Friday, February 28, 2014

HIGH BARNET LOW EXPECTATIONS



You and I are in a state of considerable flux, aren’t we? We’re still not sure if this is meant to be or not. All these wins, all these goals, all these people liking us from afar and hating us from up close. It never used to be like this, in the cosy days of failure and flotsam. The days when Peter Swales talked us up to allow for an even bigger fall. In the days when Tony Book’s flares whipped in the wind like all our lost hopes, when the buzz was about Garry Flitcroft’s hair and Nigel Gleghorn’s goalkeeping gloves. When there was nothing else but Liam Gallagher and Richard Jobson.

Sunderland. Full of the passion of the underdog. Just look at them, lapping it all up. That should be us. That IS us. Only it can’t be anymore. We have left all that painful introversion behind in a cloud of Lamborghini dust (driven by five star clean as you like Abu Dhabi gasoline). We are no longer able to cavort around owning up to tied stomach muscles and lack of sleep. We cannot quote the law of the inevitable cock-up. We cannot stare wistfully at posters of Ken McNaught and Steve Kinsey and say, here come raggle-taggle City for their once in a lifetime tilt at glory. We cannot shout and scream like the eternal underdog, because we aren’t anymore. It was easy to flood through the opened gates and wait for hell to break all over us. Now a different hell awaits us.  

Gone are the Roger Palmers. Ten-to-two feet and all. Away with your Graham Bakers. Chubby cheeks all gone. Gordon Davies no more. All those little wafted back post misses from three centimetres. No longer.

Kun Aguero. Yaya Touré. David Silva. Smooth as silk. One two three.

So, now, brave friends, we must descend upon Wembley Stadium, our Wembley Stadium, and show the rest how it is done. Manchester United, Stoke, Chelsea, Wigan. Wembley Stadium. Again and again and again. The Green Man. Those little meeting points. The same bar staff, winking their hellos. The waves of recognition. The nods, the grins. The casual use of the London underground. Whatever happened to getting out by mistake at High Barnet and asking passers by where Wembley was and being told you were almost in the Midlands? What ever happened to travelling with maps and plans and packed lunches in case we went the wrong way yet again? What happened to the old Wembley, the only focal point we had? Full Members Cup in the grey incessant drizzle. Third Division play off final in the grey incessant drizzle. Wembley meant tension but it meant embarrassment too. Gillingham, for Christ’s sake. Chelsea with the prizes handed out by Dickie bloody Attenbrough. 5-1 down with two minutes to go. On a bloody Sunday. A day after the Manchester Derby. At Old Trafford. No royalty for City’s Wembley efforts. No royalties. Just Dickie Attenbrough in a flat cap and a long trek north with our tails between our legs, where they truly belonged.

Now the tail won’t sit down. It’s excited and wags like a Jack Russell in sight of its first chicken dinner.
  
Wembley meant Keith MacRae’s gingery bonce. It meant Rodney Marsh flicking the ball into John Richards’ path with the back of his heel. It meant bearded Ricky Villa and well spoken Garth Crooks and that damned awful Chas and Dave ditty with Ossie’s doleful cod-English. Wembley meant Tottinghem. In the Cap. In de cap. For Tottinghem. Tears and anguish, like it was always meant to be. Hope dashed, squashed and
Marsh: Heel of destiny
strangled at birth. The departure, energy sucked out of us, faces drained of blood, to search for coaches and trains and cars and the slog home in silence but for the occasional “not again, City, bloody hell”.

So where do we go from here, us lost souls, us drifting bits of anachronistic malcontent? Where do we take our long held doubts, our heaving unhappiness now? What do we do with our gallows humour and our belted songs of attrition? How do we hold onto that magical keep-going-and-be-damned attitude that saw us through disaster after disaster when the disasters are thin on the ground and all the world expects?

Not easy is it?

Manchester City runaway favourites. Manchester City the royal family’s team. Manchester City a dominant force in the Premier League. Manchester City, Champions League regulars. Manchester City, Wembley tenants. Manchester City this and Manchester City that.

So, this is how it feels. This is what we have been waiting for. The glittering football, delivered by a squad of global superstars (and Jack Rodwell), the pristine pitch, the flashlights, the screams of little people, the prestigious people, the friendship scarves with Barcelona and Real Madrid. A scarf, half Real half City! Half Barcelona (Barça to the regulars) half City. What a thing is this? What of our ski hats in 1983? Sat forlornly over our Morrissey quiffs and our Bunnymen side burns, our half Rangers half City tributes to tribal nothingness. Where are they now in this maelstrom of Champions league bric-a-brac?  

We groan at Javi Garcia and Martin Demichelis, nod knowingly as Micah flies though the air again, tut at a wayward pass from Gael Clichy, which fails to glue itself to Silva’s heel. We turn and ask our neighbours if 24 million pound Stevan Jovetic will ever be fit for purpose and what the actual use of that kid from the Ivory Coast is. We, who hold the dark secrets of Kenny Clements in our souls, who remember the silent anguish of Geoff Lomax and the wordless agony of Tony Cunningham. We cover and cower and turn away. The shame of it all is ours.

We are surrounded by kids with tatoos, kids with scarves, kids with phones. The gay abandon of youth, the free clear air of the unknowing. We do not burden them with Billy McNeill, or John Maddock, or Ian Davies, or Peter Bodak. We mention not the night we launched police crash barriers after Coventry or Oldham, or the afternoon we urinated on the torn down fences at Meadow Lane and screeched and bayed for blood until our faces looked like Roy Keane. We whisper the tales of Cold Blow Lane and Stamford Bridge (not the one of today with its high sides and five pound hotdogs, the old one with its painted barbed wire fences and twenty 
No more of this
metres of sand pit). We don’t talk about carrying a giant inflatable banana to Stoke (not the new *pretty* Stoke but the old Victoria Ground, with its sloping crumbling terraces and its flying bricks welcome) or freezing to the point of no return on the terraces at Grimsby and Middlesbrough (not the new *pretty* Middlesbrough but the old corrugated iron, barrel roof Ayresome Park, with its ramshackle pub on the corner and our blood spattered Pringle jerseys. We mouth sweet nothings into the wind. That’s all gone. It’s better that way.

So, we nod to the past as best we can. We stand upright in the present as best we can. We open our wallets towards the future as best we can. Silently, guiltily, we know the truth. There is no going back. What once was can never be again. Where we once strode, immaculate and proud, primed and set with the steely look of the terminally haunted, we now walk the walk of the unconcerned, nonchalant, self-confident, content. Bloated on our success, slow moving in our middle days, replete with days of glory to wash away the lifetime of hurt.

Now we are allocated pubs. Our pubs. City pubs. Blue pubs. In North West London. Time plays tricks on those of us who dinked and dived through the darkness of enemy territory, wondering whether the Dog and Crown or the Fireman’s Helmet would be a our last port of call. Wondering whether those dives on the way to Crystal Palace and that heaving place on a rocky desolate road outside Bradford would be the end of us. Just for the sake of an ill-needed pint and an ill placed flag.

Where we trod the mean streets of Wolverhampton and Derby and came away with our backsides tanned and our voices hoarse, now we sit in awe at the King Power Stadium remembering Weller and Birchenall and Lineker and twitch in a comfy row at Meadow Lane letting thoughts of Jimmy Sirrell and his loud hailer waft through our comfortable minds. No Lee Bradbury scuff, no Buster Philips trip can skew our confidence now. Steve Lomas moments are whispers in the wind.

No more of that. We mustn’t even mention it, for fear of tweaking the ire of the new age fundamentalists. No talk of that. No bloodshot eyes. No sweat stained shirts or ripped jumpers. No missing pin badge, simple, round, Maine Road maestros, yanked from its position by some eager beaver on the rainswept streets of Solihull or Huddersfield. No bleary yelling to the night sky. No never again Citys.

No, we embrace the new era, the dawn of prawn, the sun-up over SportCity, the ever-lasting glow of the wealthy, the healthy, the live-long-and-prospers. The sunlight gleaming off the glass sides of our palace reflects beaming faces, musicians and hand held mics. People jump up and down with their backs to the action where once we leaned forward to squint through the gales of attrition. Now we tread lightly the roads of combat, dancing, skipping, laughing, wearing painted faces and funny hats. Where once fear stalked, willing self-belief now reigns. No slinking down alleys, no peering around walls, no collars up, look left look right. No “where are you from, lads?”, no “what’s the time, boys?”, just backslaps, Opel Meriva hatchbacks and a light snooze and a pickled egg in the Family Stand.

And now Wembley beckons again, with its frills and its flapping hemline. It knows us now. Its comfy skyline of storage depots and ring roads embraces us. Welcome back, say the billboards and the off licences. Come on in and relax.

We can do this, can’t we? We should carry this off without too much problem, shouldn’t we? It’s horses for courses, isn’t it?

When the expectant noise of Sunderland wafts our way, will those once scorched lungs heave again? Can we make it matter as much as it matters to the men in red and white, whose place we occupied five short years ago?


Let us not ever forget who we are and how we came to be in this state. Open up your lungs, ladies and gentlemen and shout your pretty heads off for the mighty Blues, for, without the noise welling up from thirty years of foul failure, the feathery softness of this new comfort blanket will envelope us all.


  
       

Friday, February 21, 2014

AN OPTIMIST WRITES...



Cort McMurray looks for some positives from Tuesday's result.

“Clockwise” is a minor John Cleese classic, a cinematic study of a man named Brian Stimpson who, through a series of small misjudgments, sees his moment of triumph dissolve into chaos. At his lowest, sprawled on a country lane and dressed for reasons too complicated to explain here in a stolen monk’s cassock, Stimpson exclaims, “It’s not the despair…I can stand the despair.  It’s the Hope!” 



Today, I embrace my inner Brian Stimpson.



"yes yes the tackle was late, I know"
The despair is easy.  Same Old City. Shackled to a Small Club Mentality, they had their Big Moment, and self-destructed.  And their True Colors showed after the match, when The Engineer turned into The Whinger.  Did you really expect anything more from this bunch of Hessians, this cadre of well-compensated mercenaries, this public relations tool of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi?



I don’t buy it.  I will not slip into the sticky sweet poison of such negativity.  The way I see it, we’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em.  I believe that with all my heart.  And that’s the agony of being a City supporter: it’s not that’s I’ve given up; it’s that I still hope.



Without our best striker and with a back line that has been suspect all season, Barcelona required a penalty, a forty minute man advantage and some seriously suspect refereeing to manage a victory.  When the clubs meet again, Kun will be healthy, which will completely change the way Pellegrini manages the match.  And the defense?  Somehow, someway, Pellegrini will sort things. 



Speaking of Pellegrini, his post-match comments were not the unseemly ravings of a man out of his depth; they were part of brilliant strategy to preserve his squad’s focus and self-confidence.  Had Pellegrini meekly embraced the popular cant – Demechelis had no business on the pitch; YaYa was too passive; Barca is a Big Club, and City is a mere pretender – or worse yet, said nothing at all, his players would have headed to the Camp Nou with all the sunny optimism of an out of favor member of the North Korean ruling family.



Like any good engineer, our Chilean mastermind crafted a simple, elegant response to a vexing problem.  His message to a reeling squad: “It’s not your fault.  This was a fluke.  These Catalan guys are beatable.  Beatable? They needed referee collusion and a man advantage to hold their own with you!”  City will head to Barcelona with confident hearts and minds bent on revenge.  Camp Nou’s considerable mystique will not overawe a club convinced that they were robbed in their own stadium.  Emboldened by their manager’s confidence, bolstered by the return of their leading goal scorer, what else can City do but rattle off a 3 – nil victory in Barcelona? It’s a done deal, un fait accompli, as they say. 



Hope.  It is a terrible thing.




Thursday, February 20, 2014

JUST CHAMPION



"Will I see you at Half Time? I never make plans that far ahead"

Whilst the battle rages for the hearts and minds of the City faithful (“Ollie” Holt doing a particularly snazzy job of demolished flattened City and plucky oh-so-close Arsenal in his fabulous Mirror pieces this week– am I going nuts? No, really, somebody please help me with this), the real Champions League pressure test on Tuesday night was being enacted in the full and unforgiving glare of the strip lights and stiiff white curtains of the Mancunian Suite.



Here amongst the squadrons of trembling acne-clad teenage waiters and the phalanx (phalanx? Oh, yes, that’s definitely a phalanx) of mini skirted, Cossack-hatted hostesses, the talk was of “dying for the company” and “taking one for the marketing team”. Our table, populated by sales figure masseurs and global double digit profit enhancers, hummed to the sounds of fall-out from last Wednesday’s emergency sales meeting and the new directives from that “big nosed oaf” in the Paris office. Every time I initiated a conversation about Vincent Kompany’s hamstrings or, God forbid, the tao and te of Martin Demichelis, I was shouted down by a tall woman whose look for the evening had been constructed by teams of experts from Barrett Homes and TarMacadum. She was alternatively “so excited to be here” and also “deeply worried about last month’s figures”. She had both had her photo taken “downstairs” with Patrick Vieira and been talking urgently to Maximilian from the Brussels office. The excitement and the confusion was at once palpable and ever so slightly ridiculous. The former was all hers, the latter mostly mine. 

You could, in fact, already cut the atmosphere with a knife.



Behind me, a fellow with a Mancunian accent was timidly embarking on free discourse about Clive Wilson and the art of working the left flank. Looking around from time to time to check he hadn’t been rumbled, I caught his eye and winked. It gave us both strength to continue. We were not alone. Not totally alone, but damn near it.



Meanwhile on our table, Jean Luc was taking one for the wine waiter, a short, bespotted boy with unfeasibly slick hair, who was nervously attempting to nudge napkins into position whilst remaining utterly invisible to the naked eye. An upbringing on the mean streets of Timperley might have helped him in this ephemeral shimmering that he was undertaking. His vitally important guest was busy ignoring his darting movements completely but I for one felt his uniquely terrible pain. Another charming young girl passed with a visiby wobbling bottle of Perrier atop a small tray, nay tablet, and stopped to ask us who we supported. I coughed a piece of mini spiced pretzel across the lush carpet and refused to answer what I have come to consider an obviously unnecessary question. Would I look as sallow and harassed as this if I supported Barcelona, for God's sake? The girl continued, nervously trying to pronounce Fernandinho whilst smiling, welcoming, gesturing and pouring at the same time. I got the water in my lap (it wasn’t even meant for me, I’m a strictly as much alcohol as possible man at City games, always have been, since the age of six and the unfortunate Barney Daniels Incident) and a nervously giggled let’s hope “Fernushkambranca” does play anyway! Will there be anything else?! No? Enjoy your sparkling water.”



David Silva’s non-smiling face looked out at me from the cover of my free programme.
"Barman. Two pints of Dizzy Lady and a finger dip"
Alongside him, a friendship scarf sat on my side plate like a big loud raspberry to the partisan hatred of anything that might attempt to get in the way of my City winning this game. I pushed it under my posterior in an attempt to be high enough to meet the towering gaze of the marketing lady from TarMac eye to eye. She caught me stuffing the ungodly garment under my buttocks and shot me a gaze of puzzled interest. I felt like sending off one of my best Rick Blaine lines from Casablanca. "Honey, it doesn't matter a hill of beans what you just saw. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship....". Instead I removed the half and half scarf from the back of my trousers and waved it at her, to prove that I had not been foraging in the undergrowth for anything else. Her smouldering heavy-lidded eyes told me she was impressed and drawn unknowingly to my Kippax Terrace animal charms.



As we had only been drinking in town since midday, it was easy to sit and refocus for a minute, as the troop of helpers assigned to our eight person table hovered, dillied, dallied, bowed and scraped. I had not started the day looking like a high powered member of upper management and was damn sure my afternoon activities had not rendered me any more business-powerful, but still they came, still they called me “sir” and smiled without batting an eyelid at my untucked shirt and the cloud of Stella mist hanging around us. Their unswerving dedication to the cause was noted with humility and gratitude and a certain amount of minor dribbling.   



So I skipped and hopped my way through the salmon escabeche (“hey, it’s not cooked in the middle” – “Shall I get you another one?” – “It’s suposed to be like that you arse”....), the Salted Catalan Cod lying in its own bed of sorry excuses and the Seville Orange Crema Catalana, apparently flambéd orange flavoured egg custard (“you’d think the bloody thing would melt, wouldn’t you...?).



Having fallen victim to the wooziness that comes from adding white aperitif wine, bottles of Moretti and a flaggon of red wine to the afternoon’s schooners of Stella, I breezed the breeze and gulped in the fresh air of a cool Mancunian evening outside. My seat, padded to the density of a
My empanada, showing French teeth marks
small prince's bed made from the feathery down of a thousand migratory Barnacle Geese accepted me with an embrace not unlike Aunty Edith at Christmas: deep, warm and eerily sticky. There it was: the dreaded plastic sheeting draped everywhere. We were to be part of the mosaic, a marvellous continental invention which is made for television, but not for those in the ground. 

In your living room you see hitherto unimagined scenes and unexpectedly touching choreography, a swelling performance of artistry and syncronisation from 46,030 people. In the ground, it stops you clapping and hollering, it comes off on your hands (if you are part of the 97% of the stadium holding up “bits of black”, as they are technically called, and it prevents you from seeing the, er, fantastic display being put on for the good people in their living rooms. Still, unlike those poor souls on black, I later discovered that my white plastic sheet meant that I and other like-minded folk around me had been holding up the European Cup!! Or the Champions League Trophy, if you are new age. Inadvertently, me and Jean Luc and the inevitable small family party of Japanese that had by now appeared at our side, were to be the chosen ones, who got closest to the cup with the big ears this season. Closer than Vinnie, closer even than Michel Platini and his mates, probably now supping pints of Lambrusco with the Gallagher Clan downstairs. Vive La Belgium, I was tempted to shout in all the excitement but felt it might be grammatically corrected by Jean Luc, who had at last joined us from the bosom of next years Grand Plan du Marketing and was busy scooping hungrily at the last fragments of flambéd Crema Catalana on the lapels of his Vanessa Paradis Trenchcoat.



(....First half ...)



Ah, half time. Wonderful. A time to be back inside again. Amongst friends and colleagues, but mainly colleagues. My menu card (which was so large you had to stand up and edge away from the table to read it, unless you wanted to take someone’s eye out or flip the masses of glasses over) read “HALF TIME: Spicy beef empanada with garlic aioli”. Now I cannot quite remember whether I was ready for such a treat. Quite possibly not. The afternoon Stella(s), interacting nicely with my salted cod and crema Catalana, were making me feel like a mobile Quatermass experiment, but still the sight of Jean Luc, with his immaculately straight blue tie and his side parting and rows of identical sales figures, eating a second beef empanada (there were 4 in the little presentation dish. There were 4 of us there to scoff, er consume, them. Thus ONE EACH) set the tone, I now realise, for the beginning of the second half, where yours truly behaved, as the FA Disciplinary Hearing I should have been called to might have put it, in a way utterly unbefitting a marketing executive of Giant Rollover PLC

We are of course there to set an example. We are there to show the younger ones how to behave in public, which knife to start with (always work in from the outside, kids), how to drink bubbly water without provoking a giant coughing fit and a spray-filled replica of the Iguazo Falls, how to tuck in your napkin and double knot your half and half scarf. Well, they were there for that. As an imposter, a non-board member, a non executive and indeed a non-conformist, this gesture of empanada theft, my empanada, by the loose lipped Frenchman, helped to push me, if not over – that would be in the capable hands of Mr Jonas Eriksson of Sweden-, then towards the very edge of the precipice.



I had been walking a tight –and somewhat swervy- line for some time already.



He didn’t even ask. He did not ackowledge his sudden bout of the Les munchies du mi-temps. He did not apologise. He did not treat us to the rogue grin of L'Homme Qui Doit Manger Tous. He just launched himself at it, his second don’t forget, taking a giant, finger-including scoop of the spicy mayonnaise (this is what they mean by garlic aioli I was informed by a culinary insider) and – and this was the defining moment of my forthcoming surge of table rage – continued to pontificate in a French accent about his sales team’s otherworldly performance. I could see small bits of my empanada going around in his mouth, fragments of my soul being crunched and lubricated and suffocated and smashed, utterly smashed.



My empanada alongside Jean Luc's, before he ate both
I thought of Napolean and went back outside. What happened next sealed it for me completely. It was a good six or seven minutes into the second half and the defining moment was already about to fall. My night was about to be complete. With the play ebbing and flowing, back came the seven man Japanese party, one by one with an interval between each nodding member just long enough to allow you to sit down again before the next one arrived, bowing and clearing bits of, what, empanada!!!, from their lips. Darkness closed in around me, a fog descended, I took to my feet and I began to shout at nobody in particular in the loudest voice I could muster. Mists seized me, as did a large man with onion breath and a walkie talkie.


I looked him full in his one good eye, took a good grip of his lapels and whispered, "Of all the gin joints of all the towns in all the world, you walked into mine ...."

Darkness.

Friday, February 14, 2014

MASTER AND PUPIL

It is well documented elsewhere in these pages how Malcolm Allison, dubbed the Original Special One, was responsible for planting some of the early seeds of José Mourinho’s interest in and indeed enthusiasm for football coaching, but many overlook the possibility that Big Mal, the irrepressible larger-than-life character, who took City to hitherto unscaled heights, may also have been responsible for kick-starting the young Mourinho’s penchant for mind games, that most tedious of modern managerial tools to unsettle the opposition staff and fans.

While many of Mourinho’s outbursts contain a slightly nasty streak to them, witness his labelling of Arsene Wenger as a "master of failure", Allison tended to contente himself with good old fashioned ridicule and a helping of bravado.



In an era where these things were novel new tricks, Allison was the master. Already responsible for innovative ideas in team formation, diet, exercise and match preparation (Allison introduced dance and yoga sessions for City’s players to improve their poise and balance on the field of play and was experimenting with what was called his “O System” which left the midfielders to interchange their positions and switch with the forwards leaving a hole – or “O” – in the middle, an early forerunner of Rinus Michels’ Totaalvoetbal, which would woo the world at the ’74 World Cup Finals in West Germany. Mike Summerbee still maintains to this day that “the Dutch learned that from us”), Big Mal was also at home winding up the opposition, particularly when it happened to be Manchester United. 

Whilst younger fans of the game think English football’s new era was wafted gently in by the arrival of Arsene Wenger from Japan with his cunning plan to ween Tony Adams and Kenny Sansom off their ten pint lunchtime habit and keep Perry Groves out of Mcdonalds, Allison and City were ushering in similar regimes thirty or more years earlier.



Allison’s tactical meandering knew no bounds when he took on the City job, again mirroring the acute awareness shown by Mourinho in his ability to react to the way powerful sides set up against his own. Even before his arrival at City, where he gradually had access to a better quality of playing staff, Allison had experimented with unusual tactics and formations at Plymouth that had started to get him noticed. Once at Maine Road he completely flummoxed stuffy BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme by playing Tony Book as a sweeper. The BBC man repeatedly referred to Book as a “kind of sweeper-up” in his commentary and was enthralled to find Allison was playing Glyn Pardoe at right back with the number nine on his back in “City’s rather strange format”. 

For the mid-sixties, this was space age stuff.



It was a chance meeting with United’s pugnacious midfielder Paddy Crerand at a North West sportsman’s dinner that may have started what was to become a systematic United-baiting habit.

Crerand, revelling in the pain of City’s lowly status (it had not been long since the infamous Swindon game in Division Two had attracted an all-time low attendance of 8,015 to Maine Road), had had a bet with Allison that they would never again attract a crowd of over 30,000.



....I loathe the bumptious patronising tones of some of their players, their hangers-on and some of their supporters...” – Malcolm Allison referring to Manchester United in 1967, again well ahead of his time!



Allison would take Crerand’s sneering to heart and never forget it. When, a few seasons later, City were riding the crest of a wave, back in the top flight and already matching United’s crowds and glamour, Allison would take it upon himself, sensing the right pre-match moment when the ground was practically full and the atmosphere bubbling, to stride out onto the pitch and walk straight towards the Stretford End, provoking a hail of boos and insults. Loving every second of it, Allison would raise four fingers to show the gathered Unitedites what he felt the scoreline was going to be that afternoon. 

He was at once a showman and an arch wind-up merchant. In the championship winning season of 67-68, before the antagonism had taken root, Allison sent his whole team out to warm up in front of the Stretford End. As the City players carried out Allison’s orders to conduct a team wave to the ranks of United fans, he was pleased to note with suitable understatement that “an atmosphere of agitation” had been created. 

He even allegedly hired a steeplejack to scale the roof at Old Trafford one night and pull the flag down to half-mast. Imagine the fun that would ensue if Mourinho attempting to pull that off at the Etihad.



"3-0 to us this time, lads!"
Earlier, when he had teamed up with Joe Mercer and the pair were attempting to build a decent side, Allison famously watched Colin Bell at Bury, loudly deriding the future City and England ace as slow and unable to either pass or tackle, in the hope that other clubs’ scouts would report back that Bell was indeed rubbish. 

When scouting for a new goalkeeper, Allison instructed Joe Mercer to bid for Leicester’s Gordon Banks. “Ring up Leicester and tell them we’ll do a deal for 50,000 pounds,” he told his colleague with typical bravado. Leicester turned the bid down. Later an incandescent Mal discovered that the penny-conscious Mercer had only bid 40,000 and Banks had instead gone to Stoke, who had bid the correct amount.



Allison’s later years at City and then Crystal Palace involved the development of the Big Mal persona, featuring regularly on London Weekend Television’s Big Match with Brian Moore and on ITV’s first ever World Cup panel in 1970, where his outspoken comments made him a godsend to the new format.



That he would later coach Vitoria Setubal, where Mourinho Felix was his goalkeeping coach, was apt. Mourinho's son, José, watching interestedly from the sidelines, would one day emulate Allison’s gamesmanship himself, using word and gesture to wind up the opposition before important games. That he doesn’t quite carry it off with the panache of the champagne swigging Allison should not be held against him. 

Big Mal, after all, was always the real benchmark for all would-be agents provocateurs



Friday, February 7, 2014

THE DONKEY DERBY


Sad little Kippax, before he ate FineDope (c)

This is the story of a little donkey. The donkey’s name was Kippax and it lived on a farm with a herd of other donkeys. Kippax would spend its days wandering around behind the other donkeys, minding its own business, eating grass and producing medium-to-large amounts of methane, like little donkeys are wont to do. Kippax’s flatulence was never a real issue, but, you know, there was always plenty of hot air. As Kippax grew up, it became a fully fledged member of the herd, neighing and cavorting, even occasionally gamboling, with the others. The donkeys would race to the far gate to see who would be first to get his head in the trough when cruel Farmer Hardaker put the hay and fodder out for them. Sometimes Kippax would win the race and get to the hay first, but often it was beaten to it by bigger stronger donkeys. Kippax did not mind this because it felt natural and normal. In fact it became known as the natural order of things amongst the donkeys.



One day the farm was sold to a new farmer, called Farmer Murdoch. He quickly began sprucing the place up, painting the stables and straightening the pigs’ tails. Farmer Murdoch didn’t much care for ambling donkeys. He was keen to see something a little more dynamic, something that might attract visitors to his farm or investment in his outbuildings, so he encouraged the bigger donkeys to be greedy and to take all the hay for themselves. He put obstacles in the way of the other donkeys, so that they wouldn’t win any of the races. As the bigger donkeys began to win the daily races to the hay troughs, they got even bigger and stronger, some of them expanding to the girth of a medium sized Conservative politician. The same magnificent donkeys would be taken to the annual agricultural fair, where they would win sundry prizes and gain great fame and fortune. Some would then go on take part in the Grand Donkey Derby an event that took place abroad, where they would often make fools of themselves, but occasionally come back with a rosette and a big bag of feed as a special prize. Even when they lost the Donkey Derby, they would always be well fed, making them stonger than ever for the race across the field when they got back home.



The other donkeys stayed at the farm. Some, like Pompey and Shaggy Bates, became lame and were put down, whilst others hobbled on in their own haphazard way. Kippax grew thin and pale, wandered the field’s very perimetre and produced stools of an unusual colour and terrifically vile odour. He never won the race across the field, finding the ground cut up by the magnificent hooves of the quicker donkeys. At one point his groom, Master Pollock, very nearly killed him altogether when he left a rake on the floor and it twatted him full on the hooter.



Highland Fergus, Âne + José Burro enjoying the high life
Children who visited never chose to ride on Kippax, as he smelled off and looked awful. On more than one occasion the Farmer thought about calling in the vet to administrate, but something always stopped him. Meantime, the other donkeys that had grown fat and strong from winning all the races, amongst them Fergus the irritable highland donkey, Âne the French ass and José Burro, a noisy braying Portuguese Wild Ass, wore fine coats of thick lustrous fur and had pretty ribbons and garlands festooned around them. Visitors came from far and wide to watch these magnificent creatures whilst nobody took any notice of Kippax and the other bedraggled specimens at the back of the herd.



Then one day, somebody did take a look at the other members of the group. A man in a strange outfit arrived with a big bucket of ultra quick donkey feed, called FineDope (c), apparently manufactured in a laboratory in Abu Dhabi, as he saw this was the only way to build up the poor wretched Kippax quickly enough to be able to enter the Donkey Derby always won by the big powerful animals. Fergus and Âne and José Burro got very angry at this and pushed and nuzzled their way to see what was happening. When they saw one of the bedraggled specimens was growing strong like them, they began to bleat and neigh to such an extent that nobody got any sleep for weeks. José Burro made a whining sound like an animal being lowered into a mincer, despite the fact that he had often eaten FineDope (c) himself in the past. The noise became so great that police arrived from foreign fields, amongst them a Very Special Constable called Michel.



Michel had strict ideas about how laws work and thought it unfair that the big fat dominant donkeys, who he thought had grown strong by their own careful ways, should now be challenged by one of the dirty ones with matted fur. He told the farmer that he would not allow any donkey that had been given FineDope (c) to show at the fair. “Eet ees unfair for zees lurvly durnkyes to ‘ave thees durty wurns stand in zer way. Zees wurns must nurt enter to ze Donkey Derby. Eet ees only for nice donkeys wiz good fur.” he said and spoke to all the donkeys warning them not to eat odd food given to them by strange foreigners wearing frocks, even if they were starving hungry. “But we are dying of hunger,” said one of the other donkeys, Old Villa, and was soon joined by Fat Ash (who was in fact as thin as a hose pipe by now) and Toffee. “If we don’t eat, we will surely die. It was the same for Kippax and now he’s a big strong boy.” they neighed.



Fat Ash wearing thin
Bu the special constable had other ideas and aimed his gun at Kippax. “If zees one comes to zee Donkey derby after eating FineDope (c) ze end will be sweeft” he shouted. But Kippax had already buried the sacks with FineDope written on them and was now strong enough to run with the others to get to the hay. He could run as fast, if not faster, than the three big donkeys and did not need anymore FineDope (c). But when he ran for food the next day and, getting to the hay first, began to tuck in, Special Constable Michel rose from behind the wall. “Zees,” he said, holding up a sack of FineDope, “just zees!”. But when he opened it, he found only normal hay, the same hay that all the other strong donkeys had been devouring over the years. The big donkeys were dismayed and even some of the starving donkeys, being animals with limited intelligence, felt sad too. When they saw Highland Fergus and José Burro unhappy, they automatically felt unhappy too, although they weren’t entirely sure why. That’s donkeys for you.



By this time Kippax was a strong and succesful donkey, easily winning the races across the field and beating Fergus and José Burro to the continental shows, where he preened and posed alongside donkeys from neighbouring fields, like Klippety Klopp and Frank Ribery. One day Special Constable Michel looked down at his feet and found that Kippax had delivered a rather large steamy dollop to his shiny policeman’s boots. It was a kind of metaphor, but none of the donkeys understood because they were all as thick as pig shit.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

ODE TO THE SHEEP SHEARING DAYS

Cort McMurray takes a look at how perceptions of the Blues are changing and how we need to change with them:


Yesterday, I watched the Super Bowl.  I am not a fan of NFL football – it’s a brutal, pointless, mind numbingly dull game, an opinion that has nothing to do with my miserable and failed career as a Little League offensive tackle, I promise --  but I’m an American. The Super Bowl in America is like Christmas in Britain: even if you don’t believe in it, you put up the decorations.

Part way through the game, a brutal, pointless and mind-numblingly dull evisceration of the Denver Broncos by the Seattle Seahawks, the cameras flashed on celebrities in the crowd, witnessing the spectacle. There was Kevin Costner, wearing a black turtleneck with what appeared to be a gray shawl, looking dour and imperial, like Dame Judith Anderson with a manly haircut. There was Hugh Jackman, fashionably unshaven and jovial. 

And there was Paul McCartney.  

No longer one of the Four Lads Who Shook The World, Super Bowl Paul is wrinkled and jowly, his hair dyed an unnatural orange, glumly gumming a slice of pizza while a young woman I can only assume is his personal nurse stands by with his heart pills and diabetes medication.

This depressed me no end, this silent, sober reminder that nothing in our uncertain world is constant. Bright brilliant youth slumps into high trousered dotage. Things fall apart. Everything changes. I want the Paul of my childhood, jamming with the band on London rooftops and shearing sheep on the Mull of Kintyre. I want Paul the way he used to be.

Paul, Linda and a young Alan Kernaghan
Which brings me to the Premier League.

City’s recent rise to prominence, fueled by Chilean strategy, a United Nations of talent and several shipping containers of Abu Dhabian cash, has prompted much comment, most of it scathingly negative. It’s not mere criticism. Let’s face it, some things that have happened in the club’s last decade – City’s brief, uncomfortable association with a southeast Asian strongman, for starters – have been worthy of criticism. This more recent vitriol is beyond criticism. It’s ad hominem and angry and frequently scatological. And surpassingly ignorant.

It boils down to this: “City have always been A Certain Type of Club. How dare they change?” City aren't that club, anymore, no matter what twitchy Internet posters want. The change is confusing and uncomfortable, and it’s hardly happening only to City.  Just like seeing a septuagenarian Sir Paul forces everyone to consider their own mortality, a rampant, world class Manchester City forces fans of other clubs to recognize the fundamental changes happening throughout the Premier League: Twenty years ago, English football clubs were mostly managed by Englishmen, and mostly stocked with Englishmen, and mostly owned by Englishmen. They were essentially Mom and Pop operations, where even the biggest, most successful clubs had their shirts sponsored by the local newspaper or an automobile glass repair outfit.

Today, foreign tactics and foreign players dominate, fueled by scads of foreign money. It’s different. For some, it’s uncomfortable. That doesn’t alter the facts: the League isn’t Mom and Pop anymore; it’s a sophisticated cartel of multinational entertainment conglomerates, dealing in staggering amounts of money and exerting its influence in a dizzying number of countries. That may rankle the northern sensibilities of your typical Newcastle supporter, but it doesn’t change the reality.

Manchester City’s chief offence seems to be that, unlike, say, Cardiff City, or Hull City, it had the great good fortune to get foreign ownership who understands the supporters’ connection to their club, and actively works to both “grow the brand,” and nurture good feelings in the City community. That’s what generates the viciousness, the bitterness and the rancor: the change happened and other clubs got stuck with carpetbaggers and confidence men. And we got lucky. 

There have been missteps – Gary Cook was a mistake, and tossing over Umbro for the fleshpots of Niketown strikes a false note – but they have been few and fairly minor.  The Impeccable Sheiks seem genuinely committed to protecting and preserving City’s unique flavor. There have been no uncomfortable ad campaigns, in which the Starting Eleven was made to tout fried chicken, no outrageous replacement of team colors, no crest changes, aimed at improving souvenir sales in the crucial Asian markets. It’s a newer, bigger, brighter Manchester City, but it’s still City.  The Family Mansour has done right by the club and its supporters.

They have also positioned City beautifully to take a place on the international stage. Their “City in the Community” project has built soccer academies in underprivileged neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Miami, quietly establishing bastions of City supporters across North America, and their heavy investment in the MLS club New York City FC automatically makes the United States’s economic capital the club’s second home. Humanitarian efforts have raised City’s profile in Africa and Asia.  And of course, they play an inventive, exciting, deeply entertaining brand of football. While the London clubs bicker and snipe like the intermarried potentates of fading 16th century monarchies and the rotting empire in Salford slowly descends into mob rule and madness, City’s brain trust is quietly, competently gaining strength and influence.
Not tonight, City are playing

All of this is hard to take for the people who want everything to stay the same.  This is even true for City supporters. You cannot be City if you don’t love the underdog, don’t have a heart tuned to the irony of it all, don’t appreciate that sooner or later, Life will break your heart.  That is who we are. Winning trophies will not change that. But we aren’t in Moss Side anymore. Those days, those wonderful days, have gone.  Different days await.  If Maine Road was Our First Love, all scraped knees and grade school gangle, The Etihad is Our Grown-Up Romance: a tad frosty perhaps, but dazzling with sophistication and endless, elegant curves. It’s like we went away to University, and ended up dating a young Catherine Deneuve. Out of our league? Maybe.   

But how do you say no to a young Catherine Deneuve?


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A FLUSTERED CHICKEN WRITES....



Modern football is simultaneously a spectacularly feathered bird of many interesting hues and
an oddly hyper-reactive chicken pecking furiously at its own back end.


The inevitable fall-out to a lively encounter between City and Chelsea, with the spoils of war rightfully carried off by the visiting Londoners, has been interesting to say the least. From the home fans self-combusting with ire that this that and the other was done incorrectly and that the end of the world must be nigh, to the soothsayers returning José Mourinho to Mount Zion and the Pantheon of Football Genii, the air has been thick and acrid with loud words and big ideas.

As ever, somewhere in amongst all the froth and the bluster lies the truth.

Only twice under the still fresh reign of Manuel Pellegrini have City looked hopelessly exposed, against Bayern Munchen in the Champions League and in this latest enthralling encounter with Chelsea. On both occasions, City remained steadfast in their belief that two upfront is the answer to all questions, whether they are being put to them in guttural Bavarian German or with a hybrid Cockney/Portuguese accent. On each occasion, City’s middle orders gradually became swamped and the home side were given a severe to medium run-around. 

Against Chelsea the effect was worsened somewhat by the absence of the metronome Fernandinho, his replacement the pedestrian Martin Demichelis starting competently enough with some nice touches and clean tackles, but soon after midway through the first period, becoming more and more isolated as Yaya Touré believed himself to be the evening's superhuman. The Ivorian may have had good reason. With Chelsea beginning the game cautiously, City had a number of chances as the Elephant of Bondoukou arrived snorting a nd steaming at the edge of the box and traversed into it on a variety of dangerous forays that could have brought the opening goal. Had he managed to get a studded boot on to the end of a remarkably accurate Aleksander Kolarov cross, it would have been City in the lead and perhaps a different game unfolding.

This did not happen and, as Chelsea realised there was space to move into, so they occupied it. The midfield five, including an impressive threesome of ex-Benfica men in David Luiz, Ramires and a very mobile Matic making his first full appearance, did their job of harrying, closing and breaking at speed and in numbers excellently well. With Hazard’s poise and Willian’s thrusting energy, the away side’s middle orders possessed every element needed to pick City’s pockets with relative ease. Bayern had done the same to even greater effect at the tail end of 2013, their movement and drive too much for an understaffed City midfield.

The naysayers and wall beaters, in the calmness of daylight, might well want to review the fact that, even on what was obviously an off day for the home side, despite bars and posts being hit with worrying frequency by Chelsea, City were within two magnificent Peter Cech saves (from David Silva’s free kick and Stevan Jovetic’s piledriver) from drawing a late equaliser from the game. As undeserved as it would have been, the Blues would have come out of the match battered but intact and we might have been spared some of the masterful press headlines of exploding title races and blasted certainties. Whoever clears up the mess after a title race has exploded, has his work cut out this morning, that's for sure. It's everywhere. Up the walls. Everywhere.

Chelsea now return to the capital with renewed hope and belief that they can compete on an even keel for this hotly disputed 2013-14 title. Mourinho, master of the quote, purveyor of the look, flapper of the arm (more imaginary cards than your local paper shop) and waver of the leg, will wake this morning knowing that his amusing side show has once again had a meaningful effect, despite the rudimentary aspects of its introduction and the base form of its utilization. For beneath that scowling palid exterior that he seems to have fostered since he was last on the touchlines of Old Albion (how can a spell in Spain make one go pale?), aside from the unnecessarily disrespectful soundbites about Scottish kitmen and their garbled team talks, lies a sharp tactical brain that has soaked up the lessons of working with some of football’s greatest managers. 

Whilst Pellegrini continues to play a straight faced straight bat, it is time now for City to show their mettle. With Fernandinho, Nasri and Aguero absent and Negredo nursing a damaged shoulder back to life, City need to push on as beatable middle order opponents line up for the upcoming fixtures. 

The next league fixtures involve Norwich, Sunderland, Stoke, Villa, Hull and Fulham in that order. Although the small matter of a League Cup Final with Sunderland, a 5th round FA Cup match with Chelsea and a Champions League Round of 16 game with Barcelona must all be played amongst these league fixtures,there is every chance that City will emerge at the top of the table by mid March. 

As the temperature rises and the doubters’ voices become ever more shrill, the quiet Chilean will again be confronted with quotes about being the “nearly man” in possession of the “near-empty trophy cabinet”. City were never infallible and are not now suddenly broken, just as Chelsea have always been a contender and are not now anything different. Football’s twenty-four-seven circus will see to it that more gas and hot air is spent over the next few days concerning this smoke-filled, dangerously unstable title race . 

We will watch and read and cogitate with interest.and when the beast has ceased to peck furiously at its own behind, we will once again sit back and admire its beautiful feathers.

A version of this article has already appeared on ESPN's pages 

Monday, February 3, 2014

THE TIDE TURNS



Could it be that the tide is beginning to flow in a different direction?

José Mourinho, the latest manager encharged with derobing City, has filed various quotes in the run up to the game, each one slightly more ridiculous, slightly more transparent than the last. Chelsea cannot match City’s spending, he moaned, like a man with a pet hippopotamus that is jealous of the guy next door taking a shower under the trunk of his stoutly built elephant; Why does everyone hate Chelsea and not City, he asked himself out loud over the weekend. Firstly, it is in his interest that everyone hates Chelsea, so that he can continue to propagate the tired old chestnut that it is the world versus Chelsea. Alex Ferguson initiated the same us versus them mentality to great effect at Old Trafford for a generation. 

In Chelsea's case this is clearly not true anyway. The West Londoners, like City, have been the target of sporadic jibes about financial doping – that most Wengeresque of terms – but little more than this. If there are those that are not so enamoured, then this is as a result of the borderline tedious power football that Mourinho espouses. It overpowers, it throttles the life away but it rarely entertains in the true sense of the word. Mourinho’s sides have seldom let themselves go, despite a row of more than impressive achievements over the years. He is a winner, first and foremost, a pragmatic tactician and agent provocateur secondly. His sides must function, must do what they were programmed to do. And that is simply, to win. Frills and fripperies he has always been happy to leave to others.

City meanwhile, led by the non-plussed, seen it all before, Manuel Pellegrini, seem ripe to enter a whole new phase. The scintillating beauty of their football, the efficacy of the four, five, six and seven goal slaughters may become tedious to some, but to many others a bright new dawn is appearing over the distant hills. A new club, led by the on-pitch ethic of play and entertain, score one but don’t stop there, concede three then score five, has risen from the charred ashes of Alan Ball and Peter Reid, of Sam Ellis and Phil Neal. Where Mourinho applies the brakes and reorganises, Pellegrini’s folk continue to pile forward in an avalanche of fearless attacking football. 

Whatever one's feelings are about buyng success and about super rich club owners, few people rail against football played in this manner. The feeling is that a team that will be remembered as one of the country’s greats of the modern era has been constructed and is strutting its stuff in Manchester right now. That the arrival of such deep pleasures for the now tediously monikered long suffering City fans (yes it was a long nightmare; it got a bit frantic and airless, but we survived, we're still here, the suffering has long ceased, so all is well) comes at precisely the moment United are imploding under the alice in wonderland leadership of David Moyes, only heightens the sensation of new-found glee.

It is not just this, however. A new slant on City can be sensed in the press too. In the last week a number of long pieces in praise of the club have appeared. If Martin Samuel has long campaigned against the lunacy and false morals of FFP, he has now been joined by a varied bunch of football watchers and protagonists in their praise for City, a growing group who appear ready to acknowledge what is by far the most important aspect of all this: the football being played out there on the pitch.


"The tide is turning. Keep your eyes on the horizon and the pounding waves will carry in your dreams..."


Daniel Taylor in the Guardian in his “Changing Skyline of Manchester” article (...”if it is a deception, apologies in advance for being reeled in” he says) and Paul Hayward  in The Telegraph have both opined that we are on the brink of seeing something truly special emerge, a footballing ethos that blows away petty squabbles over finance, that makes one forget about the nasty mud throwing being carried out by the small-minded of the football community, that warms the heart on these cold, wet, blustery winter evenings. With FFP being tackled – to a fashion – and a muddy building site around the ground delivering greater definition to City’s future prospects by the day, the growing conviction is of a serious power base being readied for years to come. Football dynasties come and go. The last great one, over the border in Salford, has been dismantled in such rude haste that it will take a little more time for most of us to become accustomed to searching for United in the section of the table where Newcastle and Southampton sit. A 25-year stranglehold released in the space of half a season of muddling slapstick. Of all people to fill the sudden void, it is the team dubbed in fearful haste as the Noisy Neighbours, who in fact bray little these days and are more than happy to let their feet do the talking instead.

Vanquished Tottenham boss Tim Sherwood called City the “best team on the planet” after the Blues had added five to a previous six against Spurs this season. Ian Holloway and, most amazingly of all, Alan Hansen have been heard to utter similarly high praise over the last few days. Barcelona tweet constant updates of what City are doing, whilst the Spanish press have named City as exactly the draw Barcelona did not want in the Champions League. Where Jason van Blerk once trod, the great and good of the game fear to walk.

City are breaking new territory, winning new hearts and minds with this cavalcade of beautiful football and, in a world where this sport of ours is dismantled on a daily basis into its tiniest, most grubby parts, it is this, the football, that has always mattered most. 


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