Tuesday, August 30, 2016

TAKING HART



Having to choose between Sunderland and Torino might have made Joe Hart think he’d been transported magically and without warning to the 1940s, but it should in fact have carried the City 'keeper back to the 1970s.

Down the years, City have had some wonderfully blunt experiments with the goalkeeping position, some of which have left the club wishing they had gone for Option B, whatever that may have been. Those denizens of the old Kippax terrace, who remember the likes of Perry Suckling, a 40-year-old John Burridge, Bobby Mimms, Mike Stowell, Barry Siddall and Martyn Margetson have not always been able to sleep soundly. 

Modern times have brought City fans Stuart Pearce’s experiment with goalkeeper-strikers and David Seaman’s dabbling with cubism, space and the unspecified effect of riotous hair extensions.

Joe Hart’s story should really have ended differently to a one season loan at Torino, however. Here is England’s international keeper without a proper home to go to. The questions asked of Hart are – in no particular order – is he over-confident, a common problem with goalkeepers who reach the top at an early stage, can he stop shots low to his left – an area looked at in depth here by Skysport’s AdamBate – and, perhaps most poignantly of all, can he play out of defence quickly and accurately to feet as Pep Gaurdiola wants it done?

The purchase of Claudio Bravo the ultimate sweeper-keeper, has already answered the third question. The other two are being hotly debated around Manchester as we speak.

In 1973-74 City’s goalkeeping situation went through a similar crisis of confidence. New manager Johnny Hart switched between Ron Healy, Joe Corrigan and new signing from Motherwell, Keith MacRae. In the end, all that was created was a situation where all three of City’s ‘keepers entered a period of simultaneous self-doubt, scuppering any hopes the club had of fighting for the league title that year.

Corrigan, later to pull himself together and become a long-time England squad goalkeeper at the same time as Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton, was the obvious fall guy to start with. Having been damned by his team mates, skipper Mike Doyle being particularly scathing of his weight problems, Corrigan was dropped and told to slim down.  The Manchester-born shot-stopper had always had problems keeping his weight down to a manageable level, but in 73-74 things finally came to a head.

Dropped for the LeagueCup tie with Walsall in favour of Healey, Hart’s patience had finally run out with Corrigan over a series of sluggish performances, where he felt City had conceded unnecessarily. Ironically, in those days, little importance was attached to the goalkeeper’s ability to set up attacks with passing ability, as the big hoof forward was favoured by almost everyone. In 1970, Corrigan’s lack of ability to do even this unskilled task had been drastically highlighted by a grave error in his kicking against West Ham in Jimmy Greaves’s debut match at a slightly muddy Maine Road. This was an error in a 5-1 home defeat that was replayed mercilessly on television throughout the decade.



Millwall’s Brian King and Gary Sprake, the Welsh international 'keeper in goal at Leeds, were touted as possible replacements for the fumbling, podgy Corrigan, but it was Healey that got the nod in the end. Following his apprenticeship with City in 1969, he had made an early debut at the age of 17 and was thrown in by manager Hart after biding his time on the fringes of the first team.

Within three weeks, however, it had all unravelled for Healey too, as Hart bought MacRae from Motherwell, making him the second most expensive goalkeeper in Britain. Both Healey and Corrigan were left licking their wounds. This public castigation did nothing for either 'keeper’s confidence, with Healey disappearing to Cardiff City soon after (what turned out to be his last appearance for the club had come the week before in defeat at Newcastle) and Corrigan taking the long hard route back to the first team via the reserves, while MacRae was left to stand in the glare of the public eye.

For Joe Hart it has also been a very public character assassination. Over-confident to the point of arrogant to some, needlessly letting in low shots to his left to others and incapable of playing the ball out properly with his feet to yet others, he is on his way to the foot of the Alps in one of the most bizarre transfers of recent times. 

It is written in stone that goalkeepers will be subject to the most public of examinations. The nature of their role almost demands it. Hart’s fall from grace was bookmarked as early as last Christmas, however, when Guardiola’s arrival at City was rubber-stamped for this summer. He has had ample time to work on his weaknesses. Instead he put in a summer tournament for England that was full of pre-match adrenaline and in-match errors that cost his country dearly. It was a slightly odd combination that cast him as an easy villain for the tabloids looking for scapegoats.

Guardiola’s liking for a goalkeeper that can sweep and set up new attacks is well documented. The fascinating story of how it came to be Claudio Bravo who he needed is to be found here in Adam Bate's detailed analysis of a long and precise search. It has been a time-consuming and well considered process, involving many people and many hours of training and honing of skills. 

Hart, meanwhile, has perhaps simply been found to be the wrong man in the wrong place. A more than capable goalkeeper, he is to an extent the victim of his own success. That he has chosen Torino to get his act back together is both a brave, thoughtful and logical step. There are no obvious places free at this late stage among the Premier League’s big hitters and a loan spell out of the limelight will do him no harm. Being the first English keeper to roll up in Serie A will also attract its fair share of positive attention in the meantime.

Corrigan was back as 1st choice for City's 1976 League Cup win v Newcastle
Hart should also take heart from his predecessor's resurrection. Under new manager Ron Saunders, Corrigan actually found himself on the transfer list at the end of 73-74 season and on his way out of the club, but, by the end of 1974-75, it was Corrigan and not the expensive MacRae who had become City’s confirmed number one. For Hart, similar attention to what needs to be improved will almost certainly bring him similar redemption, even if it is most unlikely to be at the Etihad.

And so the spotlight for City falls onto Claudio Bravo, perhaps the greatest modern day exponent of the keeper as sweeper. The fast, straight passes out of the box to Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan or David Silva will seek to bypass the first line of opposition high pressing and launch City through the second rank of defence. It is a simple idea that – when executed accurately – will add devastating speed to City’s already liquid attack. If and when it goes wrong, it will expose City’s defence to all manner of hair raising situations. It is for this reason that Guardiola has sought out the pass master, Claudio Bravo.


****

What became of Corrigan after his torrid public dismantling? 
He went on to produce saves like this one, at Leeds in a 1977 
FA Cup tie, on a regular basis and to play for his country. 


Friday, August 26, 2016

TODAY'S OPPONENTS: WEST HAM

Trevor Sinclair, who played for both sides, is tackled by Joey Barton in the 2002-03 game
Little more than three weeks have passed since City waltzed past West Ham in the FA Cup, leaving the ball in the home net five times before heading for the exits.

The cup thrashing came on the back of an earlier league victory at the Etihad, leaving the Hammers with an 8-1 deficit to make up.

Last season West Ham descended on the Etihad and inflicted City's first defeat of the season after a brisk five-game winning start to the season had attracted optimistic noises for City's season prospects.

Early goals from Moses and Sakho had caught the Blues on the hop, with Joe Hart watching Moses's low shot creep past as early as the 8th minute.

It would herald a final season of stuttering progress under the departing Manuel Pellegrini, the initial burst of five wins turning out to be the same kind of false dawn as this season's 10-win streak under Pep Guardiola.

The Hammers would go on to have an excellent season under new boss Slaven Bilic, finishing high enough (7th) to qualify for European competition. The Hammers made a massive meal of their European quest, exiting to the "Romanian farmers" of Astra Giurgiu before the group stage draw had even been delivered.

West Ham have in recent years been a relatively supine opponent for City, with only two defeats since 2009, although they have both come in the last two years, so things may be beginning to change, although this season suggests more of the same so far in that respect. West Ham's best spell against City in modern times was in the 90s when they pilfered five victories against a City side heading for dark times at the end of the decade. In the 70s and 80 both clubs had a reputation for rich attacking football and served up many a match for the connoisseurs, with City more often than not coming out on top.

No History Whatsoever: Founded in 1895, the Hammers have been going since 1900 as West Ham, before that as Thames Ironworks, where their Irons nickname hails from. Prolific in the FA Cup in the 70s, they reached two Cup Winners Cup finals, wining one in 1965 v 1860 Munich and losing one in 1976 to Anderlecht. Their FA Cup triumphs in 1975 (v Bobby Moore's Fulham) and in 1980 (as a second division side v Arsenal) were iconic events in that decade, with scoring heroes Alan Taylor and Trevor Brooking going down in Upton Park folklore. The stooping header that Brooking defeated Arsenal with, however, was the last trophy West Ham won. In 1980.

Niall Quinn heads towards goal in the Upton Park fixture from November 1993. (1-3)
Quirks: Provided the three stand-out stars for England's World Cup side of 1966. Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and the incomparable Bobby Moore formed an integral part of the World Cup winning effort. Hammers fans have lived off that fact for several decades. Moore, England's trophy winning captain, was in fact indebted to City manager Malcolm Allison for his football education. Moore was an apprentice at Upton Park when Big Mal held the future England centre half's position in the first team. Allison, a keen tactician and student of the Hungarian national team that had become the first overseas side to win at Wembley in 1953, took the young Moore under his wing from an early age. The Hammers icon always cited Allison as his mentor in the game right through to his sadly premature exit from football and early death from cancer.

Playlist: In March 1970, West Ham slid out onto the grass-free mudheap that was Maine Road in that era for a game that would become infamous for a cataclysmic goalkeeping error by Joe Corrigan. It is a blooper that the big goalkeeper was never allowed to fully forget. With Jimmy Greaves making his debut for the Hammers that afternoon, the fateful goal, scored full on the volley to keep the ball as far away from the clogging mud as possible, was netted by Ronnie Boyce. Catching Corrigan's weak clearance and knocking it straight back into the goal from the halfway line, the City 'keeper was still wiping the mud off his shorts. The look of shock and awe on Corrigan's face as the ball landed in the net will have kept him awake for many a night and he was beset with confidence problems in the next two years of his City career, before shaking off the demons and becoming a regular England squad keeper in the 70s and early 80s.


Ironically, the match was the first ever City-West Ham game to be covered by television, the BBC's prying cameras catching Corrigan's despair in full and glorious colour.

In August 1974 the Hammers provided City with their opening day opposition in a game that was Asa Hartford's debut for City. Hartford had been part of an aborted attempt by Leeds to sign the feisty
Rodney Marsh pulls away from Tommy Taylor in 1974
midfielder from West Brom, but a medical scan had revealed a hole in the heart and Hartford, after a single day training with Leeds, was sent back to the Hawthorns. Three years later he signed for City and made his debut in a  thrilling, sunlit 4-0 victory over the Londoners, with goals coming from Mike Doyle, Dennis Tueart and two from Rodney Marsh.

It would be the start of a decade when City experienced good fortune and great results against their London rivals. West Ham, as now, were seen as something of a soft touch on their travels, but were a different proposition on their tight Upton Park pitch, where the crowd seemed to be practically spilling over the touchlines.

As the end of the 70s loomed, West Ham were relegated and, having won the Cup in 1980 as a 2nd division side, came back up to face City again in the early 80s. The match at Upton Park in 1982-83 season was notable for City's lack of self-discipline and once again Asa Hartford was to play a leading role.

In a match won 4-1 by the Hammers, City had both Hartford and Kevin Bond sent off. This could have been taken as a signal to those paying enough attention that City were not in great shape. The Hammers might have returned to the big time, but City were about to exit stage left. By the end of the season City were hanging on for dear life and a 2-0 home win over the Londoners provided something of a lifeline. Manager John Bond had jumped ship after a cup thrashing at Brighton and the hapless John Benson was attempting to steer the ship away from the rocks. The Hammers were just what a winless and lifeless City side needed, triumphing 2-0 to keep alive their hopes. It was all to no avail as the last day drama at home to Luton would scar a whole generation of City fans for life.

Strangely, after spending the 80s drifting badly, City again found relegation staring them in the face when West Ham hove into view four years later. 1986-87 was yet another dark year in City's history. The last game of the season, in East London, was memorable not for the result - City losing two-nil meant relegation was once again sealed - but for the crowd's reaction at the end of the game. The 80s had been riven with discontent, hooliganism and trouble. The atmosphere at grounds was febrile and dark, with wire fences and segregated pens commonplace around the grounds.

As the whistle went at Upton Park, a huge flood of fans came onto the pitch from the home end and charged towards the desolate City supporters. It seemed an ugly end to an already dreadful season was upon us, but the wave of Hammers fans stopped at the far touchline and began to applaud and serenade the City fans. To this day, a mutual respect has existed between the two sets of supporters because of what happened on 9th May 1987.

By the time West ham travelled north for a 4th round FA Cup tie at Maine Road in 1997-98 season, City were once again in the second tier and about to drop further. As an established Premier League side, the Hammers came north expecting to win comfortably but, on a day of blustery wind and bright sunshine, a live television audience saw City fight hard and witnessed one of Georgi Kinkladze's many sublime moments in a sky blue shirt. That the little Georgian's weaving magic for the equalising goal was cruelly snuffed out by ex-City schemer Steve Lomas's late winner gave a heavy pointer to how the next couple of years were set to play out for the club. Uwe Rosler's missed penalty eventually cost City dearly in a 2-1 defeat. Manager Frank Clark would be on his way within weeks as Joe Royle arrived to steward the club's first-ever descent into the third tier.

Steve Lomas in action v City for West Ham in 2000
By the 2002-03 season's final home game, the tables had been turned, with West Ham - now led by club ambassador Trevor Brooking - about to take the drop. With the Hammers desperately needing the points to avoid relegation and City playing their penultimate game at Maine Road before the move to the Commonwealth Games Stadium, tension was high.

In the end, a late goal by Freddie Kanouté brought the visitors all three points, but they still fell through the trap door two weeks later. Kanouté's sublime skills upfront were mirrored at the other end by another marksman with dubious mental strength, Nicolas Anelka. To match the Upton Park reception from 15 years earlier, West Ham's battling performance was roundly applauded by the home support, cementing the good relationship between both sets of fans. Anelka would score twice on his return to Anfield the following week to help lift Kevin Keegan's City to an unprecedented 8th spot after years of underachievement, as West Ham drifted to the division below.

Although the clubs have met in the FA Cup again in recent years (a win in 2008 and a defeat in 2006), the most memorable games came in the League Cup semi-finals of 2014, as Alvaro Negredo's exquisite hat-trick helped blow the hammers away 6-0. That the prolific Spaniard played - and was injured - in the second leg a week later was the beginning of the end for him at the Etihad, but City had laid the foundations for a classic triumph v Sunderland at Wembley in the final.

Truly a history of fluctuating fortunes, with one club usually meeting the other when their luck ws on the wane and vice versa. On this occasion, they both arrive in good health, enjoying big crowds in new stadia and with bright futures ahead.

Played in both directions: Steve Lomas, Ian Bishop, Kevin Horlock, Trevor Morley, Eyal Berkovic, Trevor Sinclair, Paulo Wanchope, David Cross, Mark Ward, Marc Vivien Foé, Stuart Pearce, David James, Phil Woosnam, Clive Allen and Perry Suckling.

Steve Kinsey knocks in a cross ahead of Steve Walford in a League Cup replay 1984-85


 















Saturday, August 20, 2016

COME THE REVOLUTION

Pep Guardiola's tactical revolution at City walked out into its biggest test so far: the noise, the wind and the energy of Stoke and emerged smelling of roses.

Although Mark Hughes has developed Stoke's play from the thrash and flail of olden times to a more sophisticated counter-attacking game, the Britannia it is still the kind of place that gives you a raw, bear-pit atmosphere that can - and often does - unsettle the so-called Rolls Royce sides of the Premier League.

This time, however, the home side had some puzzles of their own to work out. With the home crowd inexplicably booing Raheem Sterling ("One Greedy Bastard" the most ironic of the chants coming from the locals in a Premier League full of them) and a strong wind blowing, it was a decent test for City.

What we have witnessed so far from Guardiola is nothing short of a tactical revolution in England. The shape of City's side against Sunderland was something new, even after all these years of nip and tuck. The last time City possessed a manager who could be called a tactical guru was Malcolm Allison in the late 60s. His tactical thinking had been formed largely from watching how the Hungarians skillfully dismantled a tactically blinkered England at Wembley. Innovation since then at City has amounted to playing a six foot four goalkeeper upfront to try to gain entry to the UEFA Cup. Take a bow, Staurt Pearce.

The fascinating movements of the two full-backs, drifting inwards and forwards to become central midfielders - Sagna and Clichy even overlapped at one stage against Sunderland leaving the right back in left midfield and vice versa - was just part of an afternoon of first level tinkering from the Catalan. At one point at Stoke, Kolarov, pushed forward high in midfield, chose to veer into the middle of the park and passed forward...to Pablo Zabaleta, even more advanced in the central areas. It was this kind of bewildering positioning that had done for Sunderland on the opening day and Steaua in midweek.

This change alone had dragged Sunderland's nominal forward midfielders into a congested midfield, where they found their own confused full backs trying to do their usual job of tracking City's flank defenders, who had drifted inside.

This in turn allowed City's wide attackers, Nolito and Sterling to move into largely unoccupied spaces where Sunderland's fullbacks should have been, had they not got stuck in no-man's land between sticking to their guns and wandering around after Sagna and Clichy. With Fernandinho dropping back to aid John Stones and new centre back Aleksandar Kolarov - another startling innovation - City's changing shape must have been a nightmare to track.

That Sunderland not only held on but actually gained a foothold at 1-1 could be put down to City's players getting used to a totally alien set-up. The pace of the game was slow and, despite massive advantage in possession, it was evident that City's players were still unfamiliar with the runs that they needed to make. For a first go, it was impressive, however.

Kolarov's reinvention as a left sided centre back was a revelation, with the Serb - infamous for a legendary lack of positional awareness - suddenly impressing in a Beckenbauer-esque strutting performance.

Fernandinho, impressive for large chunks of a moribund season under Pellegrini, found himself as an unusual pivot, moving in between the back two to make a three, then holding the line when Stones or Kolarov ambled forward to launch attacks.

Upfront, Aguero was quiet, but this was about to change radically in Romania, where Steaua, a decent side, were made to look like a shambling arrangement of strangers. Here City's movement and speed of thought had been notched up a level or two from the opening game in the Premier League. Players' movement was more fluid and triangles of sharp passing between Nolito and Silva, Silva and De Bruyne and Sterling and Aguero became a mesmeric nightmare for Steaua's poorly arranged defence.

Some have attempted to play down this performance on the grounds that the home side were so poor, but nothing should be taken away from the fact that City had travelled far to play a European away game in a hostile sttadium at an early stage of development and had absolutely wiped the floor with a side that has a European Cup win of their own under their belts. 5-0 amounted not only to City's biggest ever away win in European competition, but also an early marker to what this side is going to be capable of.

The movement, the passing, the quick-thinking all bode well for what might come next. Guardiola has never been one to rest on his laurels and there are sure to be more examples of his fascinating innovations in the weeks to come, but already he was providing ample evidence that City's squad is one of the best, and - when in harness with a coach of this calibre - it looks difficult to stifle.

Stoke and Mark Hughes could not work it all out during a punishing first half, as City's shape morphed from a starting point of 4-1-4-1 through a three-man defence with five in midfield to something approaching 2-1-3-2-2 when the screw was being turned.

With Otamendi's agricultural contribution an eye-opener alongside the smooth as silk passing of John Stones, it was left to Sterling and Silva to pull Stoke out of shape. With Aguero and De Bruyne prowling in the holes left free, the Stoke defence were chasing shadows up to half time and in the last ten minutes. The speed and persistence of Navas, then Nolito, brought more dividends, as City's
John Stones was imperious bringing the ball out of defence
incessant pass and move gradually wore Stoke and their braying supporters down.

Sterling, despite one or two poor touches, played a lively part on both flanks. Criticised later on Match of the Day by Phil Neville for "not providing a good enough final ball" and then for "not being selfish, going for goal, that's what all the good wingers do" (selfish wingers, even Guardiola hasn't experimented with that one), he was again the bizarre focus of the crowd's vitriol. This of course has nothing to do with his performances in Euro 2016 and hopefully nothing to do with racism, but can only be the weird overspill from the press coverage of his transfer from Liverpool more than a year ago. It is not clear whether Phil Neville has an opinion on that.

We have come a fair way from the salt and pepper pots of Malcolm Allison's tactics morning in Cassettari's café outside Upton Park, that spawned a generation of innovative coaches, including Manchester United-bound Dave Sexton. Guardiola is the modern day reincarantion of this genre and we can only guess what comes next. For now an invigorating start has been made.

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