Sunday, May 4, 2014

SCHOOL OF SCIENCE V. ACADEMY OF HARD KNOCKS



Following Manchester City, one is often struck by how odd football is, but truly in the last week or two, strange powers have been at work that our feeble minds know little of. As long as it works like this, I’m not at all sure I want to know either.

Thick smoke, mirrors and women with long beards were obvious by their absence at Goodison Park, as was the usual bear-pit atmosphere, replaced by a jolly end-of-term-sports-day sort of air. Gone too was David Moyes’s chased-by-the-yard-dogs-experience. Instead Roberto Martinez opted for a slightly odd three centre-back set-up and an afternoon of crisp passing triangles to full backs, handily placed to help the home side morph from a 5-man defensive block into a well-staffed attacking force. We had already seen at the Etihad this season that, whilst playing eminently better football, this Everton is right up City’s street. No roar, then, no slapdash midfield muddle. No Gareth Barry. No Darron Gibson even. The only recognisable element of a normal trip to Merseyside, in fact, was the almighty knot in the stomach. It may seem petty, but things like this can make something of a difference at a place like Goodison, with its steep stands and pop-eyed denizons. That partizan gale of noise can knock you off your feet, knock you out of your stride. Here, there was noise of sort: the knocking of knees and the gnashing of teeth in the Bullens Road, as City’s afflicted yet robust support set about calming its nerves with a song or two about Liverpool’s talismanic horizontal midfielder.   

Pre-match had been a festival of conspiracies waiting to happen, Everton lying down and dying being the top one. Once the energetic Ross Barkley had swung one in from 25 yards, it was clearly apparent that at least one of Everton’s men had not read the proper script. Lukaku, however, lumbering aimlessly upfront and giggling at Kompany when he was dispossessed, seemed in a different frame of mind. Nevertheless, young Barkley would continue to play the game of a man whose mind was not thinking about anything but the three points on offer.

With concession of the opening goal as a starting point, City were obliged to do the rest in City style. From a goal down, a plucky equaliser from Aguero, who promptly pulled something, a towering header and close in stab from Big Match Player Edin Dzeko and a sleepy denouement that nearly landed the whole story back in the melting pot.

It was a true thing of dreams. Manchester City dreams, with crazy-eyed hobgoblins, trumpeting elephants and shimmering women in translucent dresses with pitch black eyes that say touch this and think of Mel Machin. There was nothing you could trust except the clock. Sit there, shake, fidget, holler and wait.

Having lost Aguero, we lost Yaya Touré. No more strikers for Manuel. Fernandinho's arrival raised an eyebrow but quickly also raised several question marks in the Everton side. As City's shape changed, Everton lost impetus. With Nasri bewitching young John Stones on the edge of the box to set up Dzeko's second, things were getting seriously weird. Kolarov was asked to replace Yaya in a swap of Machiavellian beauty.

There is, however, still no need for any City fan to be presumptuous about anything this club does. It holds a well-earned reputation built solidly on doing the wrong thing at the right time, of slapstick and tragedy, of inept timing and living with the inopportune. Balloons pop when they are supposed to float, they score goals against us when they are supposed to decorate the place. Modern times have disfigured our City into a far sleeker beast, but it still carries the heavy burden of being watched and exhorted to its best efforts by thousands of human beings so warped in their historical sense of fate and its flabby backhanders that anything can still go wrong.

In our minds.   

Evidently, Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, steeped in slightly different City traditions after many years of sky blue action, will have an idea of this club’s great and illustrious past, but even these most decorated long-servers cannot fully grasp what this club has put the rest of us through. They need only look into our eyes and they would get an idea.
 
So, when they put you through the wringer again, as they surely did here, when they creep up and overtake the Liverpool side who had won the league long ago and had it confirmed by beating us at Anfield, when they finish the season with home games against appallingly flaccid Villa and West Ham teams that were at least alive enough to crawl out of the relegation area before meeting us, when they tease us with all of this, we still don’t take the bait. We refuse to believe these miraculously God-sent moments are for us.

But somehow they are: Naismith arrows in a shot. Joe Hart employing elastic fingertips stretches it past the post. “The save of the season”, Martinez would later call it. Two minutes later it was 3-1 and not 2-2. Gods above, what are you doing to us. The crowd sings in praise of Steven Gerrard yet again. The world spins slightly too fast for a Saturday at six-forty-five in the evening.

You look for certainties. That crumpled Peter Barnes poster. The scrap of paper with Ian Bishop’s hurried autograph on it. The scarred page 14 of your fabled Edin Dzeko Book of Time Wasting (“..if in doubt about the referee’s attentions, bury your face in the turf and pretend you have dislocated your shoulder...”). The door knob you stole from the corridor at Notts County that time you decided to invade the pitch with 5,000 others, got carried away and ended up in the dressing room with Jimmy Sirrell and his loud hailer. We drape ourselves in those important ephemera that serve as stabilisers in this chaotic world of shouting and screaming. And we hold on for dear life. I hold onto a stolen doorknob from 1985.

But all of this nonsense is just us. The players, with pristine hair and straightened shirts, have done what they were paid to do. “Competitive courage”, Daniel Taylor would later call it in the Observer, “to see off opponents who deserve better than the debate about whether or not they were entirely committed”. Well that it most certainly was, added to ice cold nerve, raw commitment, and a will-to-win that seems to be deserting some of the more lauded title chasers at the very worst moment. This indeed was the epitome of a “brave performance”.

But, despite all of this, despite Norwich drawing at Stamford Bridge, impoverished, embarrassing Norwich with their fans in green and yellow wigs; despite Nigel de Jong heading the winner in the Milan derby; despite the moon going into its third phase and the equinox emptying itself almost entirely onto Sale Road, we know that this is nothing more nothing less than Pellegrini’s “huge step” in the right direction. We know, all of us, in our heart of hearts, there is till a bump and a twist to come, but we also know that City have players who appear to be reading from a different script to the rest of us. That they don't appear to know any of these things is just fine by me.

So sleep peacefully, gentle folk. You will almost certainly need the rest, for in the words of the great philosopher Brendan Rodgers, tomorrow we go again.


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