Friday, January 24, 2014

JACK RUSSELLS FOR GOALPOSTS

Goals that were and goals that weren't

It could reasonably be said that both Watford and Manchester City have come quite a long way. Not just in terms of history, for, wait for it, all clubs have a bit of that, but in terms of evolution. 

Mention Watford to anyone of my generation and they will regale you with various stories from the late seventies and early eighties. This was a time when Great Britain was gripped by the iron fist of Margaret Thatcher and the football played on our sceptered isle dwindled to the entertainment value of a gecko’s elbow. Some of us, more foolhardy than intelligent, continued to go, week in week out, home and away, building up memories of things, the worst of which should perhaps go unmentioned in delicate environs like this and at best, will be handed down as a badge of honour to any sons, daughters, nephews and nieces foolhardy enough to show willing in the “new age” of corporate plastic.

The FA Cup in the mid eighties was still a thing of thunderous and quasi-mythical beauty, a cup that shined and glimmered and seemed, to most City supporters, to be so far away as to be ephemeral and dreamlike. City’s reveries had long since turned to nightmares in those days of thud and blunder. There was Shrewsbury Town, with their quaint little stadium called Gay Meadow, backed by a vigorously flowing river, where, if Paul Futcher happened to be playing, a man in a coracle, employed to fish errant clearances out of the reed beds, would be paid overtime. Apparently this fellow, already a wheezing octogenarian at the time, was tasked with this job every weekend, paddling emphatically from left to right and back again, retrieving miss-kicks, slices and wayward corners.When City visited in the 4th round of the Cup, David Coleman was beside himself.

There was Halifax Town, with their stadium called The Shay, which resembled an allotment after a steady three week downpour of icy rain. Officionados should reach for the YouTube button and type in “Halifax Shay Manchester City 1980” and sit back and take in the full glory of what that jumbled conglomeration of words actually means. It is ok for us to mention these places, these teams, these long lost games, but to be there, to feel the icy wind of despair, to hear the locals braying, to witness the mudbath deadzone in real time, well let’s just say it tends to age you a little.

City, scarred from these terrible places and awful occurrences, drew Watford in the 3rd round of the FA Cup in 1985-1986. It seems strange to relate now, but at the time, the home side were unstable and as fragile as freshly whipped meringue, whilst the visitors from Hertfordshire, backed by the untold millions of popstar chairman Elton John, were brutal and ultra effective in their Graham Taylor inspired route-one football. Taylor, later to take charge of England in one of the national team’s many forgettable periods, was a straightforward gent, who believed in getting the ball as swiftly as possible to the point of greatest danger. This meant that his Watford side quickly built a reputation for itself as a no-nonsense, up and under football team that the so-called purists hated to play against. Far from being anything approaching purist, City went into the game with hopes high that something positive might transpire.


What followed was a series of three bitterly contested cup ties, where the two teams fought tooth and nail for supremacy. In the opening game, watched by 32,000 at Maine Road, City took the lead through the unlikely pairing of Mark Lillis and Gordon Davies, City’s slowest ever front pairing but, comically, one that I remember with the greatest pleasure. Lillis cantered down the right wing, swung in a cross that invited the lumbering Davies to meet it with a glancing header, which sailed past future City keeper Tony Coton for the opening goal. Watford were to level later when referee Heath, tiring of seeing the ball heading in one direction, offered the visitors a penalty after Mick McCarthy looked at Kenny Jacket in a funny way. (In those days, penalties could be given for the most obtuse of reasons).

 

One-one it ended, meaning a replay at Vicarage Road. We travelled more in hope than expectation, as always in those testing times, but were surprised to be rewarded with a steadfast defensive display (an element missing from the majority of City performances in this decade) that kept the usually prolific home side at bay. The forst had given way to slush and mud in Hertfordshire, making the difference between City's sky blue and Watford's traditionally garish red, black and yellow minimal. 

Nil nil and what in those days was called a second replay beckoned. This was a complicated affair that needed the backing of travel weary supporters, fit and able police forces and willing administrators. Once these traditions were extinguished, football people could simply ask if it would make them any money or not.

But, in the days when these strange things still existed, it would be back to Maine Road for the third game. A second replay. Televison schedules and our busy lives do not allow for such niceties today, but rest assured these events were often high on tension and excitement. It was a dark and snowswept scene that met fans arriving at the ground that night and long queues to get into the Kippax terraces meant that many, including this correspondent, did not see any of the match before the 20th minute. As was often the case in those fabled times, the hope built up over two rugged and evenly contested games that this could be the “year we went to Wembley” soon disapated as Watford scored three and City managed just one. My lasting memory of this deflating experience was the sight of a small Jack Russell terrier scampering onto the snow-clad playing surface and avoiding the desperate arms of Mark Lillis. 

City were out of the cup for another year and there was a hairy quadruped making fun of our main striker. All we had outside was a blizzard, a long wait for the bus and a fight against relegation.

Mark Lillis seems unprepared for the late tackle that is about to be carried out
How times have changed.

This article first appeared on the pages of ESPNFC.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

VALLEYS AND TROUGHS

Much has been said about City's potentially record-busting afternoon against Cardiff City, but slightly less air has been heated on the subject of how difficult the Blues have found the Welsh side to beat down the years. Here are one or two memories.

This season's slightly surreal match aside, City and Cardiff have met only a handful of times in the modern era and the majority of those matches hold sour memories: In 1983-84, fresh from the ignominy of that Luton-soaked relegation, City opened with a defeat at a tatty and violent Ninian Park in the second game of the season. A real awakening for both players and the supporters, who made the long trip to swell the crowd to nearly 9,000. The enclosed report mentions an error by Alex Williams letting the hosts edge into a 2-1 lead, which they held onto through to the end of the match.

By the time the sides met again in March, City's dreams of promotion were fading. Indeed a wretched 1-5 reverse at Craven Cottage the previous week had underlined the sparse nature of Billy McNeill's squad. Cardiff arrived with the atmosphere beginning to turn sour at Maine Road, a particularly vitriolic welcome awaited Paul Power, whose stuttering progress down the left flank was followed by unfavourable noises from sections of The Kippax. That City dragged two points from a limp performance was down to the unlikely match winner, David Johnson, one of a string of free transfer additions to the ailing City squad. With early season hot shots Parlane and Tolmie wilting badly after Christmas, Johnson was one of several ageing strikers tried in an attempt to bolster forward impetus.
Paul Power promises to fight on to get fans back on his side

The following season, City again found the Bluebirds tough going, but at least managed a much more positive result from their early season visit to the Valleys, coming away with a 3-0 win thanks to goals from Gordon Smith, Clive Wilson and the new goal-scoring sensation Tony Cunningham. Again, the return game at Maine Road fell late in the season, as the promotion race again looked to be getting too much for the Blues. After leading two nil through the impish skills of youngster Paul Simpson, City fell apart, surrendered the lead and almost lost to the division's worst (and last placed) side. It was at this moment that Billy McNeill realised just what he had taken on at City.

City get a second half "towsing"from the visitors

Before any of these painful second tier encounters, City had played host to the Welshmen in the 3rd round of the Cup in 1981-82. This was to be the season City repeated their glorious journey to Wembley from the previous season, but with a happier final outcome. This match hinged on a robust challenge from the usually targeted Tommy Hutchison, whose lunge put Cardiff's main danger man Wayne Hughes out of the game. In a lively encounter, City progressed 3-1 only to be dumped out in the next round by Coventry City at Maine Road, the infamous game that put Peter Bodak on the map and on John Bond's radar.



As proved the case earlier this season, Cardiff City were a tough nut to crack and, on more than one occasion have refused to crack at all, leaving City with shattered teeth instead.

Monday, January 13, 2014

THE CONDENSED READ: NEWCASTLE away

It would be an interesting exercise in patience and anger management to cut and paste the opinions of the great and good this morning, regarding City's hard fought and ultimately successful encounter with Newcastle on Sunday. A match that historically often supplies plenty to talk about yesterday turned nasty. From the moment Newcastle's Tiote had his bullet shot disallowed, some of the Newcastle team and, lamentably, some of their staff, lost their self-control, with the almost inevitable conclusion of serious injury, serious malpractice all over the pitch and utterly uncouth behaviour from the home manager.

Whether having three players offside (technically) when the shot was delivered and one (Gouffran), who had to bend his body to avoid being hit by it, adds up to enough for the referee to disallow seems to have carved the football gliteratti right down the middle. I cannot respond objectively as it involves Manchester City, but Gouffran's position and movement away from the arc of the shot surely effects the goalkeeper, who will have to prepare for two possibilities: a shot rocketing in a straight line past him into the far corner or a ricochet into the near post side of his goal. These are normal callibrations that a goalkeeper must make at every free kick and set play,  Hart was making them about Gouffran, who was in an offside position. Thus, whilst not obstructing the goalkeeper, he is affecting Hart's decision-making process from an illegal position and thus having an influence on the proceedings. Having said that, goals like this often stand. City alone fell to at least three borderline legal goals in the early season games with Cardiff and Aston Villa, but little steam was let off then. What is good for the goose is good for the Pardew.

Strangely for most of us, City, suddenly accepted as part of the elite, are -it should be said at this point- getting many more favourable shouts than would have been the case five or six years ago. What the Kippax faithful always bleated about the top teams getting many more borderline decisions in their favour appears to be at work in the opposite direction at last.

From this point on, referee Mike Jones had only flimsy control of the match. Samir Nasri's injury came about through a clumsy challenge from yet another player losing his self control. The ball had left the scene, the usual shirt and arm tugging had proved ineffective in halting the departing Nasri, so Yanga Mbiwa chose to swing a petulant leg at Nasri's knee. As it is ridiculous to issue a red card for the resultant harm done, yellow sufficed, but red was certainly the colour of the mist that was descending all around us. The foul was not a bad one, but it mirrored beautifully the lack of control, the lack of respect, the lack of grace that was by now all around us.

Pellegrini: Old even when he was young
Alan Pardew, not a man who has built up any great reputation for civility, exploded towards an alarmed Manuel Pellegrini with the kind of language you might expect to find on the night streets from kebab addled drunks. His words were vicious, obvious and disgusting, these days perhaps small trifle in a world of abject loathing and disrespect, but still abhorrent to witness in this or any other context. Pardew later apologised, the very least he could do, but what lamentable shabby goings on these were.

As the match drew to a tired but compelling close, the steaming, snorting indignation of the Geordie Nation flowing in rivers off the terraces, one knew the resilience and spirit shown by City to depart this venue with the points would be buried beneath the carping and bubbling that these days traditionally follows such an encounter. That the home side had produced such an impressive performance themselves will also be lost in the thud of expletives that followed. City had been battered in more ways than one: by a resourceful and willing Newcastle side playing good flowing and aggressive football, by a wall of indignant noise from the Gallowgate choir and by a running succession of petulant unpunished fouls. The gifted Cabaye managed to remain on the pitch only because referee Jones had done enough damage to Newcastle self esteem for one afternoon. Constant transgression by this player in particular during an ill-mannered second half, each foul followed by the raised arms of the innocent and the mock frustration at the fouled player's seeming play acting, seemed to go wholly unnoticed by the referee and his by now flummoxed assistants. Add to that a yellow card for Zabaleta, who swung at Santon, missed so completely as to be laughable, only to see the Italian flip himself onto the grass three paces further on and we had been treated to a little bit of everything by the end.

Battered and bruised, City make for the top of the table, a sterling and professional performance overshadowed by the ugly, the wretched and the foul-mouthed.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

THE DRAMA, THE PASSION AND THE GATHERING FREQUENCY OF THE CUP SEMI FINAL



As 1980 drifted enigmatically into 1981 Manchester City fans could have been forgiven for thinking the good times had finally arrived. It had been ten years since the club’s golden age had disappeared over the horizon with the speed of bathwater exiting down the plug hole. The years in between had produced such scare pickings they could have filled an idle chapter in The Generation of Swine.  

Admittedly, City had reached two League Cup finals in the 70s, one a sloppy, unnecessary defeat to a Wolves side playing a jittery reserve goalkeeper (the totally unheralded and soon to be headline-making Gary Pierce), the other a vibrant, noise-filled victory over a flu-ridden Newcastle United side.
    
January 1981. City are, just for a change, in a state of some flux. Malcolm Allison has come and gone for a second time, leaving many disgruntled with what he failed to achieve, his majestic reputation scorched and singed by a growing penchant for expensive booze and women grown ideolgically wide at the hips.

The stars of Tony Book's vibrant 1977 side had been sent packing, replaced with roosters and cobblers. Where once Dave Watson and Peter Barnes trod the magic turf, we now gazed down upon Dave Wiffill, Stuart Lee and Paul Sugrue with unblinking eyes. Big Mal, so uncannily sure of his continuing Midas touch, had swapped Asa Hartford for Barry Silkman (the footballing equivalent of making a sow's ear with a Silkman pass).

Allison's sleight of hand had wrenched out the Rolls Royce engine and refitted with the dubious innards of a Fiat Punto.

Allison had been replaced by the less flamboyant but equally self-confident John Bond, a hair-do on legs with a nice line in comfy homilies. After a grim beginning under the new man, City started a long run from the bottom of the table. Thrilling December wins over Everton and Wolves, plus a last gasp defeat of a Leeds side who had come to Maine Road and spent eighty minutes passing back to keeper John Lukic, took Bond's side  away from danger.

At the same time a League Cup run had been taking shape after wins over Stoke and Luton under Allison were carried on by a 5-1 beating of Notts County (Dennis Tueart nabbing four) and an unforgettable quarter final win over West Brom at Maine Road which took City to the last four. 

A semi-final at last.

Lining up in the League Cup semi finals were the distinctly beatable pair of West Ham and Coventry, who of course promptly drew each other, leaving City to tackle the invigorating and all-conquering European champions Liverpool, a threshing machine that had been devouring everything in its way for years. The feeling was nevertheless of high hopes for advancement, given the vivid upsurge of form under the new manager. The weeks running up to the game were spent in high anticipation. At last that gut wrenching dread that accompanied a match of great consequence gripped us all.

***

Those hopes would be dashed, partly because the referee for the first leg at a thunderous, expectant Maine Road was a gentleman called Alf Grey, an upright sort of man who had developed a strong liking for the sound of his own whistle. He had already blown it a couple of times when, in the 2nd minute of the match Kevin Reeves leapt like a salmon to put City ahead. The whole ground, unused to this kind of edgy one-upmanship, was in tumult, the heaving bulk of the Kippax a swaying livid morasse of cavorting bodies.

Then Mr Grey took another good long blow on his whistle, proclaimed that Reeves must have fouled hapless Liverpool keeper Ray Clemence to have been so much higher in the air than the man in green, and promptly extinguished all those dreams. Liverpool steadied their early nerves and won the game with a late strike from Ray Kennedy.

The Merseysiders would scrape through to the final on aggregate thanks to the slimmest of margins, that one goal scored by Kennedy. After a brave second leg performance at Anfield, the width of the crossbar prevented Dave Bennett’s header from putting the Blues level.

That City again stood at the gates of Wembley a matter of three short months later was scarcely believable. What a season of passion new man Bond had conjured from the darkened ashes of Big Mal’s second coming.

The multitude descended on Villa Park, in those days a fine and traditional venue for such a match, for the much awaited FA Cup semi final against favourites Ipswich Town, still going strong on three fronts under Bobby Robson, who had the Suffolk side punching well above its weight. Ipswich were fighting Liverpool for the title and would end up in the UEFA Cup final with AZ Alkmaar and were thus seen as a step too far for Bond’s patched up City.

But in a bitty affair City prevailed with a dramatic extra time free kick struck by the trusty left foot of captain Paul Power. Power had csored in every round except the 5th round win at Peterborough and now his goal had landed City, incredibly, at Wembley. They would then be the sacrificial lambs on Ricky Villa’s FA Cup final barbecue, a swerving slalom goal to be imprinted on every City fan's memory for the next 35 years.

Then a curious thing happened.

Manchester City and cup semi finals ceased to be an item. They ceased to be a topic of even the most distracted conversations. They went off the radar completely. FA Cup semi finals were for teams like Wycombe Wanderers and Watford, Plymouth Argyle and Wimbledon. They were for Coventry and Leeds, Sheffield United and Wednesday and even, bless them, good old Newcastle. League Cup semi finals became the territory of Tranmere and Oxford, Oldham and QPR.

City meanwhile went into well deserved hibernation.

In those barren intervening years City would even find themselves playing the likes of Halifax and Darlington in the Cup’s preliminary rounds, as a member of the third tier of English professional football.
Paul Power and Paul Mariner clash in 1981 at Villa Park

The game with Halifax, won 3-0 before a sparse crowd thanks to the less than obvious talents of Craig Russell, would even bring
memories of one of City’s most embarrassing outings in the competition, when Malcolm Allison’s expensively reconstructed side went down in a quagmire in West Yorkshire to a goal from Paul Hendrie.If ever a semi final had appeared a long way away it was during 90 minutes of mud-caked nightmare in West Yorkshire.

Legendary defeats to Shrewsbury, Oldham, Forest, Brentford, Blackpool, Chesterfield, Brighton and even to a loose balloon at Sheffield United seemed to tell City fans that the romance of the cups had become the sole property of others.

Between the 1981 semi final win over Ipswich and City’s appearance in the 2009-10 League Cup semi final with arch rivals United, nearly 30 years had passed. Now, never let it be said that Manchester City fans of a certain vintage are impatient, but some may have been pretty sure that they were unlikely to ever again need the cardboard FA Cup covered in tinfoil. The mouldy old 1969 rosette could be safely binned too.

In those two cataclysmic matches with the arch foes in 2010, City lost out narrowly on the chance to get to Wembley. Five games into Roberto Mancini's reign as boss, Cty fielded a side from which only Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany survive today, neither of whom are likely to start against Everton.  

City were growing fast in 2009-10. Since that semi-final disappointment, the growth spurt has become more of an avalanche prompting a serious taste for these occasions. And how they have flowed...




           
THE MODERN ERA SEMI-FINALS

16th April 2011 FA Cup semi final 
City 1 Manchester United 0

11th January 2012 League Cup semi final 
City 0 Liverpool 1

25th January 2012 League Cup semi final
Liverpool 2 City 2

14th April 2013 FA Cup semi final 
City 2 Chelsea 1

8th January 2014 League Cup semi final
City 6 West Ham 0

21st January 2014 League Cup semi final
West Ham 0 City 3

7th January 2016 League Cup semi final
Everton 2 City 1

27th January 2016 League Cup semi final
City 3 Everton 1
     
Samir Nasri celebrates v Chelsea in 2013


Last season, Everton stood in the way and, having won 2-1 in a boisterous first leg at Goodison Park. City had to fight all the way in the second leg, after falling behind to Ross Barkley's goal early on. A rousing second half onslaught brought City the three goals they needed to go through to face Everton's neighbours Liverpool in the final.

A similar feat of recovery took place in the same competition, against Middlesbrough in 1976.

Having won 1-0 at Ayresome Park, Boro travelled west in the hope of making it to their first ever final, but were wiped away by a stunning show of power from City. Inspired by Peter Barnes on the wing and the indefatigable pair of Alan Oakes and Asa Hartford in midfield, the Blues ran out emphatic 4-0 winners in the 2nd leg. Boro, a more than competente side in those days, were flattened to the thickness of a dinner plate.


It is to the kind of rapier wing-play produced by barnes on that occasion that Pep Guardiola now relies upon against Arsenal with Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling more than capable of having a similarly devestating effect on the Londoners' rickety back four. Sané in particular could be a key asset in opening up the Gunners' flanks.  
A (second) place at Wembley awaits. It is questionable whether anyone, who stood through City's semi finals of the 70s and 80s will ever become blasé about such events. Semi finals might be slightly more familiar occurrences these days, but that inimitable tingle of expectation on Sunday afternoon wil be enough to tell all involved that it's time for action. That it entails a Wembley visit in order to get through to Wembley is merely yet another nail in modern football's coffin, as glorious  lucre is placed above logic and tradition by those who purport to run the game on our behalf. 

City's new gold age may already have lasted nearly a decade, but many in sky blue are still rubbing their eyes on a regular basis.

In the name of Dave Bennett and Kevin Reeves, deprived of their moments of glory by the fickle hand of fate in 1981; for Carlos Tevez and Nigel de Jong, semi final scorers in more recent unsuccessful attempts, another golden chance beckons Manchester City. For fate is always watching, always waiting, as those on the Kippax in 1981 will confirm.

Kevin Reeves nets at Anfield in the second leg of the League Cup semi final in 1981
Daily Mirror. City v Middlesbrough, League Cup semi-final second leg. 1975-76
Daily Mirror: City v Middlesbrough, League Cup semi-final second leg. 1975-76
Pablo Zabaleta greets the final whistle v Everton last season with some joy.

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