Tuesday, July 11, 2017

TIME'S ARROW


Tony Book holds aloft the 1976 League Cup with Mike Doyle.
With Manchester City’s players reassembling for the first stretches of pre-season training, the inevitable pressure cooker of being a manager at the pointy end of the Premier League begins its annual growth spurt.

Having Pep Guardiola as manager means City can relax a little, as there are few better options to have in control of your club’s immediate playing destiny.

Having begun his tenure in Manchester with an unprecedented blank sheet, Guardiola is being widely predicted to bring home the bacon this time round.
Despite the high expectations, one might expect his unsullied reputation to win him more time than most.
The Catalan’s simple target is to relaunch City as a major domestic force after a lull in proceedings under predecessor Manuel Pellegrini and introduce the club to the very highest echelons of European football. And try to keep them there.

Manchester City is a very different animal to the one that languished in the old second division in the mid-sixties, down on its luck and without a hope in its heart. Attendances had fallen to an all-time low (today’s imbecilic jibes about empty stadiums would have been apt to use properly in those threadbare times) and City’s playing staff lacked the style and grit to haul it out of the morass.

Along came Joe Mercer, persuaded to give management another go after spells of decidedly average plodding at Sheffield United and Aston Villa. Suffering with ill health and advised against the move, Mercer stubbornly took the job, famously saying that “Football can live without me, but I cannot live without football.” The date was 13th July 1965.

With the help of his highly strung but technically superb assistant Malcolm Allison, Mercer hauled City back into the top flight. By 1967-68, they were league champions, topping off a marvellous season with a thrilling 4-3 win at Newcastle to gain the title. It had been almost exactly three years from beginning to glory. More was to come in City’s hitherto most prolific trophy-winning phase, with the Mercer-Allison duo claiming the FA Cup, the League Cup and City’s only European success to date, the Cup Winners’ Cup.

When Allison took the reins himself after a boardroom coup had ousted Mercer, it was thought only a matter of time before more glory came City’s way. In fact the experiment was an abject failure, with Mercer’s old assistant presiding over the gradual crumbling of an empire. City won nothing under Allison’s sole charge and, within two years, he had gone to Crystal Palace. 

When he returned almost a decade later tasked with reigniting the flames of glory, he doused them completely and was ousted after presiding over the dismantling of a promising late seventies side built by ex-Mercer era full back and captain Tony Book. Book had taken charge in 1974 and, within two seasons, had constructed a side to win the League Cup in 1976. It was to be City’s last trophy until the FA Cup win over Stoke in 2011 under Roberto Mancini’s stewardship.

Before Mancini, the likes of Kevin Keegan, Sven Goran Erikssen and Mark Hughes had all come up short, failing to break the 44-year trophy embargo placed on the club by the football fates.

Mancini had arrived to a hail of plaudits in December 2009 and proved a relatively quick worker, immediately pitching City into the League Cup semifinals and finally breaking the club’s trophy hoodoo at the end of his first full season in charge. A season later, the coveted first league title since Mercer and Allison was achieved, before Mancini’s reign ended with Cup Final defeat to Wigan in May 2013.

Patience then success for Joe Mercer
His successor Pellegrini was put under immediate pressure to come up with the goods with a five-trophies-in five-years mandate from the owners. In double quick time the Chilean delivered a second Premier League title and a League Cup win, repeating the latter in his third season in charge.

As City’s hunger for trophies has grown, so the need for instant results has been magnified. For a club that infamously munched its way through a total of 15 managers during Alex Ferguson’s sole tenure across the city boundary, it could reasonably be said that patience has long been a rare commodity in the sky blue boardroom.

These days the stakes are higher and the sums of money spent on each season’s assault on trophies match them cent for cent. City’s stability (they are the most consistent top six finisher in the modern era of 2010-2017) has ushered in a new period of expectation and with it the pressure is inflated.  

If Guardiola’s legacy is to create the grand festival of success that all yearn for, the coming season will begin to define it. His reputation precedes him. His supporters await the fulfilment of City’s long-hatched plan for a new Belle Epoque. But time waits for no man.
This article first appeared on ESPNFC's website on 10th July 2017

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