Tuesday, November 10, 2020

BÊTES NOIRES

 

If you’re prone to spluttering “the game’s gone” at regular intervals, one of the reasons for dusting down this three-word incantation at regular intervals is probably the sight of players tumbling theatrically over imaginary obstacles and then desperately seeking out an appropriate body part to hug whilst grimacing and sneaking the occasional look to make sure the referee has stopped play in their favour. It used to be just the Colombians. 

This is not just a regular occurrence in the Premier League these days, it happens every five minutes in every game. A malaise that we once labeled “foreign influence” in an old-fashioned fit of gammon-induced blinkerdom, is now carried out by every Tom, Dick and English Harry.

Although Liverpool have come into the spotlight in recent weeks because of the light as a feather balance problems of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, the practice of “making sure you get the free kick” (- James Carragher, Autumn 2020) is now so rife as to be warmly acclaimed as cleverness  by some pundits in the overstuffed football media.

⚑ There were two interesting examples in the City v Liverpool clash last weekend. As early as the 13th minute, Mane cut into the box in usual flying fashion. Clipped by the unnecessary intervention of a slumbering Kyle Walker, a penalty was inevitable. As the contact lifted the striker slightly out of his chosen path to goal, the inestimable Craig Pawson would have had no doubt, but Mane chose to flip a little just to make sure. It was enough for a penalty, but Mane was, in Carragher’s terminology, “making sure” the ref gave it.

What irked was something that had happened moments earlier at the other end. Sterling, similarly light on his feet to the Liverpool flier, had wriggled free and was running with intent towards the target when a heavy nudge on the thigh from Diogo Jota knocked his balance. The City man struggled on into the box where his run finally came to a halt when his lack of equilibrium got the better of him. The forward momentum had carried him another five or so strides forward but the initial touch from Jota, more obtrusive than Walker’s penalty infringement, had done the job. It was a free kick, but because Sterling had soldiered on instead of collapsing in a flailing heap of badly arranged limbs, Pawson ignored it. Jota, who showcased a new tendency to throw up his arms and remonstrate at absolutely everything, got away with the nudge, while Walker did not. Some infringements are bigger than others, evidently.

Pawson, of course, like many others, has history with City. 

There have been many such comings together in recent seasons, some punished properly, some rightly ridiculed for the over-exuberance of the presumed-to-be assaulted player. Conning the ref and winning freekicks, playing clever and making sure are all parts of the armory of the great and good as they go about their on-pitch business these days. There is no club bias in this. They are, sadly, all at it.

To reason that referees being conned by arch deceivers is a recent thing would be daft in the extreme. The men in black have been getting things wrong for over a century, sometimes through their own short-sightedness, sometimes through the work of third parties.

⚑ Liverpool’s red shirts always remind me of Alf Grey, sadly a man destined to go down in City folklore as the grand spoiler, the man who phones the police at ten-thirty to say there is someone hanging from the hood of his coat from the tree across the road, where a lively get together is just moving through the gears. Alf it was, in his great grey wisdom, who cancelled out Kevin Reeves’ floating leap to get to the ball ahead of Ray Clemence and Alan Kennedy in the opening minutes of a tumultuous League Cup semi final first leg in 1980-81. No contact had been made on the England ‘keeper bar the usual brushing of limbs. Clemence to his credit made no great meal of any minor impact that may have occurred, but the potentially game-changing and tie-shaping early goal was ruled out. The frizzie-haired Kennedy also seemed blissfully unaware of any skullduggery. Needless to say, after Alfred's big moment, Liverpool prevailed as usual. 

The eighties, of course, was not short of those interested in making a full contact sport out of football. Ron Harris and Peter Storey may have retired by then, but Willie Young, Kenny Burns, Mark Dennis, Pat van den Hauwe and Terry Horlock were still around to aim a kick at anyone frivolous enough to start slaloming through their area of the pitch.

Reeves flies, Kennedy and Clemence flounder. Pheeeeeeep!

⚑ Those were the days of x-rated tackles going largely unpunished. City saw Colin Bell depart to ligament damage after Martin Buchan’s horrendous attempt of a tackle in the 4th round League Cup derby in 1975-76. Andy May found himself red-carded in 1985 as a promotion run-in cliffhanger with Oldham turned sour on the appropriately-named Gary Hoolickin’s vicious assault that merited several cards, but got only a single yellow. That card, insufficient as it was for the dangerous intervention from Hoolickin on youngster Jamie Hoyland, who lay in a motionless, heap for minutes whilst all hell broke loose around his crumpled form, was brandished by none other than Peter Willis, another referee destined for the little black book of grudges borne, sitting metaphorically in every City supporter’s back pocket. Willis, a big, bald policeman with the upright, no-nonsense manner to match, was rewarded with a meat and potato pie to the head as he made for the dressing rooms at half time.

You want chips with that, Peter, luv?

⚑ Brian Coddington, or Brain Coddlington as his friends called him, probably also merits inclusion in all those little imaginary notebooks. Sending Kevin Horlock off at Dean Court, Bournemouth, for “aggressive walking”, a moment etched in City history as clearly as Aguero’s heroics v QPR and Yaya Toure smashing one in against Sunderland at Wembley, Coddington probably coddled his chances of big time reffing there and then. 13th February 1999 was the moment that his career began to unravel. For Horlock, outraged and bewildered, more exciting things lay ahead. The moment of farce came in the final seconds of a game that had already seen Jamie Pollock red-carded for a proper red meat foul on John Bailey.

The peerless Brian Coddington: "Horlock, you're next!"

 Mike Dean also got his whistle in a twist on the same ground, the old Dean Court having given way to the more prosaically named Vitality Stadium, in 2017. With time not only seeping away but dripping its very last injury time drops, up popped Raheem Sterling with a more-than-useful 97th minute winner. 

Cue pandemonium (rightly so, as Lee Probert’s magic board of numbers had insisted only 5 minutes of extra time would be allowed) with the players joined by ecstatic fans in a giant scrummage on the touchline. The goal had been late, scruffy and deflected, the celebration a complete shambolic mosh pit to match it. When Sterling finally emerged from the crowd, Dean was waiting for him with his red card stretched triumphantly into the air. Take that, unjustifiably happy man, he seemed to be saying. 

The same match had witnessed a horrendous late tackle by Steve Cook on Gabriel Jesus, which had brought froth to Pep Guardiola’s mouth and the forced substitution of the hobbling Brazilian. Cook was booked for his crime. Nathan Ake, at that stage a young tyro for the home side, had also escaped a red card as the at-that-point lenient Dean let him off, despite being the last defender hauling Jesus down as he went through on goal.

Party time in Bournemouth
Party time in Bournemouth. Cue Mike Dean.

City have not always been the injured party of course, although it is clearly less demanding on the soul to recall instances of “being done up like a kipper” than all those other moments when the elbow was attached to the other arm.

 Pedro Mendes and the over-excitable Ben Thatcher will know exactly what I am referring to here. Whether the ex-Portsmouth midfielder still has a dent in his head from Thatcher’s assault is unknown, but it would not come as a surprise. The Portuguese spent an uncomfortable night in Manchester Royal Infirmary and still to this day has hazy recollection of what he calls “the worst moment of my career”. Thatcher, for his sin, stayed on the pitch with just a yellow card as punishment. Today he would be hung out to dry by the great and the good of social media. Even in Carragher’s new age terms, making sure the ball was won would not cut muster on this grave occasion. Thatcher had not even looked at the ball before charging diagonally at his prey, aiming a raised forearm and crunching it across Mendes’ jaw as he shaped to clear up the pitch

Salah’s six yard box unsteadiness was matched to some extant in the early 70s by Francis Lee, who won himself a large proportion of the many penalties he studiously walloped into the opposition net for City over a career spanning eight seasons at Maine Road. Lee, a sight more robust in build than the Egyptian, did not gain the moniker Lee Won Pen without merit, although the vast majority were clearly not in need of winning in the first place, considering the tackles going in from the likes of Dave Mackay, Norman Hunter and Terry Hennessey.

Lee was not averse to letting the man in the middle know when he had been diddled by someone else either. In an infamously all-action humdinger of a Manchester derby at Maine Road in 1971, the City forward comically let the matchstick-legged Mr Tinkler know that George Best’s flimsy attempt to stay on his feet after Lee had given him a nudge from behind in the centre circle had been a slice of Irish theatre. As he was offered a cheap booking, Lee stuck out his arms and dived to the turf to illustrate the point. The huge crowd roared its approval, summoning up the energy needed to boo Best for his antics for the rest of the game.

Lee makes his point to Mr Tinkler at Maine Road in 1971

⚑ Another Manchester derby of high tension, played out at Old Trafford in the FA Cup nearly a quarter of a century later (1995-96), also left indelible referee imprints in the minds of the City faithful. This time it was no plodding Willis or off-colour Grey, no coddled Coddington or ding-a-ling Tinkler, but a miniscule bald Geordie with a moustache, who went by the name of Albertino Dicky (actually it was more like Alan Wilkie, but I can’t get myself to utter his name). Dicky it was, who awarded United a face-saving penalty after Uwe Rosler had chipped City into a magnificent lead, well received by the 11,000 or so Blues packing the away end that day. 

With tensions understandably high, a corner, as innocuous as it was imprecise, drifted into the box from Ryan Giggs’ majestorial left foot, where the Gallic charmer Eric Cantona stood unperturbed amongst a gaggle of City players. Standing closest, no other than Michael Frontzeck, a German World Cup star of the past, who in his Manchester City reincarnation could not have chipped the top off a boiled egg. “It was always going to be a controversial ruling,” suggested Henry Winter in The Times, “Alan Wilkie, to his credit, was perfectly placed.”

Perfectly placed to see that absolutely nothing had happened, that is. Alan Ball, City’s triumphantly dressed manager that afternoon (shell suit and flat cap, the sheer whiff of FA Cup sartorial elegance), tried the age-old question afterwards, his squeaky voice an octave higher even than usual. “Would it have been given at the other end?” he peeped. “I very much doubt it!”

Uwe Rosler gets the fun underway at Old Trafford in 1996, the Alan Wilkie Match.

City were, of course, relegated at the end of that horrible 95-96 season, not an unusual occurrence in the 80s or the 90s. In fact, it was a horribly familiar occurrence by the end of that second decade. It would happen again in 2001, as Wilkie, with the “k” removed, transformed into Alan Wiley and did the dirty in Middlesbrough. “I’m frustrated, exasperated, puzzled,” spluttered manager Joe Royle reading directly from his thesaurus, after the hapless Wiley had ruled out a brilliant goal from the Australian tyro Danny Tiatto that, by season end, would have made the difference between survival and yet another tear-stained demotion. 

Mr Wiley kindly explained to an eye-popping Royle at half time that Andrei Kanchelskis, the ex-United flier now temporarily a pedestrian and humdrum City winger, had run across the goalkeeper’s line of sight. The Russian had in fact been perfectly onside and out of the way the whole time. “He’s quite quick, but not that quick,” retorted Royle, making a strangling gesture with his hands behind Wiley’s back.

⚑ Roger Gifford would also have been sent to the gallows, if Howard Kendall had had his way. The fury whistler allowed Gary Crosby's touch of grand larceny to stand when the little Forest imp headed the ball out of a dozing Andy Dibble's hand for the winner in the 1989 City Ground encounter.  

No reffing disaster story would be complete without the high self-esteem of Mark Clattenburg getting a deserved airing. We are in Bolton, and why not, as Clattenburg makes good what later would seem like a preplanned drone strike on Craig Bellamy. The feisty Welshman, easy to dislike even to those of a gentle disposition, fell the wrong side of Clattenburg’s whistle in a thrilling 3-3 draw at the Reebok that saw Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen call the referee “incredibly wrong”, Bolton boss Gary Megson name him “harsh” and City boss Mark Hughes choose“laughable” when it was his turn.

It was not enough that Paul Robinson’s meaty challenge was in fact the act warranting Clattenburg’s theatrically pulled card, not Bellamy for “simulation”, but Consett's finest had asked Hughes before the game how he put up with Bellamy for his mouthy presence. It had clearly been an occasion when the ref’s cards preceded him into the game. Clattenburg ended up in Saudia Arabia, showcasing his skills to a different public.

The Sunday Mirror's Simon Mullock nominates Martin "Next Goal Wins" Atkinson's Manchester derby performance in 2009 (strange how so many derbies have brought grievances...). As we have seen with Sterling's effort at Bournemouth in more recent times, it all comes around and goes around. In fact Sterling features heavily in some of the more recent blunders to go in our favour. The 6-0 rout against Shakhtar in the Champions League was sent on its way when the striker stubbed his toe in the turf and fell comically to the ground. Referee Viktor Kassai pointed to the spot, offering a golden opportunity not only for Gabriel Jesus to net from the spot, but also for The Sun to produce one of their worst back pages in recent times. "City's Sporting Shame", they bellowed weirdly the next morning and even, slightly childishly, crossed out the six to replace it with a five, the first time in football history a daily newspaper has been responsible for changing the score of a professional football match. 

⚑ Sterling it was who also crossed from behind the byline to set up Kevin de Bruyne in the sizzling 2016 League Cup semi final second leg with Everton, a match that saw Everton fans being addressed with punches in what they thought was a neutral zone (what, where?) at the Etihad and Eliaquim Mangala getting away with a "tackle" that saw his studs so high up Aroune Kone's back, he was in with a chance of getting his laces wrapped around the Evertonian's ear lobe. With Fernandinho's equaliser on the night also going in via a deflection, City could count themselves a little lucky, but to even things up, the woodwork had been hit twice and the inspirational De Bruyne left the field with his knee in a brace. 

Play on!!! Everton are about to get unlucky

Easy as it is to list the refereeing antics that have undone potentially critical City moments of triumph, there have been plenty in the other direction too. Who in a wet Wembley crowd as the game passed the  90 minutes mark in the 1999 play off final did not turn and look at their neighbour when Mark Halsey announced five minutes of added time? The upswell of noise that came from this heaven-sent but over-generous extra minutes produced two of the most crucial City goals ever, 50,000 pairs of spoiled pants and an afternoon that remains one of the most hair raising experiences watching this daft old club. 

We raise a glass to them all*, then, the good, the bad and the indifferent. They have made our life hell and they have saved us at the death. Above all they keep us scratching our heads and give us the weekly opportunity to proclaim the end of football as we know it.  

*with the obvious exception of Antonio Lahoz 








 



Sunday, October 4, 2020

A FRAGRANT ANARCHY

Contrary to immediate reaction, City’s match at Leeds was a more than pleasant spectacle with an ebb and flow, once Leeds had matched City’s early surge, that threatened to go on as long as the West Yorkshire downpour had. After a weekend that saw United and Liverpool, the nation’s darlings, squabbling over who could be the biggest embarrassment, a damp slide around at Elland Road suddenly looked quite fresh and acceptable. Except of course, by what these days pass as "normal standards" at the Etihad, it wasn’t.

For Bielsa, squatting over his imaginery bucket (which had been removed to catch the rain falling off the roof of the Leeds Kop), and Guardiola, striding through the morass on the touchline, time was needed to digest all they had witnessed. Both sides sped the ball on its way with a staggering blur of passes. It felt like a runaway train, making up its own route. Certainly the later stages did not seem to bear a coach’s hallmark that was even vaguely recognizable. Gustave Klimt maybe, or Raymond Queneau in tandem with a riotously inebriated Lord Byron.

It seemed the two coaches wished to join us all in watching the spectacle rather than orchestrating it as had been arranged. The whole thing had taken on a life of its own, galloping from one end to the other and back again like a bolting horse that has heard gunshots outside the stable doors.

It was difficult to say whether these was the grand chess patterns we had been waiting for the old master and his protege to come up with or whether the whole thing was some kind of semi-heated anarchy, coming gently to the boil.

City’s start had been pulverising and, until Sterling slammed a clever opener, relentless. The game flowed incessantly in the direction of the fluffy chinned Illan Meslier in the Leeds goal. De Bruyne slapped a post. Then as the half hour mark loomed, they seemed to pack up shop and sit on their hands.

One goal leads, these days, are not what they used to be. One goal Leeds are not recommended either.

The home side took the cue and, once Bielsa had pummelled them at half time with some subtle hints on upper level geometry and the Argentinian approach to the laws of gravity, they took the initiative too. 


The game swung on Ederson’s floppy attempt at a punch, but Leeds were coming hard towards an equaliser by then in any case.

For City, everything was different from how things had started. We had seen Benjamin Mendy cavorting forward with something approaching his old acceleration and control, but now he looked like the pantomime dromedary of recent months, as he failed to notice, failed to track and failed to engage his brain. Raheem Sterling had flashed through to score with the control and alacrity of a hired assassin, but now he ran through to kill the game and instead trundled the ball straight into the keeper’s hands whilst pondering long and hard what colour curtains to hoist in the snooker room back home.

Winners have a good perfume,” Guardiola offered enigmatically at the end, not realising that just a day later both United and Liverpool would stink the pan out properly themselves. Here the smell was of wet grass, honest sweat and the sweet musk of a thousand and one little passes. If we were to complain, it could not have been about the spectacle we had watched, although the avalanche of goals that had been hoped for instead came at Old Trafford and then Villa Park instead. There could be no complaints about that either.

A funny old season is threatening to go in a completely new direction. Nobody seems to know how to defend anymore except those studious fellows at Arsenal. Everton and Villa are top and the amount of goals flying in is in direct proportion to the number of supporters kept out. Any weirder and we’ll all be sitting on upturned buckets talking inaudible Spanish. 🎲


















Monday, September 28, 2020

OPEN DOOR POLICY


Lisbon, 28th September 2020 The channels are closed, the armband has been hung up after one outing. Ruben Dias is a Manchester City player, at the trifling cost of €55 million. With the flying, horizontal Nicolas Otamendi going the other way, what have both sides spent their money on?

Firstly, City get yet another Seixal academy graduate to go with Bernardo Silva and João Cancelo. Soon they will have the whole set and are eligible to receive the free collection of limited edition plastic tokens of past encarnado greats Eusebio, Coluna, Mark Pembridge and Vale e Azevedo. 

Dias rounded off his Benfica career in stylish fashion, wearing the captain’s armband and getting on the scoresheet in the comfortable win over Moreirense at the weekend. And stylish is a word that can be attached to the central defender without fear of contradiction.

City, still smarting from an astonishing 5-2 reverse at home to Leicester, where no fewer than three penalties were conceded by the existing defenders, are in apparently dire need of defensive reconstruction. As well as the obvious problems at centre-back that the arrival of Dias is supposed to alleviate, there are drastic things happening on the left side too, where Benjamin Mendy could conceivably be a totally different person to the razor sharp, lightening quick athlete that stormed the left flank for Monaco in their unforgettably successful 2016-17 season. Champions League semis (having thrillingly disposed of City), league title and a place in the Ligue Un team of the year, no less.

What City fans will want to know is can Dias provide the answers? He is clearly a very astute player, good in control, two-footed, aggressive and neat in his delivery forward. He also likes to advance, often down the inside right channel, to support the attack. At corners and set pieces, he will lend you height and aggression in the box, scoring his fair share of goals. City’s deplorable scoring record from corners might improve a little with Dias in the box.

He can pick a Laporte-esque long ball with either foot and was, in his number 6 shirt for Benfica, a little like a Fernandinho at times in his eagerness to advance from deep. What he shares with City’s legendary midfielder-cum-emergency-centre-back is an understanding of the dark arts. A little nudge here, a snide poke there, an almost imperceptible shove there to knock the balance out of an advancing opponent.

You may have noticed at this point that we are talking about many of the attributes that already exist in bucketloads in the City squad.

The centre back combination has not had an actual pairing at the club since the Kompany-Lescott axis was broken up. Since then that area of the team has been visited by ill fortune and slapstick comedy. Many will remember City’s other capture from the Liga Nos, Eliaquim Mangala, with a wry smile. After one of the coolest debuts seen in a sky blue shirt, when Chelsea were held at bay single-handedly, Mangala netted in his own goal and gave away a penalty the week after v. Hull and proceeded to slowly disintegrate before everyone's eyes. John Stones too has suffered a crisis of confidence which many will say he is still struggling to exit, while Martin Demichelis brought the speed of a train of camels and a unique angle on haircare to the backline.

City’s search has taken them, apparently, via the all-action Kalidou Koulibaly to the even more all-action Jules Kounde but apparently prohibitive cost means they have now alighted on Dias. Which brings us to the crux of the matter. City can attack. Laporte can whack 50-yard passes. Fernandinho can nick and nudge, but can anybody defend here? Caught out by Brendan Rodgers’ simple but effective blanket tactics at the weekend, City’s defence looked ragged, with the full backs dreaming and a lack of pace in the young Garcia noted and acted upon by the flying Harvey Barnes and Jamie Vardy. With the one-paced Rodri smothered, Leicester's plan was ready to spring and, despite an early deficit, they hit five goals in a strikingly weird match.

Asking Ruben Dias to sit tight and whack everything that comes near him is not what the 23-year old is expecting to hear from City's well-honed backroom team. Coming to a Guardiola-led side, he knows what’s what. The question is, will City under Pep ever look anything other than inviting at the back?

Meanwhile, what do Benfica get for their relatively small outlay? 

Well, despite the brickbats, they are buying a whole-hearted defender who will always put his reputation on the line for the team. Otamendi is not the best defender to pass through the Etihad portals, but he is an honest scrapper with a will to win that has seen him richly rewarded in his time at City. Gung-ho, certainly, unable to stay upright, for sure, but the first one into the tackle, the first one up for the penalty box scrummage, the one with his sleeves rolled up "ready" for whatever is coming his way. A fighter for the cause, who City fans will learn to miss properly now that he has gone. 

Which of the two teams gets exactly what they need at this point is not, at this juncture, completely clear, however.



Tuesday, July 14, 2020

SOS FFP



City are now preparing to pass through the "entrada principal" not the "salida" in UEFA's flagship tournament


"Governments crack and systems fall
....

Lights go out - walls come tumbling down!"

****


The decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland to overthrow the prior UEFA ruling against Manchester City has tossed the football world a story to chew on through the remainder of this sweaty, uncertain summer. 

It has also opened a can of worms that the sports governing body in Europe would do well to attempt to keep a lid on in the coming months.

To City the spoils of victory. The besuited legal teams, briefed up to their eyeballs and frothing with righteous indignation, have sent UEFA's cronies and their lop-sided legislations scurrying for the green bedecked Swiss hinterlands. 

Insufficient Conclusive Evidence

That CAS dismissed many of the supposed wrongs on a time detail shows UEFA to be inept in its basic manoeuvring. These are the simplest of details, to which the most rudimentally briefed legal teams would and should fix their expert attention.

UEFA have rapidly fallen silent. Others not so coy have alighted on the phrase "insufficient conclusive evidence" to suggest City are still rotten, despite the findings. Well, there is no smoke without fire, that is certain. But smoke also prevents any of us from seeing anything as clearly as we would like, so perhaps those that have taken the case apart line by line should be trusted in their judgement. They are, after all, the independent experts brought in to arbitrate, where all else failed. 


In essence City's vindication in maintaining an aggressive stance against this attack has been borne out. UEFA's clumsy hand has cuffed the club many times before, producing an uneasy relationship long before Aleksander Ceferin and his cronies turned up the thermostat over FFP. 

Wonky Thinking

The infamous game in Porto in the Europa League 2011-12, when City were fined more by UEFA for turning out two minutes late for the second half than the home side was for its Super Dragões hurling monkey chants at Mario Balotelli, for example. People don't forget these slights, they don't forget the wonky thinking that has bad time-keeping above racism on a list of misfeasance.

City continued their attempts to join the shiny elite in the Champions League, spending heavily to force a minor break-in on the lower rungs of the gold-crusted ladder occupied exclusively by Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. The same United with David Gill on UEFA's Executive Committee since 2013. The same Bayern who weep and simmer every time another club outbids them in the transfer market despite their yearly pillage of their closest German rivals' best players. The same Real who started the whole charabanc rolling with their occupation of the European Cup's early years, turning it into what some people these days call their trophy. The same Real Madrid backed by the ineffable Javier Tebas of the Spanish FA, whose reaction to the CAS decision was to wonder if it wasn't time to do away with CAS. 


European away days like this one in Porto in 2012 are back on the menu. Ironically it was this trip that saw UEFA levy City for a late arrival to the 2nd half against FC Porto, while fining the home side a smaller amount for racist chanting.

Then City's fans were slighted with the grisly episode in Moscow, when - travelling to play CSKA, who had also been reprimanded for their fans' ugly behaviour towards black players - UEFA made the game behind closed doors but refused to countenance compensation to supporters already booked on trips. Lo and behold the noisy CSKA fans who managed to get into the game on the night too, cementing a relationship between City, City's fans and the governing body that has been at best frosty ever since.

Eager Noses

Michel Platini, that most graceful of midfield playmakers, but an execrable football administrator, devised FFP, perhaps with good intention, but brought it to the table as a muddled mess that ended up serving the elite more cleanly than it served the clubs it was designed to assist. Platini, a dinner partner of the eager-nosed French leader Nicolas Sarkozy, had also sniffed out opportunities. Paris St Germain would fall into Qatari hands and the World Cup would follow, with these unusual bedfellows carving football up without the slightest squeak from UEFA.

That one of City's "saviours" should be a Portuguese, sitting on the three-man panel at CAS to judge UEFA's punishment is ironic, as it was a countryman of Rui Botica Santos, Rui Pinto, who was responsible for the hacked documentation reaching the gleaming glass offices of Der Spiegel in Hamburg. That the giant glass and steel atrium overlooking the Ericusgraben in Hamburg harbour resembles a huge shining open goal is purely coincidental, but Der Spiegel are certainly reporting on a very different story today to the five day bonanza they had at City's expense two years ago.

The story spread, the punishment was meted out and City's reputation was thrown to the four winds. Journalists with axes to grind and others with a living to earn joined the throng to prejudge City on UEFA's terms, but something was changing, an undercurrent was moving, a counterflow was beginning to wind its way down the slopes. 

City had already been punished for overspending in the early days after the take-over in 2008. Football's impossibly greased pyramid for those scrabbling to join in the fun at the top of the sport had successfully repelled all invaders. The barons in Paris had a foothold admittedly, but their bling bling approach with Neymar and the young Mbappe wreaked of classless bauble-chasing. City may have splurged poorly judged cash on Eliaquim Mangala and Jack Rodwell, but theirs was a strategy built to be inclusive, built to last, built to find partners in the local community.  

A whole mini city was rising out of the besmirched dust of East Manchester. Regeneration was the name of the game. Community inclusion. Long term thinking. Like it or not, the empire was being built brick by solid brick by people who have watched, learned and listened.

And now the irony is almost complete. With FFP suspended this summer, City can build further with Champions League participation ensured. The piffling fine that remains will trouble no one in their sleep. Even that is for non cooperation with a process that has been proved to be flawed. Whether FFP survives longer than this season or not is also open to question. Its supposedly good intentions, ill conceived and ill deployed, have been shown up for what they are. The irony will be complete and UEFA's embarrassment too, if City hoist the trophy, UEFA's trophy, for the first time ever in Lisbon at the end of August. The gnashing of teeth that will follow if that transpires will be heard from UEFA's furthest outpost in the east to its westernmost cliff edges.













Thursday, June 18, 2020

PULLING DOWN STATUES




Dark foreboding clouds. The smell of danger, if not wet onions.

The reintroduction to the Premier League in its new guise as backdrop for stretched fabric containing heart-warming messages from our sponsors took place with some trepidation yesterday.

Having watched the first game be completely enveloped in a farce of embarrassing proportions when a perfectly good – if odd – goal was not given by the misted-aubergine binocular-wearing Michael Oliver, we were promised Manchester City versus Arsenal straight afterwards. To be frank, I was still digesting the event at Villa Park, when the sheeting rain told me Manchester’s turn had arrived.

As an image of dank, dark reality for football, there is nothing quite like the Etihad as afternoon turns to evening and a lusty northern cloudburst issues forth. Within seconds Mikel Arteta’s puffa jacket looked like he was wearing the latest in wetlook pinniped fashion and Pep Guardiola took shelter under a hoodie that he appeared to be trying to employ as a bivouac. All wore the expressions of people who would rather be drinking Muga Gran Reserva and chomping on fried eels on a sunlit Malaga terrace.

Where Villa had allowed fans to drape their banners and flags from the ramparts, the Etihad was a picture of corporate messaging. Everywhere you looked there was taught sky blue matte vinyl. Aware as our marketing whizzkids are of the dangers of using materials that are not non-glare, non-reflective, every eventuality bar Michael Oliver had been second guessed. There was even one fitted with wind slits by the cunning people of Etihad Airways, knowing how fond we are of rugged gales to go with our horizontal sleet.

When the kneeling and gesticulating and forearm-greeting was over, an actual match of sorts could start. Piped crowd noise, set at Constant Semi-Positive Drone level, which we all know fades away by minute 4 of most people’s actual matches to be replaced by the sound of burping, the mass opening of crisp packets and the first bits of flying banter, proved less disconcerting than expected, even if it did have the feel of being at Bayern or Basel, where the baffling sight of the local ultras continuing their flag and trumpet routines as their team concedes goals is common.

Whether it is better than hearing Catalan expletives in the quickening dusk is up for discussion. We had been promised full and unfettered audio access to the coin toss, which had brought me to a particular state of pre-match arousal, but that seemed to pass me by, perhaps because I was desperately looking for a bottle opener at the time.

The sight of emptiness of this magnitude was already driving me (back) to drink.

It was like the plains of the Serengeti or that lovely elephant park in Rwanda that Arsenal’s sponsors, the decent upstanding folk of the ex-genocide-riddled African state’s publicity department, wanted us to consider visiting. It made me wonder whether there might be a team in the Rwandan Premier League, perhaps Mukura Victory or even Heroes FC, proudly wearing “Visit Stockport Hat Works” arm stickers.

While mulling over these strange entries into our football universe, it became evident that City had forgotten to furlough the stadium announcer. He had evidently turned up, eased past security, donned his blue mac and was parping out the usual inanities to the empty ground. It was becoming more and more surreal as the seconds ticked soundlessly past.  

Once you had disposed of the visual furniture, the match itself, which had started unfurling at a gentle pace, demanded watching. Only it seemed to be operating, like everything else, at a velocity and intensity some digits below the full one hundred. Some things were recognizable of course. Arsenal’s defence rapidly disintegrated, this time almost literally, as substitutes entered very early on. That one of these happened to be the swallow-diving, ineffectual Dani Ceballos augured well, but the introduction of David Luiz, the semi mobile totem pole, was City’s saving grace.

Going somewhat through the motions, City did not even need to be galvanized by Luiz’s shimmering presence, all wet-look curls and no-look defending. The ball kicked up off the Brazilian’s sashaying hips and Sterling was through to score, blissfully, without need to pause and think, which often brings down the curtain on Raheem’s best efforts. The shot was pure instinct and flew past Leno with the vivacity of a prime minister in sight of a walk-in fridge.  

Having rivalled new stopper Pablo Mari in the impersonate a Bristolian slave trader stakes, Luiz managed to shake himself from the statues game just long enough to be well beaten by Riyad Mahrez on the edge of the box. The distraught Brazilian briefly pulled a Phil Jones face. Then he puffed and he panted and he blew the whole house down. Penalty. Red card. Sad to see him go, but new penalty hero De Bruyne put it where so many other have not been able and City had a lead that this feeble Arsenal would not be arguing with.

Luiz had been part of the entertainment for just 25 comedy minutes in total.  

To complete the unusual feel, we were able to watch the ticker click past 100 minutes, thanks to Ederson’s flooring of Eric Garcia, who remained prone long enough for Martin Tyler to make a fool of himself. It gave us all a bit of extra time to admire and read the rest of the banners at least. For Arsenal, the relief must have been that, by the time Phil Foden had smashed in a third, the stadium announcer was in no position to pipe out some virtual booing to shepherd their bedraggled ranks from the pitch. 

Every dark Manchester cloud has something of a silver lining.


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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

DANCING WITH YOUR SISTER




Ready or not, the big day has dawned.

Aptly enough we start with a no-holds-barred, no-noise-whatsoever Derby between the Highbury Library dwellers and the denizens of the Emptihad. The profundity and intense heat of the banter chambers will surely be stoked beyond volcanic as this one kicks us all off into a brave new world of live feeds from the pre-match referee huddle and substitute on and off music (no jokes here, please, about what to put on when Ilkay is removed).

Whilst our minds have been quietly boggling, the big bad bods at the FA have been busy with their ideas.

Like Pep Guardiola, seemingly a little anxious to see if the FA's all-encompassing restriction code will allow him and Mikel Arteta to share a bottle of Muga Gran Reserva together after the match, we too must work out how best to cope with its strangeness. 

Will the players run obediently to the designated goal celebration camera if they score? (this has been worrying me far more than it should. I dream of Kevin de Bruyne shaking his hips to a camera that has been turned off and it brings me out in a cold sweat). What if they don’t bother preening to the audience at all? What if they touch each other by mistake?

For City, as for many, the resumption of league battles means little beyond getting the thing over the line. Liverpool will be silent champions within three or so games and the troubled clubs at the bottom will have to sweat and spit at a safe distance, but for the rest it is an exercise in keeping fit and avoiding intimate tackle contact.

Where City’s story hots up is in the cups. There is after all an FA Cup to defend. The infamously wretched slaughter of Watford, when some of our country’s finest writers downed tools and refused to record the day’s business, means the holders’ trip to Newcastle will carry a certain amount of interest.

Cup football was always decried as a lottery. Now that everything is, we can all relax. The grandest lottery of them all is our beloved Champions League, the apple of our eye, the grit in our belly buttons, the jam on the kitchen floor.

This, of course, is really where City’s owners’ ears prick up. For years the holy grail, glory in Europe at this stage might just be too typically City for some of us to cope with. After a 50-year hiatus, an appearance in what would be a second European final for the club, on the very occasion when nobody can be there would for many be the pinnacle of Cityitis.

The litany of daft episodes in the club’s mottled history have been trotted out enough times not to be repeated here. Suffice to say, the idea of City managing to hoist the flag in such circumstances, with a two-year ban still standing to be confirmed, is a true tickler. A club built on contrariness and self-inflicted hardship deserves its time in the sun. When the sun is Portuguese and the stadium is empty, however, you begin to ask yourself where this satire can all end.

In 1970, City carried off the Cup Winners Cup, a defunct and much maligned contest for oddball clubs from far flung places, with barely 10,000 souls watching. Other finals in the tournament rendered even smaller crowds. It was the nature of the beast. Even then the FA forbade the BBC from televising the game live from Vienna. City fans (unless you were one of the 4,000 dripping wet adventurers who travelled across Europe that night) had to wait until the following evening just to see the BBC highlights.

Ironically, the final had clashed with the replay of the FA Cup final between Chelsea and Leeds United. While ITV screened that live, nobody saw the final of the tournament that the FA Cup was a feeder for. Work that one out. Chelsea edged out Leeds and, while everyone was watching David Webb head the winner at Old Trafford, a soaking wet Tony Book hoisted the elegant Cup Winners Cup in washed out Vienna.

Bring a brolly and sensible shoes

A repeat of that in sunny Lisbon with a backing of 60,000 red bucket seats at the Estadio da Luz would knock Vienna into a cocked hat, simultaneously providing the banter brigade with a decade’s worth of oxygen. Not only is it the only trophy the club now really craves to complete the set, it is possibly the only ridiculous scenario that hasn’t already been played out before us down the long and bristly years.

But there is a serious side to all this. Thousands are dead from a virus without a cure and we are shuffling, albeit virtually, back down to the football. How we are meant to feel about this is still unclear. Guilty, elated, non-plussed. Angry, bewildered, ill-prepared. Or just grateful and expectant?

Perplexed, perhaps.

Perhaps the best state of mind to be in is neutral. It is a rare position in these days of tribal frothing, but maybe we should give it a try. We should perhaps wait and see what sort of effect it has on us. Football, as Marcus Rashford has ably demonstrated, can be a superbly galvanizing vehicle for good. It can lift us out of the gloom and carry us away from our troubles, if only for 90 dreamy minutes. It can also dump you right back down in the quagmire quickly enough. City are by no means unique in wielding these dual powers. However, a silent journey to European football’s highest mountain would simultaneously answer many critics but also blow more giant bubbles into the history of a club that has never been able to do normal for longer than a couple of months. 

We can’t stop the juggernaut, so step aside, flatten that fluffy hair a little and let the whole multi-coloured charabanc through.

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