Tuesday, July 28, 2015


In a little under a month Manchester City will walk out for their first home fixture of the new season. The Etihad Stadium, formerly known as the City of Manchester Stadium (and briefly before that even, as the Commonwealth Games Stadium), continues to grow upwards and outwards as City’s owners assiduously follow their masterplan to have the club join the elite of European football.

Champions League participation has already brought the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona (twice) and Bayern Munich (an incredible three times) to Manchester to play on an increasingly well-recognised world football stage. Rangers and Zenit also brought some kind of scruffy limelight upon the place for the noisy and ill-behaved 2008 UEFA Cup Final. The giant scoreboards, the huge pylons and shimmering slabs of aluminium and glass fibre, the arcing bridges of threaded wire are a common sight these days, just 13 years on from the exuberant weeks when Manchester successfully hosted the Commonwealth Games.

City fans greet the Blues and Barcelona for the opening of the stadium
“The Commonwealth Games has almost single handedly salvaged the reputation of Britain as a country to stage major sporting events,” wrote Duncan Mackay in the Guardian, on the first anniversary of the games, as City prepared to launch a bright new future for themselves in the revamped stadium.
The London Olympics would seal this renaissance well and truly, but the tide had turned in Manchester in 2002.

Looking back today, the opening match in the stadium looks like an artistic piece of weird and wonderful prescience, as it involved a visiting team that in those days was a more or less complete stranger to Blues fans but today appears to be one of the club’s most frequent stumbling blocks to meaningful advancement in the Champions League.

On Saturday 9th August 2003 the stadium was christened in bright sunshine with an exhilarating 2-1 win over the Catalan flag bearers of Barcelona, a side containing Xavi, Marc Overmars, Ricardo Quaresma and Carles Puyol. The occasion, given a sad touch by the final appearances in sky blue of previous City heroes Shaun Goater and Ali Benarbia, on top of a last chance to bid farewell to Marc Vivien Foe, who had died that summer in Cameroon's Confederations Cup match with Colombia in Lyon, was nevertheless seen as a pivotal moment in the club’s attempts to find stability. The occasion also gave the City fans a hilarious opportunity to sing the praises of Ronaldinho, who had just turned down the lure of a place at Old Trafford. The look of bewilderment on the Brazilian’s face as he was met with wild songs of praise will live on for some beyond the toings and froings of the frenetic match itself.

City had spent the previous two decades changing division like it was going out of fashion and an increased capacity ground with untold revenue streams and possibilities for growth in all directions seemed to be pushing the club inexorably towards a new and perhaps uncomfortable future. For City, a club steeped in history, much of it quirky and slightly embarrassing, this would indeed be a giant step to take. Locking into a serious and upwardly mobile future at this early stage of the ground's occupation seemed riddled with pitfalls.

As supporters flooded in to the new ground that day, they were eager to see the club’s new signings for the season. The faces and the names on the shirts would tell regulars whether City indeed meant business or not. Although he names look underwhelming today, that is more because of the unprecedented growth surge which has taken place than the player's dubious quality at the time. Keegan had dregded up the following:  Paul Bosvelt from Feyenoord, QPR’s Trevor Sinclair, the still pony-tailed David Seaman, Bayern’s utility defender Michael Tarnat and the little known Antoine Sibierski from Lens.

David Sommeil saves City blushes against Portsmouth
Fortress Keegan” chirruped the Daily Mail on the following Monday in an article apparently lacking the ironic tones the paper these days uses when reporting on City. In truth, what Keegan would bring to City that first seasons would be so far from anything resembling a fortress that sand castles facing an onrushing tide came to mind. True the team played to full galleries week after week, but there was something terrifically fragile lingering in the dank Manchester air, as indeed with most of Keegan’s teams. Added to this City had managed to scrape into European competition for the first time since 1979. Although qualifying via the fair play regulations would be classified as a huge embarrassment these days, it was clasped eagerly with both hands in 2003.

The club had bade European football farewell with a mud spattered defeat at the Bokelburg to a ravenously talented Monchengladbach side in the 1979 UEFA Cup quarter finals, but returned to the fields of Europe with a tie against Total Network Solutions, of Wales, hardly the big name desired for the stadium’s competitive christening. That evening Daniel Taylor wrote in the Guardian: 

“There are many things Manchester City will miss about Maine Road but not the sense of foreboding.....”
A 5-0 win told everyone that, on top of the friendly baptism against Ronaldinho’s Barcelona, things were going to be alright, we could drop the worried looks and start to enjoy ourselves. As surely as we were all sat there in our smart new surroundings, so the club was pulling its socks up.

This feeling was quickly dispersed by the time the first Premier League game of the season was played in the ground, City needing a last minute David Sommeil equaliser to get anything from a game against Harry Redknapp’s tactically pliable Portsmouth team. By the time Arsenal arrived for the second home game, City had clocked up impressively Keeganesque wins at Charlton (3-0) and Blackburn (3-2) but were undone by lax defending and a performance by the unable Seaman that moved Martin Lipton in The Mirror to chortle that his name should be changed from Safe Hands to Sieve Hands.

The Mirror captures David Seaman's embarrassment against his old club.
With the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman in Keegan’s fantasy side, it was always likely to be an up and down ride. So it proved, with City’s return fixture with Portsmouth, on 14th February 2004, leaving the old romantic Keegan with a star-studded side lingering 3 points above the drop zone after a 4-2 defeat at Fratton Park. At this stage of the inaugural City of Manchester Stadium season, some of those new bucket seats were home to a number of squeaky bums. 

Could the club haul knotted catastrophe from the golden chalice that had been proferred one last time?

Certainly second division football in such a grand setting would have been a financial and public relations disaster. City though were no strangers to relegation scraps in those days and pulled themselves together, beating United 4-1 in a stunning first derby match at the ground and later on in a most critical game, Newcastle 1-0 with a looping Paolo Wanchope header sealing the precious points. It had been a terrible struggle, thanks mainly to Keegan’s profligate tactics. Only the sparkling Shaun Wright Phillips, who had gained England recognition by the end of the season, and the on loan defensive rock Daniel van Buyten really came out of it smelling of roses.

A slapstick 3-3 draw with bottom of the table Wolves typified City’s season, with Keegan’s underachievers only saved by Wright Phillips’s equaliser in the 90th minute. An already outspoken young midfield academy prospect by the name of Joey Barton, managed to fire off some frustrated quotes to the Guardian’s Dominic Fifield, saying: 

At one stage I was telling people what their jobs were during games. That’s the responsibility of an experienced pro not a 21 year old. We’ve lacked a leader all year…”.
For all his future pasted-on worldliness, the young Barton had hit the nail on the head.

One of the few hits of the season, Shaun Wright Phillips, seals a desperate point v Wolves
A 1-3 reverse to Southampton in the stadium’s 17th home game of the league season almost spelled disaster, as the club once again flirted with the dreaded drop. This was followed by a tremulous 1-1 draw at Leicester and the afore-mentioned release of joy against Newcastle, as City closed the season in an atmosphere as euphoric as that for the derby win earlier in the year. The big open ground, with its elusively fetching lines, had been a huge change from the tight cauldron of Maine Road. It had proved difficult to recreate the febrile atmosphere of City's old home on those occasions when the whole place seemed fit to burst.

On a balmy summer’s afternoon, City closed out the stadium’s first season of football action with a stunning demolition of Everton. The atmosphere was loud and celebratory, but the noise still seemed to be disappearing into the big hole above the pitch. Watching from high up in the stands, one was struck by the beauty of the ground’s curves, the great swathe of sky blue across the tiers and the magnificence of the setting. As each of City’s five goals hit the net that afternoon, the thought in many people’s minds must have been eerily similar. With the club once again spluttering unconvincingly over the finishing line, could the wheezing colossus that was Manchester City bring the standard of football to this fine setting that it so obviously deserved?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Manchester City’s £49m purchase of Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling has unleashed a tidal wave of excited opinion across the British football media and beyond. Whether it is more apt to build a couple of new hospitals or his fee is obscene and ruinous, is open to question, but be reassured that the democratic notion of free speech to all (even Phil Thompson) has been unleashed upon us like a hurricane wave hitting the low-lying sands of Formby.

Variously voted Europe’s Golden Boy (in the slipstream of the likes of Mario Balotelli, Lionel Messi and new team mate Sergio Aguero), called Liverpool’s most valuable and talented player, the “best young player in Europe” (an earlier incarnation of Brendan Rodgers) and held up as England’s next great hope, he suddenly, at the stroke of an undoubtedly expensive pen across the bottom of his new contract, turned into a variety of less pleasant things in various parts of the country. A villain, a turncoat, a waste of time, were some of the more printable words and phrases offered up.

Welcome, dear readers, to the febrile world of modern football where everyone’s grip on reality is as fragile as the gossamer threads holding Raheem’s delicate designer shirts together. This is a world where, these days, history is cheap and banter trumps everything, where you can be king of the castle one day and a spurned and criticised pauper the next.

Sterling has not suddenly become a poor player overnight, as the most insightful of Liverpool’s support have been trying to tell us above the din of the outraged masses. His fee is not as outrageous as many think, given other clubs’ similarly high spending rates for older, lesser talented players. City, damned if they do and damned if the don’t, are paying -- or being forced to pay -- the going rate (or above) for absolute top quality (English) footballing pedigree. Make no mistake, Sterling is not yet Paul Pogba quality, but he is a fantastic young player with the world at his feet, feet presumably that will continue to twinkle for City as well as they have done for Liverpool.

Feet that -- in fact -- twinkled so well when the two sides last met at Anfield, he managed to wrong-foot half of the City defence with a deft swerve, a classic pause for thought and another lightning quick jerk to the right, before dispatching a smoothly placed pass into the Kop end net beyond a bamboozled Joe Hart. If the old adage of making yourself stronger whilst weakening your rivals is one worth believing in, City are following a well trodden path here.

City, meanwhile, must now move on quickly to their next transfer targets. The market is in a state of full bodied flux. This topsy turvy atmosphere was perhaps one of the reasons the haggling over Sterling had to come to an abrupt end. In signing the Liverpool player, City have sent out a message to the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Paul Pogba -- both thought to be next in the firing line of Txiki Begiristain --- that City will be put off neither by FFP nor the criticism at home in their attempts to recruit the talent which will carry them up a level.

The club has reached the rarefied sub-plateau of those teams feeding close to the game’s kings. The biggest challenges of all perhaps still lie ahead.  How can the club hope to compete on an even keel with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, whose modus operandi acts like a giant suction pump to the football world’s talent? The electrical energy around these two clubs is like no other on the planet. City are already engaging comfortably with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea on the domestic front. As relative newcomers to the top table the club still finds itself criticised for its extravagant spending, its creative accounting, its over-generous wages. People conveniently forget the money mountain that is modern football can only be climbed using more of the same commodity. In many ways it has always been like this. Money has always spoken loudest and those that decry or deny this are shying away from the distasteful truth.

Manchester City, once the blue eyed boys of English football fans for hovering pathetically on the high moral step of continued, slapstick, decades-long failure, are now denigrated by many as nouveaux riches upstarts, upsetting the established order at the top of the pile. Ironically, with the strong feeling that they are one of the last to crawl over the gap before the drawbridge thuds shut, it may never happen again. We may be stuck with an elite group that gets bigger and stronger from now on. It is hardly something that we all, as football fans, should applaud, but one would do well to get used to seeing Manchester City as a part of it, for better or worse. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


"City think they've bought David Villa" - Alex Ferguson, then manager of Man. Utd

On 17th October 2010,  a player of small stature, who had made his bruising debut in a 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane on the opening day of the season, announced his arrival on the football pitches of England to an already doubting public. 
It involved a flourish of blazing colour that all who were there will remember vividly.

In many ways it embodied an entrance to the English football scene that shed bright light on just what kind of player City had managed to purchase that summer.
It is worth remembering, in those days of early influence from coach Roberto Mancini, that City's side had a very different look to it than the team millions across the planet are familiar with today.
That only Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure remain in Manchester from that afternoon in Blackpool seven and a half years ago is a clear indication of the broad turnover of staff that has taken place at the Etihad in recent times. David Silva, who did not even make the starting eleven against Blackpool on that brisk Sunday afternoon, is also still there of course, a constant reminder that if you are good enough, you are big enough even in the rough and tumble of English football.
"People were saying about me that I was too small to be a success with City, but I reminded them that Spain had become World Champions with little players..."         - David Silva
With a side featuring the likes of Jerome Boateng, Wayne Bridge and Emmanuel Adebayor, City struggled manfully with the dual challenges thrown up by an Irish Sea gale and a gutsy newly-promoted Blackpool side. Midway through the second half Mancini made a change that would bring a sumptuous new flavour to the palate of the English football-watching public.

The floundering Adebayor was replaced by David Silva, as far removed from a like for like swap as could be imagined, but nevertheless one that would have eye-opening consequences.
The game, being transmitted live on television, was about to feature an injection of such urgency and accuracy from the tiny Spaniard that everyone would take note.
In two flashes of ice cold  inspiration, the little man from the Canary Islands would embed his skills in the psyche of a nation. First, he slid Carlos Tevez through for the opening goal with one of those slide rule daisy cutter passes in from the left flank that have since become such a trademark of the player that it is considered an anomaly if ten minutes pass without him threading  a ball through a gap that no one thought existed.
Having announced his arrival, he then played in James Milner for a shot onto the bar, set up Carlos Tevez for his second goal of the match and hit the post himself after drifting through the Blackpool defence with a subtle shimmy of his hips. If City fans were busy congratulating themselves on the stroke of luck that Silva was not in fact David Villa, there was even better to come.

The stage was now set for the piéce de resistance.
With Blackpool making a spirited fightback, as the game thrashed exhaustedly towards its conclusion, there came a moment that would hoist the little man's reputation in giant neon letters. Receiving the ball from Milner near the touchline on the right wing, Silva jinked inside Stephen Crainey, leaving the defender sprawling, shifted his weight effortlessly to the other side leaving David Vaughan in a similarly undressed state, before turning back onto his left foot and with one laser quick movement, curling a left foot shot around Charlie Adam and inside the far post of goalkeeper Matt Gilks. 
In one sublime, serpentine movement, the era of David Silva in the Premier League was upon us.
Silva curls in at Bloomfield Road

Born and raised in Arguineguín, a tiny Canarian fishing village, whose name translates aptly into the English quiet water, David Silva is one of those players, who let their feet do the talking for them. A tiny left-footed midfielder, he is deceptively resistant, royally gifted and not disposed to showing off for the sake of a few television cameras.
It is the Manchester derby of 2011-12. When Silva slots Edin Dzeko through on goal with a diagonal volleyed left foot pass that opens the home defence with a surgeon's precision, setting  the big Bosnian striker straight through on goal, to some it may have looked a little like a Hollywood pass. The seemingly extravagant delivery was put through full on the volley, with laser precision, with his side already - quite incredibly - 5-1 ahead, but this was no piece of arrogant show-boating.

It was a slice of improvisation of the very highest order. To get a quickly moving ball to go right where Silva intended it in the shortest possible space of time, he had executed one of the passes of the season. Without needing to break his stride, Dzeko ran on to the pass and struck City's final goal in the never-to-be-forgotten 6-1 win that confirmed the changing of the guard in Manchester's football fortunes that Yaya Touré's FA Cup semi-final winner six months before had hinted at.
Purchased by Mancini to bring artistic colour to City's middle orders, as the club built towards a trophy-winning future under the Italian, he has not only achieved that with something to spare, but has also surpassed anything seen in that area of the pitch for as long as anyone in Manchester can remember.
Whilst the legendary Colin Bell's game was constructed from coruscating straight-forward runs, driving passes and a cornucopia of well taken goals, Silva adds the subtle arts to a powerhouse midfield once directed by the elephantine Yaya Touré, now led by the flourishing talents of Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling.

The little Spaniard can be found twisting and turning, orchestrating and prodding,vaguely left and - when needed - tucked inside just behind the darting runs of Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus, floating to the right to link with Kyle Walker and Sterling or even leading the line himself. His link with Sane this season has taken City's attacking possibilities onto another level altogether, the German not the first player to be made to look a world beater by the service he receives from the metronome Silva. 
His innate ability to maintain clean possession of the ball in the tightest of corners and patiently wait for an opening has become legend. The ultimate sign of proper genius - praise from supporters of rival clubs - now comes his way with predictable frequency. Silva, it seems, is loved and coveted by all.
His is the vision that picks passes that nobody else sees, even from high in the stands, threading them through the eye of the needle to set up City's rapacious front runners.  His angles are pure Pythagoras, his lines of sight from another world.
From that robust White Hart Lane debut, when worldly wise commentators quickly proclaimed that "this was probably not an appropriate arena for such a slightly built player." he has grown into one of the Premier League's greatest jewels.
The opposing manager on the occasion of his first game, Harry Redknapp, was heard to say  in the after-match press conference: "City have paid £24million for Silva. He doesn't look a £24million player to me...". Herein lies the crux of the English problem. Cast doubt on anything that is foreign to your way of thinking. Silva, it is fair to say, has returned that one straight back over the net with quite a dollop of extra top spin.
Within a short space of time, Silva had fully adapted to his new environment and doubters more numerous and vocal than Redknapp and Ferguson were being forced to eat their premature words.
It had become quite apparent to all that here was a man, small of frame but robust of character, able to  withstand the roughest sliding tackles and the most evil elbows and simply came back for more. He picked himself up, non-plussed, when clattered to the ground by burly defenders. He continued to find space where there seemed to be none and find team mates where there appeared only a thick wall of opposing players. In short, Mancini and City had unearthed a true diamond.
Today he proudly possesses two Premier League medals, an FA Cup winners medal and two League Cup winners gongs to prove his success. He is a World Cup winner and double European champion. Champions League success has until now evaded him 
Curiously, Silva's first European goals for both City and Valencia, were scored against Salzburg, the latter in 2006 Champions League action, the former in the 2010 addition of the Europa League. His effortless style fits the slower pace of European competition, just as it has flourished in the helter-skelter of England's idiosyncratic domestic game.
The body language, the disguised touches, faints and dribbles as if the ball is attached to his foot by an invisible cord, make him a true master of the passing trade. He ghosts in and out of the danger area without ever giving the impression that someone is capable of catching him up. He takes the challenges and gets on with things. For that matter, he has never been averse to sticking his foot in for the cause himself.
His worth is inestimable to a City side, which regularly finds itself playing teams stacking two rows of four in front of them, nervous of going toe to toe with a side now well renowned for its devastating attacking intent. Silva is one of the main reasons for this defeatist opposition mind set. It his malevolent left foot that has sent the Premier League cowering. 
It is to Silva that this City side looks to for its inspiration when all seems lost, when the opposition gates are bolted tight and no other way can be found through or around them. And more often than not, he is in possession of the key. That this tiny conveyor belt of exquisite through passes actually started life as a goalkeeper seems almost too ridiculous to be true.
Born to a Canarian father and a Philipino mother, Silva has made the journey to being a Spanish national team mainstay and treasure of the two-times Premier League champions via SD Eibar and Celta Vigo, where he was on loan for two separate spells, and the club that nurtured him through their youth ranks, Valencia CF.
When, on 14th July 2010, City announced the capture of Valencia's gifted little playmaker, they immediately awarded him the same number 21 shirt he had worn in Spain, in an initial effort to allow the player to feel at home. Such fripperies, it soon transpired, were not of much use to a man, whose frail physique belies his ability to tough it out in the most hazardous of situations and whose steely determination is built on far more than happy coincidence and familiar comfort. His outstanding performances of late while waiting to see if his family life might one day return  to normality is testament to a character beyond reproach. It is this strength of character that has seen him overcome those early doubts and rise to historical prominence on a global scale.
For David Silva is one of those players, as rare as they are magnificent, who chooses all by himself when and how to make things happen on the football pitch. He will go down as surely as we all breathe air as one of Manchester City's greatest ever players. 

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