Friday, January 26, 2018

TIGER BAY

The end of Tony Coton's participation in the '94 cup tie
And so the attention swings gently from the League Milk Littlewoods Rumbelows Carabao Cup to the FA Cup.

Having secured a place in the League Cup final v. Arsenal on February 25th, Pep Guardiola’s men will this weekend try to maintain a parallel course for the concrete heaven of Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup. With Premier League games coming thick and fast and a return to Champions League action in the Swiss Alps next month also on the menu, City’s success under the Catalan is illustrated perfectly by an increasingly cluttered fixture list.
A visit to the sun-kissed boulevards of Cardiff will resurrect recent memories of the 2013-14 season, when the Welsh side enjoyed a single season rubbing shoulders with the great and good of English football. Their exploits against Manuel Pellegrini’s side that season bore some fruit, with a topsy turvy early season win at home (3-2) and an equally entertaining defeat (2-4) on their trip north to play at the Etihad. The game in Wales in particular is still remembered as prime Pellegrini Evidence of slackness, lethargy and an it’ll-all-be-fine-won’t-it mentality that set in good and strong during the Chilean’s three year tenure.

FA Cup matches between the two sides have been few and far between, starting with a clash way back in 1924. A positively humungous Maine Road crowd of over 76,000 turned out to see a 0-0 draw between the two sides. That’s 76,000, seat-counter fans. Figures and dates like these bely the modern day gripes of rival supporters that City have few fans and even less history. Where were you when you were shit, indeed. As the popular retort goes, watching/beating/running you when we were shit.
One hundred years ago, the club was not only winning trophies but regularly doing so in front of some of the biggest crowds in the country. So much for teenage Twitter warriors that can just about remember David Beckham.

With a replay won 1-0 in Cardiff, City were set to do the same again when the teams were drawn together in 3rd round in 1961. Once again the tie went to a replay, after the two sides drew 1-1 at Ninian Park in front of 35,000 spectators. The replay in Manchester was goalless but the second replay, played at Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium, finally brought a winner, once again City (2-0). Two games were also needed in 1967 in the 4th round, with a 1-1 draw in Wales preceding a 3-1 City win in Manchester. 
The most recent cup confrontations between the two sides came in 1982 and 1994, the first of which saw John Bond’s side -- fresh from participating in the previous season’s Centenary Cup Final v. Tottenham -- needing only one game at Maine Road to dispose of their opponents 3-1.


Then as now, City faced second tier Cardiff as league leaders. Then, as can be expected this weekend, the lower league side played with a “nothing to lose enthusiasm”, according to Derek Allsop in the Daily Mail the next day. Guardiola’s side can expect much the same at the weekend from a side that has re-acquitted itself well since relegation from the Premier League and is now fighting once again for promotion.
Strangely, for a City side that was top of the pile domestically, there was a distinct fragility about City at this time. Bond’s emergency team building the year before had brought in the likes of Tommy Hutchison, Bobby McDonald, Gerry Gow, Phil Boyer and Trevor Francis. The addition of Francis, however, for 1 million of the queen's best pounds had blown the club's kitty (a small tin kept under Peter Swales's wig) straight into the ship canal and City had a threadbare look about them that would see them relegated the very next season.

By 1983-84 Cardiff would be visitors in the league, not just the cup and there would be problems galore with that too.
City have already experienced the quality and enthusiasm of the top echelons of the Championship with gruelling League Cup battles against Wolves and Bristol City this season. These two second tier sides have been responsible for the two best performances from away sides seen at the Etihad this season so far and that includes the much vaunted likes of Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal, all of whom were a distinctly damp squib.

However, it is the most recent FA Cup tie between the two teams that may give us the greatest pointer to what to expect. In January 1994 a buoyant City side arrived in South Wales to play a Cardiff team down on its luck. Ninian Park, their ancestral home, had been allowed to drop into a dilapidated state and the stench of decay was all around. As well as this, the sounds of war could also be heard at one of the most hostile grounds to visit in those unreconstructed days. A trip to Cardiff matched Leeds, Millwall, Chelsea and certain parts of the West Midlands (Birmingham, Wolves) for a “grand day out”/keep your wits about you stroll around town.

"My first away trip was that cup tie, It was a week after my 15th birthday and I’m still younger now than most of the Cardiff firm that was outside the boozer" - Mark Finnegan on Twitter

For City it was supposed to be a time of renewal, with newspaper reports excitedly announcing ex-player Francis Lee’s intention to fly back from Barbados for the imminent purchase of the club.

Lee’s bid would be accepted in acrimonious circumstances the week after the Cardiff tie, apparently setting the club up for a bright future on the pitch and financial stability off it. Within four exuberant years, City were heading for a second relegation and the third division.
The Cardiff tie perhaps sowed some of the seeds of disaster when all were thinking in terms of renaissance. On a truly shambolic day, full of the noise and passion of true hatred from the home crowd, City’s stars succumbed to an acrobatic winner from Nathan Blake. “Apart from the opening minutes, it was the second division side that called all the shots,” wrote Vince Wright in The Times. With Tony Coton carried off injured and skipper Keith Curle failing from the penalty spot, it was yet another game where all the elements needed for disaster aligned quickly and accurately. 

It was a result that has been added to a sizeable list of potholes and pratfalls in City’s history. If nothing else, here we have a club that  has helped boost and maintain the relevance of the term “giant-killer” throughout its long and fluctuating history.

Today’s Manchester City wears different clothes, however, but it is worth remembering that in 1994 City were also seen as upwardly mobile and (kind of) athletically efficient (with the exception of Alan Kernaghan), certainly good enough to overcome Cardiff. What followed disproved both of those ideas with rude haste and serves a lesson to any top level club, who is foolhardy enough to underestimate opponents from a lower status.










Monday, January 22, 2018

THE JOURNALISTS: Eric Todd

PART 5: Bristol City

Eric Todd, a doyen of football writing in a time before the ceaseless clatter of social media, worked for the Manchester Guardian and later The Guardian. His words-to-frivolity (WTF) ratio was always maintained at an impressively low level, allowing carefully chosen phrases to go to work on the reader's imagination.

In days before clickbait and inane look-at-me hyperbole were the names of the game, Todd stood for conciseness, directness and descriptive brilliance. A familiar face at the grounds of the north, he had been present at the famous White Horse Wembley cup final of 1923 between Bolton and West Ham. Later, following typically sharp journalistic instincts, he tracked down the police officer who had been atop the horse that day, for an interview.

Todd's report for City's 2-0 win over Bristol City in September 1977 

Born in Leeds, Todd's breakthrough came at the Lancashire Daily Post in Preston, from where he moved to the Manchester Evening Chronicle, mainly covering football with Manchester City and cricket with Lancashire. When The Manchester Guardian moved south, becoming simply The Guardian and losing its strong northern ties, Todd lost his position as senior football correspondent in the north.

"In turn they have been visited by irresponsibility and outright inspiration"


He could be a prickly character and his no-nonsense behaviour occasionally matched the sharpness of his prose. If he felt a situation demanded that he say something,  Todd would not hold back, once standing up to a prickly Manchester United manager Matt Busby, who had been reacting negatively to questions at an Old Trafford press conference.
Todd is also remembered for a beautifully curt report on a match between Liverpool and Arsenal that had been less than inspiring entertainment. With no goals and little excitement, Todd dismissed the entire game in one paragraph. When asked about the shortness of his match report b y his editor, Todd is said to have responded "That was already more than it's worth, and that's all it gets."
On the other hand, reporting on City - a club whose quixotic nature over the years began to grow on him, brought out some of his best work. After the 1968 League title, his Guardian piece started thus:
Tell it not in Trafford Park, publish it not in the streets of Stretford. Manchester City, winners 4-3 in a magnificent match at St James' Park against Newcastle United, replaced Manchester United as title holders in the First Division. In doing so they fulfilled the ancient prophecy that the meek shall inherit the earth , with which nowadays must be incorporated football league championships as well as local councils..." 
The entire stirring report can be read in The Guardian's archives.

His admiration for the club and its supporters can be best illustrated by this extract from the Newcastle match report he penned for The Guardian in 1968:

"Then there are the City supporters, many of whom have developed ulcers and who have grown prematurely grey for the cause. I have seen them at Plymouth and Newcastle, Portsmouth and Middlesbrough year after year, "like patience on a monument smiling at grief". They have cursed, applauded, demanded, cajoled, laughed and wept. They have sworn never again to take out season tickets, never again to support their team. And always they have come back, generation after generation.  
Todd "retired" in 1973, but eloquent reports penned by him could still be found in The Telegraph later in the 70s (see the Bristol City clip, above). Always a friend of Manchester City, he died in a home for retired journalists in Dorking, Surrey on 10th December, 2000.

With him went some of the journalistic skills so badly missing in swathes of today's mainstream press.



MATCH NOTES: NEWCASTLE (h)

4 of City's best performers on the day celebrate Aguero's opener
These match notes originally aired in abridged form on ESPN's Player Ratings feature. This is an extended and therefore much more detailed version:

From playing your bogey side at a ground you never win at to playing your most pliable Premier League opponent: City could not have asked for a more appropriate fixture after the defeat at Anfield.

Needing to respond to last weekend’s first setback of the season, City succeeded in the most encouraging way possible, playing their unstoppable passing game as if nothing at all had happened.

A little strange perhaps to hear that, having had a 15 point lead cut back to 12 and, thanks to the vagaries of the tv fixture list, back again to nine, excited murmurs had begun to circulate that the team that had already "sown up the title" in November, might now be catchable.

This is how the narratives of the great and good work, big brains with big ideas and endless yards of column inches too fill

With the return of David Silva to rule the roost over midfield (an English league record 23 successive wins with him playing) and a seamless performance from yet another left back candidate Oleksandr Zinchenko, City’s win puts them right back on track.

Positives

What a way to come back from what could have been a demoralising defeat on Merseyside last week. 10 first half corners alone told the story of a side very keen to put the brief setback behind them. Another eight in the second half made some of the stats look a little ridiculous by the end.       
Negatives

For a side delivering such crushing possession stats, it was interesting to see what happened when the laser passing finally broke down. Ironically, this occurred on the very edge of the away side’s penalty area as City pushed for a third goal. The outcome? A breakaway goal for Newcastle which suddenly reduced the score to 2-1. Some of the blame falls at the dancing feet of Oleksandr Zinchenko, a midfielder getting slightly carried away with his roving brief from left back. 

With Newcastle's fans hitting bum notes on the terraces, empty seat watchers and No History buffs were put on high alert once again:

Manager Yet another snapshot of how the manager’s mind works: full strength side, no holds barred, same crushing tactics, complete confidence in personnel (Zinchenko thrown in at left back ahead of Danilo). Fortune favours the brave.       

Player ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
Ederson, 7 -- Nothing at all to do until the second half, when he appeared to have the brainwave of taking a few risks to liven things up for himself. First was a dodgy out-pass in the 57th minute, which livened things up at the back for his defenders. You could hardly blame him for becoming bored, but his manager might well have been doing exactly that for a couple of scary episodes deep in the second half. First serious action was coming out to meet the excellent Jacob Murphy’s run and seeing the ball looped over him and into the goal. Energetic double save later on partly due to his own butter fingers in dropping the initial shot.   

Kyle Walker, 8 – Gave away first minute foul which resulted in a scare in the box from the free-kick, but was much better than of late: involved, accurate and pacey in his right wing bursts. Came into the match more after the break as City varied the side of attack more. One hurried shot nearly hit the roof, but produced a delicious diagonal ball to Zinchenko on the opposite flank.
John Stones, 7 -- Calmest game since his comeback with the timing of passing better than of late. Early chance to put City ahead, screwing near post shot just wide, but spent most of his time playing simple safe balls across and backwards towards Ederson.     

Nicolas Otamendi, 7 – As usual the more adventurous of the central two at the back. Advanced regularly to join the attack, but also got his foot in on at least two crucial moments as Newcastle threatened. Took a painful hit on the ankle from Joselu just after the break, but recovered without obvious signs of stress.        
Oleksandr Zinchenko, 8 -- Such calm authority from such an inexperienced stand-in. Very involved right from the start, with plenty of classy touches in the Silva, Leroy Same triangles. Lovely cushioned pass on the volley to Sergio Aguero showed a player full of confidence and poise. Quick to track back and snuff out the threat, but caught too far upfield for Newcastle's goal, as Murphy broke through his channel.

Fernandinho, 7 -- Cool and authoritative with the telling foot in and the right choice of pass to launch his team mates forward, as with the pass to set up a lightning attack culminating in Sterling's disallowed goal after 18 minutes. Great variation of pass, from the golf shot to chip Walker in down the right, which ended with Sergio Aguero going close, to the long diagonal to David Silva switching play in an instant.    
David Silva, 9 – What a difference it makes to City’s play to have the Spaniard orchestrating things. Range, choice and accuracy of pass peerless. Pull back from the byline for Stones's early chance, followed by many zippy interchanges with Sane and Zinchenko down the left. A constant headache for the tracking Javier Manquillo. Still biting enthusiastically into a double tackle in the 89th minute.

Karl Darlow is beaten by the merest of Aguero touches to De Bruyne's inswinging cross from the right. 


Kevin de Bruyne, 8 – Shares the responsibility these days with Silva for City’s prodigious attacking threat. Often the deepest player to restart the push forward, he has a similarly tireless engine to club legend Colin Bell, whose incredible stamina earned him the nickname Nijinsky, after the pedigree racehorse. Threaded early ball to Silva for John Stones chance after 6 minutes. Perfect lofted ball in from the left for Aguero's first on 33 minutes, immediately after a terrible freekick and a missed ball had blotted his copybook. Low corners unproductive but a neat left footer was just touched around the post by the busy Karl Darlow.        
MF Leroy Sane, 8 – Wasteful four yard pass straight to a Newcastle defender did not bode well for the afternoon, but the German picked up the thread and, well before the end, was mesmerising the right side of the visiting defence. One of the finest pieces of skill of the season so far to run and weave through a packed Newcastle defence to set up Aguero’s hat trick goal. Pace, poise, close control, acceleration and nerveless confidence in his ability marks him out as a real star for the future, if he can control his temperament.    

Raheem Sterling, 7 – Isolated on the underused right side for much of the first period, he came into it much more after the break, running hard at the beleaguered defence. Disallowed goal at the end of a great move after 18 minutes. Team mates overestimating his pace with over hit through balls. Great run into the box to be brought down by Manquillo for the penalty. How Darlow touched his wonderfully volleyed finish onto the post, he will never know.      
Sergio Aguero, 8 -- Newcastle’s tormentor in chief. With an average of a goal or assist every 31 minutes against this opponent, he amazingly kept up the record here with a clinically taken hat trick. Had hardly been involved at all before the first goal (33'), when he had his use of strong setting hair gel to thank for the minutest of touches to De Bruyne's cross. Shots off in very restricted space (44', 60') plus two trademark canters across the box to get in a right foot diagonal shot on goal. Penalty (62') highish to Darlow's right for 2-0 and a left foot finish to complete the "perfect hat trick" from Sane's mesmerising run down the left.

Substitutes:

Bernardo Silva, NR -- Came on for Raheem Sterling after 85 minutes to carry the ball on the right. Held possession well as usual.
Brahim Diaz , NR -- Late appearance after 87 minutes to replace Sane.


NEW THREAT FROM THE WINGS A REMINDER OF TUEART AND BARNES

This article originally aired first on ESPN's pages in slightly abridged form.

A rash of articles have appeared this week considering Liverpool’s “blueprint” on how to beat Manchester City. One or two, analysed the situation thoroughly and sensibly. We will have to wait to see if a) teams start to copy Liverpool’s magic formula or b) the defeat at Anfield triggers some greater crisis of confidence in Pep Guardiola’s well-oiled machine.

Taken in isolation, Liverpool’s success last weekend looks impressive and offers hope to the rest of the Premier League that there might indeed still be some life in the title race. Whether it can be considered a blueprint for playing City in the future is debatable.
A high press of the kind Liverpool produced at Anfield is not the kind of game-plan that would suit the majority of the other clubs in the Premier League. Liverpool’s squad has enough high-energy, skilful players to pull it off, but do any of the others? Notably, clubs from the league below have also given City a run for their money this season, with league Cup opponents Bristol City and Wolves being semi-successful. They both lost in the end, however, even if – in Wolves’s case -- it was by the narrowest of margins via a penalty shoot-out.

The trouble with pressing City is that you leave yourself horribly open to the swift counter attack, something Guardiola’s men are particularly adept at taking full advantage of.
City, as has been noted by their opponents this season, are notoriously difficult to pin down. This comes partly from the variety of sources of trouble. Any side that can call on the twinkling feet of David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne to provide channel-opening passes is likely to cause damage.


Dennis Tueart scores one of his hat trick of goals against Chelsea at Maine Road in 1977-78 (6-2)

It does not stop there of course. Raiding full backs, advancing defensive midfielders, even cavorting Argetinean centre backs have played their part in the carnage of City’s first half season in 2017-18.
There is another factor which has been looked at, but deserves more illumination, however, as it is a factor, which brings something new to the attacking armoury of the club. It is something that has links with another great attacking side of City’s past, the one constructed by ex-captain Tony Book in the mid-seventies. That side relied on conventional strikers in the robustly built Joe Royle and the more agile figures of Brian Kidd and/or Mike Channon. All weighed in with their fair share of goals in a side that was built to attack at pace.

What made it different was the players positioned wide of those strikers. The addition of a pair of marauding wingers in Peter Barnes, down the left side, and Dennis Tueart on the opposite flank, transformed City’s attack into a four-man onslaught that often brought rich dividends.
Something else links Barnes and Tueart to their modern day counterparts, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling: the amount of goals they scored. Tueart in particular, a signing from Sunderland after the club’s famous 1973 FA Cup final win over Leeds, brought a new style of player to the top flight. The Geordie, full of pace and bite, seemed to fulfil two roles simultaneously, that of the dangerous goal-scoring striker and also the treacherously skilled winger, looking to go down the outside of his fullback.

Tueart was a breath of fresh air to that City side, averaging close to a goal every other game in more than 250 appearances for the club. By anyone’s reckoning, that’s good going from an ostensibly wide starting position in the team.
Barnes and Tueart close in on Leeds' David Harvey's goal during the tumultuous 4th round FA Cup tie in 1977-78

Sane and Sterling, with a glut of goals between them, are carrying on this rich tradition. In having wide men that can cut in onto their favoured shooting foot “from the wrong side”, Guardiola has an extra weapon that has been causing untold damage this season.

The Catalan speaks of “arrivals” in the box as a way of highlighting that it is not just the space-making genius of Silva and De Bruyne nor the goal scoring prowess of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus that count, but also the timing of other players’ -- notably Sane and Sterling -- in the danger area.
This variety of attacking intent makes City almost impossible to fully control. Indeed Liverpool’s “success” last weekend was only maintained by the narrowest of margins, despite City’s eleven  having a collective shut-down all on the same day. The delivery of those laser sharp passes from the flanks by the Belgian is an incisive part of City’s armoury, but for De Bruyne to function properly in wide positions, it is imperative that the two players holding nominal wide roles vacate their positions at the right moment, both for De Bruyne and for the successful execution of the attack.

That Sane and Sterling have been doing this to such wonderful effect illustrates perfectly how simple “pressing” City will never work. There are far too many holes to plug to stop them coming at you like a cavalry charge.

Friday, January 12, 2018

A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN

The following long read constitutes the Manchester City chapter I provided for Guardian journalist Sachin Nakrani's book "We're Everywhere, Us" which covers Liverpool's 2014-15 Premier League title push. It is reprinted here in full: 

***

Alec Lindsay, Brian Hall, Alan Waddle.

Perhaps not the very first words you’d expect from a Manchester City fan, when asked about Liverpool, but there you go.

Richard Money, Colin Irwin, Bob Bolder. Ah, Bob Bolder.

Liverpool have always fascinated me, troubled me, lingered in my worst nightmares and, to whit, spoiled many a good match-day rumble, but they have also always made me wonder. Particularly, in my youth, those names already mentioned. Just how did they stick with it? How did they concentrate, stuck in the reserves waiting for Phil Thompson to pull a hamstring or Peter Cormack to finally bang his head on the door frame? Liverpool dominated everything about my football upbringing. If the end of the season did not feature Emlyn Bloody Hughes with his melon grin and a selection of pots and trophies adorned with fluttering red ribbons, there was something badly skewed with life as we knew and recognised it.  

We had Marmite butties. We had Scooby Doo. We had the Double Deckers and we had Kevin Keegan scoring in front of the Kop. These were the staples, the fabric of life, the very pillars of growing up in the 70s.  

A little later, Anfield took on shadowy proportions away from the playing field too. For City fans heading into enemy territory, it was well worth “minding your backs”. In the late seventies and early eighties, under the blood red sky of Thatcherite Britain, a trip to Liverppol, that trudge out of Lime Street, wading through the rain and litter on the Scotty Road, anything might happen. Liverpool the city, a fine upstanding place become downtrodden and beaten, looked to its football clubs to help keep the chins of the locals off the ground. A weekly trip to Anfield or – to a lesser extent apart from a blip in the mid 80s – to Goodison, helped put a spring in the step of a local population taken to task by the Tories and their anti-Northern, anti-football philosophies.

 The boarded up shops. The discarded shopping trollies. The upturned hopes of a whole generation, lay bare for all to see. Even the football brought troubles, in those terrible late 80s days, when politicians lied and Old England was dying. Crowds sunk to the late 20,000s at Anfield and into the teens at Goodison. At City times were rough too. Maine Road, sat plum in the middle of Moss Side, a war zone to rival anything Toxteth could muster, was falling apart at the seams. A putrid atmosphere of decay and simmering violence lay everywhere. 

In Thatcher’s Britain, you needed distractions or you would have gone mad. We had our music in these two great cities. We had our clobber. And we had our football. For all the hatred, the bridge of these three cultural elements brought the youth of Merseyside and Manchester into close proximity, whether you were red or blue, Bunnymen officionados or Oasis fans, Adidas followers or wearers of off the back of a lorry Tacchini. It was pure escapism of course, from the daily flow of factory closures and miners’ strikes.

And, of course, we had our football. And football in the 70s and in those dreaded 80s meant Liverpool.

For City fans, it was worse than for most others. A caning always awaited us at Anfield and the same thrashing, even more hard to take on your own patch, was more often than not delivered at Maine Road too. I even stopped going to Anfield for a bit, as it had become just too predictable, too painful. Whilst Alan Ball, in his dubious capacity as City’s 1995-96 relegation mastermind coach, could say he had “enjoyed watching Liverpool”, as they beat us 6-0 and 4-0 within three totally inglorious days, I could not. I hated it with a passion and I had had enough of Anfield, with its songs raining down from the Kop, its misty Saturday afternoons and its spicy Irish Sea gales flying in off the Mersey to play havoc with Stevie Kinsey’s quiff and Andy May’s shorts.

But it was not the 90s that invented Liverpool drubbings of City. These things have existed since I was a scruffily dressed kid, fresh off the school field, where I had been a mud-spattered mini-version of Dennis Tueart, firing nerveless winners past chubby, rosy cheeked Ray Clemence all afternoon. In off a tree stump, rebound from the bicycles, it mattered little if you had a chance to pop one past the mini Ray Clemence in his stolen Sondico gloves.

Come the end of the week, the real Mr Tueart, was always thwarted by the real, lythe, athletic Mr Clemence, however.

City had some decent sides in the 70s, trailing in 2nd in 1977 and 4th the season after. Guess who scooped the main prize as we struggled over the finishing line? Doesn’t need answering, does it? Liverpool were omnipotent. The afore-mentioned Clemence safe and agile, a back four that was strong and unforgiving, an ultra mobile, ultra competitive midfield four and two excellent goal-hungry frontmen. Phil Neal. Alan Kennedy. Alan Hansen. Mark Lawrenson. Steve Heighway. Graeme Souness. Terry Mac. Kenny Dalglish. Keegan and Toshack. John Barnes. Ian Rush. Ray Houghton. The names roll off the tongue one after another.

Rush was supposed to be coming to City from Chester but Big Mal stopped for a cigar and a sausage roll at Warrington services and John Smith got in ahead of him. What a difference that single issue would have made to this correspondent’s life. Rush went on to become an even bigger thorn in City’s sides than either Keegan or Dalglish.

One of the great football topics: what might have been. Instead of watching Wayne Biggins, Tony Cunningham and Trevor Christie mash up the striker’s role before our disbelieving eyes on the Kippax, it could have been the languid and, let’s face it, deadly, Ian Rush. Instead he wore red. And
indeed he did score regularly at Maine Road. Much too regularly in fact and in totally the wrong coloured kit. With deadly accuracy, with speed and punch, displaying the inimitable goalscorer’s ability to be in the right place at the right time, season after season after season. Such is life.

In those innocent days of growing up, when Liverpool hit the European trail, you would follow avidly. if you were English, you supported all the home sides in European combat. I don’t even think I made an exception for United, such was the naivety of youth, although it seems a little odd now. I certainly remember being an enthusiastic follower of Liverpool’s progress through the old European and UEFA Cups with glorious dismantlings of Aberdeen, FC Zurich, Benfica, St Etienne, Monchengladbach and others readily springing to mind. Unlike United’s dominance of the 90s, which made me sick to the pit of my stomach, I watched Liverpool’s 70s sides in a state of shock and awe. This was a young lad’s first view of what powerful, successful football looked like. The Kick Off match would bring us a weekly blast of red goals every Sunday.

Gerald Sindstadt, with his queer little moustache and his clipped southern accent, would be there to show us a 7-0 beating of Spurs or a 5-0 demolition job on Derby, five past Forest or nine past Palace. Everyone, it seemed, was ripe for an Anfield hammering, not just City, after all.

Yet, still it felt like we came off worse. When we did win in Liverpool, an occurrence as rare as hen’s teeth, we got our comeuppance in no uncertain terms. 1980 81 season: Liverpool struggling towards Christmas in a right old state. Wallowing down in 10th as City visit. Bruce Grobelaar has one of his days and lets in three goals. City winning 3-1 at Anfield! I can still feel the elation to this day. The Kop celebrated by flinging a wine bottle that hit big Joe Corrigan on the head. Such an unusual act of unsporting behaviour from that famous end. Straight away a thousand arms are pointing out the culprit and Joe Corrigan (England’s number three in those days) is serenaded with a raucous burst of “England’s Number One” by the home support. A great day all round, unless you happened to be Corrigan.

Come April, City and Liverpool have swapped places. City midtable, marooned and hopeless. Liverpool back at the top when it mattered most, after a surge of unbeaten games. The Reds arrive at Maine Road for a sunny Easter fixture and carry off a 5-0 win that puts City right back in their basket after the December victory at Anfield. Even Sammy Lee, wearing his shorts like a nappy, belts one in from 30 yards. It is – once again – total ignominy to add to the list of mishaps, failures and thrashings.

And on and on it went.

By the time Liverpool were beginning to tire of all those trophies, City had headed south and were bathing their wounds in the second division against the likes of Carlisle and Cambridge. The good times rolled again in ’88 in the FA Cup as Mel Machin’s young marauders carried the team into the FA Cup 5th round. A home grown side featuring Ian Brightwell, Paul Lake, Paul Moulden and Andy Hinchcliffe came up against the last great Liverpool side before the present day.

A soaking wet, mud-up-to-your-eyeballs Maine Road pitch greeted a full house at Maine Road. There was hope again and a chance to measure ourselves against the best in preparation for a return to the big time. At least the four goal thrashing dealt out on that afternoon, beamed live to a hungry television audience across the country, would prepare us for more ignominy at the hands of Liverpool when we did return.

Strangely, the early 90s brought little of this traditional sour tasting football disaster. Suddenly, and quite out of the blue, City became good at playing at Anfield. For a short while at the beginning of the decade it looked a little like we had worked out what we were doing. Admittedly, the mighty Reds of the 70s and 80s were slightly diminished with a new set of traffic cones with names like
Harkness and Burrows, which hardly set the pulses racing, but two consecutive 2-2 draws at Anfield, one featuring a last minute Niall Quinn header at the Annie Road end and the other a spectacular double from David White, made us believe for a while that the hoodoo might just have passed.

Then came Alan Ball and his odd ideas stored away under a flat cap. As Liverpool slipped off the pace, City slipped off the back end of Planet Football and disappeared towards the third tier. Liverpool no longer occupied City minds, even if humiliation readily did. Now the thrashings were from lower life forms and that really stung. Getting tanned at Anfield drifts to the back of your mind when you are trying to locate the away entrances at Northampton or at Darlington in the 1st round of the FA Cup. Oh for a Dalglish back heel or a Ray Kennedy ghosted strike then.

The long haul back reunited the clubs in league action at the start of the new century and an Anelka and Fowler inspired win at Anfield was hailed the first such miracle since the wind-assisted Steve Kinsey affair of 1980. It had been a long time coming, a very long time coming and the celebrations in the cramped confines of the away section were loud and long. With bruised shins and scuffed trainers, we howled with delight. It is a good thing that we made the most of it, because – since then – City have failed to repeat the feat. Two wins at Anfield in my City supporting lifetime, a mere 40 years or so, stands comparison with the worst records of any teams on any grounds on these green and pleasant islands of ours. Mind-numbingly, irrevocably awful is another way of putting it.

Although City now have a decent record against Liverpool in Manchester, turning our away stats sheet into something legible and acceptable is proving a little more taxing. Anfield still feels much like the immovable object it always was, still creates an atmosphere that makes our boys turn into mice and still reeks of the old days of thunder and lightning. Even if the players change and the reputations dwindle, that old ground still strikes fear into each new generation of City players and supporters.

Whereas everyone else seems to have moved on and can play decently without fear and, sometimes, come away with a point or two, City stubbornly stick to the age old script, exiting with absolutely nothing. When we manage a draw, as we did in the League Cup semi second leg in 2012, it was when we needed to win.

Mention of League Cup semis, takes me straight to Alf Grey, who may not register on any Liverpool fan’s radar, whatever their age, but is a prominent piece of furniture in the cluttered memory of any City fan over 45. He it was who reffed the 1981 League Cup semi final first leg at Maine Road between the two sides, disallowing a perfectly good Kevin Reeves headed goal after just three minutes for – according to the hapless whistler – a push on Alan Hansen. There had been no contact whatsoever. Liverpool regrouped and Ray Kennedy did what Ray Kennedy always did, sliding in undetected at the far post on one of his stealth raids and knocked all of the stuffing out of the Blues. A hard fought second leg at Anfield finished 2-2 and Liverpool progressed to a final they won against West Ham.

It was, if memory serves, the first League Cup win for the Reds. 

On March 1st 2015 when Liverpool beat City at Anfield with two stunning goals, most of the City support looked at each other, shrugged and headed for the exits. Even Edin Dzeko’s excellently worked equaliser had felt like putting your finger in the dyke and having to wait for the water to begin seeping out again. City played competently, within themselves, rather like quite a few of their performances in a deeply disappointing defence of that 2013-14 title snatched from Liverpool’s excited grasp. But, as ever, it was not to be. Philippe Coutinho’s rasper was added to Jordan Henderson’s rocket shot and City, once more, were buried. If the inevitability never quite finishes you off, the misplaced hope certainly does.

The year before at the same stage of the season, Liverpool had won a cracking, hard fought game 3-2 and seemed on the very brink of winning the title for the first time since the Glory years I have mentioned widely here. The atmosphere that day was raucous, celebratory and, it has to be said, slightly premature. City fans were as low as an armadillo’s belly that afternoon, estimating their own side’s chance had gone. Once more we had been beaten at Anfield, on this occasion after a stirring fightback that had led to such a reversal of the game’s original flow, it seemed there could be only one winner. In a way, there could and we should have known who that one winner was and seemingly, will always be. That crestfallen feeling came over the away end like a huge wet blanket. The slow trudge to the exits, the half hearted farewells to mates, the walk to the buses and cars, the slow departure from the grey, windswept landscape of Stanley Park and its precincts to hit the clogged roads east.

It is a well worn path trodden many times over the years, each time with shoulders hunched and the gleeful shouts of a thousand Scousers ringing in our ears. Even in their fine new clothes, Manchester City at Anfield continues to be a disaster waiting to happen.




Monday, January 8, 2018

SEMIS

She offered her face up tenderly to be kissed. I looked at her for a second pretending not to understand. Then, holding her in the hollow of my arms, I rubbed my cheek gently against hers, soft down and the vague scent of spring fields. I looked down at her for a long, loving moment. "City one step from Wembley," she murmured breathlessly and then it began.


As 1980 drifted enigmatically into 1981 Manchester City fans could have been forgiven for thinking the good times had finally arrived. It had been ten years since the club’s golden age had disappeared over the horizon with the speed of bathwater exiting noisily down the plug hole. The years in between had produced such scarce pickings, they could have filled an idle chapter in The Generation of Swine.  

Admittedly, City had reached two League Cup finals in the 70s, one a sloppy, unnecessary defeat to a Wolves side playing a jittery reserve goalkeeper (the totally unheralded and soon to be headline-making Gary Pierce), the other a vibrant, noise-filled victory over a flu-ridden Newcastle United.
    
City were, just for a change, in a state of some considerable flux. Malcolm Allison had come and gone for a second time, leaving many disgruntled with what he failed to achieve, his majestic reputation scorched and singed by a growing penchant for expensive booze and women grown ideolgically wide at the hips.

The stars of Tony Book's vibrant 1977 side had been sent packing, replaced with roosters and cobblers. Where once Dave Watson, Gary Owen, Brian Kidd and Peter Barnes trod the magic turf, we now gazed down upon Dave Wiffill, Stuart Lee and Paul Sugrue with unblinking eyes. Big Mal, so uncannily sure of his continuing Midas touch, had swapped Asa Hartford for Barry Silkman (the footballing equivalent of making a sow's ear out of a silk pass).  

Allison's sleight of hand had wrenched out the Rolls Royce engine and refitted the patient with the chugging innards of a Fiat Punto.

Big Mal had been replaced by the less flamboyant and curiously self-confident John Bond, a hair-do on legs with a nice line in comfy homilies. He appeared on first glance to be well trimmed and full of the joys of spring, but in fact carried the deep scars of having been Allison's stooge at West Ham, the smiley simpleton to Mal's big league pan-European jokes.

After a grim beginning under the new man (a dreadful pedestrian 0-1 home defeat to an equally lifeless Birmingham City), City started a long run from the bottom of the table. Thrilling December wins over Everton and Wolves, plus a last gasp defeat of a Leeds side who had come to Maine Road and spent eighty-nine minutes passing back to keeper John Lukic, took Bond's side  away from danger.

At the same time a League Cup run had been taking shape after wins over Stoke and Luton under Allison were carried on by a 5-1 beating of Notts County (Dennis Tueart nabbing four) and an unforgettably vibrant  quarter final win over West Brom at Maine Road which took City to the last four. 

A semi-final at last.

Lining up in the League Cup semi finals were the distinctly beatable pair of West Ham and Coventry, who of course promptly drew each other, leaving City to tackle the invigorating and all-conquering European champions Liverpool, a threshing machine that had been devouring everything in its way for years. The feeling was nevertheless of high hopes for advancement, given the vivid upsurge of form under the new manager. The weeks running up to the game were spent in high anticipation. At last that gut wrenching dread that accompanied a match of great consequence gripped us all.

***

Kevin Reeves nets at Anfield in the 2nd leg of the 1981 League Cup semi final. 
Those hopes would be dashed, partly because the referee for the first leg at a thunderous, expectant Maine Road was a gentleman called Alf Grey, an upright sort of man who had developed a strong liking for the sound of his own whistle. He had already blown it a couple of times when, in the 2nd minute of the match Kevin Reeves leapt like a salmon to put City ahead. The whole ground, unused to this kind of edgy one-upmanship, was in tumult, the heaving bulk of the Kippax a swaying livid morasse of cavorting bodies.

Then Mr Grey took another good long blow on his whistle, proclaimed that Reeves must have fouled hapless Liverpool keeper Ray Clemence to have been so much higher in the air than the man in green, and promptly extinguished all those dreams. Liverpool steadied their early nerves and won the game with a simple strike from Ray Kennedy.

The Merseysiders would scrape through to the final on aggregate thanks to the slimmest of margins, that one goal scored by Kennedy. After a brave second leg performance at Anfield, the width of the crossbar was the only thing preventing Dave Bennett’s header from putting the Blues level and into extra time.

That City again stood at the gates of Wembley a matter of three short months later was scarcely believable. What a season of passion the new manager had conjured from the darkened ashes of Big Mal’s second coming.

The multitude descended on Villa Park, in those days a fine and traditional venue for such a match, for the much awaited FA Cup semi final against favourites Ipswich Town, still going strong on three fronts under Bobby Robson, who had the Suffolk side punching well above its weight.

Ipswich were fighting Liverpool for the title and would finish a busy season in the UEFA Cup final with AZ Alkmaar. They were seen by many as a step too far for Bond’s patched up City.

The Holte End awash with excitement as City kick off one-ahead for the second period of extra time. FA Cup 1981.

However, in a bitty affair City prevailed with a dramatic extra time free kick struck by the trusty left foot of captain Paul Power. Power had scored in every tie except the 5th round win at Peterborough and now his goal had landed City, incredibly, at Wembley. They would then be the sacrificial lambs on Ricky Villa’s FA Cup final barbecue, a swerving slalom goal to be imprinted on every City fan's memory for the next 35 years.

Then a curious thing happened.

Manchester City and cup semi finals ceased to be an item. They ceased to be a topic of even the most distracted conversations. They went off the radar completely. FA Cup semi finals were for teams like Wycombe Wanderers and Watford, Plymouth Argyle and Wimbledon. They were for Coventry and Leeds, Sheffield United and Wednesday and even, bless them, good old Newcastle. Even that lesser thing of value the League Cup semi final became the territory of Tranmere and Oxford, Oldham and QPR.

City meanwhile went into well deserved hibernation.

In those barren intervening years City would even find themselves playing the likes of Halifax and Darlington in the Cup’s preliminary rounds, as a member of the third tier of English professional football.

Legendary defeats to Halifax, Shrewsbury, Oldham, Forest, Brentford, Blackpool, Chesterfield, Brighton and even to a loose balloon at Sheffield United seemed to tell City fans that the romance of the cups had become the sole property of others.

Between the 1981 semi final win over Ipswich and City’s appearance in the 2009-10 League Cup semi final with arch rivals United, nearly 30 years had passed. Now, never let it be said that Manchester City fans of a certain vintage are impatient, but some may have been pretty sure that they were unlikely to ever again need the cardboard FA Cup covered in tinfoil. The mouldy old 1969 rosette could be safely binned too.

"It was the clearest indication yet of how the so-called "noisy neighbours" have got up the noses of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United" - Phil McNulty, BBC 

In those two cataclysmic matches with the arch foes in 2010, City lost out narrowly on the chance to get to Wembley. Five games into Roberto Mancini's reign as boss, Cty fielded a side from which only Vincent Kompany survives today, a player who will certainly not be involved against Bristol City this week.   

City were growing fast. Since that semi-final disappointment against United, the growth spurt has become more of an avalanche prompting a serious taste for these occasions.
And how they have started to flow...

Carlos Tevez scores in the tumultuous semi final with United in 2010

         
THE MODERN ERA SEMI-FINALS

19th January 2010 League Cup semi final
City 2 Manchester United 1

27th January 2010 League Cup semi final
Manchester United 3 City 1

16th April 2011 FA Cup semi final 
City 1 Manchester United 0

11th January 2012 League Cup semi final 
City 0 Liverpool 1

25th January 2012 League Cup semi final
Liverpool 2 City 2

14th April 2013 FA Cup semi final 
City 2 Chelsea 1

8th January 2014 League Cup semi final

City 6 West Ham 0

21st January 2014 League Cup semi final

West Ham 0 City 3

7th January 2016 League Cup semi final

Everton 2 City 1

27th January 2016 League Cup semi final

City 3 Everton 1

23rd April 2017 FA Cup semi final
City 1 Arsenal 2
   





:::

Two seasons ago, Everton stood in the way and, having won 2-1 in a boisterous first leg at Goodison Park. the Merseysiders made City fight all the way in the second leg. After falling behind to Ross Barkley's goal early on, a rousing second half onslaught brought City the three goals they needed to go through to face Everton's neighbours Liverpool in the final.

A similar feat of recovery took place in the same competition, against Middlesbrough in 1976.

Having won 1-0 at Ayresome Park, Boro travelled west in the hope of making it to their first ever final, but were wiped away by a stunning show of power from City. Inspired by Peter Barnes on the wing and the indefatigable pair of Alan Oakes and Asa Hartford in midfield, the Blues ran out emphatic 4-0 winners in the 2nd leg. Boro, a more than competent side in those days, were flattened to the thickness of a dinner plate.
It is to the kind of rapier wing-play produced by Barnes on that occasion that Pep Guardiola will now rely upon against Bristol City, with Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling more than capable of having a similarly devastating effect on their opponents from the championship.

A place at Wembley awaits. It is questionable whether anyone, who stood through City's semi finals of the 70s and 80s will ever become blasé about such events. Semi finals might be slightly more familiar occurrences these days, but that inimitable tingle of expectation is enough to tell all involved that it is a game above and beyond the ordinary, even in these heightened times of rich return. 

In the name of David Bennett and Kevin Reeves, deprived of their moments of glory by the fickle hand of fate in 1981; for Carlos Tevez and Nigel de Jong, semi final scorers in more recent unsuccessful attempts, another golden chance beckons for City. For fate is always watching, always waiting, as those on the Kippax in 1981 will confirm.





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