Sunday, 15 May 2011

Out of 35 years of darkness, comes light

A day that I will never, ever forget. The 14th May 2011 is now etched in the club’s history books as the day Manchester City came back from the cold, trophy-less wilderness – the day that saw them return major honours for the first time in 35 years. An unbelievable day, the best I’ve experienced whilst supporting this troubled club.

‘Boring, boring’ City

Its fair to say whilst it wasn’t the best FA Cup Final, it certainly wasn’t the worse. It was clear from the beginning that we were the side with more purpose and drive. Thomas Sorenson was kept busy from the start, producing a good save to deny the buzzing Carlos Tevez early on, and then a top drawer save to deny the curling shot of a (surprisingly) workmanlike Mario Balotelli later on in the first half.

The chance of the half fell to David Silva, who could have more or less picked his spot when the ball fell to him in the area, with the Stoke defence at sixes and sevens. The Spaniard drove his shot into the floor, and it bounced agonisingly high, over the bar. At that stage I must admit I wondered whether it was going to be our day.

And then, in the second half, came Stoke’s big chance. The largely ineffectual Kenwyne Jones wrestled past Lescott and bore down one on one with Joe Hart, but the keeper was equal to the task - just as he has been in the vast majority of big games this season, and blocked the Trinidadian's toe poke. After that Stoke offered little else in the way of a direct threat on goal.

The support of the Stoke fans is to be commended, but they went a bit far in their chanting of ‘boring, boring City’. You try to not be judgemental when it comes to assessing the way Stoke play, you try to see what else they have in their locker, but the truth is they have little apart from a physical, long ball game. We were the team that was trying to win the game. Stoke didn’t appear to know what they were doing at times. I’m sure their fans must feel that their team did not turn up.


Much was made before the game of what Stoke’s approach would be. High balls into the box, Delap’s long throws, strength, commitment, fight. Pulis would surely have called upon his men to out compete the Blues, rile us up, unsettle us with their aggression.

But five minutes into the match, and it was totally clear who was taking the fight to whom. From the moment Nigel De Jong won his first tackle, the Stoke players must have known that they were in for a battle. As the game wore on, we dominated in this department – De Jong (my man of the match), Kompany and Lescott all gave excellent performances. Perhaps it took Stoke aback that we were so combative, as they pressed little and so had few chances to really dictate the game.

If there is a special element to this Mancini side, it is that very merging of power and skill. We are less of a machine than Chelsea, and we have less attacking fluency than Arsenal, but we have enough of both to make us formidable.

00 years: a moment of huge significance

At risk of sounding completely overawed, this could potentially be the biggest moment in the club’s history. The naysayers will of course say this is nothing, just one trophy, we have a long way to go to match the best, this victory is nothing that other teams haven’t won before.

But whilst this is partially correct, it is only part of the picture. This is a very different Manchester City than the one that returned major honours back in the 1960s and 1970s. And indeed football today is very different to football back in 1976. Our resources are vast. We are far from the limits of our powers and our future is full of promise. There will be setbacks, but the Manchester City moment is getting closer.

Resetting the counter from 35 years to 00 years is also hugely significant. The 35 years hung as an albatross around our necks, the source of endless mocking and taunting. The 00 years banner brought out onto the pitch by the backroom team represents just how much it means to banish that mantle. And whilst we’re talking about the backroom team, we cannot fail to mention Roberto Mancini, who will now go down in the history of this club as the man who started to change our trajectory. The Italian has had his critics, but no-one can credibly argue with him now. He was brought in to deliver Champions League football, but he has delivered more than we could have possibly imagined, with two league games still to play. We usually leave things to the last minute, so it is very un-City like to be going into the last days of the season with our two central targets secured.

And just as important - if not more important - than the man who has delivered this success are the men who had the judgement to bring him here in the first place. None of this would have been possible without Sheikh Mansour and Khaldoon Al Mubarak. Their financial power is a key element, but this season’s successes show that they are also excellent judges of character and ability. It was a big call to sack Mark Hughes, and an unpopular one at the time. But no-one can argue with that decision now.

More than anything else, this victory represents a springboard to success, the first brick of a house that Arabian financial might is slowly building. We now have a group of players that have won together – massively important for our team spirit and togetherness – things that have been questioned so much this season. Before, we were a team of individual winners, now we are a winning team. We are now laying the groundwork for a new era, whilst drawing the curtain on an old one.

If it has not ended already, the era of typical City is finally coming to a close.


The hallowed turf reached, the albatross awaits...

It was an edgy performance, but Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Spurs was enough to see us into next season’s Champions League qualifiers. It was a magnificent night for the club, a landmark night that will go down in our history.

The table doesn’t lie, and this season no-one can argue that we don’t deserve it. Looking back, perhaps qualifying for the CL last season may have been a season too early for us. Perhaps it is better to do things this way, with our better signings bedded in, ready to do battle for next season.

In fairness, Spurs dominated this affair, in many ways a re-hash of last season’s encounter late on in the season, where a Peter Crouch header sealed the CL deal for Spurs. But this was a different City to the one that took on Redknapp’s men at Eastlands last season. Spurs huffed and they puffed, had plenty of possession, but had only two major chances to show for it. When it came to the crunch, City’s defensive qualities showed as they smothered Spurs’ cutting edge. Hart once again proved to be the tormentor of Spurs when he produced a fantastic reflex save from Pienaar’s header.

I felt we were always the more likely to score. Dzeko had a massive chance to make it 1-0 but Cudicini saved at point blank range. Silva’s long range effort would have been one of the goals of our season had it dipped slightly. Vieira’s effort was cleared off the line. Tevez’s break away at the end of the game should have sealed the deal but for another excellent save by the Spurs keeper.

In the end it didn’t matter. An own goal by Peter Crouch was enough to get us the three points and send us into the hallowed turf of the Champions League. Not since September 1968 have we been able to compete on this level. Back then – in the old European Cup - we were knocked out in the first round against Fenerbahce. Now, we must ensure that we do not have a repeat performance of that debacle. We must do all in our power to really go on and make some headway into Europe’s elite competition. With the players we have, this is the place where we must now belong.

We have accomplished the ‘bread and butter’ element of our season. Now we must put the icing on the cake. Most fans would have settled for Champions League qualification at the beginning of the season, but Champions League football and FA Cup winners? That would be one hell of a season at this stage in our development. History has already been made with the win over Spurs, but to remove the 35 year albatross would be something special yet again.

It will be a tough encounter, much tougher than the Semi Final against United. Irrespective of Stoke’s recent form, we all know what they can do to us. They’ve done it countless times in the past. There is no way at all that we are massive favourite, despite what others may say. This is one game, and anything can happen. More than anything else, we need to match Stoke’s drive and desire – only then will we stand a chance. For Tony Pulis, manager of Gillingham in the 1999 Division 2 playoff final, there is that added dimension of revenge. We also must not forget that Stoke have the chance to make history too. We’ve been in the wilderness for 35 years, Stoke for 39.