Sunday, August 24, 2014


Here's a strange thing. When I am in a happy mood, or am enjoying a stupid moment with the
Hit or miss?
kids, or start making those strange noises of the half-deranged whilst peeling a potato, I often sing one particular song. It features a football player, who left Manchester City a year and a half ago, but it is still to this day the daft ditty that sticks in my simple brain. You probably know the song yourself. It is difficult to rid yourself of it once it is inside and playing havoc with the brain cells.

Mario Balotelli, beloved of most if not all Manchester City supporters for the role he played in the Great Adventure, has long been a one man breaking news story. And now that story appears to be breaking all over Liverpool, a place dangerously close to Manchester, featuring a team dangerously close to Manchester City in the current pecking order.

So just what are we meant to make of this?
Balotelli is the logical development of where our adventure with modern football has deposited us all, indeed where this modern world in general has landed us all. This is the dizzying point the globe has arrived at, with its rapidly disappearing ice shelves and its radio controlled pandas. The conspicuous consumerism, the preening and the showing off, the flouting of rules, the lack of respect, the lack of identity, this floating, drifting island of avarice.

Sadly footballers are often not very far from some of the more distasteful moments around us. Mario Balotelli, we have often been told, is one of those man-boys, who needs an arm around his shoulder, a word or three of calm advice, a quiet corner to sit and take aboard some well-meant, well-aimed bons mots; but he seems to need this every day of his life as many of his ilk do and he does not get it every day. Football folk, hardened and selfish, do not easily empathise with this kind of a predicament. They have rigorous training to come through unscathed, they have interviews with tricky journalists to negotiate and they have Call of Duty to twiddle with into the small hours.

Traditionally this is where the likes of Mario Balotelli have been cast off to do their own thing. Boredom, a heightened sense of the ridiculous and a lot of money can produce some rare old hijinks. In Balotelli's case this has involved some of Manchester City's most memorable moments over recent years.

Liverpool will be well aware that Balotelli sells newspapers, fills webspace and turns heads in equally vast numbers. It is fashionable to either "love his idiosyncratic ways" or "lambast his idiotic selfishness". A massive bubbling vortex of dirty water swirls around his every move. He is the catalyst of a thousand heated debates on airwaves and in pubs. He is a loon, a loner and a loose cannon. He cannot be allowed to go on like this. He cannot get away with that. He should be locked up for the other. He is a prince, a magician and a conjurer, an untouchable master of the round ball.

"I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head. There are different ways to help a guy like Mario. I don't speak with him every day, otherwise I would need a psychologist" - Roberto Mancini,

The Balotelli Way is to shrug those muscular shoulders and lope back into position in the centre circle, in the club's closed car park, or in the late night lap-dancing bar (on one memorable occasion this third option was located in Merseyside of all places).

If Mario wears the "I don’t care what you think" face, he wears it as a mask. Balotelli cares, just like everybody else cares, he just cares intermittently and in vastly varying amounts. Clearly, there have been moments that even a young man of 24 shouldn’t be completely proud of. Many will remember the obvious moments like going to a television appearance wearing an AC Milan shirt whilst being paid to play for Internazionale. José Mourinho’s Internazionale. Or discovering a wholly improbable grass allergy at half time in Kiev and being sent off in the return game, single-handedly scuppering City’s chances of completing a comeback that was already in full, fifth gear swing. Or claiming not to know who Jack Wilshire was when pitted against the Arsenal youngster for a young player of the year award.

Creating a series of bathroom hijinks with his friends that eventually produced a house blaze of such impressive magnitude that he ruined the top floor of his home. Failing with a back-heeled goal attempt v.LA Galaxy in a pre-season game, when a simple right foot connection would have sufficed. Getting sent off versus Liverpool -of all teams - after only entering the fray after 65 minutes.

"If you work with players like Zanetti, Ivan Cordoba and Marco Materazzi and you don’t learn anything, it's because you have only one brain cell" José Mourinho

The list, you see, is almost endless, as are the possibilities of what might happen when Balotelli descends upon Merseyside. As the owner of a Why Always Me t-shirt, as Greater Manchester Police's Ambassador for Firework Safety, Balotelli clearly has a sharp sense of the ironic. He is one of football's lost mavericks, a young lad with the physique of a giant and the brain of a teenager about to empty out some window boxes on his way back from the pub. 

Many felt that the Premier League would be no place, just as the harsh world of Serie A was no place, for this kind of individual. As Martin Samuel stated in The Mail, "Balotelli wants to operate beyond the strictures of the team ethic...the cost of this is beginning to outweigh the benefit." Sandro Mazzola, that great old man of Italian football talks of "making a leap of quality" in a footballer’s maturity. In that case, a slight wait might be on the cards for Balotelli-watchers as they train their binoculars on the banks of the River Mersey.

Whatever happens next, the followers of Liverpool will not forget the time Mario Balotelli pulled on the red shirt. Indeed, they might even find themselves singing daft songs about it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


"My hair used to be that colour, you know"
The smoke rising from the fat cigar came accompanied by a self-satisfied smirk. Peter Swales scratched the side of his face languidly where his improbable haircut began its journey over the top of his head and addressed his fellow directors, Chris Muir and Ian Niven, "I think we've got a good'un here, gents. I just know we're going to be ok with this fella..."

Swales, a man blinded by the glamour of big time football after a career spent bigging up his Altrincham-based household appliances kingdom, had just completed a busy 24 hours of typical City negotiations, swapping the larger than life Malcolm Allison for the larger than Norwich John Bond. It was a like for like downgrade, with Bond's faux-football-theorocracy slotting in nicely to the gaping wound left by Allison's second coming. Big Mal had at first created a transfer war chest by selling the household silver, then blown it all on a set of plastic beakers. Out went the class and international experience of Kidd, Channon, Hartford, Barnes, Owen and Watson. In came the curly hair and beaded Balkan slippers of Shinton, Robinson, Stepanovic, Daley, Wiffill, Sugrue and dear old Stuart Lee. The only one who couldn't speak Englsih, the moustachioed Stepanovic, immediately became captain. It was how Mal liked to organise things.

That Bond failed in a cloud of stolid rhetoric and false promises was what City were all about under Swales. All fur coat and no knickers, cuban heels with half mast socks badly in need of some imergency darning.

If the glitzy sheen of all this ersatz glamour attracted the simple attention of the likes of Peter J Swales, it has to be said that the Timperley Toupé also tried the quiet route at City. When Bond left abruptly after an FA Cup tanking at Brighton, where the ex-City plodder Michael Robinson (one of Allison's unlikely purchases) suddenly turned in a wholly unannounced Rob Rensenbrink performance, Swales turned unashamedly (it was of course the cheap option) to John Benson to see out the season. Benson, Bond's assistant, was a naturally retiscent man with very few words to offer, none of them of the hyperbolic variety that Maine Road press conferences had been stuffed with for the previous years of "Big Mal" and "Johnny Bond". As the loquacious Bond's assistant, it was not his place to actually say anything. Many will remember being surprised by his voice when he finally did arrive before the cameras, so rare had his press appearances been. Benson continued to say little, his team contimued to move little and City went down to the second division with very little fight. It had been a quiet revolution, in a contrary sort of way.

Bond: so confident, he bought his son
But for all the association with the champagne and dancing girls of Allison's ilk, it can be argued that City have fared best when driven forward by men of few words, the hapless Benson excepted. The epic four years under Allison's first reign brought every trophy available and became synonymous with the flowing drinks and happy smiling crowd of gaily painted well wishers that occupied Manchester's hotspots in the late sixties and early 70s. Let us not forget that, even then, as Allison slugged Dom Perignon from the bottle and charged around Manchester with a medallion hanging from his open necked shirt the size of a penny farthing wheel, the steadying hand on the good ship Maine Road's tiller belonged to Joe Mercer.

Mercer, hardly retiscent when a microphone was available to talk into, was nevertheless the polar opposite of Allison: quiet, measured, polite and unassuming. "Genial Joe" was the good cop, but he was also the template for several important stepping stones to where City now stand, as one of the English game's foremost exponents of successful, watchable top level football.

Before Allison's disastrous second coming, Swales had conjured more prescient thoughts in offering Mal's old right back Tony Book the manager's hat. Book, a man who had played top flight football only at the tail end of his career, had still managed to be present at all of City's crucial moments, making him a surprisingly well decorated footballer, despite his late, short spell as a first division footballer. None of this glory had rubbed off on the quietly spoken Devonian in the slightest. A more self-effacing gentleman you could not have wished to meet. Book, capable of all sorts of hard nosed decisions in the quiet of the Maine Road corridors, interviewed like a man appearing from a mine after rescuing a Jack Russell. There was not a hint of the "me" City fans had come to live with - and love - from Allison's stint in charge.

In fact, put in front of the tv cameras, Book would sometimes become gauche and tongue-tied, only saving himself when offered the outlet of tactical analysis in place of media friendly tittle tattle. In the safe cocoon of football talk, he could praise his players' work and talk about how the game had been won, drawn or, occasionally, lost, but given the opportunity to ridicule the next opponent or laugh at a freshly trounced adversary, Book usually turned to chalk.

Here was a man who preferred to let his team do the talking for him and, by the mid-to-late seventies, they were not just talking but shouting from the Manchester rooftops. Book had constructed a side that Allison would later dismantle in rude haste, which came close to overhauling the incredible Liverpool side led by Bob Paisley, finishing a solitary point off the top in 1977 and 4th just a year
It was funny at the time
later. These were days of yore, when City fans could shout from the highest pillar about their club's exploits, whilst the manager kept his profil very much at ground level.

If Book was a slightly reserved character, Mel Machin was a pillar of salt. Another Swales punt after all else had failed, the ex-Norwich schemer, assistant manager and manager joined City in another temporary dip, the late 80s sojourn in the second tier. After the loud Scots cackle of Billy McNeill and Jimmy Frizzell, here was a man, who could make a door close by itself from fifty yards. Machin was a football man through and through, with a voice so low that only bats could detect it. Many a television interview with him on Granada TV's Kick Off programme would be turned off as his low tone whisper just could not be followed by the naked human ear. Still he manufactured a side that came storming out of the traps and scored almost at will. It was under his watch that a young efforvescent City side knocked ten past Hudderfield Town and five past a young Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. Swales, never a man to be happy with the obvious, infamously sacked Machin for "a lack of repartee" with the fans. A man who had nurtured the likes of Ian Brightwell, David White, Paul Moulden, Paul Simpson, Andy Hinchcliffe, Paul Lake and Steve Redmond from Youth Cup winning days to the first team, and successfully added the likes of Paul Stewart and Tony Adcock to the brew, was deemed surplus to requirements and City once more looked to fill the most notorious mangerial vacancy in English football.

In one of his more cogent moments, Swales filled the void with ex-Everton supremo Howard Kendall, a man who had been responsible for the thrilling upsurge in the Toffees' fortunes from 1984 to 1988, winning the FA Cup, two league titles and the Cup Winners' Cup in Rotterdam. Kendall brought a steely, professional attitude to City's wobbling team and hauled them away from the verge of another relegation disaster with a string of unspectacular but well earned late season victories. Football supporters generally sniff the difference between a chancer and the real deal and Kendall's tenure featured a real upsurge in terrace support for the club, as a team built on solid ex-Evertonians like Adrian Heath, Peter Reid and Alan Harper got City out of trouble. With Swales now bedazzled by his England connections after somehow levering himself on to the board of the FA, he took his eye off the ball, allowing Kendall's advisers to insist on get-out clauses if certain jobs became available to him. Sure enough, Everton, suddenly suffering badly in his absence, were soon managerless and tempted him away before he could build on a promising start.

Manuel Pellegrini - the current charming man

Roberto Mancini - thees ees a football

Mark Hughes - quiet but in a different way

Sven Goran Eriksson - big noise when the tea lady backed her urn up the corridor

Stuart Pearce - loud, proud and stupid

Kevin Keegan - avuncular to the point of ridicule

Joe Royle - hot on the soundbites

Frank Clark - Guitar strumming disaster fiend

Phil Neal - Mouth before brain

Steve Coppell - erudite, well spoken and absent

Alan Ball - voice that could put sheep in a pen from thirty five yards

Brian Horton - chatty, starey, stripy jacketed

Peter Reid - shouty and spitty

Howard Kendall - quietly searching for his wife

Mel Machin - no repartee, never mind rapport

Jimmy Frizzell - growly, shouty and gruff

Billy McNeill - Big Seizure

John Benson - glove puppet

John Bond - too big for Norwich

Malcolm Allison - this charming tan

Tony Book - silent witness

If we are judging City's historical liking for the quiet professional manager ahead of the cabaret act, it
Kendall: contractual clause for premature baldness
should also be stated that "quiet" alone does not quite get you membership of this club. Steve Coppell was quiet, for example, mainly because he had already left the building; Mel Machin because you just couldn't hear him. There is a distinct difference between Mercer, Kendall, Book and Pellegrini and the others. The quiet manager, be he Pep Guardiola or Mel Machin, has to let his teams do the talking for him, a challenge down the years for incumbents in City's dugout that has been too hot to handle for many. In Pellegrini, City's owners have taken a swerve away from the bright lights and soundbites of Mourinho, Van Gaal and Klopp, and decided to concentrate finally delightfully on just the football. This will have at last come to the surface during City's ill tempered game at Newcastle last season. With Alan Pardew ranting and raving along the touchline and eventually manouevring himself up to the Chilean and shouting a top grade obscenity at him, Manuel Pellegrini refused to react. Perhaps he had seen worse in the Chilean league, although I doubt it, for Pardew is quite a case. Whatever the reason, there is no tabloid story waiting to get out of Pellegrini. He is a quiet man of football, nothing more, nothing less.

For the travelling circus that has been Manchester City down the decades, that fact alone is blissfully good news.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


FC Porto line up for their game with City

Malcolm Allison was not to know it at the time, but stepping out onto the playing fields of Portugal in charge of Manchester City in the pre-season of 1980-81, the larger than life head coach was getting a first taste of a country where he would a few short months later enjoy his swansong as a professional football coach.
The subtle irony would have been lost on him at the time, as his second full season in charge of City (for the second time) commenced with a trip through a country where, the very next season, the larger than life coach would achieve his last great success, leading Sporting Clube de Portugal to their most recent league and Cup double  in front of an adoring Lisbon public.

As with those City supporters whose memories are capable of recalling this era, Sporting fans remember Allison fondly for the glamour and success he brought to their club.
City's pre-season on this occasion was to take in the following hotspots:
Wed 30th July 1980        FC Porto
Tues 5th Aug 1980          Sporting Braga
Thurs 7th Aug                   Sporting Lisbon
Thereafter the club would head north to round preparations off in the Netherlands with a game against NAC Breda and back home to face Bath, Nuneaton Borough and, as part of the deal that had taken Polish World Cup skipper Kaziu Deyna to Maine Road, Legia Warsaw.
Having been part of a record breaking management partnership with Joe Mercer that had brought City untold success in the late 60s and early 70s (an arrangement that the brash and self-confident Allison always maintained reflected poorly on the amount of influence he had had on the team's shape and tactics), Allison was now in sole charge, put there by City's megalomaniac chairman Peter Swales.
Swales had embraked on a death or glory chase to catch and bypass Manchester United in the late 70s and, although City had finished 2nd and 4th as the decade wound to a close, his impatience was beginning to get the better of him. Having removed Tony Book from the front line (the manager had overseen City's League Cup success in '76 and the afore-mentioned league campaigns), Swales had turned to Allison.
The Havana cigars, the champagne flutes, the sheepskin coats, the brazenly unbuttoned round-collared shirts and the entourage of fragrant women, all ideologically wide at the hips, were once again to be seen at Maine Road, as Allison set about puffing blue smoke in the faces of anyone, who didn't do things with a bit of a swagger.
The team also found itself in the middle of quite a transformation, with Allison insisting on what appeared to be change for change's sake. Out had gone seasoned internationals Mike Channon, Asa Hartford, Dave Watson and, much to the chagrin of the supporters, club favourites Gary Owen and Peter Barnes. In their stead we were still to get used to Gary Wiffill, Staurt Lee, Michael Robinson, the massively expensive Steve Daley and the utterly unknown Paul Sugrue. Strange times were brewing and - as with all stroies involving Big Mal - it would either be glorious success or horrible, char-grilled failure.
Click on images to get larger version
Paul Power offers Rodolfo of FC Porto a small memento. Caption out of pic wrongly names Daley as City player
The tour was to start in the north, then veer off to the Minho region for a game with Sporting Braga and end up in the south for a visit to Lisbon. The three Portuguese clubs were taking things very seriously, as they also embarked on the last days of preparation for their domestic season. The first game featured a tight 0-0 draw with FC Porto, with a picture of Paul Power (incorrectly identified as "Daley") and "problematic" Porto captain Rodolfo exchanging pennants making the morning edition of A Bola under the headline, "Positive start without really shining in the first appearance of the Allies". 

Under- fire Porto coach Hermann Stessl was quoted as saying "miracles do not appear out of the blue", the usual clarion call for patience even before the season had started. This was Porto's first game of pre-season and captain Rodolfo reported that the players were "reasonably pleased with the amount of movement", whilst others praised the excellent planning of their coach. 
Moving on to what was thought to be a slightly easier challenge than that posed by Porto in their cavernous Das Antas stadium, City played Braga six days later and this time the goals flowed in a 3-1 win for the Blues, with Paul Sugrue and a brace from Kevin Reeves doing the trick.

Braga had held on well until after the break, when their lack of fitness compared to Big Mal's City began to tell and they conceded "justifiably" according to the copy of A Bola from two days later (the sports paper that is now the country's biggest selling daily was only printed once every two days in the 80s). Pictures in the paper show Tommy Caton clearing up one Braga attack under the caption "with the swiftness of movement that is typical of British football, an English player intercepts a pass meant for Pinto...". Another picture shows Kevin Reeves moving away with the ball whilst a team shot at the start of the game reveals City lining up as follows:
Tommy Caton is "the English defender intercepting a pass"
Tony Henry, Tommy Caton, Joe Corrigan, Tommy Booth, Kaziu Deyna, Ray Ranson, Kevin Reeves; Steve Mackenzie, Paul Power, Paul Sugrue with Steve Daley clinging on grimly to the match mascot. (see photo below)

The paper also provided a brief preview of the third game of the tour featuring a visit to Sporting Lisbon. 

With their tales up, City headed down to the capital, where Sporting were eagerly waiting to pit their wits against the Blues. 

This was to be the home side's presentation to the supporters, a tradition still maintained to this day in Portugal and a big crowd appeared early at the old Estádio José Alvalade to welcome their heroes (a 26 man squad was to be presented according to the paper). In an ill-tempered game won 2-1 by City, the home team's lack of match fitness again told, as it had done in Braga two days earlier. According to the morning papers, Sporting's appearance had been at once exciting but also patchy as they battled to hold on to the coat tails of a well oiled City side, whose goals came from Tommy Booth and Kevin Reeves.
"City show how football is being played in Europe right now" exclaimed a headline in A Bola, paying the Blues the somewhat overstated compliment that playing Paul Sugrue in a "do what you can, son" role up front was somehow placing Malcolm Allison at the cutting edge of contemporary European tactics. As the reporter's name appears to have been Victor Hugo, he may be forgiven for his slightly overworked prose.
City line up in Braga. The hard to categorise Paul Sugrue sits happily centre stage
City are "stronger and more adapted to pre-season" versus Sporting
The ill tempered end to City's tour came in the 73rd minute of what had been at first a placid match, played at the pace City dictated. Leading 2-0 at the interval, City were coasting to their second victory of the tour, when they received the double whammy of a Sporting goal (scored by star striker Jordão) and a red card. Paul Sugrue had been unceremoniously upended by Ademar. The City player's reaction was to retaliate far too strongly and he was shown the red card, with Caton joining him in the book, shown a yellow in the same incident. Sugrue, until just a few weeks earlier to be found ploughing a simple and unspectacular furrow upfront for Nuneaton Borough, was evidently not used to the close marking of burly Brazilian defenders.

City's subs included Dragoslav Stepanovic and the floating mirage that was Dave Wiffill.
Allison, preparing to take his troops back to England to fine tune their start to the season proper, said: "All three games have been a useful work-out for us and each one has provided us with a tough challenge..."
What he thought of Kaziu Deyna's penchant for making a fast buck is not recorded. The local paper reported after the game that they had attempted to get Deyna, perhaps City's most high profile player after Allison's fire sale, to give an interview, but the Pole had only relented when the then hefty sum of 5,000 escudos had been mentioned. The interview, occupying an entire page of the paper and decorated with floating heads of the Polish World Cup captain, was eventually carried out "grátis", however.
City, with a 3-2 win in Breda to round their continental exploits off, then put three past both Bath and Nuneaton Borough before the last preparatory game with Deyna's old team mates from Legia. This featured an infamous 5-1 thrutching from the Polish champions and City limped into the season with their nerves suddenly shot. An opening day defeat at Southampton, where ex-Blue Mike Channon and the returning Kevin Keegan ran riot, was followed by a humiliating 4-0 reverse at home to newly promoted Sunderland, the less than elegant John Hawley bagging a scarcely believable hat-trick. 

City's good work in Portugal had been undone in a matter of days and a dark first three months would lead to Allison's dismissal after a desperate defeat at Leeds left City bottom of the table. John Bond - Allison's pupil at West Ham - would come in and haul City to two semi finals and the centenary cup final with Spurs by the end of the season and Allison would resurface at Sporting to help them carry off the double. Football still works in funny ways, but the irony of City's pre-season jaunt to Portugal in 1980 is hard to beat.
The "Flying Pole" asks for a medium-sized back-hander

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