Monday, December 31, 2012

ANNUS MIRABILIS

2012, like a glittering unicorn, decked out in bejewelled clothes, galloping along a prairie thick with trees bearing sapphires of the deepest aquamarine, appeared to us all shimmering in its splendid and acute beauty. It stamped its feet a couple of times, lifting a fine dust of gold and silver, snorted loudly and cantered away with us all hanging breathlessly to its waxen mane, as it cavorted across a landscape pocked with the defeated and the slaughtered. Champagne Supernova. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. 2012 was when all our dreams came home to roost and Manchester City, proud bearers of the largest and most impressive array of Cup For Cock-Ups medals ever seen in the history of British football, became winners.

Holders of the FA Cup, City followed this in the New Year by being crowned Premier League Champions, following in the footsteps of Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal and Chelsea as select members of a small bunch, who have sealed the title in these modern times of money and more money. The Greed is Good League, as the doyen of football writers Brian Glanville likes to call it, is extremely picky when it comes to choosing its champions. Football followers decry its inability to open to the field, its singular interest in the moneyed few, but in dragging the title away from the serial boasters of West London and Salford, City were seen to do football a service of kinds. 

Neutrals the length and breadth of the country seemed pleased with the outcome, or at least found in City the lesser of a small number of evil options on offer to them. Who will forget the cries of delight from the QPR section at the Etihad or the impromptu Poznan conducted by Sunderland's supporters in front of the United away following that day? For Blues supporters, carried away in the delirium of how this long-awaited prize had been delivered, it hardly seemed to matter what others thought of us. For so long ridiculed by the great and good of the game, here was a moment - after 44 long years of sitting on our hands and weeping - to crow and cry, scream and fly. The seemingly impossible, unreachable dream had been realised after all and in a way which would leave an indelible City-style mark on the subconscious of every football follower on the planet from Qatar to Queensland and Sun City to Sunderland. Manchester City, Champions of England, but in their own inimitable way.

To those of us long in the tooth (I have been watching City in various forms of discomfort since 1973, for example), it was a particularly poignant moment. The obvious thing to do was simply to start blubbing at the magnitude of what had happened, at how long we had suffered, how long we had put up with the gnawing embarrassment, the riveting slow-motion car-crash that our club had developed into during the 80s and 90s and its modern day struggles to actually be somebody other than an also-ran.

The year had started with the apocalyptic thunder of a 3rd round FA Cup Manchester derby. What a way not only to start the New Year but to commence the defence of a trophy hauled in for the first time since 1968 in another tear-drenched emotion-packed occasion at Wembley the year before. The man, who would end the season holding aloft the biggest prize of all, was sent from the field within twelve minutes of the game starting. Referees would come into sharp focus during 2012 and here was a grand start by the infamous Chris Foy dispatching Vincent Kompany for a daring and expertly executed sliding tackle in the Manchester rain, reminding many of the performance by Mark Clattenburg, who had sent off Craig Bellamy for being tackled at Bolton the previous season. Foy and Clattenburg, like all poor referees, would be high profile on many more occasions in 2012. The good ones, of which there are still mercifully a few, go about their jobs largely unnoticed. Clattenburg could not do more for his self-promotion if he wore a belisha beacon for a hat and brandished a steel mace as he ran around.

City's form slump included exits from both cups, as Liverpool surprisingly found the form to take them past the Blues in the two legged League Cup semi final, a cup that had so surely been there for the taking that the ailing Scousers only had the winners of a Cardiff-Palace semi final to beat in the final. A golden opportunity to win another cup had been lost and, whilst other clubs turned up their noses at this "third ranked" trophy, it should not have been hard for Mancini's men to concentrate given the interminable length of the previous drought on this front.  Who were we to grumble?

City's form rallied and results improved too after a wobble in January. In an article called Form & Shape it was noticed that "The gap to 3rd placed Tottenham now stands at eight points. Chelsea in fourth, are thirteen points adrift and 5th-placed Arsenal eighteen points behind. We are eighteen points ahead of Arsenal. With a goal difference of +42, you might as well add a point to each of those figures. We can clearly see that, whilst the marauding goal form of September has settled a little, there is still oil in the tank."  Whilst City's form returned, their luck remained out, helped it seems by the gods of fate.

Results in January looked like this:
  • Sunderland 1 City 0
  • City 3 Liverpool 0
  • City 2 Man Utd 3 FAC3
  • City 0 Liverpool 1 (CCSFi)
  • Wigan 0 City 1
  • City 3 Tottenham 2
  • Liverpool 2 City 2 (CCSFii)
  • Everton 1 City 0

Having disappeared early from the domestic cup competitions, City set about trying to do themselves justice in the dreadful, lumpen Europa League, a sad, time-consuming and energy-sapping successor to the old UEFA Cup. In its attempts to become a mini Champions League, the drawn-out format of UEFA's secondary tournament had turned it into something that many clubs, having fought tooth and nail through a domestic season to reach, then tried their utmost to be eliminated from in the Spring. To their credit City professed a serious interest in winning it and set about the job in fine fashion with a tub-thumping win in Porto which laid down a marker for others to think about. Within weeks, however, City had been turfed out of this competition by weaker opposition from the same country in the shape of a bedraggled looking Sporting Lisbon. 

As the season wound itself up for the final stretch, City remained out front, chased by an increasingly desperate Manchester United, who started a sandstorm of media "incursions" by the great and good, from Paddy Crerand to the guileless Terry Christian in an attempt to rock the leader's boat. A swathe of press articles regarding "mind games" started to appear, as if the childish fibs and prefabrications being uttered into the microphones by Mike Phelan, Ryan Giggs, Ferguson and indeed Roberto Mancini, should be considered some kind of eerily piercing art form. Unedifying as it was suspect, all that it would serve in the end would be to leave one side or the other looking totally foolish come May.

When that month broke with City suddenly trailing United by eight (8) points, having been well in front a matter of weeks previously, it looked like it would be the blue hordes who would once again be wiping the custard from their trousers. A dreadful loss at Swansea reduced one media friendly supporter to tears in the front rows and the press were ready to pounce. With the annual defeat at Goodison and United's spurt of good form, the tables had been turned at the most crucial moment of this fast-moving campaign.

By now the crowing had become deafening. Everybody had an opinion on why City had lost out: no bottle, poor, effete, foreign, card-waving, hair adjusting manager, mercenary players, no team spirit, a side -in short- patched together by oily money. A club held together by the individual greed of its myriad parts. The rightful and righteous balance had been restored just in time, with Mr Ferguson's veined nose edging back in front at the top. Arsenal's late winner against City at The Emirates had been hailed with particular gusto by elements of the southern press and all those thousands of Gunners fans, who suddenly felt a bond developing with United, their fellow rich aristocrats in peril. But as the stands in North London heaved to 57,000 cavorting United sympathisers, a strange thing happened.

Release.

The ensuing run-in will never be forgotten. The most deliciously balanced Premier league finale ever, indeed one of English football's most well scripted endings was about to break over us all in its simple and savage beauty. 

United, suddenly cocks of the north and champions designate, now lost inexplicably at Wigan, whilst City, "out of the race" according to their own manager and his home-recipe mind games, beat West Brom easily. Buoyed, City travelled to Carrow Road and smashed six past Norwich, with a hat-trick from the reintegrated Carlos Tevez, lacking neither paunch nor punch. When United threw away two 2-goal leads to draw 4-4 at home to Everton, the title race that had run its course was suddenly open again. With a win at Wolves on the Sunday, City could make it mathematically possible once again. That game, won two nil by the Blues, led us straight into the lion's jaws of a home Manchester Derby deemed the most important ever. Another critical turning point arrived with Ferguson's team selection and subsequent tactics. 

The champions-elect and reigning title holders talked the talk but failed to walk the walk, coming for a draw, when bravery was called for. Their stacked defence ended up with precisely what it deserved: a 1-0 defeat with a towering headed goal from the man unfairly sent off in the same fixture at the start of the year, captain Vincent Kompany. With the stadium in a complete tumult, Mancini's job was suddenly to get his super relaxed players to focus on the two games that would define their destinies. Win at Newcastle and at home to the team with the worst away record in the league and your names will be written in gold leaf on the highest pillars in the land, never to be erased. Lose and you will have lost this title not once but twice, and to your sworn enemies, on top of this. This delirious stress, as Daniel Taylor named it in his Guardian report, was what now washed over every pore of City's players, administrators, fans and sympathisers. Well wishers hoped for the best. Die hards awaited the biggest embarrassment in their club's history. Ferguson called up the Ghost of Devon Loch.

Newcastle 0 Manchester City 2

Manchester City 3 QPR 2

In these two simple results sit a lifetime of stress and trouble and their release to the four winds. Seven goals found the net. Seven times voices roared and bodies jumped and shivvered, but a story as long as the Bible is contained within. City crawled over the finishing line tugging the dead weight of a million distraught, overwhelmed, disbelieving onlookers with them. When the final whistle blew on that sunny May afternoon, the football world shuddered a little on its axis, as it took in what Sergio Aguero's clinical 94th minute skip, swerve and slice actually represented. The mosh pit that greeted it took many minutes to straighten itself out. The repercussions are still untangling themselves half a year later. 

A season that had ended in such utter pandemonium had the beautiful symmetry of starting and finishing with the final goalscorer of each match making the headlines (Aguero had burst into our line of sight against Swansea with a lethal smack of his right foot too, way back in August 2011).

The first repercussion only became evident some months after the summer break, in which Roberto Mancini was tasked with the fragile job of boosting a squad that had just achieved a Herculean objective. How to build on that, one asked? Instead of securing the early signatures of the few stellar talents (De Rossi, Ibrahimovich) that might just have upped the ante, Mancini became embroiled in a behind the scenes struggle with Brian Marwood. Over pounds and pennies. As the big fish slipped away downstream, City hooked kippers. Worse still, Robin van Persie, league top scorer, went to Old Trafford.

An understated pre-season gave way to full-blooded passion in an impressive curtain opener against Chelsea at Villa Park. For a spell in the 2nd half, City seemed unplayable, as the European champions leaked three quick goals. Little were we to know that, by Christmas, that twenty minute spell would remain the best passage of football witnessed by City fans all season so far.  

2012-13 has proved to be difficult viewing. The challenge of "beating that" has indeed proved a tough one. Mancini, looking in turns detached, disatisfied and disinterested, has cut an increasingly lonely figure. Behind the scenes, management recruiting makes a tilt towards Pep Guardiola look more sure as the days pass. The feeling grows that Mancini's days are numbered whatever the outcome of this largely unfulfilled campaign. Yet hope remains. City enter the New Year in 2nd place, backfiring and spluttering, but ahead of the rest of the pack. They do this without having produced one single 90 minute display that would bear decent comparison with the multitude of shatter-and-splatter wins from last year. The goals have largely dried up, the width has gone, the impregnable defence leaks. Yet hope remains and, whilst Manchester City supporters remain true to their history, hope will always be the last man out of the door.

Happy New Year.



 

2 comments:

  1. Simon, what a lovely summary of one of the greatest years in our club's history....oh, sorry, we don't do history, do we?

    Look forward to a possible further celebration in a few months time to expunge David Byrne and friends from my thoughts....Once In A Lifetime.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Never thought I'd live to see the day, to be honest!

      Delete

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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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