Through the impenetrable whirring and static of Manchester City’s failed attempt to beat CSKA Moscow at the Etihad on 5th November, it became apparent that something unusual – even by City’s extravagant standards – was transpiring before our casually leaking eyes.
As the ineffable referee Tasos Sidiropoulos - enjoying an evening of bashful myopia - brandished more and more cards, it became increasingly evident that somebody would soon be heading for the proverbial early bath. Sure enough of the six yellow cards produced, two turned to red. That both were for City and both totally deserved told its own story of the Herculean frustration circulating around the ground.
The first, waved in front of Fernandinho for a piece of what has long been termed professionalism and has lately become taking one for the team, but could equally have been named "breathtaking stupidity", reduced City to ten when a little momentum was being built in a difficult phase of the game. The second, awarded to the towering Yaya Touré for face-swatting an opponent temerous enough to try to get in his way, was also as indisputable as the combined works of Sugar Ray Leonard.
|Hartford: purveyor of prolonged dissent|
For all his positive attributes of Champions League expertise and cunning South American tactics, here was a man, visibly ageing before the cameras, with no answers whatsoever for The Sun, The Mirror nor even the man in the revolving hat from the Daily Star.
The shambles took some of us immediately and thrillingly back to previous occasions when City had misbehaved on this grand scale. It only takes the slightest provocation for some of us to absolutely wallow in it, you see. Only three times in the last 40 years have the Blues been reduced to nine men, Asa Hartford, Kevin Bond, Richard Edghill, Andy Dibble, Richard Dunne and Gelson Fernandes being the block-headed miscreants involved.
“When the initial anger regarding the sendings off subsides, City manager Mark Hughes will be left to reflect on the fact that his side remain consistent only in their inconsistency….” Phil Dawles, BBC online, after City v Spurs 2008-09
Supporting City was always to worship at the altar of the unexpected during All Saints Festival of the Haphazard and the CSKA match proved that City still have it very much in them to enter that particular church brim full of gifts and harvest offerings. When it comes to unlikely scenarios and improbable story lines, it is almost as if the club hasn’t changed at all, in fact. Bless them for that if it is even partly true.
In September 1982 the portents of doom were perhaps more obvious than any of us standing on those shallow rickety terraces of Upton Park, West Ham, cared to realise at the time. That City's front line was no longer populated by the likes of Brian Kidd and Rodney Marsh but instead by David Cross, a man who looked like he had been on Marta Reid's cabbage leaves and watercress diet, was bad enough. That one of the dismissed on this occasion had spent his formative years being spoon fed semolina by the team manager was another sign. If boss John Bond's son couldn't manage to stay on the pitch, what chance did we have? Naturally enough City went down to the 2nd division at the end of a season spent ignoring bad omens and absent-mindedly tripping up gypsy soothsayers. David Cross contributed a single digit total of goals and a heap of memories tinged with the whiff of gunpowder and horse manure."Getting yourself sent off when your team is trailing by three goals is not a lot different to desertimg a beaten army..." Steve Curry, Daily Express, September 1982
Strangely, in a nod to recent times, assistant manager John Benson later mentioned that it could have been a "case of mistaken identity" in Hartford's case, mirroring the CSKA game when the extravagantly monikered Pontus Wernbloom escaped a red of his own after the referee decided to punish Sergei Ignashevich for the already yellow carded Swede's 77th minute indiscretion. The correct decision by the muddled ref at that point would have leveled the match at ten v ten. Instead, seconds later it was nine v eleven and chaos resumed.
In 1994, things were a lot more stable. Chairman Peter Swales had been overthrown by ex-player Franny Lee, boss Brian Horton wore the look of the man who has been given one too many votes of confidence and City were heading towards a two year date with destiny that would start a slide into Division Three. Nothing at all to get worked up about then...
Again, as you might expect, a referee, this time the pebbled-glassed Gary Willard (no, exactly) was at the centre of things, removing 'keeper Andy Dibble, a tree trunk-thighed Welshman with a penchant for tomfoolery, for what at the time looked like a perfectly executed sliding tackle. Even Les Ferdinand, the player dispossessed, called Dibble's intervention "a fair challenge, he got to the ball before me".
Gerry Francis, the QPR manager, had written in his programme notes for the need for video analysis to aid referees (see how long this potato has been burning away in the oven) and, as ever, irony was stalking City brandishing its stopwatch. As Barry Flatman, writing in the Express said, "Richard Edghill was dismissed for two cautionable offences and Bardsley was booked for dissent, yet basic lip readers could judge that half a dozen others got away with much stronger language...".
To cap a strange day in the life of a strange club, Paul Walsh scored a bizarre goal, taking goalkeeper Tony Roberts' full blooded clearance full on and, without knowing it, being repsonsible for the ball cannoning backwards into the goal.
Naturally, nine man City won two one.
City's history is so littered with these unpredictable outcomes, it is surprising there are any words left in the average dictionary to describe variations on a recurring theme. Suffice to say, all of this guff and nonsense just refuses to go away and for that, in a particularly curious way, we should be eternally grateful.