Thursday, 2 April 2009

The players change but the club remains the same

The weekend approaches, bringing with it an away fixture against Arsenal. I feel my stress levels begin to rise, a slight racing of the pulse, a faint lurch somewhere in the depths of my stomach.

I would like to be thinking along the lines of a Bojinov brace, perhaps a Benjani hat trick upon his return from injury. I can see it now: 3-0 up at half time, City coasting, add another couple after the break, the Arsenal lads failing around with nothing coming off whilst Robinho show boats to the max. Our poor away form is blown to smithereens as we do a season double over Wenger's babes and kick on to that 7th place finish that will secure us another pop in Europe next year.

But what am I really thinking? Well, here's a taster. I'm thinking Bojinov isn't quite match fit yet and hoping he doesn't do his cruciate. I'm thinking Benjani will likely never score a hat trick for us when he's fully fit, nevermind when he's just returning from injury. I'm thinking City will be 2-0 down at halftime, with at least one of those goals being caused by a loss of possession as a result of Robinho's 'showboating' antics in his own penalty area. And yes you guessed it, I'm thinking our poor away form will continue and will turn out to be the reason why we don't qualify for Europe this year.

Some might say that I'm being overly negative, a pessimist of massive proportions. But after the last two (very stressful) City performances, in my defence I must ask you the question: can you really blame me for being downbeat?

Elation and frustration in Aalborg
Let's face facts. The first leg, at home against Danish side Aalborg. I must admit, when we drew Aalborg I didn't expect City to progress. They won the Danish league last year and started this season in the Champions League against the likes of Salford United, Villareal and Celtic. Okay, so they dropped out of their Champions League group, but in the UEFA cup round prior to facing City, they demolished Deportivo La Coruna 6-1 on aggregate.

Nevertheless, all was not lost. By the time Aalborg faced the Blue boys of Manchester they were wallowing around mid-table in their domestic league. Another plus for us was that we had them at home first. Given our record at Eastlands you expected us to bag a few to give us a fighting chance for the return leg. And these expectations were proved correct. We absolutely battered Aalborg at the Blue Camp. We ended up 2-0 winners but it should've been much more, perhaps 4-1 being a realistic result.

Things were looking up for the second leg. In fact, things were looking up after the first 45 mintues of the second leg, with Aalborg pretty much continuing the dour form that they had shown during the previous tie. The second half beckons and as a City fan I expected Aalborg to come at us in some way, shape or form. I expected a bit of pressure, expected to be under the cosh because of the simple reality that Aalborg are going out of the tournament unless they start to play. And so I was expecting away to my heart's content, expecting all these things to happen and expecting that once they began to play, gaps would emerge within their defence. And with City's counter-attacking qualities, I expected us to exploit those gaps. I expected us to nick a goal, seal the tie right there and then, no way back for Aalborg after conceeding a third. I expected City to be going into the hat for the UEFA cup quarterfinal draw. I expected us to win.

Ultimately, I wasn't wrong. But we came within an inch of royally fucking it all up to the extent that I was almost in tears given the sheer stupidy of our performance. In football, they say its the result that matters. Well, the benefit of the club, that might well be, but for the benefit of my health, I beg to differ that the process (i.e. the way we go about getting that result) matters a hell of a lot too.

For me, the second half and beyond in Aalborg summarises perfectly what it means to be a Manchester City supporter. Sitting pretty on 2-0 lead, we began to sit back, to get deeper and deeper, encouraging the Aalborg forwards onto us and almost inviting them to attack. Our defence was soon under big pressure because we couldn't get the ball off the Danes. When we did, we either hoofed it up (in which case it came right back at us) or we tried to play counter-attacking football (which we seemed to have completely forgot how to do).

Midway through the second half and the first warning came with City left back Javier Garrido blatantly bringing down an Aalborg forward in the penalty area. The ref would have none of it and after I saw the replay (and saw how obvious a penalty it was) I began to think that the luck was with us. Having been let off the hook, I expected a City response in the shape of getting forward, but none came. Instead, just more and more Aalborg attacks. And then, suddenly, the mould was broken when in the 84th minute the ball fell to none other than Robinho, who cracked a beautiful shot against the underside of the Aalborg bar. We were in touching distance of a quarterfinal birth, but as all football fans know, in the end touching distance is only touching distance, and is not two hands on the prize.

And so it was that on 85 minutes - seconds after we had almost won the tie - the inevitable came. An Aalborg free kick into the City penalty area and the loose ball falls to the head of an opposition player. This is hard to describe, but as a City fan, when the ball hit that Aalborg lad's head, you knew where it was headed: destination back-of-net. The nervous, edgy world of 2-1 beckoned. five minutes left and its all to play for.

And then it got worse. Pressing forward like their lives depended upon it, in 91st minute the Danes were awarded the penalty due to a Ched Evans handball. The young Welsh striker couldn't really do anything about it to be fair, but it was a hard pill to swallow. Seconds later, the ball is in the back of the net, the referee has blown for an end to full time and extra time awaits. Out of nothing, Aalborg's recovery was complete.

It is difficult to describe the sheer frustration I felt at our capitulation. The performance was pathetic, an embarrassment across Europe. How could we have blown such a comfortable lead in such a short space of time? The look of pain etched across Mark Hughes' face didn't provide any answers. Standing there, hands on hips, softly shaking his head in what was, I should imagine, utter shock. I don't think he had any answers. Who would?

The bewilderment of extra time and beyond
In my mind at this point, we were a beaten team. The only questions were how deep and scathing the inquest was going to be be and whether Hughes would be able to hold onto his job in the morning. Still, I expected some form of comeback to be mounted in extra time. Surely we would want to atone for our normal time errors and at least try to avoid the lottery of penalties. Nope, I was wrong again. Extra time might as well have not been played, with it being clear that both teams were happy taking their chances on a shootout.

As our young striker Ched Evans stood up to take the first City penalty, I searched for the reason, any reason at all, why I supported this club. Why did I choose to put myself through hell, through the wringer? I should have seen this coming, should have known that City never do things the easy way...

Ten minutes later and I had my answer. Evans, Elano, Wright-Phillips and Dunne (yes Richard Dunne) had all converted their penalty kicks with confidence and ease. Aalborg had already missed one and thus needed to score their next in order to stay in the competition. The Aalborg player stepped up and I watched as Given saved to send the Blue boys through to the quarterfinals of the UEFA cup.

A to C via Z
It is great that City have progressed in Europe to face Hamburg. To get to the last eight of a major European competition is no mean feat and anything beyond this for us has to be a bonus. The worrying trend is (yes, perhaps an unbelievable comment) the manner of our victory. Over recent years, the underlying, unofficial ethos of this club has turned into something akin to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Is there any other club that can breed such confidence in its fans, then take them to the brink of disillusionment before engineering a complete u-turn by finally delivering them victory. The quickest way from A to C is via B. Why then, must we continually insist upon getting to C via Z? I have been a City fan all my life - since 1981 - and I can honestly say that this is all I have ever known. It has never been easy, never simple, never straightforward.

The game against Aalborg represents a perfect microcosm of this condition. And if it seems as if I am speaking about the club as if it has contracted some kind of disease, then that is the intention. How else does the football analyst explain the situation at City over the past few decades? Eleven managers since 1989, some rightly sacked, others not. Several squads of players brought in, several drafted out. Flirting with oblivion in the late 1990s, freefalling into the old Division 2. The move from Mosside to Eastlands. Flirting with world dominance ten years later, the billions of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family lining our pockets. And yet, still no success. Still no major trophy since the League Cup in 1976. Nevermind Three Lions on a Shirt, there's thirty years of hurt right there.

The personnel keeps on changing, the elation and frustration keeps on coming and I find myself wondering whether I could love this club to the extent I do today if it were any different. Maybe an Aalborg a day keeps the doctor away?

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