Sunday, 22 February 2009

Sparky: the great debate

It’s true to say that football fans are a fickle bunch. City fans are no different. Inevitably, last week’s 2-0 away defeat at the hands of manager-less Portsmouth has given rise to a new round of debate focussing on Mark Hughes and the question of whether he should stay or go.

Of course, this is nothing new. There have been peaks of disgruntlement at various points and I think I would be correct in assuming that this peak simply represents a new batch of wood being thrown onto the fire of dissatisfaction that has been burning from only a few games into the new season. The big worry for Hughes is that this frustration still exists and may even be growing.

So what of the Hughes record at the midway point of the season? Let us attempt to dissect.

The table doesn’t lie
At present City are lying in ninth position in the Premier League, eight points off the relegation zone. Lets face it, the situation could be a lot worse. We could be doing a Newcastle or a Tottenham and following the dangerous ‘we’re too big to be down here’ mentality. The fact that, for the moment at least, we are living life an echelon above the relegation dogfight proves that something has gone right this season. On the other side of the coin, a pessimist would likely say that we are still connected to relegation battle, albeit at the very top of it. After all, there always seems to be a team that gets sucked into the bottom five during May and if things don’t go our way we could be contenders.

There’s been some real highs along the way; the 6-0 and 5-1 demolitions of Portsmouth and Hull respectively, the efficient 3-0 despatching of an Arsenal side that, whilst under strength, was still capable of beating anybody on their day.

Then there’s been the lows. Our away form is woeful, with one win from twelve. At home the team appears to have much more of a chance, but Eastlands is by no means a fortress. When the more formidable teams have come to town, City have tended to have no answers: we took the lead against Chelsea but were eventually muscled out 1-3, we threw away a 2-0 half time lead over Liverpool and ended up losing the game 2-3. The month of November brought with it a home derby against Manchester United where we didn’t begin to play until the second half and ended up losing 0-1. All of this is not to mention our home performances against teams we are directly competing against. Two infuriating home defeats to Spurs and Everton tell that story.

The reality is that the quality of City is reflected in our league position. And that means that we are an average team attempting to become genuine contenders for a European finish.

The comedy of the Cups
At the beginning of the campaign I certainly wouldn’t have bet against City putting together a half decent cup run. We do have players that can turn it on in the flick of an eyelid, which suggested to me that the glory of winning a cup or getting to a final might be our thing this season rather than the hard slog of the league. Oh, how wrong I was to be.

On cold Wednesday night in September, we crashed out of the Carling Cup in the Second Round on penalties against League 1 team Brighton. The manner of our defeat was a concern, taking the lead in normal time only to have it pegged back. Then actually going behind in extra time before salvaging an equaliser to take it to penalties. Brighton showed their mettle, we didn’t, and it was game over. It was pure humiliation.

Okay, so we’d got through our major embarrassment of the season. We could clearly put it right by delivering a strong bid for the FA Cup. Oh dear. A whopping 0-3 home defeat at the hands of Nottingham Forest put paid to that idea. Once again, it was the nature of City’s capitulation that placed worry in the bones. And to think I almost went to the game. Individual mistakes, inability to work as a team and a complete lack ideas going forward. The prevailing mood in the City dressing room before the game must have been that they just had to turn up. The reality was that our heads were somewhere else, and our bodies were never in the game.

Disaster in the domestic cups has yet to be mirrored in Europe. City are still in the UEFA Cup and have managed to progress to the last 32 teams. Of course, this is not to say that City have not already flirted with catastrophe here too. In the Second Round, we almost came a cropper against Danish minnows FC Midtjylland. After losing the home leg 0-1, we travelled to Denmark where we played for 89 horrific minutes without scoring a goal. It was only in the 90th minute, when a Midtjylland player mistakenly put the ball into the back of his own net, when things started to look up and one began to believe that this was going to be our night. We eventually one on penalties.

On balance, our cup performances have erred on the side of dross, but it could be worse. We are still in with a shout when it comes to Europe, and at this stage in the season that has to count for something.

The Nine
Let’s talk transfer policy. Wayne Bridge, Vincent Kompany, Nigel De Jong, Craig Bellamy, Shay Given, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Pablo Zabaleta, Robinho and as yet unused, Glauber Berti. These are all Hughes’ signings and the vast majority of them have now been bedded into the side. Clearly there is a wealth of talent here, both in defence and attack, and I do not think that we can question Hughes’ transfer targeting policy. Given is one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League, Kompany hardly ever wastes possession – either in his defensive midfield or centre back capacities, Wright-Phillips is one of the trickiest wingers around and his work ethic for the team is often unmatched, and the attacking qualities of Robhino are something to behold.

So why have our league and cup performances not matched the quality that we have in our dressing room? One answer could be tactics and that means the ball is firmly in Sparky’s court. Or is it? Away from home we seem unable to win, unable to pick teams apart, unable to take a lead, unable to shut teams out. So where does the buck stop?

The most obvious is to heap the blame onto Hughes. We may not be pursuing the right kind of away tactics. Alternatively, Hughes might have it bang on but is failing in communicating those tactics to the players. Another scenario might be that the players understand the tactics but yet do not to implement them due to low motivation levels, which derive from an unwillingness to play for Hughes himself.

The aura of Hughes
This last point causes the most worry. We have brought players into the club who can clearly play so for me, their tactical nouse is not an issue. With every defeat, bad performance or edging win I do not think that we can discount the notion that Hughes may be losing the dressing room and is now in charge of an increasingly unhappy ship.

The personality of Sparky and how that impacts upon the team he manages has to be taken into account. Historically, his teams have been associated with hard graft, discipline, directness and a never-say-die spirit. After near on eight months in charge, I for one do not see any of those qualities at Eastlands. The makeup of the squad means that its natural inclination is to rely on flashes of individual brilliance rather than the driving industriousness that was a hallmark of Hughes’ Wales and Blackburn teams.

In taking control of City then, Sparky has chosen to tame a different animal. His ultimate fate will depend – as it always has - upon how successful he is at fusing his own defensive ideas with a squad that appears to want to do something else.

This means that Hughes relationships with the players and the staff is of massive importance. The rumours are that things are not boding well. The word is that Hughes’ own inner circle (which includes Assistant Manager Mark Bowen, First Team Coach Eddie Niedzwiecki and reserve team manager Glynn Hodges) do not get on with the existing City staff at the club.

Club factions appear to have developed on a number of levels. Before the recent transfer window a group of players (reportedly Tal Ben-Haim, Elano and Jo) complained to Garry Cook, City’s executive chairman, about the way Hughes was going about his role. These players were all signed before Hughes came to the club, which suggests that a ‘Hughes camp’ and an ‘Other camp’ may well exist.

Rome wasn’t built in a day
There is one huge factor that hasn’t been mentioned in this debate over Sparky’s future, and that is the ownership of the club. Having been bought out by Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), City is now the richest club in the world, with unlimited resources and untold of spending power.

This has impacted massively upon the conditions surrounding Hughes’ role as manager. Expectations of fans and neutrals alike have sky-rocketed. The consensus seems to be that, because of our new found wealth, we will win something over the next five years. This is not totally unrealistic. In many ways we are looked upon as the new Chelsea, only much wealthier and with the potential to be much bigger. We are expected to become the new Rome of football. This means unrivalled dominance, on all fronts.

In many ways then, I feel rather sorry for the likes of Mark Hughes. After all, it is he that is tasked with delivering the fruits of Rome to the legions of City fans that have been baying for some modicum of success for decades. Something, anything at all to stuff in the mouths of our Red counterparts across the Mancunian divide.

But the construction of Rome will take time and the troops (players and staff alike) will have to be drilled in the correct way. This means putting in hard graft on the training ground, winning the unpleasant way where necessary and accepting nothing less than victory in every single game.

Many fans want the trappings of Rome immediately, and given current form it is no surprise that the tones of discontent are sweeping the ranks. The extreme view is that City has been taken over by a Welsh cabal. Hughes doesn’t have the personality to deal with the big egos and doesn’t have the tactical awareness to get us where we want to be. But these are the obvious excuses people go for when things go wrong, and they miss the more complex picture.

The price of ambition
The reality is that the club needs sorting and if that ruffles a few feathers, then so be it. A new, gritter, winning mentality has to be injected into the squad, in fact it needs to be injected into all levels of the club. Those who do not like it must be cut away in a ruthless fashion. We only have to look at our neighbour across the city to see how ruthlessness brings results. Imposing a new mentality on a club – both in a footballing and business sense - is no easy task and will undoubtedly be met with resistance. I think that this explains our poor performance on the pitch to date. Undergoing the painful throes of transition never bodes well for club morale and team togetherness. The vast financial resources at our disposal have likely unsettled existing personnel at the club. Nothing now is certain, players that have established themselves in certain positions will no longer feel secure. The same is true of staff. Unfortunately, this is the price of ambition. To meet our lofty aims we need to get better and this will not be achieved without introducing more competition for places.

I leave you with one final thought. Since the sacking of Peter Reid in August 1993, the club has appointed nine managers. I do not see how another sacking can make any difference. It is time for the club to be reprogrammed into one that matches the desire and ambitions of the hordes of fans that turn up every week to support it. Mark Hughes is the man for this job.

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