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.





Friday, January 5, 2018

SHAYMEN

"Number 666, Halifax Town, will play, number 23, Manchester City"
If the FA Cup 3rd round these days is a slightly tedious procession of big teams in bright kits picking off smaller ones while fielding their second string, it was not always thus.

Indeed, as City prepare to welcome Burnley, it is not without relevance to remember how this was a club not so very long ago that was always top of the charts on 3rd round day for those seeking out the local betting shop for possible giant killings.


Recent history has seen Oldham, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest triumph from leagues below while Sheffield United managed to put City out with one of the all-time classic cup goals, deflected past keeper Joe Hart via a string of stray party balloons in the area.

Go back a little further than this and City’s history is richly adorned not only with bananas, but their skins too.


On 5th January 1980 Malcolm Allison – celebrating the first anniversary of his second coming at Maine Road - took his star studded City side to perhaps the most ramshackle stadium in the four divisions, or as rookie Yorkshire TV commentator Martin Tyler would claim at the beginning of the match “one of the league’s more unfashionable grounds”.

The Shay, a legendary mud heap that in today’s world of ringroad-based sardine can identikit grounds, looked a little like the arse end of a Rio de Janerio favela transported painlessly and efficiently into the coal-black hills of West Yorkshire. Even the sooty faced kids replete in their parkas might have been plucked from the opening credits of The City of God.

City, without defenders Willie Donachie, Dragoslav Stepanovic, Tommy Booth and Paul Futcher, put out a side containing the teenage talents of Nicky Reid and Tommy Caton at the back. What the effervescent talent of Stepanovic and Futcher would have made of the mud caked pitch is anyone's guess, but at least City had an excuse or two stored up their sleeves, just in case. If ever a day was going to test them it would be this one.

As well as the dilapidated ground, the braying crowd, the numerous injuries and the brain-freezing fervour of the Cup, Halifax had also invested in their own Shayman, Romark, a hypnotist of dubious origin, who had been brought in to transport the likes of Paul Hendrie into the zone.

A man with possibly equal amounts of psychic ability, Allison had uncovered this mysterious soothsayer during his spell as head coach at Crystal Palace in the mid-70s.

Big Mal, hands more than full with champagne bottles and bunny girls from the Playboy Club, had forgotten to pay Romark's modest bill, however, and the all-seeing hypnotist got the severest of humps, revolving his eyes in different directions and placing a curse on Mal and his eager young Palace side.

On the eve of their 1976 FA Cup semi-final against Southampton, Romark -evidently a man who enjoyed looking into the past as well as the future- contacted Lawrie McMenemy's secretary and arranged to meet up with the Southampton supremo. McMenemy could hardly refuse a man with such an obvious penchant for storing grievances. He is widely quoted thus:

"When he came in, his eyes immediately struck me. He had peripheral vision, both eyes staring in different directions. He surprised everyone by asking for two chairs to be placed in the centre of the room facing away from each other two yards apart, then got an apprentice to put his head on one and heels on the other. When he took the chairs away, the lad stayed suspended in mid air. I was even asked to sit on the lad's stomach and still he stayed suspended. George Horsfall, our reserve-team trainer, came in shortly afterwards and, after telling him what had happened, he did the trick all over again. He wouldn't tell us how it had been done, but George was born in India and it may well have had something to do with the old Indian rope trick." 



Whether the apprentice was suspended by the golden filaments of Mordor or Romark had a set of bathroom mirrors stashed in his underpants, the trick worked a treat on Southampton, filling them with a strange "energy" that not only saw them past Allison's oddly unblinking Palace, but imbued enough turquoise light in the players to see off staunch favourites Manchester United in the Wembley final itself.

Some will still remember watching Bobby Stokes stroke the winner. The pass through to him had arrived in his stride from Jimmy McCalliog, who, when afforded an intimate close-up after the goal, appeared to have a middle eye shining brightly on his forehead. In an instant, it was gone. It was that fast. I am sure I was not the only one watching Cup Final Grandstand that day that actually saw it.

Romark's work was not yet done, however.

Big Mal: smoke and mirrors
The curse, as these things often do, transferred itself to Allison himself, who went back to City in the late seventies with startling failure and abject embarrassment just a funny glance and an oddly pointed finger away.

On the eve of the 3rd round tie the Halifax manager George Kirby enlisted Romark's assistance once again. Not being a man to miss a pay check or an opportunity to get revenge on previous poor payers, Romark accepted and brought his mirrors and rope set north to West Yorkshire.

Halifax striker John Smith recalled an odd meeting two days before the tie:



"I'm sat there with this guy called Romark, and he was saying … 'you will go to sleep now, John Smith, and then you'll overcome the power of Manchester City. You will play the greatest game of your life, John Smith. When I count to three, you'll wake up again.' I was trying not to laugh and I'm thinking, what's all this about? What a load of nonsense."

Naturally enough, Smith would subsequently lay on the winner for Paul Hendrie in a 1-0 win for the home side, although "overcoming the power of Manchester City" was not confined to Halifax in those tumultuous days. Shrewsbury and a host of other less than fragrant opponents also found it within themselves to beat City, Romark or no Romark. Smith was flabbergasted. "All the headlines, though, were about that hypnotist," said Smith, "but we beat Manchester City through courage, hard work and belief.", said the Halifax man whilst hovering three metres above his sofa, drinking orange juice without a cup.

Romark later tried to prove his powers to the unforgiving public on Ilford High Street by driving blindfolded down the road. His intrepid journey reached a rather predictable (unless you couldn't see the future too clearly) end after approximately 20 yards when he drove miserably into the back of a police van.

"That van was parked in a place that logic told me it wouldn't be," he said afterwards, looking at the wretched vehicle, slotted hopelessly alongside the pavement, parallel with the curb, within the little yellow lines and with its hazard lights flashing for good measure.

The hazard lights at The Shay had also flickered brightly. From a claggy start with Michael Robinson, £750,000 worth of raw Preston meat, displaying an inability to make contact with the ball as it stuck in the pudding of a penalty area, to a desperate conclusion of madly braying locals and desperately hoofed high balls. City had come a cropper.

Allison was soon to depart Maine Road a second time, embittered and beaten, after a bizarre exercise in team dismantling finally caught up with him. His private life, whilst tolerated as part of the glamorous scene of the victorious when City had been carrying all before them in the late 60s, now looked tawdry and inappropriate as the likes of Shrewsbury and then Halifax turfed City from the Cup.

And what of the day's protagonists? Romark found himself imprisoned for embezzling his own mother and died of a stroke in 1982. Mustn't have seen that one coming.

Meanwhile City chairman Peter Swales described the experience as “the worst football day of my life,” Allison was sacked and replaced by John Bond. Halifax went on to lose in the fourth round at Bolton and finish 18th in the Fourth Division. City reached the Cup Final the very next year under Bond, brushing aside 4th division upstarts Peterborough on their own London Road ground. Things were changing for the better, but it wouldn't last. 
It took City until 2008 to begin to stabilise, finally winning the FA Cup in 2011 and reaching the final again in 2013, only to fall to a modern day Halifax in humble Wigan Athletic. Thus, a club with such a rich history of mucking things up without help or hindrance from a higher plane, can never really rest easy on FA Cup 3rd round day.



Halifax Town: 1:John Kilner, 2:Chris Dunleavy, 3:Geoff Hutt, 4:David Evans, 5:Dave Harris, 6:Paul Hendrie, 7:Franny Firth, 8:Mick Kennedy, 9:Bob Mountford, 10:Smith, 11:Stafford, Sub:Goodman, Manager: George Kirby
City: 1: Joe Corrigan, 2:Ray Ranson, 3:Paul Power, 4:Nicky Reid, 5:Tommy Caton, 6:Dave Bennett, 7:Tony Henry, 8:Steve Daley, 9:Mick Robinson. 10: Colin Viljoen, 11:Bobby Shinton, Sub:Stuart Lee, Manager:Malcolm Allison


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

BACK TO WORK


Farewell then festive season and bon voyage too to the unprecedented 18 wins-on-the-trot. Away they go, never to be seen again. It’s a record around these parts by the way, but not in Germany.  

A 2017-18 Premier League campaign that is yet to see a defeat has now witnessed its second draw on the very last day of the year. The only other one, remember, came in the first home game of the season, when Kyle Walker was banished from the field for waving to his Mum in the stands.

What Pep Guardiola and his players have achieved in going so long unbeaten whilst playing such scintillatingly attractive/effective football should not be underestimated. After all, as the Catalan coach will have heard every day of his year and a half stay in sunlit northern England, the Premier League is the toughest league in the world. This the mantra with which the highly impressive Football Association marketing juggernaut keeps the entire globe tuned in to its whirling limbs and gracefully flying muddied spheres.

Having seen Ilkay Gundogan, Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne (twice) being subjected to lunging, thoughtless over-the-top tackles in the last five games, it is questionable whether the Catalan will be raising a glass to that “toughness”, a brutal form of energy that frequently surfaces as ugly thuggery. Maybe the ball does run a little faster here (it must be the clean air), maybe the speed of the action can lead to bone-jarring “accidental collisions”. That’s all well and possible, but in that case, this careering around needs to be adequately policed and that was plainly not going to happen with Mr Jonathon Moss roaming the prairie.

De Bruyne, the latest and most obvious target as the fulcrum of City’s forward march, now lies bruised and battered, with only the hollow warnings that this was always likely to happen ringing in his ears. We told you so, but it has happened anyway.

Having been assured from all corners of the football planet that his pretty football ideas would founder on the rocks of hard practicality in England, Guardiola may have taken a little time to get used to his rough new surroundings. His first season, ending trophyless for the first time in his glittering managerial career, seemed to confirm to all those detractors that it was indeed pointless transferring Barcelona pussyfooting to the Premier League.

This season’s immaculate start to the season proved all the doubters wrong, however. With an injection of pace to the flanks, a goalkeeper, who can play as well with his feet as any of the outfield men, and a squad imbued with the Catalan’s playing ethics, there has been a smooth transition to some of the most wonderful football seen played in 25 years of Premier League action.

Guardiola, then, must be praised for sticking to his guns. Seen as stubborn and unresponsive to others’ ideas, the Catalan has merely been staying true to his principles of keeping it simple, holding possession and pressing the opposition fast and as energetically as possible.

So far nobody has found an answer to this free-flowing passing machine of a team, but there seems a glimmer of hope for those in distant pursuit.

Those that have come closest have been sides that have managed to combine blanket defence with the ability to raid quickly forward when the few opportunities presented themselves. The autumn clashes with Southampton, West Ham and Huddersfield, none of them title challengers in any shape or form, provided City with some tough questions to answer. In ending City’s triumphal winning streak at 18, Crystal Palace managed to combine both the suffocating defence and occasional bright energetic forward movement. Roy Hodgson’s side emerged relatively unscathed (but possibly a little tired) and within an Ederson ankle’s width of actually becoming the first side to defeat City in domestic competition this season.
* City ‘keepers have now saved 10 of the last 17 penalties they've faced in all competitions, with four different goalkeepers saving those 10 (Hart, Bravo, Caballero and Ederson).

They managed this by sticking to their beliefs and bringing an amount of energy and concentration to the game that few have been able to match against the grinding passing machine that City throw over their opponents like a horse hair rug. By pressing and sharing the attacking responsibilities with their guests, Palace succeeded in providing City with some new problems.

Admittedly, City were far from their best on this occasion. The first half was one of the worst 45 minutes of football served up so far this season, with Leroy Sane wasteful and petulant, as he misread De Bruyne’s intentions and ran in to multiple dead-ends. At the back, City put out a four, three of which hailed from FC Porto, with Mangala again providing the game with one of his odd moments of paralysis that almost led to a goal, had the bumbling Benteke not stuck to his solidly appalling form of 2017 and hit his shot straight into the defender’s ankles instead of a totally unguarded goal. Danilo too, looked uneasy when the zippy Zaha switched to his wing, having had a titanic struggle with Walker on the right.

In the middle, De Bruyne without Silva and with the sound of snorting nostrils all around, looked reluctant to take the game by the scruff of the neck. With Gabriel Jesus joining the Belgian in the Selhurst Park first aid tent, it might just be that a growing list of injuries will provide City with the biggest challenge of the season. Mendy, Stones, Aguero, Kompany, now Jesus and a heavily bruised De Bruyne, the list continues to expand at an astonishing rate.

It was clear, as time moved on, Guardiola would also have to nurse injuries and tiring legs. Winning, as any footballer will readily admit, certainly helps take the mind off the negative aspects that can begin to creep in during a long hard season.

The congested Christmas fixture list will now give way to the congested January fixtures. Of nine December fixtures, five were away from home. January heralds five homes out of the seven scheduled games. Watford, Newcastle and West Brom visit in the league, while Burnley and Bristol City are the cup opponents due at the Etihad. There will be more defensive blankets laid and more robust tackling to nullify City’s twinkling feet.

That many are treating an away draw as a disaster only serves to show where City are in respect of the challengers. Now Watford arrive to see if they can take any advantage of, what might we call it, a blip? Is a draw after 18 wins a blip? Nobody really knows until the next game rolls around.

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