, the young winger's chances of first team action seemed to be compromised from the start with the headline acquisitions of George Weah and Paolo Wanchope, but he came off the subs' bench in the opening day slaughter at Charlton and never looked back, making a total of 20 starts in a season that would ultimately end in disappointment and relegation back to whence we had come.


Although that first full season was fraught with crisis, surrounded from start to finish by the thick smoke of failure, there were cameos of gusto and verve from the little reserve, a jinking performance in the 1-4 reverse at West Ham enough in fact to persuade Royle to put the unpolished little gem into the starting line-up against United, which City duly lost 1-0 with SWP getting City's Man of the Match honours for the 2nd consecutive week. He had arrived in typically electric fashion in everybody's line of vision and there would be no ignoring him now. 

With Royle banished at the end of a bitterly disappointing term, Kevin Keegan's arrival was seen as a promising move for Wright-Phillips' immediate prospects. Now seen as the standard bearer of an increasingly productive City academy,
the little man played an integral part in a swashbuckling promotion season, weighing in with his first goals (8 of them in all) as the Blues went storming back up at the first attempt. Playing wide on the right of a four man midfield with Huckerby and Goater up ahead, Wright-Phillips was part of a City side that scored a record-equalling 109 goals, amongst them a corker at Millwall in a fantastic 3-2 win against the odds at the New Den, an unorthodox corkscrew volley v Bradford City and both goals in a 2-0 almost-title-clinching win at rivals Wolves at Easter. The little man had not just arrived, he was now a matchwinner. In the Keegan years, he became something of a favourite, sometimes playing at right back (and getting sent off against Everton) but mostly in his customary wide right roving role where he could stretch opposing defences with his speed, guile and deceptive strength. He seemed to thrive around the likes of Anelka and Fowler, perhaps remembering having to learn his trade watching Lee Peacock and Lee Mills, and he never ever looked phased by the opposition. The Kippax took him to their hearts, the little dynamo with the heart of a lion and chants of Shauny Wright Wright Wright echoed around the old ground every week. These must have been heady times for the youngster.

He starred in the 6-2 win over Bolton, a 3-0 win at QPR (where ironically he will play this season and where, in this game, he was racially abused by some in the crowd, according to his watching father) and the other-worldly cup replay win at Spurs, before scoring a corker against United to give Eastlands its first taste of derby success, but things were beginning to go sour for the Keegan regime and he - along with Keegan himself- would soon be gone. The performance against United and growing stature of SWP in the top flight game led to an England call up for a late season friendly in Sweden. Injury curtailed his chances and scuppered his late bid for inclusion for Euro 2004 but a full international debut was not far away, coming eventually against Ukraine at the start of the following season.  When that chance did arrive, Wright-Phillips delivered a debut at St James Park, which resembled perfectly all he had done for City up to that point. He topped off a sparkling display with a raking shot from the right to score as well. Wright Phillips was by now at the very top of his game and, as Keegan's empire wilted as quickly as his will to continue, the manager aired doubts about City's ability to compete if rumoured interest from Arsenal and Chelsea materialised at an eye-watering 24 million pounds. Keegan would not last to the end of the 2004-05 season. Wright-Phillips did, helping seal an ecstatic late run to within a point of UEFA Cup qualification under Stuart Pearce (including a swerving run and blockbuster shot at Villa Park) but said farewell soon after, joining the revolution at Chelsea. Foolishly, some said.

His stay in London featured much inactivity on the bench, a stalled career and sporadic international squad appearances. He was considered a regular and when a revamped and heavily monied MCFC returned to bid for him three and a half years later, the interest of Mark Hughes and Thaksin Shinawatra persuaded him to "come home". His price had fallen from 24 million to just 8 in the space of his Chelsea stint. This move back north could also be described as a mistake, for, once his stunning two goal debut at Sunderland was over, he gradually sank into a squad position almost identical to that which he had occupied in London. With City's riches building up and Eastland's grey precincts suddenly pulling in the most extravagant of world talent, the little man once again found himself on the outside looking in. There were still occasional signs of the deftness of foot and the lightning bursts of speed down the touchline, but they had become all too infrequent. A sign of a change in character came too, when his garrulous father insisted his son had been "mugged up" when the club turned down excessive wage demands. The writing was on the wall.

Now he returns to the big smoke, a player approaching the twilight years, rich beyond his dreams, but far from the sprightly little urchin, who first skipped onto the wet pitch for that cup tie at Burnley. The true standard bearer for City's fantastically productive academy system now bears the hallmark of the excesses of modern top flight football: his is a career that suffered for the pursuit of money when his talent could have taken him even further than it ultimately did.

Despite this and all the modern day trappings that he has gathered around him, the advisers and the bottles of American whisky, for good or for bad we are probably saying goodbye to the last player of this kind to grace the sky blue shirt of Manchester City in the modern era. An academy product that played more than 200 games for his club. His ilk are a near extinct breed in this era of greed is good and the fastbuck to heaven. For that at least, we offer you our thanks, Little Man, and wish you well at Loftus Road.

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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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