Sunday, January 11, 2015

DAYS OF HOPE

On Sunday 21st April 2002 Manchester City successfully completed their promotion season under Kevin Keegan and claimed the unrestrained cheers of a 34,657 sell-out crowd at Maine Road. Keegan had brought the club back from the wilderness and into the Premier League. Many in the crowd that day could not remember the last season City had entertained us so royally from start to finish, possibly because such a thing more than likely simply did not exist.
 
That last match, a 3-1 win over Portsmouth, will remain in the memories for many reasons, not least the stunning 108 goals scored to equal City’s all-time record. Stuart Pearce’s last minute penalty miss had put a typically City cork in a season of incessantly flowing champagne. It was also Pearce’s last game in 20 years of professional football and the miss left him hanging forlornly on 99 career goals.
 
There was laughter and there were tears for the end of a season so full of brisk attacking football, so many goals and so many fabulous team performances.
 
City finished ten points clear of West Brom with a goal difference of +54. The Premier League awaited Keegan’s maestros and a summer of high anticipation awaited the rest of us.
 
For much of that season – and indeed for the final part of the Portsmouth game – Keegan had chosen to play with a midfield, which was vibrant, fluid, technically brilliant and collectively unstoppable. It was an engine room that purred and cantered through so many games, creating and indeed scoring an absolute hatful of goals.
 
It is ironic then, in the light of this week’s atrocities in Paris, to remember that it was a midfield containing a pair of down to earth Brits (Shaun Wright Philips and Kevin Horlock), plus the most unlikely pairing of creative magicians the English game had seen for a very long time: one, Eyal Berkovic, an Israeli, a Jew, had played the day the Twin Towers fell, in a Worthington Cup tie at Notts County, a match which surely would have been better off being cancelled. The other, Ali Bernabia, an Algerian Muslim, joined the club two days later and made his debut in the very next game, a 3-0 home win over Birmingham, where he marked an astonishingly accomplished debut with a plethora of laser-accurate passes and an assist for one of Shaun Goater’s two goals.
 
Benarbia, in the twilight of a beautiful career that had mainly been played out in France, would play 41 games that season and Berkovic – hampered by injury – 30. It was their first season together at the heart of the City engine room and it will be remembered for many a long year for the cohesion and spirit shown by the two players.
 
 
 
The following season, the pair would once again feature heavily, Berkovic clocking 28 games and Benarbia contributing to 35, as City easily consolidated their new found place in the elite.
 
In the twisting, fizzing acceleration of the Israeli and the clever, minimalist passing of the little Algerian, City had found a kind of footballing heaven and the two protagonists had found in each other their perfect foil.
 
It was perhaps not so evident then – despite the searing recollection of the attacks on American soil that autumn – but the pair came to symbolise what sport could manage and politicians plainly could not. In light of the many heart-warming reactions to the week’s events in the French capital, it may not after all only be the world of sport where a rapprochement of faiths and backgrounds can work for the harmony of the greater good.
 
 

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