Friday, October 10, 2014

A LONG STANDING ADDICTION TO ATTACK


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

And how very long it was.

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

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

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


No, they're still there.

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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