Monday, October 22, 2012

WINNERS AND WINNING

Today might not be the very best moment to wax lyrical about Lance Armstrong, but there are plenty of other strains of professional sport that carry solid examples of people, who know how to win at the top and keep winning. Every dog has his day, some might say, but how do you harness all that is good about what you achieved in a one-off situation and do it again? And again. How do you sustain this when all around you are busy sussing you out, improving their own efforts and wanting to occupy your space?

Because every first time victory runs the risk of being a one-off, unless you can capture the magic ingredients and reproduce them when the adrenaline flow is not rushing like a torrent. For Manchester City, this has become an interesting test. When your first trophy comes after a wait of 44 years and is followed by your first League title in a manner so unique, so unbelievably raw, it might just be a slither beyond you to recreate the circumstances necessary to repeat the performance.

Or not.

                                                            
Murtaz Shelia: no lack of physical toughness ...

Anyone living in the North West in the last 25 years will be aware of what has been achieved at Old Trafford. Much to the disdain of City supporters, the juggernaut driven by the Scottish cup thrower, has kept thundering forward despite challenges from all points of the compass. Say what you like about Alex Ferguson, and many of us do on a regular basis, but he has instilled an unbreakable spirit in five, maybe six, different United sides down the years. Look at the names in some of the more recent sides he has built and you will be hard pressed to be impressed: Bardsley, O'Shea, the two hobbits, Gibson, Phil Neville, Anderson. City fans have taken special pride in laughing out loud whenever any of these hove into view, but they have all played their part in winning games for United that most other teams would have lost, given up as dead long before the final whistle sounded.

How long and hard we studied, re-studied and then complained about all those late winners. Soft refs, bent refs, a manager bullying everyone from the sidelines, tapping that bloody watch of his and looking like a kettle about to go off. It seemed to happen every single week, starting with Ferguson and Brian Kidd, now happily and ironically ensconced in the comfy chairs alongside Robert Mancini at the Etihad, doing the fandango six metres inside the Old Trafford touchline when Steve Bruce scored the winner against Sheffield Wednesday in the 6th minute of added time to draw United ever closer to their first Premier League title in 1993. Ferguson was tapping his watch that day too, first to send the clear message to the referee not to stop the game before United had done the business and, when they had done it in such late and dramatic circumstances, to tell him he was now allowing too much time. You marvelled at the bare-faced cheek. They won the league and we spat feathers. Then they did it another 11 times and the place went dark. 

(Of 45 clubs who have competed for the Premier League since its inception ("the beginning of football") in 1992, only five have won the title: Man Utd (12); Arsenal (3); Chelsea (3) plus one each to City and Blackburn Rovers....)


I have long stopped marvelling at stuff like that. It gave me stomach ulcers in the nineties and turned me prematurely bitter in my 30s. I still wear a smile like a man who has been kicked in the groin by a llama every time I am introduced to a surprise United supporter. If I have no time to prepare myself, I can become a bit of a mess. "Oh, you follow the (cough) reds? Aha (spills drink)...".


They didn't exactly ruin my life, only Colin Schindler can get away with statements like that, but they have changed it for the worse on countless occasions.

Kidd and Ferguson rejoice in Steve Bruce
"The champion DNA of Manchester United has been infected by City's triumphant emergence."

And then, a little while back, something quite invigorating happened. Something odd and unusual. Something that made my 35 years of bitterness evaporate in 20 seconds flat. I kept the disorientation. Indeed that became quickly and stupendously worse. I kept the giddiness and I kept the surreptitious dark humour that anything that could go wrong will do just that, but in the light of what I had just experienced, it was plainly complete rot. With a confident smack of his right foot, Sergio Aguero had banished a lifetime's worth of attempted full-on misery and gleeful masochism. I had been building it, layer upon intricate layer, like some giant self-propelling trifle, for practically all of my life, as tearful non-comprehending child (thank you Kenny Hibbitt and Gary Pearce), sweary adolescent (take a bow, Paul Hendrie, Sammy Chapman, Peter Willis, Alf Grey), inebriated student (yes, you, Jimmy Sirrell, and you, Raddy Antic and you, John Benson) through to the gleefully morose days of full adulthood (Jamie Pollock, I'm looking at you, Jason van Blerk, Alan Ball, God and all his witnesses, the seven riders of the apocalypse, Nayim, Peter Swales, Barry Conlon, Andre Kanchelskis, all of you, all of you).

And now it came tumbling down in a cloud of brick dust and flying bottles. As did I and all around me.

Since that moment, life has not been the same in football circles in Manchester. There is no longer much hope of a belly laugh from Manchester City jokes. It is better to take them seriously. As for Ferguson and his stopwatch. Well, he still taps his forearm, but the confident gestures have gone and the powers are on the wane. he taps and he taps but those late goals are not so plentiful anymore. They still occur of course, as do the comebacks, but the champion DNA of Manchester United has been infected by City's triumphant emergence. They see someone else, their neighbours of all people, making good the same philosophy, the same metal toughness and organisation that has brought them such success. This sows doubts. The seeds are sprouting.

City meanwhile are collecting in the crop. Look at these figures:

Season 2012-13 so far -

12th August 2012 CHELSEA (Comm Shield) - 1-0 down, come back to win 3-2
19th August 2012 SOUTHAMPTON (h) - 2-1 down, come back to win 3-2, Nasri winner 80th minute
26th August 2012 LIVERPOOL (a) 2-1 down, come back to draw, Tevez 80th minute
1st September 2012 QPR (h) Pegged back to 1-1, win 3-1, Tevez 90th minute warps it up
15th September 2012 STOKE (a) - one nil down, come back to draw, with Dzeko's 93rd minute lob cleared miraculously from the line by Shawcross to avoid a City comeback win
18th September 2012 REAL (a) twice taking the lead in the Bernabeu before falling to dramatic 3-2 loss
29th September FULHAM (a) one down, coming back to win against defensively set up team, Dzeko's winner in 86th minute
3rd October 2012 BORUSSIA DORTMUND (h) 89th minute Balotelli equaliser saves up and down game 
20th October 2012 WEST BROM (a) one down to defensively set up side, Dzeko's goals in 80 and 91 turn it around again for City

In practically every game so far this season, the Blues have either turned a defecit into a draw or a win or have scored late in the game to seal things. Even in the stroll against Sunderland, Milner's goal came on 89 minutes. This is a team that does not know when it is beaten; it is a team that keeps going in the face of lengthening odds. Wonder of wonders, I am not talking about Ferguson's troupe but the new teak tough Manchester City, with a mentality of champions.

"The players and staff of Manchester City have now arrived in a completely different place, one where they can marry, in a team environment, the rational and physical with the emotional and make this marriage work regularly and reliably for their own advancement."

Brian Kidd: part of 4 different Manchester dynasties

The mind drifts back to last season's blur of tear-stained action. Last gasp winners v Chelsea and Spurs as Nasri skipped home and Balotelli banged in yet another ice cool penalty; at Arsenal in the League Cup with that sumptuous counter by Dzeko, Johnson and Aguero; the late flurry of activity at Old Trafford; then there was strange old day in May to cap it all off. By that tumultuos denouement, City had hoisted themsleves not only into first place, but also to the top of the rankings covering late winners. More goals, in fact, scored after the 90th minute than any other side in the division. Who would have thought we would be saying that about City ten years ago?

I well remember several games, two versus Birmingham in the late nineties in particular, where the club had managed to cultivate the exact opposite to waht we see today: a deadly ability to concede in added time. Dele Adebola. A name I will never forget. I remember the unlikely bulk of Murtaz Shelia giving us the lead at St Andrews in some God-forsaken, mud-splattered second division game. It was the 88th minute when the lolloping Georgian netted. We lost that game 2-1. Birmingham's goals came in the 94th and 97th minutes. The rot set in so deep that the club's decline to the third tier of English football felt in many ways inevitable. The resurrection since then has been nothing short of remarkable.

That trophies now sit proudly on the Etihad mantlepiece is one thing. That we use the word in the plural, without fear of being hit by a barrage of belly laughs is quite another. The players and staff of Manchester City have now arrived in a completely different zone, one where they can marry, in a team environment, the rational, and physical with the emotional and make this marriage work regularly and reliably for their own advancement. As Lance Armstrong would tell you, only a dope throws that sort of gold away. 

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Psychology of sport - Further viewing: Dr Steve Peters, Olympic consultant, gives as good as he gets on BBC World's Hardtalk, on the subject of our "inner chimps" here:



 

Brian Kidd joins his boss on the pitch after Steve Bruce's 96th min winner v Wednesday

 




3 comments:

  1. You know, I thought the 99 playoff final, when it happened, would be the turnaround for City: that from that point on, we would be the team that would win games in the dying seconds, rather than have it done to us. Didn't exactly happen that way then, but it seems now our time has come. I've copped more than a few comments lately about "lucky City", winning/drawing after getting a way late goal after not playing so well, and I just laugh them off. "What do you mean?" I say. I grit my teeth, clench my fist and shake it: "We NEVER GIVE UP! We are champions! We don't know when we are beaten! We fight until our last breath!" That shuts the detractors right up, because I'm proud to say, it's the indisputable truth now. It has nothing to do with luck, and everything to to with attitude. By the way, I think you mean "sliver", rather than "slither" in the second par.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You know, I thought the 99 playoff final, when it happened, would be the turnaround for City: that from that point on, we would be the team that would win games in the dying seconds, rather than have it done to us. Didn't exactly happen that way then, but it seems now our time has come. I've copped more than a few comments lately about "lucky City", winning/drawing after getting a way late goal after not playing so well, and I just laugh them off. "What do you mean?" I say. I grit my teeth, clench my fist and shake it: "We NEVER GIVE UP! We are champions! We don't know when we are beaten! We fight until our last breath!" That shuts the detractors right up, because I'm proud to say, it's the indisputable truth now. It has nothing to do with luck, and everything to to with attitude. By the way, I think you mean "sliver", rather than "slither" in the second par.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Correct! I was a snake's scale away from the right word.

    ReplyDelete

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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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