Sunday, 19 April 2009

Back from the brink, but the dream still ends

It ebbed and it flowed. It waxed and it waned. It teetered and it tottered. But on Thursday evening, in the heavy, adrenaline-soaked atmosphere of a packed City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester City’s dreams of UEFA cup glory finally came to an end.

How different it could have been.

A true European experience
One must go back to the first leg in Hamburg to understand how close City came to success. Travelling to the northern German city took the experience of watching the Blues in Europe to the next level. As a supporter, you really felt that you were witnessing a proper game of European football, where the stakes were high and where things clearly mattered to player and fan alike.

Prior to the game, City fans were out in numbers across Hamburg, with one of the focal points being a large square close to the Reeperbahn, a central nightlife and red light hub. With the sun shining, the City flags draping from every pub wall, the beer flowing, and the fans chanting, the atmosphere could not have been better.

Well, it got better. Upon arrival at Hamburg’s 50,000 Nordbank arena, I knew that we were in the quarter finals of the UEFA cup. It’s an impressive facility, the rows of seats reaching up endlessly to the roof, giving the Stadium a cavernous feel that is ideal for intimidating away teams.

Frailty and stupidity at the Nordbank
Over the course of the two matches that comprised the quarter final tie, Hamburg were the better side. After Stephen Ireland’s excellent 1st minute finish, it was all City could do to stop the waves of Hamburg attacks that crashed against Shay Given and his defensive shield. Indeed ultra critics would say that Ireland’s goal, whilst exquisite in nature, came too soon. It seemed to galvanise Hamburg’s attack into a frenzy and it was not long – minutes in fact – before City’s defence was breached and the German side was level.

City continued to be defensively frail throughout the game and were unable to deal with the likes of Ivica Olic and the Croatian’s replacement, Jose Paolo Guerrero. Midway through the second half, Micah Richards stupidly raised his hands to block a Hamburg shot. Now, I have no problem with players putting their bodies on the line for the sake of the team, but there has to be a bit of nous shown whenever this is attempted. This was sadly lacking from Richards when, whilst inside his own penalty area, the right back clearly raised both hands to block the incoming shot. The referee had no choice but to point to the spot and Hamburg converted the penalty.

It was always going to be an uphill struggle from thereon in but with 10 minutes left, Guerrero scored to make it 3-1 and things suddenly became worryingly realistic. Letting in the third left me coming away from the Nordbank arena hoping rather than believing we could turn things around at Eastlands. In the end, that third goal was to prove fatal for our chances of progressing to the semis.

Despair…and then hope in Manchester
The hope that I had carried back with me on the long drive back from Hamburg (yes, we drove and it was a complete grueller) soon disappeared into the night air when, in the opening exchanges of the second leg at Eastlands, Jose Paolo Guerrero again penetrated the City defence to make it 4-1 to Hamburg on aggregate.

I couldn’t believe it. At the very least I expected an energetic opening from City, but it did not materialise and now it seemed as if Hamburg had put the tie beyond our reach. But in a strange reversal of scenarios from the first leg, this time it appeared as if Hamburg had scored too early. City were suddenly energised into the cohesive attacking force that we all know they can be. Five minutes after Guerrero’s strike, Elano made things believable again by converting a penalty that he himself had made when his long range effort was handled by a Hamburg defender in the penalty area. On the brink of half time, Elano came to within inches of making it 2-1 to City on the night when his free-kick cannoned off the Hamburg crossbar.

The sheer drama of the second half
City picked up where they had left off, continuing to drive forward with purpose and quality. Their efforts were soon rewarded by City’s young Ecuadorian striker, Felipe Caicedo, when he shot past the Hamburg keeper in the 50th minute. I have rarely heard the City crowd roar as loudly as they did when the back of the net rippled. Finally, Eastlands was fulfilling its potential, stepping into the massive void that has been there ever since the club left Maine Road.

A window of victory suddenly emerged. As a City fan you knew, you sensed, that out of nothing, out of the dark, dank second half performance at the Nordbank arena, somehow, a City win was now on the cards. The fans were unbelievable. In their post-match press conferences, Mark Hughes and Martin Jol both talked of the home fans’ influence on the game. Standing in the chaos of the South Stand, on the edge of the Hamburg supporters’ block, amongst the police officers, the stewards, the paramedics, the City crowd as the 12th man was there for all to see.

The nearly men of Eastlands
In the cauldron of Eastlands we began to press home our advantage. Elano, having his best game of the season, crashed another free-kick against the Hamburg woodwork. With the Hamburg keeper at sea, Caicedo ballooned a shot over from five yards out. Minutes later, Robinho had his close range volley fantastically saved as Hamburg’s UEFA cup fortunes creaked and shook under the combined pressure of City’s attacking play and the intensity of the home crowd. Suddenly, we had a City team that was a threat from dead ball situations. Aside from Elano’s spectacular free kicks, Micah Richards led the line in terms of making the team actually attack corners for once. Then after the hour mark, Caicedo had a goal ruled offside, which was not surprising given the amount of times he had misjudged his runs throughout the game.

The sending off of Richard Dunne on 75 minutes was a turning point. In truth, the City captain had been given a wide birth by the officials. A more unforgiving referee would’ve had him off earlier given the amount of fouls that he had already committed. Whilst devoid of malice, the sending off offence was nevertheless as clumsy as it was stupid. The challenge was ill timed and as City captain, Dunne should have shown better judgement in committing himself to the challenge in terms of the overall context of the game. With 11 men on the field, I felt we were capable of scoring more than one goal, but with a man down even forcing the tie into extra time would be difficult.

Inevitably, Dunne’s departure created more openings for the Hamburg attack and Shay Given was called upon to produce some fine saves. City’s last best chance came with a lovely move down the right, which ended up with a Micah Richards volley over the bar and into the latter rows of the North Stand.

The referee blew his whistle. After being 4-1 down to a side that was joint top of the Bundesliga, we had dragged ourselves back from the brink of defeat to near victory. We had tried everything, but we were ultimately denied that all-important third goal that would have changed the face of the tie and likely led to a semi final birth against Werder Bremen. We were almost there. Nearly there and yet now not. There was no glory to be had. Instead, we were out the UEFA cup.

Stumbling towards Istanbul
City’s progress in Europe this season has been magnificent as it has been shocking. With the UEFA cup final being held in Istanbul, the chant that fans have sung all season: “Istanbul, Istanbul we are coming, Istanbul, Istanbul I prey, Istanbul, Istanbul we are coming, we are coming at the end of May” has been both comedic and – at times – unusually real. Who really thought that we would be able to make it to final? I didn’t until Caicedo’s scored to make it 2-1 against Hamburg. Realising that we had one of the best sides in the competition on the ropes, suddenly, Istanbul was becoming a reality. The same was probably true of a few more City fans.

But the road to the quarter finals has also been shambolic. It’s well documented. As a City fan you simply cannot forget the Danish debacles of Midtjylland and Aalborg. In the former tie, we had to rely upon an own goal just to take things to extra time, where we proceeded to wait it out for the lottery of penalties. In the latter tie, we threw away a 2-0 lead in the last five minutes of the second leg before winning, once again, through the lottery of penalties. We could have been the absolute laughing stock of Europe, but somehow – in strange but true City fashion – we managed to pull it round to a point where, unbelievably, after almost going out of the competition to a team of Danish minnows, we were on the cusp of a semi final place.

City’s stumble towards Istanbul has been unforgettable, for all the wrong and all the right reasons. Above all it is proof for the Arab owners of the massive support that lies behind the club. Chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak was present at the Hamburg game and must now know of the potential of the club if (and it’s a big f*cking if) things are once and for all sorted out on the pitch. A solid City team balancing resolute defence with attacking flair, driven on by the hordes of City fans that turned out on Thursday night, would be a formula hard to match.

The other positive of Thursday was the effect the game appears to have had on the future of Mark Hughes. The BBC Manchester post-match phone-in was positive in that you had a lot of fans backing Hughes and calling for him to be given more time than the nine months that he has already had. By all accounts, the owners are still behind him and that has to be good news. Stability is the key ingredient that has been missing from City’s diet for years. I for one will not be judging Hughes until the end of next season, but given the reality of football, his time may well come before then. There’s a sense that the Welshman’s fate will be sealed by what he does (or does not do) during the coming summer transfer window.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The style mill begins to grind

What next for the Blue shirt of Manchester?

As this season of upheaval enters its final few weeks, many City fans are undoubtedly looking forward with eagerness to a summer of excitement. The most obvious driver of this enthusiasm is the club's anticipated activity in the transfer market. The new found depth of our pockets means that we will continue to be linked with every footballing talent under the sun. Villa. Terry. Ribery. Henry. Cannavaro and er...Kenwyne Jones.

But that's not the whole picture. It seems the average City fan is also mightily concerned about his or her personal image. I for one am a part of this group. For years, we've not had much to shout about in terms of a decent home kit. Away kits have been slightly better, but not massively. I think we have to hark back to the glory days of the late 1960s, early 1970s before we can say that we had a truly great, stylish kit.

In my eyes, a big part of why we've not had much to shout about in the shirt department recently is down to the fact that, since Brother, we've had a string of shite sponsors. A computer game firm with a naff sounding name (Eidos), a sponsor that sounded like a counselling service (First Advice) and a cheapo travel company (Thomas Cook). More importantly, the logos of all these were crap.

But as our summer of intrigue approaches, things may be changing. The new owners are clearly not content with our current shirt deal. The new name in the frame now increasingly appears to be 'Ethiad', the national airline of the United Arab Emirates. With the Abu Dhabi connection outed in the press, Garry Cook (City's Chief Executive who was tempted away from his high flying marketing position with Nike to join the Blue Empire) summed things up well: "The market is worldwide. You have to look at our brand and our brand looks like Thomas Cook. And there's something not right about sitting in a bar in Bangkok or Beijing or Tokyo and seeing 'Fred Smith's plumbing. Call 0161...' There's something not right about that, so you have to think on a global stage."

And I must say I have to agree with him.

The fallout of Cook's words has, of course, had an impact at grass roots level. Already City fans are coming up with the shirt and kit sponsor bgvhgcombinations of their dreams. The most concrete rumour appears to be an Ethiad shirt sponsor combined with a return to City's kit sponsor of old - Umbro. This image showed up on the web a few weeks ago:

Not great but not bad either. I'd have to see it in the flesh before I'd consider buying it.

Whoever concocted this hybrid deserves a high flying branding job at Thomas Cook. I never thought I'd say the Thomas Cook logo would look cool but this person has certainly managed to make it so. Its has probably got something to do with Adidas being the kit sponsor, and as outline above, the days of Thomas Cook are likely numbered - but this is still a great effort.

This is my personal favorite. Although it is obvious that this couldn't stand up as as home kit, it is definately third kit potential. For those that don't know, this design goes back to City's roots - the 1880s in fact - when City were known more commonly as St. Mark's (West Gorton), the club's founding name. The black strip and the white cross of St. Mark's, in combination with the Ethiad name and any well known shirt sponsor, would be a winning formula for a third kit.

Whatever happens, its clear that we City fans are in need of a style facelift in keeping with our new global ambitions. The words of Cook, the owners in Abu Dhabi, and Mark Hughes are all promising and all point towards City thinking big both on and off the pitch. However, there's just one small problem: did anyone think to check the English translation of Ethiad? The word on the street is that it means 'United'.

Only City would opt for a sponsor that places the names of their arch rivals on the Blue shirt of Manchester.

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?