Monday, February 20, 2012

THE EUROPA LEAGUE: A WARM & PLEASANT PLACE

Building bridges
Having failed to either come to terms with or even particularly enjoy the whole Champions League Thing some of us might have been forgiven for wondering about the worth of going through more pain to witness the Europa League in action. Some even went as far as to say that City should hot foot it down the road marked "early exit" as quickly as possible. Do a Villa. Follow 'Arry. It was a waste of time and strength, a strain on the club's playing resources and our own financial resources.

We would really be better off without it, wouldn't we?

I think it is probably safe to say that anyone, who went to Porto to support City, will be dead against anything but more Europa League. A lot more Europa League. This is the sorry tale of wine, dance and sunshine that accompanied us through an away win at the house of one of the greats of European football and the holders of the UEFA Cup, as I like to call it.

Settling in to new surroundings

The Quai de Ribeira is the sort of place, when bathed in Spring sunshine, with its little port barges puttering past, the wine lodges basking on the other bank, Gustave Eiffel's giant iron railway bridge spanning the great divide, with its rows of decorative trinket shops and eateries and the warm glow of sun on your back, that you could gladly call home for as long as the locals will put up with you. With City's game against FC Porto another nine hours or so away, this is exactly what many Blues had decided to do. In this idyllic setting, we started our day, met with old faces and new, turning the taps slowly on what would become a day's worth of Superbock and red wine and wallowed in our sheer bad luck to have been drawn to this beautiful old coastal city in northern Portugal to watch top class European football.

Scanning the local football press proved an illuminating start. In O Jogo João Moutinho was busy stating that "City will have to prove to us that they are the best", whilst Hulk confirmed that "City are one of the best sides in the world". Porto's young manager, Vitor Pereira, also joined the throng, offering challenges of his own, whilst a full page ad put out by the club itself depicted a demented looking dragon clutching the UEFA Cup whilst snorting copious amounts of flame and fury under the banner "It's ours. Just try and get it!". All confident stuff, if a little melodramatic. With 40,000 tickets sold the day before the game, the locals too seemed to be up for a fight, the Dragão's 53,000 capacity coming under serious danger of being filled. City's support along the quays was certainly in good form, as the season's favourite songs rang out from the top row of bars down to the massed ranks of Blues sunning themselves riverside. The Noisy Neighbours were being made to feel very welcome here.

"Manchester's a shithole, we wanna stay here" rang out loud and clear as tin trays and soup spoons were commandeered for percussion practice. It is always at times like these that you are reminded what a fantastic experience an away trip in Europe can be. Old familiar faces and new unfamiliar ones streamed past. A hug, a handshake, a volley of old reminiscences. The place was awash with the good and great of City's bedrock support, with the lined faces to prove what we had all been through to finally merit a day and a half in the sunshine of southern Europe.


The talk of Carlisle in 84 and Grimsby and Lincoln, of trips to Barnet and Wrexham, Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury put this bright sunny place into stark perspective. For so many faces, creased deep by the labour of love, this was like a reward at the end of a long hard journey. As the red wine flowed and the stories broadened out into what might become of us, minds were trained on the job in hand. Would City be full strength? Would Mancini risk throwing Yaya in so soon after he had completed African Nations Cup duties? Would we last it in this heat slogging back bottle after bottle of red wine?

Boom boom boom, went the tin trays again. "Oh David Silva, Oh David Silva, he scored the 5th goal at Old Trafford...."

By the time the light began slanting down over the port lodge roofs on the opposite bank, there could be only one outcome to the day's wonderful meandering melodies. We headed to the trains and coaches, expectation and, in various cases, heavy bladders getting the better of us. A mild altercation in the underground ensued as some visitors became confused by the strange local custom of paying for tube travel, but there was no stopping the flow of merry travellers from completing the short journey to station "Estadio do Dragão".

Watching the plebs getting frisked from the UEFA staircase

Exiting into what was now night, the giant bulk of this brand new stadium (constructed for Euro 2004) shone out at us, it's great open end allowing the first glimpses of the dark blue seats which would soon be occupied by 48,000 bellowing believers. There was just time for the typical modern football experience of disappearing into the neighbouring shopping centre, where Portistas were devouring pancakes and coffee. We opted for ice cream and red wine, which seemed particularly apt at the time.

At this point I was reminded of the large piece of laminated plastic attached to the lapel of my coat. Ah yes, of course, I would - thanks to the doyen of the Sporting Lisbon press box Tom Kundert - be taking in this game from the sweaty ranks of the press! I had almost forgotten. Luckily, by imbibing heavily during the day, I would not stand out too much in my amateurish shufflings from the rank and file of the Men of Letters..

"pencil, notepad.....razor, toothbrush, hair drier, what's this square one for?....."
With a lack of sleep, food and oxygen beginning to make me hallucinate, I took my place alongside Paul Simpson in the press area. Paul Simpson!!! Don't stare, you'll look a complete imbecile, I told myself, as I stared right at him organising his papers. I fingered my dictaphone, as one does in moments of tension and looked for paper of my own to shuffle and organise. Sadly, all I had was a little leather embossed flip-open note pad, which did not need organising, so I stood to take some pictures of the royal view instead.

"Please, Sir!" came the firm but polite voice of a teenage security boy, bedecked in shirt and tie, walkie talkie and UEFA embossed credentials. "Not here for pictures!". Why not, I shrugged. "UEFA!" came the all-empowering one word explanation. You don't need to say anything else, do you? I had visions of that nasty Anglophobe Mr Platini doing a Gallic shrug and getting me thrown out. There was no space for argument. I sat, defeated and put my little camera away. Little did we know, the young fellow would have recourse to far stronger words than that to get me under control later on, when the football excitement would mount towards volcanic levels.

For now I slipped back into my seat nonchalantly flipping the pages of my notepad and checking that my pen was still functioning. Preparation involved writing "Ready Steady Eddie" just to look busy for a minute. Try writing this under the influence of alcohol after being told off for taking photographs, whilst wearing a meaningful expression of serious intent on your face. Ready Steady Eddie!!! And I had even put a row of exclamation marks alongside it.

Owing to the excitement billowing up inside me, I now take shelter in the scribbled "Matchday Notes" from said little book to remind me of what exactly happened. This of course represents an abridged version as there are pages and pages of the stuff:

  • Ready Steady Eddie!!!
  • No photos, you daft pleb. What an embarrassment. Learn the UEFA rules you laughing stock amateur! God, what a start
  • Pudge-bellied City official in ill fitting maroon jumper. Looks awry in amongst hoity toity UEFA suits. Good old City! All the wannabe's leaning into their laptops. Like Blakes Seven up here. Small note pad = deeply embarrassing. 
  • Paul Simpson alert!! Ian Cheeseman!! Looking serious, just tried to sharpen my pencil, only to realise its a biro. Sitting down opposite the REAL Pros!! Alright, gents, how's it going!!
  • Music: "We are Porto, we are Porto", sounds like a funeral dirge. Still checking pen/pencil for escaping lead/ink..
  • Fireworks in the City end. Still party time over there then! Hope there are no UEFA pigmies chasing them up.
  • Balo, Yaya, Nasri all play. Get in, get down, and get in again.
  • Appear to be sitting in tv and radio area, nice man is moving me down a bit to sit with the newspaper bods. At least he's not throwing me out. See ya later, Simmo & Cheesey!.
  • (At this point I appear to have attempted to draw a tiny team formation - very small notepad, remember - but it looks a little like a Rorshach test with a fellow called "Sweating" upfront for us and a flock of caped bats in midfield..
  • Looking through bars. pay nothing, look through bars. Oo we're off....
  • 7:17 Yaya! Big Yaya. Nice to have you back, son.Floating, stinging, cruising.
  • Big Argie flag...big Brazil flag. Something about the Armada. De Jong on Moutinho, tasty! Small v small and only one winner.
  • Barry tidy but risky. 19 is James, not bad start. Constant Porto support. Nasri, woof woof.
  • We're Not Really Here ringing out. Hulk x de Jong big splat. Silva EVERYWHERE. Alavaro Pereira EVERYWHERE. Oooer Nasri - corner.
  • Big Sleepy at near post, Varelaaaaa 17 in case you didn't notice. 1-0 to the insiders. Moderate noise.Gah.
  • Code red from away end! Nordic reporters studying laptops, drinking WATER so calm! Going into action. Take them out one by one. We are CITY from Maine Road.Preparing Blakes Seven tool box.
  • 30:45 Clichy NOOO! Balotelli ooof. 36:00 taxi for James.
  • BIG THIRST COMING DOWN. Weetabix mouth. Fernando clatters Silva. Is this gig working with Nasri? Sort of.
  • HALF TIME. Where's the UEFA buffet. BLOODY VENDING MACHINE!!!! a vending bloody machine.tut and you have to put coins in it. A non-free vending machine....

  • Long punts to Balo - not paying off.
  • 49:18 Richards post right side, oof. Sit down sit down, you ape, he'll shout at you again.
  • 51:10 De Jong-Balo- Barry- Yaya- nice nice....Balo just saved, Atmosphere hotting up HOT level RED again, going wading into UEFA suits in a mo
  • Maicon flattens Balo. City man in maroon pullover's back, nearly went headfirst down the steps. Call for UEFA teenage helper crew.
  • 53:?? Own goal own goal!!! Under the desk punches going in in in. Paul Simpson's watching from the balcony above! Try a hard man press smile at him. Not looking. Turn round. One ONE, get in the old onion bag my son, CMON BLUES
  • Yellow Kompany...yellow de Jong....yellow Barry. What the ... is happening. Its 3 card trick time!
  • Filha da Puta!!! every time Harty takes goalkick.
  • 62:== Hulk thru, cleared away. Clichy UP and DOWN, Up and then DOWN
  • 66:00 Blues starting to get on top!!!
  • 66:52 Helton running around like its last minute. HAS CLOCK STOPPED? What's going on???? Something in his tea? Amphetamines somesuch tripe. Or loaded tripe.
  • 68:05 Hulk touched by de Jong, goes flying rolling. Immediate surgery needed!! Dear me, for a big lad..
  • 69:05 ref playing for us.
  • 70__ Looking at Yaya cruising, CRUISING around. delight to have him back.
  • 72:00 Superdragões have shut up at last. COLD-THIRSTY-DEHYDRATED Vending machine now anything will do
  • Yellow Nasri, dear Jesus. 78:00 Aguero for Balo. Where's Milner? All this way for a press conference. Not on bench!!!
  • 79:00 Moutinho big loopy into stands. Not going for them
  • 81:00 Losing hands, circulation, COLD UP HERE. Found a mint that tastes like those toilet blocks.The blue ones. Micah and Alavrao Pereira 2 BIG athletes..BOOM
  • Aguero sky blue boots!!! oh no Kolarov...oh no!! - for Silva! It's over now. One one.
  • 84:00 goaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaL----- get in!!! get in!! get in!!!!!! GET THE BUGGER IN!!!!!!!!! Air Kissing Paul Simpson. Lips tongues, you name it. Slight ruckus in the press area, centred on....oh, me. Sit down, Sir, or we take you away. This is press area, not supporters. Where's your laptop, sonny? You do understand UEFA pressbox etiquette? So stop shouting!
  • 86 - Kolarov you little beauty! We Are Not Really Here. People leaving all around!!
  • Blue Moon now. Saw me cold in my coat. Still time for 2-3!! Yellow Richards, dear me. Refs from Turkey.
  • 93:00 we win in Europe. Oh boy! Press are leaving at speed. Where to now, nobody knows. Follow the Nordics. Press face attached, dictaphone magic coming up!! "Er Paul, could I have a quick word, mate?" *fumbles with on/off switch like a complete amateur....* ...Be with you in a second.
tabloid hack begins non-football story
Down in the bowels of the stadium, serious people are readying themselves in the time honoured way. They have done this hundreds of times. I have done it once before, in a bare room occupied by two journalists waiting to interview the respective managers of Atletico and Belenenses in the Portuguese 2nd division. This is note pad heaven! In fact there are no note pads here at all, just laptops, mics and intimidating technology. I finger my pen. The auditorium is large and slopes viciously down to what I will call the dias at the front (journalists probably have their own special name for it). The British tabloid crew are immediately obvious. They are camping on the front row. Shaved heads, scarred skulls the lot. A living parody of what they really are. Astonished and blinking, I shuffle into row two, alone and still fizzing from the wine, the cold, the win.. Portuguese and Nordic serious squad way back in rows 12 and 13, just in front of huge array of tv cameras. This is exciting. I'm warming up but still extremely dehydrated. There are leggy UEFA girls in skirts and blazers all over the place. Teenage sit down squad has disappeared. We are close to the stars now, so we usher in leggy lovelies instead. The door opens, chatter stops, in walks Roberto Mancini. Small and surprisingly slight when you are close up in a professional sort of manner. UEFA leggies towering over him. He sits down between two translators. Or a translator and an interpretor. Or an intepretor and a lifeguard. Or a lifeguard and his brother in law. The lifeguard has an old coat and a ridiculous moustache.

UEFA leggy alert. Coming right at me! hands mic to tabloid boys in front of me. I now regurgitate word for word because I am stunned:

  • Scarred Skull: "Roberto, what do you think of the racist chants at Balotelli?"
  • Mancini, surprised: "I no hear nothing, bat eet ees for other people"
  • Skull: "How did the racist chanting affect Balotelli and Yaya Touré"
  • Mancini: "Eeer, I hear, we hear nathing on the bench, nathing, so I don't know"
  • Skull's mate: "Will City be reporting Porto over the racist chanting, Roberto?"
  • Mancini (looking deflated): "I don't know about thees."
  • 3rd reporter: (affecting deeply disinterested voice) "So what chance you go through now?"
...with this the tabloid pack are satisfied that they have asked all the sentient questions they could think of after City's win at the holders of the Europa League. Stunned, I find myself waving at Leggy One for the mic, in order To Restore The Reputation of Albion and Its Fine People. She nods, I nod. A frisson of understanding, deep understanding passes between us. I hear angels, UEFA angels, singing in the distance. One has a harp, the other a mouth organ or a banjo, one of those quality ones, not George Formby, not in the slightest George Formby. My mouth goes dry. I glance ahead. Mancini is waiting. The words on the laptop in front of me are already being committed to text. Match report. It says: "Manchester City's win here was marred by racist taunting....". The tabloid slant. I am cocked ready to go off. The moment is mine. Time stands still.

Mancini deals with my question whilst moustachioed interpreter waits to translate the bons mots
Paraphernalia of a true Football Man
I have the mic in my hand. A big one, with a big end on it. A two hand job to hold in front of my face, like those massive ice creams we'd have as nippers. The UEFA Leggy winks at me, as if to say "Go for it, kid". She knows like I know that there's a football question coming. She is looking at a football man. Her stare doesn't unnerve me, but I grow strong from it. Mancini is looking at me. Who is this stranger, he must be thinking. Daily Star? Daily Rat? Daily Gutter? But I am a football man and my question is a glorious one: "Roberto," I can hear myself stutter in a strange little voice, "City looked different with Yaya Touré back in the side. How difficult was it to put him back in so soon after he landed from Africa and how much difference does he make to the side?". I can a feel a glow all around me. The tabloid boys are eying me with a cocktail of mistrust and disgust. Ms UEFA is shooting me a glance of admiration that is making my underwear smoulder. Roberto seems to recognise a fellow football man and visibly relaxes in his plush UEFA seat. The interpretor is now dealing with my words, popping them into Portuguese for the others to see just how clever I have been. I glance around and nod at the crowd with a smile. "No," he says suddenly. "No player is more important. Yaya is tremendous footballer. No difficult to put in team quick, but no footballer make the difference. They are all good players." I wink at him. His secret is safe with me. I too know that Yaya is so precious it was no trouble flinging him in less than 24 hours after a bumpy flight from the Ivory Coast. He knows. I know. He knows I know and so do I. This is what it is like to be a football man amongst the UEFA legs bigwigs. Supping at the high table. Hob-knobbing with the dandelions. Me, Roberto, Ms UEFA and Paul Simpson. We all know, because we are on the inside. Now, if somebody will just tell me where the UEFA accredited buffet is, I'll hop along there and stock up...

Monday, February 13, 2012

FC PORTO: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS

Ben Shave is based in London and is a prolific and talented writer with an unhealthy level of interest in Portuguese football. He can be found at Portugoal.net , In Bed With Maradona, Hasta El Gol Siempre and very occasionally on his own blog, Cahiers du Sport.Here he digs into the archives to find some previous Porto encounters with English sides and uses it as an excuse to include a misty clip of a magic moment in Portuguese (and indeed Mancunian) football history. Ah, José. Read on:

Porto’s European history is inextricably linked with English sides. During the era when Liverpool, Forest et al ruled the continent, Os Dragões were also reasserting their status as Portugal’s foremost club, after almost two decades in the doldrums. In more recent times, there have been some titanic struggles against the Premier League’s finest, not to mention a generous helping of thumpings. Here’s four of the best:

Porto 0-0 Newcastle United (Inter-Cities Fairs Cup 1969/70, 2nd round 1st leg)
A young Fernando Gomes
Having cruised past Hvidovre IF in the 1st round, Porto were paired with the defending champions, Joe Harvey’s Newcastle United. In truth this was less of a memorable occasion than the raising of a curtain: the first meeting between the Dragons and an English side was a dour goalless draw, with Newcastle edging the second leg 1-0. The previous season had seen them dispatch Porto’s contemporaries Sporting and Vitória de Setúbal on their way to winning the trophy, and that, combined with Porto’s wretched form under Romanian coach Elek Schwartz (they would finish the season in 9th of 14) meant that little was expected of them on this occasion.

Porto 4-1 Wolves (UEFA Cup 1974/75, 1st round 1st leg)
With Benfica’s golden generation of the 1960’s and early 1970’s beginning to slip into retirement, and a young centre forward named Fernando Gomes coming through the ranks, the mid-1970’s were far happier times for Porto. Portugal itself was in the grips of the Revolução dos Cravos, and the strife was such that the man who began the season as coach, the great Brazilian Aymoré Moreira, was soon replaced by Monteiro da Costa. But not before they handed Bill McGarry’s Wolves a shellacking at the Antas. McGarry had guided his team to the 1972 UEFA Cup final, but by 1974 they were on a slide that would result in relegation before the decade was out. Porto were 4-1 winners at the Antas, but were made to sweat at Molineux; eventually sneaking through after a 3-1 loss.
                                                                                      
Porto 4-0 Man. United (Cup Winners’ Cup 1977/78, 2nd round 1st leg)

"Oh I say..it's Doo-Dah"
"Err, another one for Sen-een-oh"
By the end of the decade, Porto were firmly on the up. Champions for the first time since 1959 at the end of the campaign, they also reached the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup, a journey which included a memorable tie (the first of many) against City’s friends from across town. Despite winning the FA Cup the previous season, this was hardly a vintage United squad, evidenced by their eventual finishing position: 10th, 22 points adrift of champions Nottingham Forest. The goals came from legendary forward (and future club coach) António Oliveira, and a hat-trick from Duda (or Doo-Dah, if you’re John Motson), but as it turned out, the four-goal lead was nowhere near enough to see off United, who produced a thrilling second-leg comeback, aided by a pair of own goals from the unfortunate Alfredo Murça. But a brace from Seninho (who would depart for the bright lights of the New York Cosmos over the summer) saw José María Pedroto and co through. 

Man. United 1 Porto1 (Champions League 2003/04) Q/F 2nd leg  José. Giving it the big one. At Old Trafford. Need I say more? 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

THE EXPERT VIEW: FC PORTO

Tom Kundert has been running the excellent Portugoaldot.net site since way before the time he taught his Granny to suck eggs and is the obvious person to ask to run the rule over City's Europa League opponents. So I did:

FC Porto v Manchester City

The very first two balls picked out of the pots in the Europa Cup last 32 draw led to sharp intakes of breath the length and breadth of Portugal and threw up surely the tie of the round: a fascinating match-up between perennial overachievers on the European stage, FC Porto, and Manchester City, sitting pretty atop the Premier League, and with greedy designs on continental domination in the short to medium term. 

Vitor Pereira: Skoda
In any but the most recent of seasons over the last two decades the Dragons would have started this battle as hot favourites. Not so nowadays. Porto will have to produce two performances markedly improved from anything they have managed thus far in 2011/12 to overcome the Citizens. So what can Manchester City fans expect?


Although with largely the same personnel as the all-conquering side that André Villas-Boas expertly coached to four trophies last season, Porto are a much less daunting proposition for opponents this year. The two major parts missing from the set-up behind that wonderfully attack-minded team of 2010/11 that steamrollered all-comers at home and abroad are the coach, AVB, lured away by the bright lights of London and the deep pockets of Roman Abramovich, and deadly Colombian striker Falcao. 

Kléber is no Falcao

But it is precisely the holes those two protagonists left behind that can be identified as the root causes behind many of Porto’s less than stellar performances this season. As is their wont, Porto turned to South American talent in an attempt to replace Falcao, purchasing young Brazilian striker Kléber, who had impressed over two seasons at Marítimo. Six months on and Kléber still looks like a new kid at school trying too hard to make new friends. Unsure of himself, the marksman has looked distinctly ordinary, arguably even regressing from the form shown for the Madeira-based team, both in terms of his finishing and his link-up play. The clever overhead kick which was the “two” in an ingenious “one-two” with João Moutinho in Porto’s second goal against Vitória Guimarães recently was a rare moment of chemistry with his team-mates.  


Pereira is no AVB

Likewise, coach Vítor Pereira has wasted little time in engendering among Porto fans a sense of yearning for his predecessor. The two right-backs who had played not inconsiderable roles in Porto’s considerable recent successes - Sapunaru and Fucile - were inexplicably jettisoned and replaced with centre-back Maicon, a man mountain of a defender but one who looks every inch a central defender. Constant tinkering, especially from midfield forwards, has eroded what was a well-oiled attacking unit to such an extent that Porto’s players have rarely looked on the same wavelength this season. And Pereira’s press conferences have at times bordered on the paranoiac, only adding to the feeling that he is a Skoda driver who has been tossed the keys to a Ferrari. 

Individual quality

Álvaro Pereira: useful down the flank
However, if Manchester City think they are in for an easy ride, there is a good chance they will be punished. While Porto have struggled to click this season, the squad is packed with outstanding individuals. In what was supposed to be a serious tilt at a 3rd Champions League triumph, president Pinto da Costa kept the core of last season’s side together and added to it in what is the highest budget ever lavished on the team - some €90 million euros. Hulk and João Moutinho have been linked to moves to Barcelona, no less, while left-back Álvaro Pereira and young Colombian prodigy James Rodríguez would also not look out of place in such exalted company. 

Returing hero Lucho González, who arrived shortly before the winter transfer deadline window slammed shut adds style and guile in midfield.

New Brazilian Danilo, who cost the club 13 million euros, at last made his debut at the weekend and the right-sided defender/midfielder is likely to add another dimension to the team. For all Pereira’s lack of a clear vision, the most recent displays suggest that Porto may just be about to click.

In what looks like the most exciting Europa League since the tournament was revamped, Porto could be running into form at just the right time. The club’s natural habitat is in the Champions League. Only twice have Porto started the season in Europe’s second-tier competition in the last decade. On both occasions they won it. 

Formation: 4-3-3
Possible line-up versus City: Helton; Danilo, Rolando, Otamendi, Álvaro Pereira; Fernando, Moutinho, Lucho; James Rodriguez, Kléber, Hulk

Read more from Tom on FC Porto and Portuguese football in general at the essential Portugoaldot.net here

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

COD PSYCHOLOGY

Wayne's World.

A comfortable enough place, located somewhere in the Cheshire Rift Valley, close enough to the primal screams of Croxteth but also a lazy four-iron swing from Mere Golf Club and the gin & toasted almond set. A place of fake furs, fake eye lashes and fake hair, of fake empathy and fake worldliness, where you can retire and close the mock Georgian curtains to play Call of Duty and suck on crisps.

A place to be relaxed and calm after the inner fires have spat their public fury.

Suddenly, Wayne's hair turned green
It is said a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, but in Wayne's World, it may be so insignificant as to not damage us (or him) too much. Who knows? Why was I shouting obscenities into a television camera beaming live to the planet and the planet's children? It just came over me. Why did I give
Miodrag Dzudovic a good kick off the ball in Podgorica? Because he was standing there. Why ask? Dunno.

So, why ask The Thinking man's Potato about his comments last weekend, after his Manchester United side had heroically come back to draw 3-3 with Chelsea? Simply because the young man with the tinted rug decided this was an apt moment to tell the watching world that "Manchester City players would not have enjoyed watching that from us today...".

Taking a well folded leaf out of his Lordship's Book of Brilliant Things (To Say To The Press), Rooney managed to ignore the fact that, in order to make a stirring comeback, they first had to ship three goals to a less than spectacular Chelsea side. I wonder what the watching Manchester City players thought of that? Or maybe they forgot that bit or only tuned in when they heard United's fightback had begun with a couple of shrill parps of Howard Webb's infamous whistle. Just for maximum negative effect, you understand.

The trouble with cod psychology in football is that, whether it be from the mouths of managers such as Ferguson (more often than not a plain lie), Redknapp (smoke-filled media friendly nonsense) or Mark Hughes (with an axe to grind the size of a small Joorabchian owned farmhouse) or from those of footballers such as Joey Barton (mildly entertaining, frequently flawed) or indeed Rooney (nascent joined up thoughts), it really would be better off going unsaid. It is tired, clichéd and counter-productive, tells us precious little and wastes the earth's precious oxygen.


Manchester City's players, gathered together from all corners of the globe, it has often been said, have winners' mentalities. They are not affected greatly by what Rooney or Ferguson might say. Indeed some of these bons mots may rebound and have the opposite, unwanted effect. On the contrary, it is us weathered and beaten folk on the sidelines, who are more likely to upset the applecart. We have been to Valley Parade and seen our heroes fail miserably in the frost and peat with our own disbelieving eyes. We have watched with anguish as cake and champagne turned to stale crumbs and empty burps. We know only too well that Lee Briscoe does not just exist in the dark corridors of our minds.

"Think. Straight"
We also know what United have done to us in the past (horrible, desperate things, let me tell you). We know that they know how anxious we are to finish in front of them. Just for once, ahead of the steaming Republic of Self-Assuredness. Vincent Kompany knows nothing of the 0-5 when Kanchelskis made poor David Brightwell look like a bag of cement. Nigel de Jong didn't twitch the day Cantona and Keane inspired a 3-2 comeback win at Maine Road. David Silva was probably fast asleep on a velvet cushion when Paul Ince ploughed one into the City net in the driving rain at Old Trafford. When the Legend of Giggs began with that "debut goal" (it was a sliding tackle from Colin Hendry, but never mind that) in 1991, Adam Johnson was chewing on a florescent wad of playdough.

It is reasonably safe to say, then, that it is us Night-time Footballers, who must beware. For our psychoses, our bad dreams and phobias will make the whole town jittery. They will turn the Etihad into a cave of ghosts and phantoms. And that will transmit to those players, who have never heard of Buster Phillips, Jamie Pollock and the various Laws of the Scuffed Shot and, ahem, Slightly Miscued Headed Clearance.

We know only too well where we come from. I can still hear the howling laughter in my sleep. Thankfully, Yaya Touré, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko cannot hear such things. For that we must be grateful..

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A BAD MONTH AT THE OFFICE

That losing mentality.

Cod opinion sharers suggest a losing run can take hold just as firmly, just as certainly, as a winning one. With a grip like a vice, it freezes the limbs and jellifies the brain. Football is a game played, after all, on grass and in the mind. The bit on grass is difficult enough, but the other part is where the complications really begin to tuck in and make themselves at home.


This is the dull shade of grey that represents City's recent form. The month is January, only January. Those, who get queasy, look away now:

  • Sunderland 1 City 0
  • City 3 Liverpool 0
  • City 2 Man Utd 3 FAC
  • City 0 Liverpool 1 (CC)
  • Wigan 0 City 1
  • City 3 Tottenham 2
  • Liverpool 2 City 2 (CC)
  • Everton 1 City 0

It is our unendearing role to analyse this little lot without throwing ourselves out of the window. Don't forget that City had not been beaten until a December loss at Stamford Bridge. Since that slightly unlucky (a phrase that may well crop up again a little later) defeat, we have ushered in four more of its kind, at the same time engineering an exit from both domestic cup competitions. It was most certainly time that January accepted our invitation to bugger off and never come back.

City supporters are nothing if not resilient, however, and once the tears have dried and the anguish has settled, we may feel safe to sit down and brood for a bit. The concomitant problem with brooding is that question marks start appearing before your eyes. As I lay on the sofa late last night, fizzing and spitting, like a chicken just removed from the oven, a cold flannel over my brow to bring the temperature down, a scattering of cushions decorating the floor where they had landed during an increasingly difficult second half against a willing but extremely limited Everton side, these fevered thoughts passed through my mind:

Is David Silva beginning to wilt a little? The little maestro, well below his best at Goodison, has not played at full tilt since the game at QPR. He has not been found out. Good players like him are not found out. They are understood, admired and chased around in a frenzy of ever-decreasing circles, but they are never found out. It is all very well understanding what he does and how he does it (approximately), but just try stopping it happening. This is form loss, only slight, admittedly, but nevertheless enough to have an effect on the machinations of the City midfield. When Silva's little diagonal balls are going into touch or hitting Kolarov's shins and spooning up into the ball boy's face, you can assume the whole team will catch the same cold, starting with Big Edin.


So, Yaya Touré really is that good? I have said it many times before, as long ago as early last season., when the press thought we had availed ourselves of an overinflated defensive midfielder, this boy is class. He gets up and down, tiptoes through the midfield minefield, scores elegant goals, thrusts forward to aid attacks and is always at hand to help out the defence too. His absence has been arguably a more prominent factor than Silva's loss of form. This is the man who makes City's engine, and therefore everything else, tick. I warned of impending troubles in December when he announced his departure to the heated plains of Equatorial Guinea here and I have seen nothing in the month of January to make me change my mind. Yaya Touré is absolutely essential to this team's well-being

Has the Tevez Soap Opera had an effect? A truer indictment of the modern game you could not wish to discover. Here is a footballer, a man, with so little respect for his employers and the supporters of the club he is supposedly paid handsomely to serve, that he might as well have been born an albatross. He just doesn't seem to get it. Aside from the fact that City have lost a talismanic striker, one of those rare beasts who can lift up a side and pull it by the scruff of the neck to the most unlikely of victories, despite the annoying drain (however piffling it may seem to them) on the owners' coffers, despite all of this and more, the most salient point must be that a drifting saga like this must eventually also have a negative effect on the staff. Yes, he has been dealt with. Yes, it is costing him and his odious adviser a hill of cash, but it has gone on too long by half. City played in the Allianz Arena on the night of Tuesday 27th September, a night made infamous by a player refusing to warm up in preparation to play. This hideously bubbling stew has had four whole months to permeate through the fabric of the club.To what effect?

Mind games can't hurt us, can they? The drip drip effect of Messrs Ferguson and Redknapp and their daily bleatings about this that and the other, can gradually but forcibly lead to premature madness to those exposed to it over a long period. Ferguson is 70 years old for Christ's sake. He has been doing this since a dim point in time before we were all born. It creeps from every pour. You know what to expect, you know very well it's coming and indeed what's coming, but it still digs out a reaction. Last night he called it "a very significant moment in the title race". Fluff and ash, as we all know, but still. United, with an inferior squad to City's, with a difficult month ahead and with a playing staff that is a weak slither of past championship-winning sides, are batting strong with relatively shoddy goods. Like a hyena who spots a limping gazelle, Ferguson will be slathering all over us, teeth bared, if this poor run carries on into February.


Can Mancini do it for us? Here is a man clearly struggling with the culture (witness the furore over his Italianesque card-waving), with the climate (look at the press delight at his smart coats and fluffy scarves. Now there are gloves. What next for the daily Star to giggle at?), with the very pumping heart of British football (watch his disgust at unpunished tackles, his tight lipped swearing as his workmanlike players fail to execute a simple piece of acrobatics executed a million times for the swathes at Sampdoria). This is a man, we know, who cultivates an aura of excellence. Even his somewhat embarrassingly glamorous personal website (see here for the shimmering looks of Mantovani and the touching claim that he loves "Pasta al' Forno di Mama") claims a "champion of class". How does a man, who sees himself in this classico elegante persona deal with a screaming Scouser who has just thrown the remnants of a meat and potato pie at him? Or a Geordie, red faced and damp, whacking the old hand gesture feverishly up and down as he leaves the pitch? He is ill at ease. His English betrays him. He reveals his impatience with his players more and more often. His frustrated arm movements, hair flicks and facial ticks reveal inner torments, bubbling ever closer to the surface. This can work in two ways. Players can be motivated to try harder, as the ever willing Barrys and Milners surely do, or they can retreat into a shell of dismay and feel hard done to, like Adam Johnson, like Samir Nasri and, most sadly of all, like Carlos Tevez.


Do we have the bottle? We are reminded constantly that these players are winners. They have come from far and wide to bring glory to the blue legions of Manchester after the biblical drought of the last thirty-five long years. Big game performances thus far underline this point, but never forget the power of Manchester City. This is not a club that emerged from the ashes when Robinho stepped onto the tarmac at Ringway blinking and blushing. City -as some of us are painfully aware- is just as much Neil Heaney as it is Neil Young. It is just as much Bradford as it is Bayern. A few short years of swishing thobes and bishts, a string of Robinhos and Adebayors, does not remove a dna stamped deep with Shrewsbury Town and the cuban heels and combover of Peter Swales. Francis Lee's cup for cock-ups is still on the mantlepiece, gathering dust alongside the 1999 Second Division Play off Final Trophy. My mental mantlepiece is also heaving with pots and gongs. Maybe we all need a bit of a clear-out.



Is this paranoia or does everyone have it in for us? I addressed the slightly comical point of paranoia (comical at least for everyone else) here and I was immediately and impressively ticked off by all and sundry that the list of ignominious ill work against our good club that I had lovingly assembled through my one good eye was too short, incomplete and a job barely half done. The list in said article grew again last night, for those of us who saw a foul on the trundling figure of Dzeko in the immediate build-up to the only goal of the game, for those who saw a red card offence by Drenthe on Micah Richards and again for those who saw a clear handball in the box by Phil Neville. These things even themselves out, of course, so sit back and relax in the sure knowledge that the critical months of February, March, April and May will be liberally sprinkled with gloriously fortuitous penalty decisions, the most ridiculously inept and comical own goals and goalkeeping mistakes, weird fixture pile-ups for our nearest rivals, a rash of unexplained and inexplicable refereeing decisions in our favour, red cards to our opponents in five consecutive matches (some as early as the 10th minute!!) and a broad church of press opinion that the sun shines indefatigably from the back of Mr Mancini's expensively pleated Armani slacks.


So, it's going to be alright then? Of course it is! See you at the party at the end of the season. Bring a bottle and a pillow to cry in.

Just in case.

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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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