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

 




Thursday, October 18, 2012

ICE, FIRE and BUBBLES


Mario Balotelli. Even your Gran has heard of him.

At 22 the boy has already managed to evolve into a one man breaking news story. He is the logical development of where this adventure with modern football has deposited us, indeed where this modern world has landed us. This is the point the globe has arrived at, with its disappearing ice shelves, its radio controlled pandas and its million dollar sports pundits, who have never heard of Hatem ben Arfa. The conspicuous consumerism, the preening and the showing off, the flouting of rules, the lack of respect, the lack of identity, this floating, drifting island of avarice mentality. Balotelli, we are often told, needs an arm around his shoulder, a word of calm advice, a quiet corner to sit and take aboard some well-meant, well-aimed advice; but he seems to need this every day of his life – as many of his ilk do – and he does not get it every day. Football folk, hardened and selfish, do not have the time nor the patience for these time-consuming displays of empathy. Not every day of the week for God’s sake. They have training, they have interviews and they have Call of Duty to twiddle with.  

This is when Mario Balotelli is cast off to do his own thing. Boredom, a sense of the ridiculous and a lot of money can sometimes produce amusing results. 


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"Its' an allergy to what....?!"
For those of us wiping our feet on the shabby little carpet in front of the door marked "Middle Age - You Are Practically Prehistoric Now", taking a moment to consider being a 22-year old multi millionaire is a scary thing. I spent most of my 22nd year on this planet almost completely penniless but still got up to antics that even Mario might have blanched at. Well, he might. We were invincible then. We would live forever and time stretched in front of us like the horizon when the Titanic ploughed out of Southampton harbour. Nothing was to be taken seriously. There was always a chance to put right your errors. Nothing phased us. Even City had to go to great lengths to spoil a Saturday night out on the slate streets of Sale. Bumping into a sozzled Eric Nixon in Fridays was about as close as we got to Celebrity Footballers on the lash. Rick Astley was never going to give us up and that warm bottle of Lamot Pils was never going to do the trick.
A frivolous cocktail, if ever there was one. Now take away parental advice, familial stability and sense of home. Throw in racism from those that pay to watch you exercise your craft, the influence of agents and hangers-on, plus an all-pervading media intrusion. Money, fame and no private life to speak of may seem like a heady mix at first, but soon – as many stars of this great sport of ours have discovered – it turns around and bites you square on the backside. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Just the ever-present popping of flashbulbs.

Mario Balotelli sells newspapers, fills webspace and turns heads. It is fashionable to either “love his idiosyncratic ways” or “lambast his idiotic selfishness”. A massive bubbling vortex of dirty water swirls around his every move. He is the catalyst of a thousand heated debates on airwaves and in pubs. He is a loon, a loner and a loose cannon. He cannot be allowed to go on like this. He cannot get away with that. He should be locked up for the other.

"I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head. There are different ways to help a guy like Mario. I don't speak with him every day, otherwise I would need a psychologist...” Roberto Mancini

The Balotelli way is to shrug those muscular shoulders and lope back to his position in the centre circle, in the car park, in the lap-dancing bar (on one memorable occasion this third option was located in Merseyside, one decision that we can all question the sanity of). He wears the “I don’t care what you think” face, but he wears it as a mask. Balotelli cares, just like everybody else cares, he just cares intermittently and in greatly varying amounts. Clearly, there have been moments that even a 22 year old shouldn’t be completely proud of:

·        Going to a television appearance wearing an AC Milan shirt whilst being paid to play for Internazionale. José Mourinho’s Internazionale. Imagine him showing up at Celebrity Come Dancing in one of United’s tea towels.
·        Discovering a grass allergy at half time in Kiev and being sent off in the return, single-handedly scuppering City’s chances of completing a comeback that was already in full, fifth gear swing.
·        Claiming not to know who Arsenal’s Jack Wilshire was after beating him to a young player trophy
·        Creating a series of bathroom hijinks with his friends that eventually produced a house blaze of such impressive magnitude that he ruined the top floor of  his home
·        Receiving several unnecessary cards of both colours, either through an inability to walk away from trouble, a tendency to allow himself to be wound up or because he is Mario Balotelli and he does these kinds of things.
·        Failing with a back-heeled goal attempt v.LA Galaxy in a pre-season game, when a simple right foot connection would have sufficed.
·        Getting sent off v. Liverpool after only entering the fray after 65 minutes
·        Seeing a 4th red card of his fledgling City career waved in front of his eyes, needlessly, at Arsenal in a game crucial to City’s prospects of winning the title, after a reckless challenge on Song.

“If you work with players like Zanetti, Ivan Cordoba and Marco Materazzi and you don’t learn anything, it's because you have only one brain cell" – José Mourinho

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Contrast that with the oft forgotten:

An early goal at Stamford Bridge
  • Hat-trick against Aston Villa
  • The debut goal in Timisoara
  • The first two Premier League goals for City v West Brom, followed immediately by a ridiculous red card
  • The Man of the Match award in City’s Cup Final win over Stoke
  • The blinder at Old Trafford, scoring twice and being fouled for Evans red card when through on goal
  • The determined toe poke to set up Aguero’s title winning goal in the never-to-be-forgotten 94th and last minute of the 2011-12 season.
  • A penchant for the most nonchalant (and 100% successful) penalties in professional football
  • A goal off the shoulder against Norwich
  • An injury time winner v Spurs that followed a “stamp” on Scott Parker, which produced a 4 game retrospective ban
  • The double in a critical come-back game v Sunderland where he was seen fighting over the ball with Kolarov as to who should take a vital free-kick with the seconds ticking away.
  • Being Greater Manchester Police’s Ambassador for Fireworks
  • Being the Owner of a “Why Always Me?” t-shirt
  • Having an allergy to grass
  • Being unable to use training bibs successfully

As Italian football expert James Horncastle suggests, “...It seems clubs can't live with or without Balotelli.”. 

It would appear too that Balotelli has a unique ability to stir strange passions amongst the faithful. Illogical feelings of warmth and goodwill. More patience than is offered to others of greater diligence. You love him, they hate him. Nobody understands. he builds us up and knocks us down. We expect nothing, he delivers generous presents. We then expect the earth. he sets light to his shower curtain. And so on until the earth creaks to a halt.

The Italian has also revealed an odd way of making good whatever he has diminished by his destructive character in the first place. The squabble over a free-kick against Sunderland (mirrored perfectly by a similar incident in an Inter game when he obstructed designated penalty taker Samuel Eto’o from taking his run up against Palermo, because it had been he, Balotelli, who had been fouled for the award. Similarly against Sunderland, Balotelli, growing bored with a succession of Kolarov freekicks that had ballooned off towards the North Stand roof, felt it was his turn for a slice of the action. On each occasion his captain, Javier Zanetti and Vincent Kompany respectively, was moved to frog-march the non-comprehending Italian away from the situation, like the ball-hog on the school field, who finally strains the patience of the rest of the troupe. Do as you’re told or I’ll have to lamp you one, the gentle mannered team leaders might have been whispering to him, as they dragged him away; the stiff reluctant body language told us all we needed to know. 

Many feel the Premier League is no place, just as the harsh world of Serie A was no place, for this kind of post pubescent delinquent tantrum. As Martin Samuel stated recently in The Mail, “Balotelli wants to operate beyond the strictures of the team ethic...the cost of this is beginning to outweigh the benefit.” Sandro Mazzola, that great old man of Italian football talks of “making a leap of quality” in a footballer’s maturity, but this in reference to Mirko Vucinic of Juventus, who has reached the ripe old age of 28. In that case, a slight wait might be on the cards for Balotelli-watchers.






                                                          
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But in a flash of brilliance, with a swipe of that ultra nonchalant right foot, he produces something akin to the football crown jewels, ornate decoration that turns the head, turns the tide and turns the game. His is the magic wand, the orb, the bejeweled scepter. His is the wonky temperament that you cannot take your eyes off for a second. The sloping shoulders, the dough eyes of the scolded puppy, the toothy grin of the kid in the sweetshop.His is the awkward frame that carries the MCFC burden of history, for City supporters have always loved a maverick, right from Billy Meredith's days. They have dotted the club's history like ants on a leaf. Tony Coleman, Stanley Bowles, Rodney Marsh through to the likes of John Burridge, Maurizio Gaudino and Andy Morrison. City wouldn't be City without the smattering of loose cannons.

"Who you think you are, Roberto Mancini?"
Importantly in Mancini, Balotelli has one of the few trainers at the top level, who can really see into the great darkness inside. This is his mentor, his father figure, his protective uncle, but also his alter ego. It is publicly acknowledged that Roberto Mancini the player thought highly of himself, sometimes so highly that his coaches became weary of him. He had already worked a serious superiority complex by the time he switched from Bologna to Sampdoria, where he would enjoy 424 sumptuously decorative games for the Blucerchiati. Let us not forget that the extremely volatile youth that was Roberto Mancini picked brawls with Trevor Francis, Liam Brady and Juan Sebastián Verón at various stages of a Serie A career littered with a slew of self-important outbursts. Whilst Brady and Clever Trevor would be unlikely to knock much of a hole in a carrier bag, the tough-as-teak Verón tells the tale of when he got back to the dressing room to find Mancini stripped to the waist ready for a fist fight after some perceived on-field slight to his robust feelings of self-importance. It takes a special kind of kindred spirit to recognise the potential for this kind of legendary volatility in a fellow professional and, in Mancini’s indulgence of Balotelli, attempt to harness it for the good of the team. For, that is what Mancini the boss has tried to do. He may not be much of a psychologist. He may not have handled him as well as he could have. His attempts to enlighten the young Italian by moaning to the press about giving up on him and seeking psychiatric help do not smack of one, who knows and understands the intricacies of controlling emotional young players, but, make no mistake, it is Mancini  alone, who chooses to persevere with his pupil. In him he sees the young Roberto. The tearaway who doesn't want to listen, who knows it all already, who is sick of cow-towing to the talentless and the slow-of-mind. Mancini well understands this. He lived with it during great swathes of his football career. He has been there and got the scars to prove it. The question is, does he want to live with it as a manager too?

About Me

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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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