Thursday, October 30, 2014

QUÉ PASA, MANUEL?



Since trooping in at the sort-of-empty Arena Khimki after 45 minutes of CSKA-City, looking well pleased with themselves, City's players' fortunes have taken a distinct downturn, encompassing a second half cave-in in Moscow, a little disorientation practice in East London and the nightmare warm-up for the weekend’s derby match getting turfed out of the League Cup by a Newcastle reserve side. There seem suddenly to be five issues at play here:


1. Semi-Shambolic Defence



Only three clean sheets in fifteen competitive games so far this season tells its own story. Let your minds drift back to the dozy sun-drenched display in the Community Shield, too quickly dismissed as a training exercise for the reserves. Since then, City have bombed against Stoke, CSKA, Newcastle, West Ham and, to a degree, Roma. The defence is not playing well, is not gelling and looks uncertain and nervy. Even the two accepted bulwarks Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta have looked jittery of late. Of the others, Eliaquim Mangala has revealed enough to suggest he will be the business alongside his captain at some point in the future, but the young Frenchman is having a baptism of fire at the moment. Fast in the tackle, speedy taking the ball forward, he has displayed the innate passing ability of Albert Tatlock of late.
At left back the choice between an off form Gael Clichy and out of sorts Aleksandar Kolarov looks like the proverbial Morton’s fork. Some will say chopping and changing doesn’t help, but that is the reality of clubs competing on many fronts these days and City have not just been thrust among the movers and shakers and should really have got used to it. Now that the “choice” of trophies is down to three for City, irony offers the manager more chance to play the same back four more frequently.



2.
Summer Signings



Question: Of Willy Caballero, Fernando, Mangala and Bacary Sagna, which has settled most seamlessly? Exactly, the answer is Frank Lampard. While the new second ‘keeper has looked ok in his brief spells in the limelight, the other three have all had their hairy moments. Fernando has been caught napping by a combination of the furious pace of the English game (TM) and the strange slow pirouettes being daintily enacted by his midfield partner Yaya Touré and, while Mangala is never going to have a problem with the concept of speed, his brain appears to be playing catch-up with his legs, which is not always a pretty sight. Sagna is perhaps the most mal-adjusted of the lot, looking ponderous, nervous and hesitant in his appearances so far, displaying none of the rampaging qualities showcased by Pablo Zabaleta in the same position over recent years. Where the Argentinean fires fearlessly up and down the flank, Sagna is almost static in comparison. Where he flies into tackles, Sagna stands off and gets beaten to the ball. Time will help Mangala and Fernando, both of whom need to be allowed to adapt after arriving from the apparently genteel non-combat fields of Porto*, but Sagna has been a Premier League regular for years.

* a club that has of course hit above its weight in Europe with no problems at all over the years and sparred toe to toe with Europe’s greatest for far longer than City, but still...


3. YaYa & Fernandinho



With a rock-like defence fronted by a two man defensive midfield axis, City have been sitting pretty and sitting tight for three seasons now. That axis has been put into doubt – and this may well be having a debilitating effect on Issue 1 above – by the stuttering form of last season’s first choices for these two berths, Yaya Touré and Fernandinho. The latter appears still to be shell-shocked from his experience with Brazil in the World Cup, where he was singled out by the fervent and excitable domestic press as a scapegoat for their failures (along with the more high profile and obvious target of Fred), whilst the former’s gentle meandering has provided perhaps the contrast of them all with last season. Put mildly, Yaya Touré’s 2013-14 effort was an astonishing masterwork of the complete midfielder’s range. Add to this the fact that he has been responsible for so many of City’s highest efforts since the FA Cup breakthrough in 2011 (where his goals knocked United out of that unforgettable semi final and won the Cup against Stoke) that a certain amount of slack must be cut. The oft-documented shenanigans with his white suited agent suggest a lack of drive to continue with City’s well versed targets. This is becoming all too obvious in the big man’s distracted displays whilst grazing amongst the midfield carnage. Touré is a real City legend, but he is in some danger of ending his career in Manchester on a slightly sour note.



4. Champions League



A lot of steamy talk about this too. The owners love it. The Ipad warriors love it. The half and half scarvers love it. Mastercard love it. Heineken loves it, presumably in responsible doses. The club wants it. The manager’s good at it. But the fans either dislike it or at best are ambivalent to it. The forced removals from treasured specs, the high prices, the wall to wall stadium makeovers, the adulation of stars, the clammy media interest, the tourists and their strange antics. There is a lot here that City’s much talked about working class, low income, ageing, traditionalist, no-farting about support can get their teeth into, but it is not just that.
That would be too simple. Most have waited for the chance to see the Blues lock horns with Bayern Munich for several generations, but have quickly been forced to see a competition which throws us together with the Bavarian giants three times in four years with a certain amount of cynicism. The seeding, those pots, the smug faces, the ranks of suited octogenarians fawning over Cristiano and Lionel and Zlatan, oh God, Zlatan.The natural feeling seems to be to tell them to man up, cut the crap about who can and cannot be drawn together and throw all those damn balls in ONE BIG HIGHLY POLISHED GLASS BATH. Then if we come out in the same block as Liverpool, Real and Atlético, so be it. It’s still better than knowing who you will play before the draw has even been made, because of a dearth of possibilities after taking country clashes, tv schedule requirements, Eastern European war zones, Michel Platini's all-time favourite conference venues and any number of other fatuous excuses to make sure Real and Barcelona prevail out of the equation.



5. Manuel Pellegrini



This is the big one. Is he here for the long haul? Is he capable of getting angry? Can he really do the Champions League? Does he have an engineering degree and where the hell is Valparaiso anyway? And, whilst we're at it, why go without a replacement for Negredo when all the pups have been loaned out? So many questions with too many question marks flying at a dangerously low level. The manager's age and experience tell us that the Chilean is not here for the long haul. As Alan Pardew once noted, he is getting on a bit. A lot of speculation about City’s plans for turning Patrick Vieira into a Pep Guardiola with a French accent has surfaced of late, but the reality is probably different. The reality is probably Pep Guardiola with a Spanish accent, if it’s at all possible, although the papers will have you believe that United are at the front of that particular queue too (as well as the ones for Klopp, Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo). Ironically, whilst nobody suggests Pellegrini is anything other than secure right now, City’s chances of landing such as Guardiola or Ancelotti or Simeone are better soon rather than later, as the likes of Mourinho and Van Gaal are not about to move on just yet. This means manager hungry Chelsea and star magnets Manchester United are not in the market for any of the A Class bosses, who might become available shortly. As things stand, Jurgen Klopp may well be the first of that bunch, but does that fit City’s game plan and will there be a vacancy at the Etihad before the end of this season anyway?  Let us hope not. Because, if all this blows over and is looked back on in May as a mere storm in a teacup, it will mean that City’s Charming Man has charmed another trophy out of the trees for the faithful to stare at. He will go a long way to calming some already rumbling stomachs by maintaining City's recent excellent record against this weekend's visitors from over the border.

Monday, October 27, 2014

GEORDIE SURE




Wednesday 30th November 1994 and Wednesday 22nd December 1994. Coca Cola Cup 3rd Round -- Newcastle United.





Any


~ thoughts the notoriously boisterous Geordies may have had of raising the roof on their arrival for the League Cup tie at Maine Road in 1994-95 would have been quickly put on hold, as the away fans were being housed on a desultory looking single tier of what would eventually become the New Kippax. At this stage of proceedings it was a damp slab of concrete where the away fans could spend 90 thrilling minutes getting absolutely soaked. Two more floors would be added by the end of the season, but the view across the pitch from the Main Stand at this point of construction offered the familiar tenements and alleyways in unfamiliar nakedness.
 
Newcastle under the embrace-all leadership of Kevin Keegan were a breath of fresh air in 1994, with a typically unbalanced side featuring the mercurial Peter Beardsley, the subtle feet of Philipe Albert, Rule Fox and Scott Sellars, plus the flapping ponytail of Darren Peacock. Ex-City prospect John Beresford was at left back and future City striker Andy Cole partnered Beardsley in the goal-getting, whilst a Londoner by the name of Rob Lee was sowing the seeds of a wonderful love affair with the black and white legions. This Newcastle vintage was still uninhibited and free from the grave title jitters which would line everyone's faces a year hence.

Fresh from being knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Athletic Bilbao (after a promising start to the campaign had included a thrilling away pummeling of Antwerp and - at one point - a three goal lead over the Basques), Newcastle had hit something of a mini barren spell, losing consecutive games to Manchester United and Joe Kinnear’s Wimbledon.

City, meanwhile, in the grip of a Brian Horton-led crusade for unhinged wing-play, had the likes of Quinn, Rosler, Walsh, Summerbee and Peter Beagrie, sometimes all at the same time. The latter, a capture from Everton, was proving to be an old-fashioned flankman of the most exhilirating kind and had pulverised a weak-limbed Tottenham side in a highly acclaimed 5-2 league victory at Maine Road. 

This was to be an old fashioned coupling of two sides that didn’t really care too much for defence, the Blues revealing this trait admirably in a 0-5 roasting at Old Trafford that has lasted the test of 20 years as a permanent stain on Horton’s good work whilst at the club.

With the visitors crippled by a growing injury list, most home fans foresaw a chance to progress, but what transpired was an attritional evening for the Blues, spent trying to keep up with a very lively Newcastle side. The visitors were ahead inside eleven minutes, when a diagonal ball from Beardsley found the City defence admiring life with gentle detachment from the noise and spray around them. Nielsen headed back and Jeffrey hooked in. The stone blocks of David Brightwell and Steve Lomas hardly twitched as the North Stand behind them rose to attempt a wake-up call before it was too late.

With Andy Hill injured and Cole smacking the bar, City were in danger of capitulating in the same dreary way they had to André Kanchelskis three weeks earlier in a nightmare evening at Old Trafford. The first half substitution of the limping Hill for yet another striker in Uwe Rosler  would be the key, however, as the German bravely forced in Niall Quinn’s flick after 68 minutes, bringing the tie nicely to a raucous boil.

No more goals were scored, necessitating a replay on Tyneside three weeks later, by which time the draw for the quarter finals had been made. That memorable smell of the Wembley urinals was beginning to play on everyone’s nostrils as the numbered balls came tumbling out of the velvet bag:.
 
Bolton Wanderers v Norwich City; Swindon Town v Millwall ;Liverpool v Arsenal 

Crystal Palace v City or Newcastle

With Liverpool and Arsenal being paired together, every other club left in the draw could now really start attempting to replace hope with focus.

By the time of the replay, some three weeks later, the two sides had managed this in the League:

  •  Ipswich 1 City 2; Tottenham 4 Newcastle 2
  • City 1 Arsenal 2
  • West Ham 3 City 0;  Coventry 0 Newcastle 0

Despite shaky form, Newcastle were 3rd and City 8th as they squared up to each other at a freezing cold St James’ Park on the last Wednesday before Christmas. As Rob Palmer’s ITV commentary would successfully fail to avoid saying, someone was in for an early Christmas present and the recipient of Santa's seasonal hug was not to be who most were expecting.

This was a match that Newcastle might readily have reached double figures in, such was the weight of chances created, but sterling work at the back by youngster John Foster and the slightly unusual defensive bulwark created by a Kernaghan-Brightwell-Vonk axis of blunder kept the rampaging home side out. With Andy Dibble brave in between the posts and the St James’ fates remaining fickle, City not only survived, but ventured forth to seize the moment.

Rosler, obviously liberated by the arrival of part-time car dealer and countryman Maurizio Gaudino, pilfered a first goal, as bodies fell in the Newcastle area like skittles in a wind tunnel. When Niall Quinn’s comical airshot flicked the ball gently into the path of Paul Walsh off the giant's flailing thighs later on, the diminutive Londoner only had to tap in to complete an astonishing and unlikely win.

As sometimes happened during Brian Horton’s goal-strewn reign at Maine Road, City had prospered despite themselves, with a patched up team and seemingly against hopeless odds. The home crowd filed out unable to believe what they had seen, whilst City prepared  for a triumphal march on the semi finals. All that stood in the way now was a brittle and eminently beatable Crystal Palace. 

The story of that particular night, a 4-0 drubbing, Steve Lomas out sprarko in the mud and the longest trip home ever would - like those ever-fragrant Wembley urinals - have to wait for another time.




Wednesday, October 15, 2014

COLD FRONT IN WARSAW



The papers stacked on the makeshift negotiating table had all been signed, as had a small tower of documents promising the Polish delegates more washing machines than they could possibly make proper use of. Paper cups half full of Polish vodka and tiny cups of tar-like coffee littered the shiny surface. Men in military fatigues moved listlessly in the background. Manchester City secretary Bernard Halford wrung his hands together, stood and prepared to shake hands with a row of officials on a deal that was utterly unique.

Ex-army colonel and Poland World Cup captain Kaziu Deyna would be coming to Manchester after all.

City’s squad these days comprises almost only international players, but three decades ago, it was far from the case. 35 years ago this week, a very different kind of international player was stepping out for City and – after a slow and difficult start -- winning over the locals with his grace and commitment.

On 13th October 1979, Polish World Cup captain Kaziu Deyna scored the winner against European champions Nottingham Forest at a packed Maine Road. Richard Bott’s Daily Express report on the match began thus: “The fellow whose mischievous wit prompted him to send up City in a local newspaper advertisement as ‘a set of clockwork clowns’ for sale at 5 pounds, must number among the world’s biggest fools this morning...”

Malcolm Allison's stuttering first campaign back in charge of the Blues was in danger of falling somewhat flat until Deyna stepped in and influenced the plot with winning goals in the Forest and Middlesbrough home games within four days. Some will remember him swinging on the crossbar after his late winner against Boro in midweek, but more will recall his fantastic display against champions Forest.

The Pole's match winning performances lifted City to mid-table, in those days a not unreasonable level of achievement for a club used to sliding casually from one disaster to another under the frivolous second coming of Allison.

Deyna, hailing from a tiny village in northern Poland, was a player of consummate skill, referred to on one occasion by West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer as the complete footballer. At City he was to bed down with a gathering of team mates from a distinctly lower calibre, but the patient probing and effortless passing soon won him more time and space on the pitch and raucous praise rolling down from the terraces. His style, at once casual and effortlessly effective was a little like a taller more languid version of what David Silva brings to City in the modern era.

He really was that good.

The difference between 1979 and 2015 was that Deyna shared a midfield berth with Tony Henry and Ged Keegan, while Silva can rely on Yaya Touré and Fernandinho for assistance. Never underestimate the necessity for others to be on your own wavelength in order to look the part.

Deyna sneaks onto the official team photo in Football Monthly wearing his tie and jacket
It was said of the Polish captain that he had been born with two brains, one in his head and one in his feet. Certainly in the brainless muddle of English top flight footbal in the late seventies, he needed both brains to be working at their swiftest to keep him ahead of the omnipresent hatchet men that each side in division one employed to do their midfield dirty business for them.

Before his much heralded arrival in England, Deyna had led Poland to Olympic gold in 1972, played his part in his country's 1974 qualification ahead of England -- the Wembley draw between the two countries got cautious old Alf Ramsey the sack -- helped orchestrate a magnificent Polish effort in West Germany that summer, when his country surprised everyone by beating Argentina and Italy on their way to a well deserved 3rd place and graced both the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and the midfield of Legia Warsaw for many years without ever truly being appreciated by the home fans.

This lack of appreciation on the part of his fellow Poles slowly developed into maltreatment, with Deyna verbally abused in the green shirt of Legia and even the red of his national side much as Beckenbauer had been in Germany for representing the hated aristocrats of Bayern Munich.

This was part of the reason why, at the age of 32, he would finally receive an opportunity to play abroad, at the time forbidden in Communist Bloc countries. The irony of Deyna’s transfer was that City’s first target had actually been his younger international team mate Zbigniew Boniek, who had not only had a wonderful World Cup in Argentina (and would go on to really shine at Spain '82, leading to a high profile career scoring goals at Juventus), but had also been responsible almost single-handedly for knocking City out of the UEFA Cup in 1977 with his club side Widzew Lodz. Boniek's transfer was rendered impossible owing to the player’s age, but Deyna's was eventually sanctioned by the Polish authorities.

In the end the package that City successfully negotiated for Deyna inolved around 100,000 pounds plus a small hill of domestic appliances and office equipment that were tricky to obtain in Poland. City had their man, Legia had their Rank Xerox photocopiers.

In the first week of November 1978 the Manchester Evening News published a series of articles entitled ‘The Deyna Dossier’, with ace reporter Peter Gardner returning from the snow-clad steppes to report in hushed tones of this mystical import. There were black and white images of snow clad streets with huddled groups that might have leapt straight from a spy novel. The fuss was immense.

Despite not speaking English and finding it difficult to settle, Deyna managed a total of 38 appearances over a period of three seasons, an amount that surely would have been higher had Allison and others shown more faith in his ability.

His stay at City was punctuated by appearances in a side that was as solid as gossamer thread. He poked goals where he could, threaded passes through impossible angles and then watched as his team mates trotted into each other and collapsed. A 3-2 home defeat by a Wolves side months away from relegation and a repeat score at Maine Road against a Chelsea side so desperately decrepit that master striker Peter Osgood played at centre half, meant that Deyna's introduction to English football was an impossible muddle of disaster and farce. Even his debut in yet another home defeat to Ipswich Town featured Kenny Clements breaking his leg in an inoccuous looking challenge.

Eventually Deyna moved on to the United States to play in NASL, where he made a home for himself and his family, later going into coaching. However, on 1st September 1989 a car being driven by the ex-City star was involved in a fatal accident, as he failed to stop -- or even brake -- on seeing a parked truck ahead of him. The quiet, unassuming and modest star from Poland was dead with just 50 cents in his pocket. Stories quickly circulated that alcohol had been the cause of the accident and that a police breathaliser proved it. Inside the back of the car a total of 22 footballs were found. If nothing else, in what seems to have been a life deteriorating swiftly towards its sad conclusion, Kaziu Deyna still had a love of the sport, which had brought him fame if not fortune.

For all City supporters lucky enough to have seen him play that day against Nottingham Forest, memories of a fantastically balanced player persist. That he left us at such a premature stage remains a sadness which will never properly be cured.

Kaziu Deyna, gone but not forgotten.

Peter Swales has just sold another Grundig

Friday, October 10, 2014

A LONG STANDING ADDICTION TO ATTACK


Mention the name Stuart Pearce to Manchester City fans and the reaction of most will be to blanche visibly and to start gurgling about how their hair began falling out in tufts during season 2006-07. Pearce, whose managerial style included a painfully high waist band to his shell-suit trousers and a bean-stuffed toy horse on the touchline, provided the blue half of Manchester with a side roughly in his own image. It defended with its sleeves rolled up, epitomised by the giant trundling Richard Dunne, whose defensive style was to lather any incoming balls into the stratosphere (and when that went wrong, which it customarily did, slice great haphazard shot clearances back over a startled Nicky Weaver in goal) , its midfield panache came in roughly sliced chunks of Joey Barton, a flailing obsessively hormone-impacted man even then (who would end up the club's top scorer that year with six goals and a suspended jail sentence) and its attack, well its attack almost did not exist at all in the form that normal people make their value judgements. When your reliance for goals depends on a supply line from a midfield run by the heavy-set (and, thanks to Barton, black-eyed) Ousmane Dabo to the chunky-thighed, distinctly one-paced Bernardo Corradi and the stick-legged DeMarcus Beasley, you just knew you were in for a long season.

And how very long it was.

In season 2006-07, City limped home in 14th place, were knocked out of the League Cup in the second round during a somewhat complicated evening in Chesterfield where the uninitiated might have thought that Pearce's dinosaur tactics would have worked a treat, and dropped pathetically from the FA Cup at Blackburn with a performance that still gives many of us heartburn thinking about it ten years later. The Blackburn match, with a full-blooded and expectant away phalanx of some 9,000 roaring them on, was perhaps the nadir. As ever, it was the hope that knocked us all flat.

To top it all off nicely, Ben Thatcher put his elbow through Pedro Mendes' cheekbone in a piece of thuggery that sat well alongside the parched football on offer, the team offered home fans a grand total of ten goals all season (not a single one after a struggling New Year's Day victory over pre-jinx Everton) and those foolhardy enough to watch the Blues away had to put up with them playing in yellow shirts, the colour of cowardice, late night vomit and tinned custard.

Matt Mills, Hatem Trabelsi, Sun Jihai. Matt Mills, Hatem Trabelsi, Sun Jihai. 


No, they're still there.

A season that would feature so many horrific performances can hardly throw up highlights, but a 4-0 defeat at Wigan and a 0-0 draw at home to a stubbornly useless Charlton when almost 60% of the crowd were asleep by half time, stick particularly unwelcomingly to the front of the memory. That both adversaries were titled Athletic during a season when City's one and only attribute was a vaguely misdirected athleticism, lent its own little fragrant ironies to the plot.

Perhaps worst of all, though, worse than the games where goal attempts could be counted on the fingers of a one fingered tree sloth, worse than seeing Dabo and Barton square up to each other over some training ground shunt - during the match - worse even than the manager's platitudes that "I fought we did alright ye know", was the fact that this was very much a slight to City's rich history of eye-watering attack, to-hell-with-worrying, if they score three we'll score five mentality.

That Pearce's black period of introspection, following on directly from Kevin Keegan's startling eight-man attack team of 2001-4, only served to make the paucity of it all jab you even more firmly in the eyes.



But to understand where City's modern heritage comes from, we must travel a little further back, to the late sixties, a period in Manchester's development packed with good music, short hemlines and scorchingly attractive football from both sides of the Great Mancunian Divide. United were European champions, whilst City were top dogs domestically. It was a time when Best and Summerbee ran clothes boutiques together and Malcolm Allison, City's ebullient manager, would take to the touchlines dressed in open necked shirts, flapping swathes of sheepskin and puffing on the largest of Havana cigars.

The blue smoke arcing out over the touchline at Maine Road from the cramped little dugouts was synonymous with the fast heeled approach of City's devastating attacking machine. The afore-mentioned Summerbee, one of the first hard tackling wingers, would serve a cornucopia of passes to a strike force of Francis Lee and Neil Young, whilst the supply line was kept red hot by the charging presence of Colin Bell in midfield, a tireless, elegant player who played a genre of the game that was twenty years ahead of its time, and the quixotic, chaotic Tony Coleman on the other side, whose brilliant, anarchic brain worked on a different plain to the rest of us.

City's swashbuckling presence in a series of cup finals and at the top of the first division lasted for four years, a goal-strewn period of such unmitigated joy that its end could only bring confusion and withdrawal amongst the Blues support. It is a period to which forty and fifty-something year old supporters still hark back to with a tear in the eye: an age of innocence and unsurpassed success. The last hurrah came in 1974, when City failed to break down a workaday Wolves side in the League Cup Final, despite fielding an attack of Denis Law, Rodney Marsh, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee. By this time, Allison had left in a cloud of evaporating champagne bubbles, to be replaced by a man for whom the title dour and tough might have been invented: the chisel faced Ron Saunders.

Saunders, a man for whom the stiff necked values of the armed services formed the front row of every team talk, lasted little time at a club which had got used to the rich taste of cavalier football. His replacement, ex-right back and captain Tony Book, would -given time- usher in the next great wave of attacking football in City's history. By the 1976-77 season, Book had stocked City's attack with more sumptuous attacking talent. It would lever the club back up to runners-up spot behind the all-conquering Liverpool side of Bob Paisley, finishing a solitary point behind the Merseysiders.

City hit the grass running most weeks, with a four man attack, comprised of two wingers and two central strikers. Peter Barnes on the left, a quicksilver in and out merchant, was complimented on the opposite flank by the menacing, goal scoring Dennis Tueart, a kind of prototype wide man-cum-goal-getter. In the centre marauded Brain Kidd and Joe Royle and- a little later. England man Mike Channon. All would end up in Don Revie's England sides, a testament to the depth and width of City's attacking quality as the 70s bore to an end.

Sadly, apart from a raft of heart-warming memories, including a 6-2 demolition of Chelsea and a 5-0 home thrutching of Leicester when Brian Kidd helped himself to four, Book's legacy remained stubbornly at an exhiliratingly won League Cup against flu-ridden Newcastle in 1976, which featured a winning goal of such improbable impudence from Dennis Tueart, that it made up for the lack of trophies elsewhere. Tueart, with his back to goal, flung himself at Tommy Booth's knock-down and won the cup with one of the most photogenic goals ever delivered to the lush Wembley turf.

Little were City fans to know, but the gradual fading of that Tueart and Barnes-inspired City side would leave a twenty-five year hole into which all hopes would disappear without trace.

By the time the football fates had dragged the club through various mind-numbing relegations, false dawns and a near-terminal brush with the third tier of English professional football, owner John Wardle was persuaded that something bright and less challenging was needed to lighten the mood somewhat. In stepped the king of light and less challenging, Kevin Keegan, a man who believed so much in the "you score three, we'll score five" theory that he stocked the City midfield entirely with creative talent. In one goal-heavy season in 2001-02, City's 110th in League football and the last to date spent outside the top division, all - or at least most - of the traumas of the past twenty years were washed away.

As opposed to Stuart Pearce's later tenure as track-suited, fist waver in chief on the touchlines, 2001-02 saw the self same Pearce lining up at left back in Keegan's side and opening the season in delirious, fun-drenched style with a looping debut free kick in a cavalcade of attacking intent on live television. Sadly, this was to be a season almost entirely lost to the bewildering and cavernous black hole known as ITV Digital. Those that didn't make it to Hillsborough, for example, missed a 6-2 away win that involved the sumptuous prodding and poking in midfield of perhaps English football's most unlikely tandem, the French Algerian Ali Benarbia and the mercurial Israeli Eyal Berkovic. Leaving political differences firmly to one side, the pair conjured pretty football of the highest order, as they fed the willing front running of Shaun Goater and an electric-heeled Darren Huckerby with an array of through balls, dinked crosses and goals on a plate that fair took the breath away. Add the speed and panache of pocket dynamo Shaun Wright Phillips on the right wing and you had a goal scoring machine of the highest efficiency.


Adversity was sneered at, unlikely odds thrown out with the dish water. A braying home only crowd at the New Den? No problem, sir: three sparkling goals and a sublime team goal celebration in front of the empty stand where the City support should have been ranked was all that was called for. Man sent off after only ten minutes of the game with Norwich? No problem, sir: an absolute battering with a man less for 80 minutes and a totally deserved 3-1 to the Blues was the outcome. Joe Royle's Cup for Cock Ups seemed to have been melted down and remoulded as a bronze bust to attacking verve.

Of course, as with all Kevin Keegan adventures, the baddies get you in the end. Not a ten foot giant, nor a carbuncle-nosed witch, but the Evolution of Staurt Pearce, like dropping in an ice bath full of Gila monsters after swimming in the tepid waters of the Maldives.

Joe Royle scores v United in 1975
Nothing lasts for ever, however, especially if it is built around Steven Ireland and Darius Vassell, so City moved on and -- thanks to the luck of the Gods -- found a benefactor interested in the finer things in life. The modern day City, shaped and produced by the crafty old hands of Manuel Pellegrini, is a faithful reproduction of all that has been good from the Allison, Book and Keegan eras. Gone is the arrogance of the Allison period, gone are the near misses of the late 70s side that promised so much but flattered to deceive and gone too are the alarming defensive frailties of the Keegan side built solely on a capacity to attack.

In choosing Pellegrini, City have landed on a coach, who is faithful to the club's history, but is hell bent on
improving it.

The wildly ambitious five trophies in five years mantra does not phase him. In his first season, under the heavy weight of expectation, his City side carried off the Premier League and League Cup double, whilst playing some of the most wonderfully fluid football in modern English football history. The sight of a jinking, pirouetting David Silva, a stampeding Yaya Touré and the blitzkrieg attack of Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko reminds one royally and wholly of good times gone by and of the startling propensity this club has often had to eschew an overly cautious approach and attack attack attack.

Monday, September 29, 2014

AS THE RAIN FALLS HARD ON A HUMDRUM TOWN



Roma’s talented and fine-tuned players, stretching their muscles in the queue for customs at Ringway Airport, might have swapped the sun-drenched hubbub of the Italian capital for the red brick and drizzle of post-industrial Manchester, but they will be aware that they are about to play their most crucial game in this season’s Champions League.

This is a fixture that has never before been played in earnest, the pre-season plastic pitch of 1980 Giants Stadium in New York being the only (semi-)competitive game ever played between the sides. On that occasion the City goals were scored with graceful aplomb by Kaziu Deyna and Steve Daley with "Paul Sugroe", practically unknown to American tv commentators hitting the third and a chunky Carlo Ancelotti weighing in with one of Roma’s goals in a 2-3 defeat for the Italians.

In the 34 years that have followed, City have studiously avoided the need for eye contact with AS Roma. In fact, barring the occasional confrontation with Italian clubs over the years, City’s history in this part of the world is sparse to say the least. Only two UEFA Cup/Europa League double headers with Juventus (1976-7 and 2010-11) and one each with AC Milan (1978-79 UEFA Cup) and –more recently- Napoli (2011-12) in the Champions League have occurred in nearly 45 years. 



OLD LADIES FIRST

Here are the line-ups from the initial meetings with the great Juventus side of the mid seventies, one that furnished the Italian national team for the World Cup in Argentina in 1978 with no fewer than eight players.

Sep 15th 1976 Manchester City 1 Juventus 0 (Kidd)
Corrigan; Docherty, Donachie, Doyle, Watson, Conway, Barnes (Power), Kidd, Royle, Hartford, Tueart. Att 36,955

Sep 29th 1976 Juventus 2 Manchester City 0 
Corrigan, Docherty, Donachie, Doyle, Watson, Booth, Keegan (Lester), Kidd, Royle, Hartford, Tueart  Att 55,000 
City, with a team full of international pedigree, drawn to play Juventus in the first round of the UEFA Cup, an unlucky quirk of the draw in the days before seeding and money interest kept glamour games away from the early stages. On a raw Manchester night, City did the raucous Maine Road crowd proud. With the Kippax belting out the slightly unusual chant of "We all hate spaghetti" and following it up with a thumping, partisan rendition of "Fish and chips, fish and chips, fish and chips", not only was the electric atmosphere giddy with that famous Maine Road mix of gallows humour and northern slapstick, but the men from Turin were in danger of being rocked out of their composed stride.

FALLING INTO IL TRAP

New England manager Don Revie sat expectantly under a tartan rug in the Main Stand with a notepad marked "Tueart, Royle, Kidd, Barnes, Doyle, Watson, Corrigan...", the new England pretenders, while Juventus coach Giovanni Trappatoni, embarking on what would stretch to a ten year stint in charge, strode around the muddy edges of the Maine Road pitch with a small piece of paper marked with a single vital word - "catenaccio". If foreign tongues were anathema to the mean streets of Moss Side in those days of chips and gravy, we would soon enough understand what this bit of Italian signified.

Tony Book would later admit that this was a well-laid but hardly unforeseeable trap that the Blues had marched straight into. With the Kippax heaving and City leading through Brian Kidd's soaring header, a win was considered well worth celebrating. It was not every day, after all, that Manchester City dealt a blow to the pride of a team so swollen with international names of repute. City had practically beaten the Italian national side for heaven's sake! The nagging doubt remained, however, that having Juve on the ropes on your own patch, with the Kippax baying for more, might just be seen as a missed opportunity rather than a heroic episode in what we somewhat laughingly hoped would be a thick volume of similarly outstanding European nights out.




THE OLD ONE-TWO

Well-steeped in European two leg tactics, Juventus knew full well that a 1-0 deficit could easily be turned around in the boiling bear pit of the Stadio Communale in Turin. And so it transpired, with City unable to steel themselves, unprepared for the iron-clad defensive shut-out that was necessary, instead attempting to give the striped Juventini a game, playing a brand of open expansive football, which the home side quickly picked off. With the score at 2-0 in a rainy Turin, City had no answer and the Italians played out the rest of the remaining minutes with their familiar defensive aplomb. Book had been right to say beforehand that the winners of this tie could go on to lift the trophy, but it was Juventus who would do so and not City.

"They were just too experienced for us," he said later. "We were 16 months together and only knew one way to play. We did not adapt to the needs of the European game, the slow build up, cautious patient passing game." Another abrupt end had been reached, another harsh lesson had been dealt out. A small consolation presented itself in the next round when United showed they had learnt nothing from City's approach and they too were dumped out by Juventus. The Old Lady shimmied all the way to the final and yet another glorious trophy win, whilst Manchester's blues began an inexorable slump that would end up with us all face down in the mud at at Macclesfield.

THE KIPPAX EXPERIENCE
To stand on the Kippax in the 70s and watch a night match in European competition, you were transported to a unique place in life. Bursting with wit and spontaneity, danger and uncertainty, the great terrace grasped you, shook you and embraced you, until that trembling old place cast you back out into the wet streets of Rusholme to fend for yourself. The rain -if not the town- could drag you down.
Between those mid-to-late 70's of Brian Kidd and Dennis Tueart and the 2003 UEFA Cup match with Total Network Solutions of Wales, there was not a sausage, bratwurst or chorizo worth its name for City fans to savour. The European drought has long since ended, however, and these days the likes of Milan, Roma and Juventus look at Manchester City in a totally different light.  
Whilst the Old Lady represents, even in her modern low budget blouses and sensible shoes, much of what City are not - old Europe, old money, trophy-heavy, aristocratic elite from the parched south of Europe, Roma’s record in Europe is not so burdensome. A mid-eighties peak of losing ignominiously to Liverpool in their own heaving Stadio Olympico was the zenith of their achievements and modern times have brought more modest targets.

"Call me morbid, call me pale, but we've spent 34 long years on your trail..."

TIME LORDS

Images of the track-suited Nils Liedholm flash across the mind, the upright gods of Falcão, Graziani, Boniek, Collovati, Giannini, Prohaska, Ancelotti and the little devil Bruno Conte come easily to the mind's eye, draped in history, glory and the honeyed fog of all those unforgettable European nights. These names form part of the rich history of not just the fabric of Roma but also of Italian football.

City play out a delayed 2-2 draw at the San Siro in 1978
When the two sides met in New York in 1980, City’s business with the likes of Roma and Juventus was coming to an end. A scintillating defeat of AC Milan in the previous season’s UEFA Cup brought the club a quarter-final with Borussia Monchengladbach, where defeat ended City’s participation in continental competition until TNS in 2003. Twenty-four years had passed by in the meantime, with the Blues contenting themselves with a close-up view of their belly button fluff.

HISTORY BECKONS

Whilst City lost at Halifax Town in the FA Cup and introduced themselves repeatedly to the denizons of the old second division, Roma were embarking on something of a golden era, that would bring them eventually to today’s total of 213 European games (City have played just 92). Reaching the European Cup Final of 83-84 and the UEFA Cup final of 90-91, both lost respectively to Liverpool and Inter, things would never be quite so good again. Modern times have seen intermittent participation in the Champions League but have also brought the club’s biggest ever continental defeat, shipping seven at Old Trafford in 2007. A visit to Manchester should not, therefore, be taken to lightly by the Italians, especially so when you realise that seven is exactly the number of goals City managed in their last home game..

Tommy Booth (l) and Brian Kidd (r) head goals in the 3-0 City demolition of AC Milan at Maine Road
Roma arrive in grand form and will be backed by support as lusty as that seen from Napoli when the Partenopea visited for City’s first ever Champions league home fixture on 14th September 2011. From the Blues side that played that night, only the departed Joleon Lescott and Gareth Barry cannot play, although Samir Nasri’s injury also excludes him. Of the others, eight (Hart, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Kompany, Dzeko, Aguero, Silva and Touré) should all play, great testament to the growing stability at a club often derided for its knee-jerk spending.

Napoli exhibited a verve and togetherness that took the home side by surprise that night, gaining a 1-1 draw that would be instrumental in keeping them above City in the final group table. City have grown into this competition since then and will draw on the experience of four consecutive seasons pitting their wits against the very best Europe has to offer, plus Viktoria Plzen.

If the club’s history of combat with Italian sides is a little on the thin side, it is not without triumph. The spirit of Brian Kidd and Asa Hartford may long have been extinguished on the football pitch, but City’s class of 2014 has the guile and the heart to out-manoeuvre the very best that Roman organisation can put in its way, emulating the class of 1980.



Friday, September 26, 2014

AMBER ALERT

Hull City and Manchester City have studiously ignored each other for some fifty years, meeting only sporadically for a brief flirtation here and there, when few were looking and even fewer gave much of a damn. Then nothing. For years. A strangely neglected fixture that has always served up something worth having when it has been allowed to happen.

The sky blue and the amber, then, have a short but graceful story to tell. And here it is.  



ABOVE 1985-86 The Full Members' Cup, an unloved little corner of 80s football, supposedly foisted on us in order to fill the void left by England's European sabbatical, a little break from club combat after a little too much open warfare from the supporters. A dreadfully forlorn competition, played out in front of sparse disinterested crowds, it meant little until one suddenly got the scent of Wembley in one's collective nostrils, after struggling to stay awake in the early rounds. Then, as you sat up and took notice, the crowd swelled and the noise told you that something worthwhile was happening at last. Northern Area Final it was. Hull City. An unknown opponent not played since the 1970 edition of the FA Cup.

Unbelievably, to eek out the agony a little further, it was deemed necessary not only to have an "area final" but to make it two legged. Wembley faded in and out of view like a hospital patient drifting in and out of consciousness. Away from home in the first leg, manager Billy McNeill wisely opted to stay at home with a heavy bout of flu. Those of us with no excuses, watched this, a weak and fumbling 2-1 defeat, orchestrated by the great padded philosopher that was Jimmy Frizzell. "Not good enough," said Jim, "We will not tolerate this at Luton in the league." And neither should he have done.





The second leg at Maine Road, dragging some 10,000 or so out of their slumbers to the roomy terraces of the Kippax, brought City to the edge of Wembley. A 24th minute diving header from first leg scorer David Phillips and a last minute scuffed toe poke from Jim Melrose (see photo above for proof of how close it was to a complete air shot) put City through by the very skin of their teeth, The final, played against Chelsea, would give the tournament an incongruously glorious finish, 5-4 to the Londoners.
 

An FA Cup meeting in 1970, won 1-0 by cup holders City with a piece of balletic impudence from Neil Young was all that went before in three decades of emptiness.


BELOW The City programme welcomes Eddie Gray's side to Maine Road for a division two clash in 1988-89. It was only the sixth season of league combat between the two sides.



Wayne Biggins wheels away after scoring one of the four that sailed into Hull's net that afternoon. Newly signed Gary Megson and prolific striker Paul Moulden celebrate the feat. A brace for Biggins in a 4-1 win gave the City faithful plenty to applaud as the club picked up momentum towards a second placed finish and a return to the top flight behind Chelsea.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

WEDNESDAY IS CUP DAY

Robinson slashes wide against Wednesday
CORRIGAN ON THE SPOT

"I've made three or four penalty saves in my career, but I suppose that has to go down as one of the best." By the time City had edged past third division Sheffield Wednesday after a huge scare, this run of the mill 1979-80 2nd round League Cup tie had managed to throw up a slightly strange penalty legacy.

This was the start of Malcolm Allison's first full season back at the helm, the Great Messiah's second coming, a huge rumbling freight train destined to jump the tracks a little further down the line. Having cleared away practically every recognisable star from Tony Book's more than capable late mid-seventies side, Allison's summer purchases had included Michael "Mick" Robinson and Bobby "Missed Again" Shinton from Preston North End and Wrexham respectively.

Allison had started the season with the likes of Dragoslav Stepanovic and Colin Viljoen alongside the 17 year old debutant Tommy Caton and Polish World Cup captain Kaziu Deyna.
It was heady mixture of untried second tier pros, Mal's teeny boppers, exotic imports and a smattering of leftovers from the good times. Tommy Booth and Willie Donachie and --of course -- Joe Corrigan were the names to have survived the coach's mighty talent cull.

Whilst City were about to be swamped by Allison's over-complicated tactics and desperate desire to start from scratch, Wednesday were making the slow climb back into the limelight which would carry them up into the first division by 1984, ironically at City's expense. (City finished 4th in the famous three horse promotion race that year).

The many Wives of Mal
Still at this point a Division Three outfit, Wednesday came into this tie on the back of a less than impressive 0-3 home reverse to Blackburn Rovers, both of whom would end the season in promotion berths behind champions Grimsby Town.
 

City had started their first division campaign in typically unpredictable style, drawing on the opening day with Terry Venables' highly acclaimed Crystal Palace side (the so-called team of the 80s, that would be relegated within two years), getting thrashed at Middlesbrough and squeaking a 3-2 home win over Brighton.

KING HENRY I OF RUSHOLME

Colin Viljoen is congratulated after opening the scoring
Corrigan's penalty heroics in the first game, drawn 1-1, would be matched in the second leg, where, amazingly, he saved again, from the same player. That player was ex-Arsenal midfielder Bryan Hornsby, who saw a firm spot kick saved by a flying City 'keeper in the initial game and -- when presented with the big chance just nine minutes from the end of an as yet scoreless Maine Road return -- stuttered in his run up, only for the huge frame of Corrigan to parry that attempt too.

Referee Colin Seal did not approve of Hornsby's run up, however, and ordered the kick to be retaken. With Hornsby wisely opting out of tempting fate further, Mark Smith stepped up to bury the second chance and put Wednesday close to a famous upset.

The tie was saved --for once -- by Malcom Allison's irresistible urge to tinker. Mike Channon had played in the initial game but was about to be added to the vast conveyor belt of talent leaving the club with a move back to Southampton the following day. This meant that long-term reserve Tony Henry (a midfielder) found himself in attack and he duly obliged with an unlikely 88th minute equaliser and followed that up with a 90th minute winner.





To a seasoned tightrope walker like Allison, this will have been food and drink, but for the 24,074 breathless fans inside Maine Road, it had been quite an escape. Within days, Big Mal had paid Wolves £1.5 million for Steve Daley and Stockport County £80,000 for Stuart Lee. City were changing rapidly. Into what nobody seemed to know.

The Blues went out to second division Sunderland in the next round of the League Cup and would be playing Sheffield Wednesday in the 2nd division three years hence. Allison, needless to say, would not be there to witness it, long since dispatched by the trigger happy Peter Swales.

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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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