Tuesday, July 28, 2015

FINDING THE RIGHT FIT



In a little under a month Manchester City will walk out for their first home fixture of the new season. The Etihad Stadium, formerly known as the City of Manchester Stadium (and briefly before that even, as the Commonwealth Games Stadium), continues to grow upwards and outwards as City’s owners assiduously follow their masterplan to have the club join the elite of European football.

Champions League participation has already brought the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona (twice) and Bayern Munich (an incredible three times) to Manchester to play on an increasingly well-recognised world football stage. Rangers and Zenit also brought some kind of scruffy limelight upon the place for the noisy and ill-behaved 2008 UEFA Cup Final. The giant scoreboards, the huge pylons and shimmering slabs of aluminium and glass fibre, the arcing bridges of threaded wire are a common sight these days, just 13 years on from the exuberant weeks when Manchester successfully hosted the Commonwealth Games.


City fans greet the Blues and Barcelona for the opening of the stadium
“The Commonwealth Games has almost single handedly salvaged the reputation of Britain as a country to stage major sporting events,” wrote Duncan Mackay in the Guardian, on the first anniversary of the games, as City prepared to launch a bright new future for themselves in the revamped stadium.
The London Olympics would seal this renaissance well and truly, but the tide had turned in Manchester in 2002.


Looking back today, the opening match in the stadium looks like an artistic piece of weird and wonderful prescience, as it involved a visiting team that in those days was a more or less complete stranger to Blues fans but today appears to be one of the club’s most frequent stumbling blocks to meaningful advancement in the Champions League.

On Saturday 9th August 2003 the stadium was christened in bright sunshine with an exhilarating 2-1 win over the Catalan flag bearers of Barcelona, a side containing Xavi, Marc Overmars, Ricardo Quaresma and Carles Puyol. The occasion, given a sad touch by the final appearances in sky blue of previous City heroes Shaun Goater and Ali Benarbia, on top of a last chance to bid farewell to Marc Vivien Foe, who had died that summer in Cameroon's Confederations Cup match with Colombia in Lyon, was nevertheless seen as a pivotal moment in the club’s attempts to find stability. The occasion also gave the City fans a hilarious opportunity to sing the praises of Ronaldinho, who had just turned down the lure of a place at Old Trafford. The look of bewilderment on the Brazilian’s face as he was met with wild songs of praise will live on for some beyond the toings and froings of the frenetic match itself.

City had spent the previous two decades changing division like it was going out of fashion and an increased capacity ground with untold revenue streams and possibilities for growth in all directions seemed to be pushing the club inexorably towards a new and perhaps uncomfortable future. For City, a club steeped in history, much of it quirky and slightly embarrassing, this would indeed be a giant step to take. Locking into a serious and upwardly mobile future at this early stage of the ground's occupation seemed riddled with pitfalls.

As supporters flooded in to the new ground that day, they were eager to see the club’s new signings for the season. The faces and the names on the shirts would tell regulars whether City indeed meant business or not. Although he names look underwhelming today, that is more because of the unprecedented growth surge which has taken place than the player's dubious quality at the time. Keegan had dregded up the following:  Paul Bosvelt from Feyenoord, QPR’s Trevor Sinclair, the still pony-tailed David Seaman, Bayern’s utility defender Michael Tarnat and the little known Antoine Sibierski from Lens.

David Sommeil saves City blushes against Portsmouth
Fortress Keegan” chirruped the Daily Mail on the following Monday in an article apparently lacking the ironic tones the paper these days uses when reporting on City. In truth, what Keegan would bring to City that first seasons would be so far from anything resembling a fortress that sand castles facing an onrushing tide came to mind. True the team played to full galleries week after week, but there was something terrifically fragile lingering in the dank Manchester air, as indeed with most of Keegan’s teams. Added to this City had managed to scrape into European competition for the first time since 1979. Although qualifying via the fair play regulations would be classified as a huge embarrassment these days, it was clasped eagerly with both hands in 2003.

The club had bade European football farewell with a mud spattered defeat at the Bokelburg to a ravenously talented Monchengladbach side in the 1979 UEFA Cup quarter finals, but returned to the fields of Europe with a tie against Total Network Solutions, of Wales, hardly the big name desired for the stadium’s competitive christening. That evening Daniel Taylor wrote in the Guardian: 


“There are many things Manchester City will miss about Maine Road but not the sense of foreboding.....”
A 5-0 win told everyone that, on top of the friendly baptism against Ronaldinho’s Barcelona, things were going to be alright, we could drop the worried looks and start to enjoy ourselves. As surely as we were all sat there in our smart new surroundings, so the club was pulling its socks up.


This feeling was quickly dispersed by the time the first Premier League game of the season was played in the ground, City needing a last minute David Sommeil equaliser to get anything from a game against Harry Redknapp’s tactically pliable Portsmouth team. By the time Arsenal arrived for the second home game, City had clocked up impressively Keeganesque wins at Charlton (3-0) and Blackburn (3-2) but were undone by lax defending and a performance by the unable Seaman that moved Martin Lipton in The Mirror to chortle that his name should be changed from Safe Hands to Sieve Hands.

The Mirror captures David Seaman's embarrassment against his old club.
With the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman in Keegan’s fantasy side, it was always likely to be an up and down ride. So it proved, with City’s return fixture with Portsmouth, on 14th February 2004, leaving the old romantic Keegan with a star-studded side lingering 3 points above the drop zone after a 4-2 defeat at Fratton Park. At this stage of the inaugural City of Manchester Stadium season, some of those new bucket seats were home to a number of squeaky bums. 

Could the club haul knotted catastrophe from the golden chalice that had been proferred one last time?

Certainly second division football in such a grand setting would have been a financial and public relations disaster. City though were no strangers to relegation scraps in those days and pulled themselves together, beating United 4-1 in a stunning first derby match at the ground and later on in a most critical game, Newcastle 1-0 with a looping Paolo Wanchope header sealing the precious points. It had been a terrible struggle, thanks mainly to Keegan’s profligate tactics. Only the sparkling Shaun Wright Phillips, who had gained England recognition by the end of the season, and the on loan defensive rock Daniel van Buyten really came out of it smelling of roses.

A slapstick 3-3 draw with bottom of the table Wolves typified City’s season, with Keegan’s underachievers only saved by Wright Phillips’s equaliser in the 90th minute. An already outspoken young midfield academy prospect by the name of Joey Barton, managed to fire off some frustrated quotes to the Guardian’s Dominic Fifield, saying: 

At one stage I was telling people what their jobs were during games. That’s the responsibility of an experienced pro not a 21 year old. We’ve lacked a leader all year…”.
For all his future pasted-on worldliness, the young Barton had hit the nail on the head.


One of the few hits of the season, Shaun Wright Phillips, seals a desperate point v Wolves
A 1-3 reverse to Southampton in the stadium’s 17th home game of the league season almost spelled disaster, as the club once again flirted with the dreaded drop. This was followed by a tremulous 1-1 draw at Leicester and the afore-mentioned release of joy against Newcastle, as City closed the season in an atmosphere as euphoric as that for the derby win earlier in the year. The big open ground, with its elusively fetching lines, had been a huge change from the tight cauldron of Maine Road. It had proved difficult to recreate the febrile atmosphere of City's old home on those occasions when the whole place seemed fit to burst.

On a balmy summer’s afternoon, City closed out the stadium’s first season of football action with a stunning demolition of Everton. The atmosphere was loud and celebratory, but the noise still seemed to be disappearing into the big hole above the pitch. Watching from high up in the stands, one was struck by the beauty of the ground’s curves, the great swathe of sky blue across the tiers and the magnificence of the setting. As each of City’s five goals hit the net that afternoon, the thought in many people’s minds must have been eerily similar. With the club once again spluttering unconvincingly over the finishing line, could the wheezing colossus that was Manchester City bring the standard of football to this fine setting that it so obviously deserved?

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