Thursday, March 26, 2020

BLUE BLOOD

Robert Hopkins didn't stay at Maine Road long enough to be appreciated. It was the wrong move at the wrong time, but, as Neil Moxley, a fellow true son of Birmingham, explains, any move away from St Andrews was the wrong move for Hopkins. 

*****

ROBERT Hopkins had blue blood running through his veins – unfortunately, it was the royal blue of Birmingham, rather than the sky blue of Manchester.


Limited as a player and limited in stature he may have been. But he was certainly the sort any team of the 80s wanted in their trenches. In fact, to those who fleetingly saw him play at Maine Road, they may have decided that Hopkins was actually better suited to that line of work.


The only puzzling aspect to the right-winger's career was why, as a die-hard Birmingham City supporter, he ever signed for despised rivals Aston Villa.


Hopkins himself has admitted that during one of his few first-team games for Villa – away at Notts County – he sported a Birmingham City badge over Villa's crest on his claret jersey. Taking a corner, it was spotted by Villa's away fans who began to hurl abuse at him. Hopkins promptly booted the ball out for a goal kick, flicked them the V-sign and ran off, laughing.


Unsurprisingly, shortly afterwards he signed for his favourite club and linked up with the likes of Tony Coton, Noel Blake, Howard Gayle, Mick Harford and Pat Van Den Hauwe. Inevitably, trouble followed the 'Birmingham Six' – both off and on the pitch.


During one match against Watford, play was halted and a policeman strode onto the pitch towards Hopkins who was being marked by Watford's Kenny Jackett. Hopkins went as white as a sheet but the copper walked past him to tell the match official there had been a bomb threat.


“Thank **** for that,” he said to a startled opponent, “I thought they were coming to arrest me.”

Hopkins in typically robust style on his City debut v. Norwich at Maine Road, 3rd September 1986.


Perhaps Hopkins wasn't ever good enough for Manchester City. It was the first time he had ever lived away from his home-town. Perhaps he couldn't settle. 

Certainly, Manchester City never saw the best of him.


Nowadays, Hopkins still attends Birmingham's matches as a supporter. Home and away. He has been inducted into the club's hall of fame, despite a decent, if unspectacular, career.

With respect to his time at Maine Road, it's most likely he was broken-hearted at seeing his lifetime's dreams dashed - being forced to wave goodbye to his beloved club. 

In a world of here today, gone tomorrow, badge-kissing mercenaries, surely he should be cut some slack for that. 

".... a great effort to walk away from trouble...."













Thursday, March 19, 2020

HEAD TO HEAD


Number one in a series comparing the best players in the history of Manchester City.  


Kevin de Bruyne v. Colin Bell


De Bruyne has often been compared to Bell, perhaps still City’s greatest-ever player, although that mantle is under pressure from numerous candidates from the modern era of success. Here we look at the skills of both and try to decide who comes out on top: 10 categories with a final score out of 100. 

1. SHOOTING

Colin Bell’s shooting often provided spectacular goals, none more so than a Van Basten-esque diagonal volley at Stamford Bridge that brought Bell’s trademark nod and hand shake celebration. For England the 9 goals in 48 appearances also included prodigious strikes v Scotland, Wales and Czechoslavakia. Predominantly right footed, with an admirable accuracy from all distances and angles, Bell could not be faulted in this area  9

Kevin de Bruyne has built a reputation for exceptional freekick expertise, scoring some absolutely sumptuous goals in City’s triumphant rise to the top of the tree in England. From rolling clever freekicks under the wall, to curling sublime efforts over and around it, the Belgian has a box of deadball tricks that has few peers. The hit in open play at St James Park in November 2019 contained a power that few in the modern game could have matched, as the ball zipped past Martin Dubravka like a heat-seeking missile, ditto his two-touches -and-smash-it goal v Swansea a year earlier. 9



2. BALL CONTROL

Colin Bell ran City’s midfield with a calm assurance for a decade or so, before calamitous injury forced an end to a majestic career. His use of the ball in all areas of the middle of the park was always exemplary, although the quality of the surfaces on offer in the 70s did not always allow the closest of relationships with the ball. Ironically, it was in getting his studs caught in the turf v United in 1975 trying to control the ball on the run that the horrendous injury occurred. 8

De Bruyne is such a master of the ball that he often seems to be stroking it around while looking elsewhere to see what opportunities are opening up further up the pitch. He is a master of control and of pass length and pace. Seldom does the ball leave his immediate area in a way he has not designed it to. The above-mentioned goal against Swansea involved two gentle touches forward whilst looking ahead to assess space. 9

3. PASSING

Bell’s metronome passing ensured that the great City side of the late 60s and early 70s packed a proper punch. With Neil Young gliding in from the left and Francis Lee hammering through the middle, it was Bell’s laser passing that often put them through or provided the last assist from the right flank 9

Probably the best passer in Europe at the moment, you get the feeling De Bruyne could land a tennis ball on the back of an elephant and make it stay there. Some of his sublime passes to put City’s strikers through to score have been too good to believe. A true master at work, especially when curving low balls in from the right flank that are impossible to defend against, Witness his sublime efforts in setting up team mates week in week out, beautifully illustrated with one of the passes of the season against Stoke 9



4. VISION

Colin Bell could pick out a pass that nobody else in the City side of that era could see. Long and short, nothing phased him, pinging passes across rutted ground and the green grass of early season with equal measure. Thanks to Bell, the likes of Lee, Marsh, Law and Young feasted on a hatful of chances that were more difficult to miss than score. 8

With the master of all impossible passes, David Silva, in advanced pre-retirement days, De Bruyne has taken on the mantle of being City’s chief visionary. That he has done it with complete nonchalance suggests here is a player with a different kind of vision to the others. Sme of his passes find places that do not exist to the rest of us. 9

5. TEMPERAMENT

As seen with his calm handshake goal “celebration”, Bell was always an undemonstrative personality in an era of multiplying drama queens. If the 70s brought a tidal wave of players trying out new hair styles and pushing new borders of extravagant, outlandish behaviour, the shy Bell was not part of that scene at all.  Never less than cool, calm and collected, he was the purest example of good sportsmanship, fairplay and level-headedness. 10

Often in the background when things are getting close to boiling point, De Bruyne’s special abilities sometimes lead to frustration when others cannot match the standards he expects. Wtness arm-waving moments and face pulling exasperation at less gifted team mates who have flunked in his opinion. His “let me talk, let me talk!!!” high-pitched outburst after the Napoli game an example. 8

6. HEADING

Bell scored a fair number of goals with his head and was not averse to an aerial challenge in an era when the ball spent much more time in the air than it does today. High profile goals v Bilbao for City and Czechoslavakia for England (where he was hurt in a brave challenge) prove his ability and courage. 8

Not the Belgian’s strongest asset, De Bruyne is seldom to be seen getting on the end of a cross or challenging for a high ball, partly because the crosses in question are often dispatched from his own boot. 7

 

7. TACKLING

In the no-holds barred days of the 70s, if you wanted to rule the roost in the midfield area, you needed to be able to take care of yourself. Bell’s tackling was fearless and crisp, often starting moves forward that then resulting in an assist from the same player when he had caught up with play. His all action lung-busting style meant that he was often the first man back to block an opposition break after an unsuccessful City attack. 9

De Bruyne is not afraid of a tackle, despite the damage done to his body in various injuries. In today’s game, where players have a more specialised role to play, he can rely on the likes of Fernandinho, Rodrigo and Nicolas Otamendi to do the lion’s share of the breaking up of play, however. 8

8. STAMINA

Malcolm Allison nicknamed Bell "Nijinsky", not after the Russian ballet dancer (although that too might have been apt), but after the racehorse of the time. Here was a player that seldom stood still. Bell’s stamina – as he often admitted himself – was one of the attributes that made him different. 10

Here is a thoroughbred race horse. Like Bell, De Bruyne seems to have an extra reservoir of energy to carry the side when it is flagging towards the end of vital games. 9
  

 

9. SPEED

Bell was not the fastest of players, neither was he a slouch, but he made up for that with non-stop work-rate that meant he was almost always up with play at stages of the game when others were clearly flagging. 8

Deceptively fast despite a languid style and slightly loping gate, De Bruyne is as quick across the ground as he is in his head. 9

10. TEAMWORK

Bell was the one player holding the whole City show together. Never the show-off, his entire ethic was to be of use to the team. His character matched this perfectly, as he was never interested in the personal spotlight. 9

In this modern football world of Instagram, Twitter and high profile sponsorship contracts, all the world’s top performers need to have a marketable personality. De Bruyne, now touted as perhaps the world’s third best player after Ronaldo and Messi, is no different. On the pitch he is a master of bringing others into the game, but contains a streak of individualism the retiring Bell could probably never have mustered. 9


TOTAL:

KEVIN DE BRUYNE 87 - 88 COLIN BELL










Sunday, February 23, 2020

PETROBOLLOCKS TO THE LOT OF YOU

Well, I was going to jot down my thoughts on the dilemma facing Manchester City fans, but sixteen bright young men beat me to that one this week.

Then I thought I might hitch hike to a United game in Belgium and interview a handful of inebriated and overexcited fans to see what they think of the City situation, but Andy Mitten and The Athletic had that "extremely sound idea" ahead of me too.

And before you sympathise and admit that "there is nothing left to write about", a last minute flash of an idea reached me. The football. Let's try talking about that!

It is a long shot, but it might just work.

Leicester away in these dark days is no longer the relaxed formality it was. With the poet from Carnlough leading the way, they have become a fast-moving, slippery character and look well set for next season's Champions League. Which is more than can be said for some.

City, on the other hand, have become so slippery, they cannot even shake hands with the opposition captain without producing sportswash bubbles.

A great deal has been written in the past about siege mentality and its positive repercussions. Jose Mourinho, demonstrating on a weekly basis that he is clearly a man out of his time, made heavy use of it at Chelsea and Inter, where his us against them philosophy produced difficult to beat sides. A predecessor of his at the San Siro, Helenio Herrera, produced catenaccio and a mentality of durability that probably precedes this idea. Meanwhile Mourinho's present day Tottenham play like a team shorn of the panache and style of the Pochettino era, playing percentages and hoping for the best. Against Chelsea, they were undressed and had their clothes burnt in front of them.

City went to Leicester an hour or so later, expecting a severe examination. Compared to the forensic one delivered by all arms of the press over the last ten days, a football examination must have seemed like a breath of fresh air.

And how they took to it. In tricky circumstances, they showed a resolute will-to-survive that had hitherto been hiding under a bush.

With De Bruyne tireless and the touch and thrust of Mendy and Mahrez creating space and danger, they prevailed. The pencil thin Algerian, with a pass that was 90% caresse, slid Gabriel Jesus through for a winner that was celebrated with more than the usual gusto. The way Mahrez makes contact with the ball, you are moved to wonder if he is not having an affair with it, so gentle is the first contact, so attentive the ones that follow.

If City are going down with a billion in the bank, they will go down kicking and screaming and playing their special brand of slide-rule football that has so thrilled us all over the last three and a half seasons.

With a trip to Madrid next, this win was of special significance, not only opening up a decent gap to third place, but setting all the right precedents for the sort of performance that will be necessary against Team Tebas.

If City are to survive that next grand test of their mettle, they might like to look at a penalty record that now reads 5 missed out of seven this season. Like other newsworthy diseases, it appears penalty missing is also contagious.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

BUILDING A NANDOS VISIBLE FROM SPACE

And so to Sportswashing.

We are now just a Thaksin Shinawatra free chicken satay dinner away from being confirmed as the first Proper Pariahs of World Football. A throwaway Simon Cliff insult from the great football bin. All that delicate and beautiful football, lost in the dust of an Abu Dhabi child camel race. 

Football never used to tax us for our moral viewpoints of the world. It normally boiled down to a simple matter of whether you subscribed to the opinion that Paul Bosvelt was over the hill or whether Michael Brown would ever make a clean tackle. 

At the point Jamie Pollock headed us all into the third division, I had not given the prospect of Yemeni Civil War a moment's thought. I feel a little guilt admitting it, but even those poor lads in the Thai cave had not yet crossed my mind. Now, it makes me feel like maybe I used to be as devil-may-care as Dominic Cummings striding to his morning taxi muttering expletives to the press. It's just not on anymore. Not now we are two thousand and twenty.

The team I support are, as you read this, approximately as popular as the Coronavirus. This is in itself a vaguely funny thing. When Manchester City first came to my attention, they had just completed a manoeuvre, which helped relegate Manchester United. A back-heel by Denis Law, one of United's Sacred Trilogy along with the "other two", had returned to City and enacted a piece of simple ballet that, had I been looking at it from adulthood in 2020, I would have said was not for me. Sacrilege. This team of sky blue shirts and dark blue socks, of white shirts and curious feathery haircuts had trampled the sacred lamb. I should have known.

Instead, as a curious child, I thought it might be for me.

Let's just say the colour seemed pretty. And back-heels were avant garde. I was always a sucker for the latest continental fad. When melba toast arrived in Sale, I was on it like a Jack Russell chasing a beagle. Mayonnaise? Oh boy, this is it.

United in any case, were run by Louis Edwards, widely thought to be peddling off-colour meat to the poorer districts of Manchester, so they were not all they were made out to be anyway. As was to become quickly evident, following City soon bit you on the bum anyway. United's season in Division Two was not the carnival of laughs we all expected. They came straight back up with a cool new hooligan following and swept straight through to their rightful place above City in the First Division.

City were run by Peter Swales, who's only claim to notoriety was the albeit grave crime of combining check jackets with a combover and Cuban heels. It was a look that got him looks in Moss Side in the 80s, that was for sure. Swales had a penchant for swinging the attendance figures too, evidently a ruse to avoid the clutches of the chaps at HM Revenue. You could stand shoulder to shoulder on the Kippax in those days with not a centimetre to spare in any direction, your feet lifting gradually off the cracked slabs and the battered tannoy would splutter, "today's attendance is 23,708. Thank you for your valuable help fending off the tax man".

Even then we were part and parcel of a scurrilous law-breaking juggernaut. Admittedly, it was not the shimmering "Nandos visible from outer space" that Jonathon Liew likens the club to in the Guardian, but still, a kind of multi-storey Greggs with cheese and onion flavoured bells on, nevertheless. Steak and ale pasties the size of a Guatemalan forced labour camp.  

Meantime, United's regime had distanced itself from bad meat, but there was a storm brewing in the ladies' toilets. Liverpool had got us all (I say "us all", but City had no interest in Europe at the time owing to a lack of, what shall we call it, success) banned from Europe by being involved in the Heysel Tragedy. Chelsea, led by the affable Ken Bates, were ringing the Shed End with electric fencing, perhaps a direct copy of the stuff used in Yemen, I'm not entirely sure. Luton were taking human rights in a different direction, simply banning any members of the public from their ground who did not wear straw hats and do passable impersonations of David Pleat. Even the government had declared war on us all, threatening to paint all match-going fans with tar, so that ordinary members of the public could avoid us during the rest of the week.

And then, to top it all off nicely, I got beaten up by the fore-runners of Brexit at Huddersfield after a gruelling FA Cup second replay (now there's a novelty. The second replay not the cauliflower ear).

Football was a mess, run by charlatans, discarded by our country's politicians, awash with business folk of dubious origin and intention. My, what a time we were all having. And yet, still I concentrated on Mark Lillis's shorts.

The advent of the Premier League came about as a direct result of yet more charlatans trying to break away to make themselves more money. The Big Five of the time, Manchester United and Liverpool, naturally, Arsenal and Tottenham and, don't snigger at the back, Everton, decided to hold the Football League to ransom. The Premier League was the compromise. They would get richer and so, if we were lucky, would everyone else. Unhappy developments at Bradford, where a rickety, litter-packed and totally unsafe Main Stand went up in smoke and Hillsborough, where the umpteenth example of disastrous overcrowding, Orwellian conditions and police indifference brought more fatalities, resulted in us all having to sit down at the match. Paying higher prices for the pleasure seemed only fair at the time, but the momentum was underway.

The gentrification of the game was on a roll Hooligans found that sitting down did nothing to help swing a punch. Foreigners started to show up, off the pitch and on, including Andrea Silenzi at Nottingham Forest, Bosco Balaban at Aston Villa  and a thrutch of dazed looking Moroccans at Coventry City. These were strange times that followed on from the odd-but-normal that went before.

The Champions League also appeared at the same juncture. A beautifully lit, musically balanced coup de teatre featuring Glasgow Rangers, Gothenburg and PSV Eindhoven (note to UEFA, get this fixed, will you. Where the hell is Real Madrid?!!!). Soon, it had been fixed, quite literally, with Olympique de Marseille bringing France their first title and then having it removed owing to Bernard Tapie's light fingers. If the French beau had something of the night about him, Silvio Berlusconi, fresh from his presidential bunga bunga parties, waded in in full daylight and popped Milan at the top of the tree. Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Baresi, a meal fit for a king and rarified European dominance about to be served on a platter surrounded by olives and cornichons. This was very much Costacurta not Nandos. 

It was all above board. Dominance could be bought. FFP was neither an infant nor a hindrance. It had not been born. Javier Tebas was still eating Spanish rusks and spoiling his Butragueno emblemed Pampers. 

Then Michel Platini flounced to the top benches at UEFA, hair coiffed, savoir faire at every junction, the glib confident aura of a man, who has flipped a freekick or two for the cameras in his time. "FFP", he stated , in that ripe camembert accent "is my plan, my project to stop debt in European football."

Bob Lord's eyes would have bulged; Peter Swales' wig completed a pirouette; Martin Edwards would have looked up (or down) from what he was doing; Ken Bates would have flipped the switch on his fence and dear old Silvio would surely have buried his face in the nearest warm cleavage. Things were about to change.

Sexy, innocent and tragic, none of this mattered one iota to City, busy catapulting through the leagues and thinking of European combat as something wrestlers undertook to qualify for the Olympics. Technically, a league game at Wrexham qualified as cross-border antics, but it was not the same sport that Arsenal and United and Chelsea (by now no longer run by a simple electric fence advocate from Oldham, but a bona fide Russian billionaire!) were involved in.

It would take a heavy dose of Arsene Wenger's financial doping to join them, that's for sure, so far ahead had they got. Only this was not on offer anymore. The infamous drawbridge had been pulled up. Even Michel's FFP had changed colour from chasing debtors to jumping on naughty people who wanted to invest in clubs as yet unknown. Was it the BATE Borisov tractor conglomerate or Omonia Nicosia backed by a consortium of Russian nightclub barons? Could it be Hearts with its Lithuanian banking dynasty or perhaps HJK Helsinki part-owned by a Nigerian Money Laundering syndicate, who sent hundreds of emails out that began "Good morning, dear friend, I am the deposed deputy Prime Minister of Nigeria and I need your help to find a temporary home for $35,000,000 next week...'?

BATE Borisov prepare for the Champions League journey
We had been lost and now we were found. City, entering European football again in Wales (as if Wrexham had not been fun enough), we were persuaded to go to back. The omens were not good. Qualifying as England's fair play champions (not a good look) and set for a visit to a place called Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain. Now, if ever the charabanc should have turned back, this was it. You do not start your modern era of European dominance in Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain and that's that.

Things, of course, have moved on from there. City survived two games with Total Network Solutions to go onto build a passable recent history in European competition, but their backers, giddy with ideas of power and influence, forgetting what too much bunga did for Silvio's hair, spent too much money. Deep in a bunker in the Zurich hills, Mchel Platini's FFP computer had started emitting sky blue smoke. It was like the delivery of a new Pope in reverse. City's coronation came wrapped in yesterday's fish papers and Ken Bates's discarded barbed wire. Deliverance was near and yet acceptance was far.

But now acceptance is off the menu. The camembert has gone stale. Wales is another country. We are all tainted and our giant puff pastry project is visible form outer space. Like all of Michael Brown's tackles, it is too late.  










Friday, November 8, 2019

TOP TENS: Stand-in Goalies

Kyle Walker's slow-motion heroics in the San Siro provoked the not unreasonable question, "how many times has this sort of nonsense happened before?" and the answer is - as you would expect with anything slightly daft at City - "plenty of times", although not so much in these days of well-packed substitute benches. Our Top Ten becomes a Top 11, if you include another unforgettable bit of City slapstick-goalkeeper action with David James playing upfront v Middlesbrough.

1. ALAN OAKES for BERT TRAUTMANN. Season 1962-63
As things get just a little hot under the collar during City's slightly out of control 6-1 defeat at Upton Park, 'keeper Trautmann, not known for his histrionics, becomes super peeved with referee Ken Stokes after he allows West Ham's 4th goal to stand. No VAR to muddy the waters further in those days, of course. Trautmann chucks his green jersey on the pitch after being sent off, leaving midfield stalwart Oakes to pick it up and carry on the good work. Two further goals are conceded in the mayhem.

2. MATT GRAY for HARRY DOWD. Season 1963-64.
A year later and another goalkeeping catastrophe against Bury at Maine Road. Dowd injures his finger in the 55th minute, but courageously decides he wants to play on. Matt Gray takes up the reigns in goal and Dowd cavorts around to such good effect up front, he ends up scoring the 87th minute equaliser, to bring the house down. Hero.   

3. MIKE DOYLE for RON HEALEY. Season 1970-71.
Nottingham Forest are at Maine Road for a run of the mill league fixture, but Healey's injury spices things up with first half goal-scorer Doyle summoned to the sticks. Forest surge back to win 3-1 with a hesitant Doyle powerless to stop any of the goals.

4. MIKE DOYLE for KEITH MacRAE. Season 1974-75.
City are at Filbert Street when early disaster strikes, with injury to Scottish keeper MacRae. In steps Doyle for the second time in two seasons, who proceeds to give a masterclass of brave goalkeeping right through to the 89th minute, when Bob Lee pops in the Leicester winner. Doyle had kept them out for 80 minutes.



5. TOMMY BOOTH for JOE CORRIGAN. Season 1980-81.
Joe Corrigan is hurt in a collision with Jeff Cook after just three minutes of a League Cup tie at Stoke, but soldiers on until half time, when a suspected cracked knee cap (ouch), makes it impossible to carry on. Stalwart defender Booth steps up to the plate and City rally to Stoke's third minute opener by producing a rousing second half, where Booth is well protected and mainly untroubled, while Tony Henry pops in a late equaliser.



6. BOBBY McDONALD for JOE CORRIGAN. Season 1982-83.
Corrigan dislocates his shoulder in the third minute of City's home game with Watford and is helped off the pitch by Roy Bailey. Up steps McDonald, looking like a munchkin in Corrigan's massive green shirt, to provide one of the most amazing spectacles ever seen at Maine Road. The Scot is quite magnificent keeping the visitors at bay for 87 minutes. Dennis Tueart nets to put City top of the table. Only City provide comfort of this kind.



7. STEVE REDMOND for ERIC NIXON. Season 1987-88.
Nixon is done up like a kipper by Mark Bright, who has had a running feud with the keeper since early in the game. Knowing Nixon is already on a yellow, Bright charges into Nixon when he is in possession of the ball and crumples to the floor to get the keeper red-carded. When tempers settle, Redmond takes the green shirt in time to watch Neil Redfearn's penalty slide past him. It provokes a Palace come-back and a 3-1 win.


8. NIGEL GLEGHORN for ANDY DIBBLE. Season 1988-89.
Dibble pulls a muscle taking a goal kick with City 2-down at Fellows Park and in the middle of a dire display. Up steps Gleghorn and that siege mentality is plugged in immediately, with a rousing City response putting them 3-2 up by the beginning of the second half. No City story is complete without more farce to top and tail the event, though, and in steps goal-scorer David Oldfield with the perfect back pass to set up Walsall's late equaliser.



9. NIGEL GLEGHORN for ANDY DIBBLE. Season 1988-89.
Just over a month later and City have learned their lesson, bringing in the experience of Paul Cooper from Ipswich for the vital promotion run-in. Inexplicably manager Mel Machin chooses the just about fit again Dibble to play in the vital home game with Palace. Naturally Dibble breaks down and in steps Gleghorn again to keep the marauding Palace strike force at bay in a 1-1 draw. 

10. NIALL QUINN for TONY COTON. Season 190-91.
More City slapstick as Coton is sent off for bringing Dean Saunders down. Coton leaves but not before handing his shirt over and throwing his gloves in the ref's face. Derby needing points to avoid relegation then see Saunders long run-up produce a good penalty, which Quinn stretches to and puts around the post. City win, Dean is sent down. 




Monday, October 7, 2019

CITY CHASED INTO EUROPE BY BAYING WOLVES

No need for hyperbole
That Nuno Espirito Santo was a goalkeeper during a nomadic and relatively low-profile playing career might to some extent explain his success in setting up his Wolves side's solid defensive lines against City at the weekend. His team's energy, cohesion and robustness in escaping with a neat 2-0 victory from a ground where almost nobody prevails these days, speaks volumes for his players' belief in his organisational abilities. It also said something about the unusually deep collective malfunction that City managed to manufacture.

Wolves - with five set up across midfield - first thwarted a hesitant-looking City, then took advantage of continuing droopiness after the break - when they might reasonably have expected the charge of the Light Blue Brigade to begin - to score twice on the counter, the hitherto directionless Adama Traore suddenly finding laser guidance for both his runs and his shots. In the forward's case it had been a biblical transformation from the corner flag-bothering whippet of former times.

For their part, City started poorly and got gradually worse. A collective off day, perhaps, compounded by a number of perceived blind-spots from Pep Guardiola (the Catalan has blind spots? Whoa!!!) regarding team selection and positioning. The team's history of success with Ilkay Gundogan and David Silva together in midfield is sparse. With Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling ineffectual, Silva marooned and Aguero cast adrift alone up front, it was left to the makeshift back four to perform their Charlie Farley routine as Jimenez bore down through the middle. Enter the threshing right leg of Nicolas Otamendi, a thing of beauty that should surely find itself a place in any national walking stick museum they intend to open up in Buenos Aires in the not too distant future. For a man from the land of tango to be in charge of such stiff and unresponsive limbs must be close to a crime punishable with a long prison sentence in Argentina.

And yet Otamendi still walks the streets a free man. Possibly for not much longer.

Guardiola too, it must be said, was also busy having an off-day. If he thought swapping Walker for Oleksandr Zinchenko and trotting the amiable but spasmodically terrifying João Cancelo to the right was all that was needed, then the last two weeks' worth of press speculation about Bernardo Silva's mental state must have finally got to him too. The onslaught in the press has thankfully, now that
Otamendi moves in for the kill on Jimenez
Liverpool are eight points clear and beginning to breathe more rhythmically, come to an end. Their job done, they can move onto Mauricio Pochettino, while carefully giving Olé Summer Solstice - still at the wheel but looking more and more like the man in the silent movies holding a steering wheel that has long since been separated from its car, which is quietly driving itself down a nearby side street, a polite wide berth.

On this showing, City need no breathless work from the 5th Column to break up their confident stride. They have already fallen over their own feet without the need for a casually outstretched leg from the press box.

And yet. Eight points is neither here nor there to a team that has famously come back time and again in the past, has made it their prerogative to score late winners à la Ferguson and whose spirit has been nigh-on unquenchable as trophy after trophy has landed on the Etihad mantlepiece. Well, with that sort of entitlement comes a need to stay focussed, stay hungry and stay alert. Tricky when said mantlepiece holds all the pots it is possible to win in England, when every conceivable unlikely finish has been conjured, every impossible comeback been rubber-stamped.

One bauble remains untouched by grubby Mancunian hands, however.

Since Malcolm Allison's rampant rallying cry to "scare the cowards of Europe" fell on multiple deaf ears in 1968, City have been bashing occasionally against a big white wall. In recent times their presence has become more frequent, to the point that they have long since passed Arsenal as the Premier league's most consistent Champions League participant. Who'd have thought it, when City flopped out to Groclin Dyskobolia or when Total Network Solutions produced doughty opposition back in the day?

Santander, Widzew Lodz and Bologna may be distant memories, hazy times of slash and wriggle, but they still represent hanging ghosts needing to be exorcised.

Clearly though circumstances are already beginning to force Guardiola's hand. An early deficit in the league will mean experimentation with the likes of Phil Foden, Eric Garcia and Angelino on a more regular basis, while waiting and hoping that nothing treacherous happens in Europe until the likes of Stones, Laporte, Sané and De Bruyne return. Survive an easy-looking group C and fire up the engines for a new year surge appears to be the name of the game already. It is high time Europe did look at City as more than just a dangerous draw to avoid, but a real and potential name on the trophy. That would crown everything that has been worked for over the last 11 years, would put a feather in what is already a very luxurious cap and carry the extra spice of putting the noses of some of the UEFA bigwigs out of joint at the same time.

Guardiola and his band of merry men will tell you we fight on on all fronts, but some fronts are more tempting than others and there is one that now beckons more strongly then ever before.



Sunday, September 29, 2019

THE POWER AND THE GLORY

Just how the sight of Kevin de Bruyne's strutting one touch pass routine can make one think of Gerry Gow might be a mystery to those, who remember the craggy, knock-kneed City threshing machine of the 1981 FA Cup run. Gow, with his shirt hanging limply over his unremarkable hips and a bubble perm as ragged as his thigh-high tackling, was a master of the mean midfield swamps of the 70s and early 80s. Those slender hips supported a pair of spindly-looking legs that you felt might not resist a collision with a pensioners shopping trolley down at Tescos on a busy Sunday. How wrong appearances can be. Gow was a one man wrecking machine, whose legs were quite tough enough to carve coloured patches all over the likes of Osvaldo Ardiles, Mick Mills, Kevin Bond and anyone else who came into reach during that 81 Cup run. And that included Trevor Ross and a clutch of white legged chuffers wearing the royal blue of Everton too.

With pre-match thoughts flickering back to those epic days of noise and danger, a little-changed Goodison Park provided arriving supporters with plenty of nostalgia for a past, which in City's case, seems more distant with every gold-leaf pass off the boot of today's swaggering stars.

City's midfield on that January afternoon had featured the willing running of Paul Power, destined for better times with Everton later in his career, the honest running of Steve Mackenzie and Gow's Jurassic Park tackling.

In their unimaginably sleek peach and yellow outfits, today's City looked like a set of well licked lollypops at certain points of an uncomfortable day out at Goodison Park. With the home side unexpectedly finding some claws after a dismal, soft-touch run of defeats in the Premier League, we were made to revisit the old untidy days of maulings from David Moyes' well-psyched shock troops, a regular embarrassment in these parts not so long ago.

Gerry Gow's rickety legs make it to Wembley

But, the Norwich defeat has taught City a lesson or two. Despite forced defensive reorganisation, there is a new purpose to City's performances, as seen in precision-fed defeats of Watford (8-0), Shakhtar Donetsk (3-0) and Preston North End (3-0) in the space of less than two weeks. The way City started, controlled and purposeful, another simple win rapidly seemed tangible.

The opening goal, yet another thing of beauty in a succession of weekly treats, saw Riyad Mahrez skip down the right flank untroubled by the flailing attentions of Lucas Digne. As the Algerian flier checked back inside, he laid off a simple short pass to the supporting Kevin de Bruyne. The Belgian's response to this gently rolled pass was as predictable as a dog barking at a cat. The Belgian hit one of his uniquely swirling outswingers, which are near-on impossible to defend. The ball duly arced in front of the flapping dinosaur arms of Jason Pickford and his wrong-footed defensive line, allowing Gabriel Jesus to throw himself into the inviting space. The Brazilian was horizontal by the time his head met the ball, providing a pleasantly aesthetic finish to a lightning move.

Geometry and geology entwined. Precision holes sliced into the heart of Everton's defence. All seemed set fair, but City again failed to take chances, gradually backed off and Everton accepted the invitation to be part of the contest. Gundogan had already managed to find the bar from Mahrez's outrageous cross when standing practically underneath it and more chances came and went before the home side were level.

Many will blame City's makeshift defence and it never really looked completely settled once Everton had rallied, but in truth Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho has so far not been the nail-chewing affair it might have been. The Brazilian has slotted seamlessly into the hole left by Aymeric Laporte and, despite brickbats and guffaws at his wayward style, his South American colleague has performed admirably enough too.

Fernandinho's block tackle may have squirmed to Seamus Coleman to offer the Irishman a chance to chip delicately over Ederson, but he had been coping comfortably enough with the in-form Dominic Calvert Lewin up to that point.

If Gundogan's hitting of the bar had raised eyebrows, heads were being scratched again when Raheem Sterling, enduring one of those days at the office where you begin the day by splashing coffee over yourself, break the printer mid-morning and make a joke about your manager's creeping body odour when he's standing just behind you in the canteen, managed to tap wide when put clean through on Pickford.

Everton had not bargained for Mahrez, however. None of us had until quite recently. Brought in from Leicester to make a difference to a squad that did not obviously require a difference being made, his task has been especially difficult over the last twelve months. Perhaps the pressure finally lifted with that glorious shimmy and strike at Brighton on the day that the title was confirmed last May; perhaps it came in captaining his country to AFCON success in the summer, but - whatever and whenever - Mahrez has transformed himself into a big player at City, one that makes a difference in games like this. Up he stepped to slot an immaculate left foot freekick past Delph's lunging foot and Pickford's outstretched finger tips.

City were back on top. How many times have opponents cast a glance at the subs' bench and shaken their heads? On this occasion, Guardiola summoned Sergio Aguero, then David Silva, then Bernardo Silva, looking relieved to be out on a football pitch, rather than enduring yet more days in the
Sterling's volley makes it over the line
limelight of Britain's hair-trigger PC culture (Sky's "match analysis" would quickly force back into the zone). As Everton withered, City stood up once more, with Sterling finally finding reward for sticking at it when every touch in his second half had seemed doomed.

Outstanding contributions along the way had been posted by Ederson, proving to all watching that there is an elastic shot stopper and brilliant reaction keeper if you look beyond those delicate foot skills, by Rodrigo, once again dominating the tight spaces in the hectic area of the pitch where friend meets foe and by the fleet-footed flier Mahrez.

Once again, City had been tested and had found the answers. Goals of beautiful precision had once more decorated the performance. Modern day City can do this. The mind floated back once more to that Cup un of 1981, when Power's dinked equaliser had prevented an exit at Goodison and the same player had floated a fantastic freekick at Villa Park in the semi final to dispose of favourites Ipswich Town. The replay of the final had also seen Mackenzie crash in a volley so straight and so sweetly hit that, had the net behind Milija Aleksik not stopped its progress, it would almost certainly have embedded itself in one of the old ground's roof supports. Reminders if they were needed that this endearing old club was producing things of beauty long before the Guardiola production line opened up, just not with such unerring regularity.






Other Tedious Stuff

Poets and Lyricists