Thursday, July 15, 2021

NO HARRYING TOTTENHAM

There were several moments in the opening two games of England's Euro 2020 campaign where it looked as if Harry Kane's real transfer fee should be totted up in the realms of thousands, rather than the millions daily being touted in the press. 

Stodgy and slow, the Tottenham man was moving with the finesse of a desert camel loaded with chunks of masonry to repair the Sphinx's hooter. As England proceeded out of their group, however, King Harold found his rhythm, regained his touch and took flight. By the end of the journey the big striker was moving effortlessly through the gears and once again hitting all the right notes. Four goals were just the garnish on his growing influence on England's fortunes. Harry was back and so was the incessant transfer chatter.


But still. 150 million quid?

Daniel Levy is a notoriously hard-nosed businessman. City, and indeed a host of other clubs, have had real problems dislodging the Spurs chairman from his bargaining position before. He does not do "win-win", just "show me the money". Kyle Walker's eye-watering transfer was a case in point that almost caused The Mirror to combust. 

A number of factors might persuade him to do business this time, however. Firstly, Kane wants to go. Noises were first heard at the tale end of last season and those rumours have turned since then into concrete stories. How far a player, who will soon be 28, is prepared to push it, remains to be seen. Levy will not want a public fight with the darling of the terraces, despite sitting pretty with a contract that is nowhere near up. No one in their right mind, on the other hand, believes it a good idea to hang on to saleable assets when they don't want to play for you anymore. On these tricky foundations the relationship totters. 

Further to this is the cash. Tottenham need it badly to rebuild. The pandemic has seen off great swathes of the money mountain they might have expected to be sitting on this summer and they desperately need to offload in order to start the rebuild necessary after Jose Mourinho's clumsy pre-cup final departure. Whether City, a club notorious for not exceeding certain pre-ordained levels (around 60 million would appear to be the unwritten high water mark), will have to go way past that to net Kane, is unclear. Whatever the final fee is, they might well balk at sailing past the 100 million mark, even if the signs from London became promising.

City these days refuse to be taken for the ride that many selling clubs offered to take them on in the early days after the investment from Abu Dhabi, when it was commonly accepted that there was a "City surcharge", owing to their newly found wealth. Nowadays, the path is littered with players in whom serious interest was discontinued when the selling club got ideas above their station: Jorginho, Sanchez, Maguire, Koulibaly to name but four.

City have in recent years refused to be held to ransom by clubs intent on inflating fees. 


Although City have come a long way from the summers spent chasing the likes of Kevin Drinkell and Justin Fashanu, a strict spending policy has been in place for some time. After the years of splurging to gain a foothold amongst the elite, City have mostly run a "tight ship", relatively speaking. 

Mourinho's successor, fellow Portuguese Nuno Espirito Santo, will no doubt want to hang on to the club's greatest asset. He will desire a season start with a squad that is harmonious and kicking in the same direction. Will he want a star striker who has made it clear he sees his immediate future elsewhere?

Next is the likelihood that Kane can land any sort of silverware with Spurs, who came close last season (beaten by City, of all people, in the Carabao Cup final), but have not had much of a sniff for more than a decade and will kick off next season in the broad shade of the UEFA Conference League, a pretty, new toy even further way from the Champions League than the foul-smelling Europa League. (that's enough Leagues - Ed).

Looking at the possible deal from City's side, a couple of things strike you immediately. Although Guardiola is a confirmed fan of the striker, do City actually need anyone of his type to replace Sergio Aguero? Kane is a different kind of striker, who might not necessarily slot in to City's style of play. There are plenty of other options for that central role anyway, from the obvious (Sterling, Ferran, Jesus, Delap) to the less obvious (any slightly built midfield figure chosen as a floating false nine). Guardiola is not shy, after all, of tinkering with shape and tactics. 

From the earliest days when Pablo Zabaleta could be seen marauding from right back t a place on the left wing and Aleksander Kolarov attempted his best Franz Beckenbauer impersonation, the Catalan has shown a true spirit of tactical adventure.

If the desire is as great as it is supposed to be, now is surely the time for City to make their move. With the player approaching 29 in a year's time, the money Tottenham are asking will no longer make any sense at all, even if it doesn't exactly look normal right now. How much of a difference does Guardiola think Kane can make to City's assault on the Premier League and Champions League double that is the club's main aim? If, as seems to be the case, the Catalan is convinced that he is the missing piece in the puzzle, we can expect an offer to be made. After all, Kane's guarenteed goals haul, allied to City's new meanness in defence, is a tantalising proposition.    

Also, is, as is rumoured, Kane's signature desired above all others? With City supposedly interested in Jack Grealish and, incredibly, still short of a specialist left back, could there be other positions that are more important? Could they stretch to Kane and Grealish and, say Maehle, all in one heavy-handed summer? That would alert the FFP fans immediately and put a bee in the bonnet of every supporter from Carlisle to Chingford. Khaldoon Al-Mubarak has already stated that "Aguero's shoes will be particularly difficult ones to fill, but we will do it". The "Grealish money", in that case, would have to come from player sales, with Bernardo the most frequently named player in this respect. 

The question remains which clubs might have the money to do this kind of business (buy Bernardo) in a market that has become so ridiculously inflated at the same time clubs are shrinking financially thanks to Covid-19? The Portuguese has been quoted as saying it's time to go, and perhaps in this he is right, but few clubs could stump up the cash for him in this summer's unique market conditions. Certainly, Barcelona, most frequently mentioned in conjunction with Bernardo, were finding it difficult to even register their City acquisitions from last month (Aguero, Garcia) owing to their chronic lack of cash.

A chronic lack of cash might be the only thing that can unravel this deal. Tottenham's need is great. City will and can only go so far, despite their spending power and their avowed desires. An impasse of this magnitude can only be shifted if one of the three players in a game of high stakes poker breaks rank and changes position. City, Tottenham, or Kane himself. Who will be the first to blink?


150,000 for Justin Fashanu? Keep adding the noughts for Harry Kane. 









  




 


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

IN YER HEAD, SON


Manuel
Pellegrini’s legacy to Manchester City was to bequeath memories of three years of swashbuckling football that ended with a result and, more importantly, a performance, that has left such an indelible mark on the club’s psyche that the stain can still clearly be seen today.

City’s last win under the Chilean fell on 23rd April 2016, a 4-0 home beating of Mark Hughes’ Stoke City. The league campaign dribbled to an unsatisfactory halt with a chaotic and uninspired defeat at Southampton and two draws with Arsenal and Swansea. A colourless 4th place finish had thus been secured by a side, who had been leading the table in late November.

The only other games the club played after the Stoke stroll were in continental competition, the dreaded Champions League. Pellegrini remains the only manager to take City to the semi-finals. Sadly, he is also the man who took City there and then summarily failed to do the occasion justice.

In two games against Real Madrid, City looked first surprised by their grand surroundings, then cowed by the prospect of being so close to the booty. A psychological axe fell on the common psyche that has left such a deep cleft, all the wiles and ways of Pep Guardiola have so far failed to weld things back together again.

In 2016, the 0-0 first leg draw in Manchester left City with an uphill task in the Bernabeu, but it is the second leg performance in the home of the club that treats the competition as its own that has stayed in the mind all this time. City were insipid, bashful and, in the end, a little bit cowardly. The Chilean’s reign, a time characterised by the goal-drenched adventures of a side that often contained Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic and Jesus Navas blazing in on goal from all angles, ended with the spectacle of a side set up to go sideways in a match where they needed to head forwards.

Beaten in the end by the slimmest of margins, a bizarrely constructed Fernando own goal the only difference between the two sides after 180 minutes of awful combat, we left the great theatre of the Bernabeu that night wondering why there had been such a lack of fighting spirit.

Where had all that gung-ho energy dissipated to?


Fernandinho tussles with Cristiano Ronaldo in the Bernabeu


The defeat in Madrid, sloppy and downbeat as it was, represented Pellegrini’s final steps in charge of the sky-blue cause. Two more drawn league games followed and the season was done. So too was the Chilean’s three-year passage through English football in charge of Manchester City.
 

The man who had thrust Villareal and Malaga into the final stretches of the Champions League, had hauled the unwilling old carcass of Manchester City there too, but his side had displayed none of the dramatic fireworks his previous teams had in going out of the competition. His Villareal had lost at the bitter end to Arsenal by dint of Riquelme's penalty miss and his fearless Malaga team had gone out to, wait for it, Borussia Dortmund, in one of the most incident-packed, eye-wobbling games the competition has thrown up in recent times.



The fallout of City's no-show in the Bernabeu has been lasting. 

Instead of heralding a new dawn of regular final four appearances, the club under the auspices of Pep Guardiola has developed a fabulous, all-devouring allergy to them. Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon have all dealt City mortal blows in the quarter finals, while Monaco, feisty and underrated, even knocked the Blues out in the Round of 16. Every time success has looked primed to go off, it has exploded great sheets of custard into our faces instead.

Pellegrini’s 2016 semi-final remains the highwater mark in the Champions League for a club that has won four league titles, two FA Cups, five League Cups and three Community Shields since 2010. A feeling of underachievement has grown slowly but surely into a deep-rooted psychosis.

Which is why this evening’s game in Dortmund carries such heavy significance.

This is a tie and an opponent that City should be able to deal with. Paris St Germain, the team waiting in the semi-final, and ironically the side Pellegrini's City had knocked out in the quarter finals in 2016, are clearly a different kettle of fish. Their second leg with Bayern Munich showcased two sides with attacking potential far beyond anything John Stones and Ruben Dias have dealt with so competently this season in the Premier League (although it is an edifying thought to recall that City finished the Real Madrid semi-final with a *slightly less talented* back four of Sagna, Otamendi, Mangala and Clichy...). 

The Germans, however, despite sticking rigidly to a thorough, well considered game plan at the Etihad, showed in their casual giving away of possession in midfield that they can be picked off if the right level of clinical finishing can be found. City’s floundering mess of a performance against Leeds perhaps does not bode well on that front, but the stakes, and *half of the team, will be very different this evening in North Rhine Westphalia to the one that puttered 29 chances into the advertising hoardings on Saturday.

This match is as much to be won in the head as on the pitch for the Blues. Put in a marker here and a semi-final match-up with PSG can be treated as a surmountable challenge. What would then await in the final would not be of any higher caliber than the French champions. But, to do this, Guardiola must find a way to control his own tactical demons, banish the negative thoughts that descend on all associated with the club on such occasions and get his side playing the crisp, attacking football that has seen them sail past the pack to dominate this season’s Premier League campaign.

As ever, the prize is tantalizingly close, the smell of the trophy polish is flaring the senses, but so too are the groans and the cackles of all those dark ghosts of the past.

*ironically, the aforementioned Stoke game, Manuel Pellegrini’s final victory as City manager, also included a first team shorn of its stars, as Guardiola chose to do last weekend against Leeds. Both Vincent Kompany and Kevin de Bruyne were rested from the league match in prospect of a tougher battle against Real Madrid.










Friday, February 26, 2021

MALCOLM ALLISON'S COACHING PANEL

Throughout 1969 and1970, Charles Buchan's Football Monthly Magazine decided to run a series of half page tactics and coaching tips from City head coach Malcolm Allison. He had, after all, been responsible for a City side that had climbed out of the second division in 1965-66, becoming serial winners just two years after.

Allison, schooled in the art of innovation and out of the box thinking thanks to a predilection for the Hungarian team of the 50s that knocked spots off England at Wembley, produced for the magazine in a long running series, tips for fitness, strength, diet, movement, technique and many other facets that your average 1970s trainer had not yet had the time to dream up.

Ahead of his time was a phrase often tied to Allison, as it was somewhat ironically to Arsene Wenger when he alighted in the Premier League in 1995. Wenger indeed was a deep thinker, but as far as bringing innovative change to the English game was concerned, many of his tricks had been pioneered by Allison some twenty years before.

While some of the articles appear endearingly outdated (everyone and his dog now encourage high-fibre diets and regular weight training), many are insightful and, taken in the context of England's then close adherence to a kick and rush, thud and blunder approach to the game, continue to show up Allison's blue sky sky blue thinking in a positive light.

Here he talks about a problem still prevalent in the game today, building up strength without overstraining the body. In the light of the rash of injuries at Anfield this season, where a regime of intense high pressure, high speed football has been advocated by Jurgen Klopp in recent seasons, the ex-City coach's thoughts seem prescient.







Friday, February 12, 2021

A RETURN TO BUDAPEST, BIG MAL'S SPIRITUAL HOME

Allison outside Monchengladbach's old Bökelbergstadion before the 1979 UEFA Cup tie

🏆UEFA's edict earlier this week that the Manchester City-Borussia
Monchengladbach Champions League round of 16 first leg tie should take place in Budapest raised interesting ghosts from the past.


That the tie will take place in the Puskas Arena is apt for a number of reasons and they all involve ex-City supremo Malcolm Allison.

For it was Hungary, and Budapest in particular, and Puskas even more particularly, that pointed the way for the young Allison as he set out to become one of the world game's most innovative thinkers. Having served in the army in Austria and seen the Hungarians train there whilst on tour, Allison was ultra keen to be at Wembley in November 1953 to see the Hungarian national side take on England. 

Allison made it to North London that day, along with 105,000 other souls, convinced as they were that England's place as world leaders of the game was not in doubt. Allison had other ideas, however. What the huge crowd witnessed will have surprised them, but not the old West Ham centre half Allison. Having watched Puskas and his team mates Nandor Hidegkuti, Sandor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor train, he was well aware of what was to come and was certain the self-assured England players were about to come a cropper.

As they warmed up for the Wembley clash, one of Allison's companions (possibly future coach Jimmy Andrews) was moved to laugh at Puskas, whose rotund figure made him look an unlikely sportsman for the occasion. With his shorts pulled high on his belly, he looked for all the world like an overweight spectator who had slipped onto the pitch ahead of the police.

Minutes later Allison's companions had stopped laughing, as Puskas proceeded to trap balls pinged at him at all heights with the ease of a master and to zip them back across the turf with alarming accuracy, pace and spin. This he continued to do during a game since made famous as the moment English haughtiness was given the ice bucket treatment. Hungary won the game 6-3 and a new era of self doubt entered the English national team, a paralysis which, to some, has never properly left it.

It was not just the speed of movement and accuracy of shooting that Allison had noticed, but the ever-changing formation, the easy switching of positions, even the jauntily cut shorts that allowed more movement around the thighs. Everything, from pre match diet, to warm up routine to stylized kit had been adapted to give the visitors an advantage.

Allison would introduce these measures to his City squad as they grew from second division ignominy to a side capable of winning four trophies in three years. His interpretation of what these avant-garde football folk from the East of Europe were doing formed the basis of City’s invigorating passing game that sometimes seemed light years ahead of what other teams were attempting to come up with at the time in the prosaic surroundings of the English First Division.

When his City side was drawn to play the Hungarians of Honved in the 1970 edition of the Cup Winners' Cup at the end of this glorious period of trophy-hunting, there was a pleasant surprise waiting for the City coach in Budapest on the occasion of the first leg. 

City’s elegant, accomplished football won them the game easily, despite a close looking 1-0 scoreline. They had been a joy to watch and had vindicated their coach’s adherence, all those years ago, to the virtues of good passing and faultless technique that he had witnessed from Hungary’s national team players. After the match, a Honved official approached Allison to congratulate him for “the best football we have seen from an English side in our country”.

Allison was then escorted to a little restaurant where Puskas’s infamous paunch was said to have been fostered in the early days and to a little house on a back street of the capital with a red chimney pot where the master of Hungarian football had grown up. Despite his defection to Spain, the place had remained a shrine of Hungarian football, filled with trinkets and memorabilia from the great man's career.


Hidegkuti scores Hungary's sixth and final goal at Wembley in 1953.

Allison was enchanted by this treatment and was later moved to say  “I was entranced by the stories they told me. I could see elements of what they were telling me that were totally alien to English football and its coaching methods.” 

At the end of the same decade (1979), Allison's second spell as City manager was coming to a rather less auspicious close, when City were drawn against Borussia Monchengladbach in the UEFA Cup. It would be a tie thrown to the wind by the coach's by now obsessive tinkering. Having disposed of the European experience of Asa Hartford, Brian Kidd  and their ilk, Allison blooded eighteen year old Nicky Reid and briefed him to mark European Footballer of the Year Allan Simonsen. The writing was on the wall after a 1-1 first leg draw at Maine Road and City left the competition in the return at the Bokelberg with their tales firmly between their legs. Reid acquitted himself well enough but it had not been the occasion for experiments.  

City had overcome FC Twente, Standard Liege and, more famously, AC Milan on their way to the quarter finals before Allison's return to the club and it would be nearly 25 years before they played in Europe again. 

For Allison, Gladbach represented his last hurrah with City in Europe and Budapest represented the bedrock to his opening gambit as a football coach. Both ends of his sparkling, never-dull career are thus dovetailed beautifully by UEFA's decision to house the first leg of this enthralling tie in the Hungarian capital.

    



Wednesday, February 10, 2021

REDEMPTION AND RESURRECTION

This article first appeared (in sanitized form!) in the Irish Examiner on Monday 8th February 2021 


This means more: Gundogan trips the light fantastic
This means more: Gundogan trips the light fantastic

The filmscape for Manchester City’s 128-year history of grim and largely inefficient scrabbling at Anfield has long resembled a particularly bleak scene from a Fritz Lang opus. Inert bodies scattered hither and thither, scores of bent, leafless trees and the clear sound of thousands of people sobbing simultaneously. Was his metaphorical depiction of this painful journey in While the City Sleeps about to undergo a makeover, a City awakening at last?

Myriad shades of grey and puce are enveloped by the unremitting shadows of the unforgiving struggle. What blobs of light can be detected (1981, 2003), they are such tiny pinpricks in the unrelenting gloom as to represent the aftereffects of an old man grinding black pepper onto the surface of the moon from a distance of two kilometres.

City at Anfield has been an inexorable process of decay for many decades, the slow stiffening of limbs (my, what stiff legs you have!), the gradual emptying of the intestines (Oh my goodness, I’m not sure that feels any better) and the draining of blood towards the gravitational low point (I’m afraid I feel a little faint), until all life has left the body and it stiffens to a crisp.

So, let there be light! Redemption! Resurrection! Rise up and convert your chances at the Anfield Road end!

Liverpool, themselves ground down to minute specks themselves by the threefold cogs of injury ill fortune, Herr Klopp’s relentless regime of Gegenpressing and City’s full board Covid-19 staycation in January, were surely there for the taking at last. Pep’s great Mancunian juggernaut, with its tractor tyres and its full tank of diesel, came charging down the East Lancs Road convinced of its moment in time, its place in history, with a thirteen-win run making them look far bigger than they actually are. The Great Avengers, the Righters of Wrongs, the Glory Boys.

The target in sight? A glorious, sweat-stained third win at Anfield since 1981, even depleted as they were by the absence of dual talismen Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne (who knew amongst the white noise about other absent friends?). City, shorn of the prowess that has produced 200 goal involvements in the last 5 seasons, began cordially and, when offered the opportunity to atone for two penalty misses against Liverpool in the last four matches, they missed again, Ilkay Gundogan following Riyad Mahrez and De Bruyne with his own Diana Ross impersonation.

Hark, though, the clarion call sounding from high on the roof, next to where City’s first half penalty ball still nestled. Brave minds needed, strong legs and nerves of steel. Apply within to Senor Josep Guardiola. The little German, fresh from the double blow of penalty disaster and a second minute reducer from the otherwise peripheral Thiago Alcantara (this was his most meaningful contribution to the game), stormed back into control. Alongside, Bernardo Silva chasing everything down like a Jack Russell on amphetamines, Phil Foden, with the elegance and drive of the child of an 800 metre Olympic champion and Nadia Comaneci, and even little Zinchenko muscling into things with his faultless first touch down the left.

The focus may in time fall on the part played by a hapless Alisson, dinking his way into the assists column with some second half brain clouding, but let nobody forget that it was his counterpart at the other end starting the match with a golden giveaway of his own. The vital difference was the hunger of the bodies chasing those loose balls down. City’s indefatigable chasing outshone Liverpool’s half pace response with Bernardo’s little legs audibly whirring as if driven by some unseen turbine behind the stands.

You could hear other things too in the now customary empty ground. Herr Klopp’s teeth gnashing together, Michael Oliver’s stomach rumbling when finally offered an opportunity to give Liverpool a penalty (he had already infamously offered Leicester three at the Etihad earlier this season) after Salah’s starburst arms persuaded him the gentle touch of Dias was actually the hug of a murderer. A peeping sound was also to be heard, the air escaping from Liverpool’s high-pressure century-old record of massaging City gently back through those Shankly Gates empty-handed. Even the canned crowd sound had been finally and irrevocably switched to Blue Moon for the momentous last act.

Cue bright light, cue the sound of gleeful cheering, cue much cavorting about. Even Fritz Lang would have understood.

 


                            PHIL FODEN comes of age.....again.

Monday, January 4, 2021

SLAPDASH CITY ESCAPE RED HOT STAMFORD BRIDGE WITH LUCKY WIN

MATCH REPORT | STAMFORD BRIDGE | Sunday 3rd January 2021 |

CHELSEA 1 MANCHESTER CITY 3


Seasonal Greetings


By Olivia De Havilland-Boneidle on the Kings Road

🛁 

Embattled Chelsea manager Frank Lumpy dropped deeper into the mire of inuendo and worriment that often encircles this famous old club, after his brave side fell to unlucky defeat against Skull and Crossbones Covid-Lawless Manchester City.

 

After their infamous Day of Rest against Everton, Manchester City returned to action here in West London, looking sheepish after conducting the illicit manoeuvre to avoid playing another Merseyside team at full flow last week. Whatever your take on City, there is no avoiding the fact that they are a group well drilled by their Catalan Covididiots Apologist coach, whose reputation has been frazzled at the edges in recent times by the glorious upsurge of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Ollie's red fliers over the city at the Theatre of Dreams 🅒.

 

With everything to lose and the pretend crowd becoming agitated, Chelsea’s gallant response can draw some comfort for Lumpy, whose own reputation has taken a recent battering during a poor run of form from his side.

 

Expensively-constructed City opened with a crass error from their stand in goalkeeper, standing in for the outstanding Edwardoson. The hapless rookie picked up a back pass from Laporte and needlessly conceded an early freekick, which would surely have put the home side ahead, had it been on target.

 

Game for the fight right from the off, Chelsea were somewhat unlucky when the visitors took the lead against the run of play. When it came, it was a simple goal, with Foden, at long last offered a rare chance out on the right wing, feeding the unmarked Ilkay Gundogan in the penalty box. The moustachioed Turko-German midfield anchorperson only had to steady himself and place a shot that Elton Welsby could have scored past the outstretched fingers of Edward Mendy in the home goal. Even then the Frenchman got his fingertips to the scuffed shot and nearly kept it out.

 

Stunned by the shameless hand of bad fortune, Chelsea fell further behind when Real Madrid-bound Foden, looking suspiciously offside, mishit a cross from Olex Zinchenko, which went in at the near post when the youngster, possibly lacking a confident touch because of his lack of game time, seemed to have been looking towards the back post to slot in. The unsighted and off-balance keeper again got a hand to the shot but it beat him just inside his near post.

 ◒

The smile on John Stones’s face told its own story. City could not believe their luck. With Chelsea all at sea at the sudden turn in fortunes, the Manchester side had what could arguably be called their best spell, stringing some passes together and looking reasonably assured in possession. Their old failings quickly came to the surface, however, when Sterling, racing clear from arguably an offside position, had too long to think about life and fluffed a gilt-edged chance to put the away side three-up. Turning past Mendy, namesake of the shamed Manchester City Covididiot defender, who ought to be banned for inviting foreign sorts to his Christmas party, but instead found an unexpected ally in his Catalan-independence agitating coach, the England striker realised he had, as is his wont, run out of space and was forced to cut back inside in the hope of finding a team-mate with more confidence in front of goal. His eventual shot lacked conviction and it needed the ruddy-cheeked wantaway Belgian contract rebel Kevin de Bruyne, again totally out of sorts in his free role, to bundle the rebound unconvincingly into the goal.

🔌 

At this point, you would have expected City to go for the jugular, but, peculiarly, they sat back, allowing Chelsea to enjoy a second half of almost complete dominance, which will have caught the eye of Roman Abrizovic, the London club’s oh-so-difficult-to-please owner-cum-chairman. Looking sprightly and full of running, they introduced the goal-a-game England prospect Thomas Hudson-Odoi, a player who has been carefully shepherded through the early part of his career by studious use of his game time, appearances and media work, the advantages of which clearly showed when he was crisply onto a long ball to bring Chelsea right back into things in the 93rd minute.

 

With City wobbling and an equalizer looking on the cards, referee Jackson Pollock called time just at the wrong moment for the rampaging home side. They will take heart, however, in their stirring comeback and will look to Lumpy to further steady the ship in the upcoming weeks to come.

 𝕾

For City, a League Cup semi final against in-form Manchester United looks to be arriving in their schedule at just the wrong moment, unless they can find a reason to have it called off. With Ollie Gunnar’s slick and sleek penalty-winning force of nature cosmopolitan cheap as chips side looking fluffy and pretty, pert and vivacious, this slow-moving, cumbersome City team built at astronomical expense by the reticent and media-shy Catalan, will have its work cut out holding on in the growling furnace of the Theatre of Dreams ©. 

With the whole nation urging them on towards a well-deserved Wembley appearance, United, with the magnificent and misunderstood Pogba to the fore, can begin to recapture their accustomed role in English football as the nation’s most popular football club. With Liverpool also at the top, a renewal of old rivalries between these grand old organic clubs is set to grip the country in the second half of 2020-21 in a way none of the historically stunted wannabe newcomers could muster. A sumptuous denouement awaits us all. 

** Olivia can also be found at the Telegraph, The Direstraits Times and The Beano. 


 


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 








 



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