Monday, 13 May 2013

Farewell, man of good fortune

And so Roberto Mancini has been sacked as the manager of Manchester City.

He was labelled a man of “good fortune” by his contemporaries in Italy, because both as a player and manager he won trophies almost everywhere he went. He continued that tradition at City, thereby cementing his place in the history of the club forever.

The fans will probably not get a chance to thank him collectively for all that he was done for the Blue side of Manchester, and it is a shame that it had to end like this, with defeat in the FA Cup Final, followed by his sniping against the club’s staff for not doing more to quell rumours that he was about to lose his job. Mancini is someone who hates losing, so his departure was probably always going to be acrimonious. 

The debate will rage on over whether his sacking was right and over whether City are turning into Chelsea. I'm shocked, but then again I'm not, such is the nature of football, and such is the history of this club.

On the pitch this season, we have not been good enough and Mancini must carry the can for that. He tried to introduce a new tactical system – it didn’t work. He had a second chance at the Champions League – but we failed to get out of the group again. The defence of the title has been a non-defence – that’s unacceptable. Then there was the sense that the camp was never a happy one. This is where the waters get murky and we can only know so much. Calling out his players in public has probably been a mistake. 

Then again, look at the mitigating factors. We have had unlucky draws in the Champions League. Mancini didn't get any of his primary summer transfer targets. In terms of man management, you look at the way Mancini took the pressure off the players at the end of last season, beating Ferguson at his own mind games, then you look at his management of the Carlos Tevez affair – reintegrating a player from an outcast to a key member of the title winning team in weeks, and you realise the charge that Mancini could not man manage is not completely true. In fact, in some cases, he was an excellent man manager.

And so once again, we find ourselves turning to the issue of time, consistency and stability. Consistency on its own doesn’t bring success, you need to marry it with talent and the right character. Mancini appeared authoritarian, with a ruthless streak, not suffering fools gladly, very similar to Ferguson. An ideal combination, one might think. But his weakness has come at the wrong time. If we’d secured another league title, or if we’d reached the latter knockout rounds of the Champions League, combined with winning the FA Cup, it would have bought him more time so that when he did have a bad patch later on, he would have had a better chance of surviving it. The fact remains that we have a very strong squad and we’ve achieved nothing this season. 

The question is whether or not Mancini could have turned it around next season. Of course, that's always the question in these situations. I would have given him another season, but I don’t know the full picture behind the scenes. Maybe he upset too many people in the end.

That said, what a tenure Mancini’s has been. He probably did what Mark Hughes could never have done, delivering three trophies in four years. Hughes’ sacking was hard to take at the time but Mancini has vindicated the owners’ judgement. Hopefully they will choose well again.

Winning the FA Cup in 2011 to end the 35-year hoo-doo. Ripping down that banner at Old Trafford. Demolishing teams last season, Spurs 5-1 away, United 6-1 away. It was pure poetry. Nobody could touch us. We were the best team in the league by a country mile and we almost threw it all away, but we didn’t, and in the end, that’s what counts. 

Then, when all hope was lost, snatching the Premier League title from United at the very last second, doing to them what they had done to so many other teams for so many years and seeing the despair and uncertainty creep onto their faces for a change – Bobby Manc, let me say this to you – through all those years of winning nothing, through all the pain of getting relegated to the old Division 3, through all the suffering of getting beat by the likes of Lincoln City, Wycombe Wanderers and York City – that moment made it all worth it, and I – as I’m sure will many other City fans - will be forever grateful to you for that.

Thank you Roberto Mancini. To me, you will always be up there with the best. You made me believe in Manchester City.

Enigmatic City

City were always going to get beat in one of these finals sooner or later, but the way in which we surrendered against Wigan at Wembley on Saturday, losing 1-0 in the FA Cup Final, only left me with a feeling of bewilderment.

This defeat was the icing on the cake of City’s enigmatic season, a season that promised so much but has now delivered nothing but failure and – it seems – discontent between the club’s management and administration staff.

Preparation for the final was hardly ideal with rumours of Roberto Mancini’s dismissal and his imminent replacement with Manuel Pellegrini. Mancini is now gone and that development will be addressed another day, but how much impact did this uncertainty have on City’s lethargic performance?

Players are meant to be professionals these days, but to what extent they could have insulated themselves from the rumours swirling around their boss? It cannot have helped.

What was not in doubt was City’s lacklustre display. We laboured, we created chances, with a bit more luck in the first half we would have been 1-0 to the good.

But the chances we did have always seemed against the run of play. We were dominated by Wigan for large parts of the game, overrun in midfield, appeared tired throughout the team and of course, as we always have this season, lacking the goal scoring touch upfront.

And then there was the lack of tempo. We have had a lot of possession this season, but when we win the ball back we have been far too ponderous. We gave Wigan too much time to regroup. We have some of the best passers in England, but sometimes we are not direct enough, not ruthless enough, too intricate.

It is the end of the season and everyone is going to be tired. This is when it comes down to motivation and determination – which are within both Mancini’s sphere and the sphere of the leading players in the squad – our leaders on the field. Mancini indicated the players did not run enough, but it is too difficult to say why they did not run, whether because they did not want to go the extra mile for Mancini, whether they had been out thought tactically, or whether they simply did not have the legs.

Then again, this was an FA Cup Final. At the very least, the players should have wanted to win it for themselves and for the fans, but we just did not turn up.

Full credit to Wigan, a very good performance that kept the romance of the cup intact. They deserved the FA Cup and I hope they stay in the Premier League.

For City though, it is just another reminder of what might have been, and the unfulfilled potential that continues to vex the fans and board alike. 

Friday, 10 May 2013

Nothing ever lasts forever

Wednesday was probably not a normal day in Manchester, but it was a normal day in Jakarta. 

I was sat in a heaving traffic jam, going nowhere as usual, when a motorcycle crawled past on my left with what looked like half a family on board. Scrunched in between his father and older brother there was a boy, wearing a Manchester United shirt with the name “Chicarito” on the back. I wondered if the boy knew about the day’s tumultuous events at his adopted club. Did he know that the most successful British manager had announced his retirement? Did he even know who Alex Ferguson was at all?

The key reason why a team from Newton Heath, Manchester has been able to connect with a boy in a city on the other side of the world lies in one man – Alex Ferguson. United were successful before Ferguson, but the projection of their success across the globe, which coincided perfectly with Sky TV and the popularity of the Premier League, has known no bounds under Ferguson.

Constant success is what fans in other countries covet and that’s why so many have nailed their colours to United’s mast. Whichever way you look at it, the root driver behind that success has been Ferguson. 

Without him, there would have been no such consistency at the club. That’s not to say United would not have won things, but they probably would not have enjoyed success to the extent they have. Without Ferguson, probably no penchant for staging comeback after comeback. Without Ferguson, probably no surpassing of Liverpool as the team to have won the most English league titles. Without Ferguson, probably no 1999 treble, which I think did so much to endear United to potential fans across the world.

In the Matt Busby era United won a few league titles, a couple of FA Cups and a European Cup. But Ferguson has long surpassed that and has taken the club from a very good level to a great level.

All of this has happened to the dismay of United’s rivals, especially Liverpool and, of course, Manchester City.

Perhaps City fans have had it the worst. As City plummeted down the leagues of England, Ferguson’s United kept on winning the top honours. Then, when City finally did win something  - albeit the Division 3 playoff final against Gillingham, United went and won the Champions League against Bayern Munich, as if to remind City fans that really, they’d won nothing at all.

Some might question why I have devoted a post to Ferguson on this blog, but in truth, as a City fan, you cannot ignore Ferguson. He has been a pillar of our discontent for many a year, a figure that we have all railed against at some point or another, a force from within Old Trafford that many of us have defined ourselves against. The archenemy, disliked even more than the players who pulled on red shirts. The Red Devil himself.
City fans have lived in Ferguson’s shadow for so long that they even concocted a song for him to cheer themselves up in the darker moments. I can hear it now, echoing off the walls of the pubs around the Etihad Stadium, amid the laughter on the dark afternoons when all other hope seemed lost:

“We’re having a party when Fergie dies, we’re having a party when Fergie dies, jelly and ice cream when Fergie dies, jelly and ice cream when Fergie dies, karaoke when Fergie dies, karaoke when Fergie dies,” and so on.

Some might call that a very dark kind of humour, but the song also reveals a grudging respect – the acknowledgement that City fans would only ever win when Ferguson was no longer at the helm of Old Trafford.

This is only partly true of course, given that last year City won the Premier League crown for the first time, and the way it was won, snatched from under the nose of Ferguson, could not have been sweeter. Of course, the Scot has had the last laugh, opting to leave just after he has delivered another title, but at least City did put a dent in his silverware collection with last year’s title, and at least City fans tasted victory at the direct expense of Ferguson before he went quietly into the night. 

Credit where credit is due, the Scot has seen off challenges from Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and now City for the league, but now more challenges are emerging. Grasping victory today is so much harder then doing it five, 10 years ago. A decade ago no-one could have foreseen City becoming the force they have. Having already tasted the Premier League title, with formidable resources, City are now regrouping. Then you have the Blues of London – add Mourinho to the mix and Chelsea will also be resurgent. Everywhere you look, on every front, challenges, and all the while a man at the centre of it all, the determination still burning in his eyes but also the realisation that there is only so many challenges one can meet. 

A Liverpudlian band once sang “Nothing ever lasts forever”. Perhaps those words have been at the front of Ferguson’s mind for a while. The timing of his departure will have mattered much to him. Better to go now, still at the top, than to become mired in the next phase of English football where re-establishing dominance could be harder than ever.

It is not only the ability to win consistently that separates the good from the great, but the ability to recognise the right time to leave. Pep Guardiola did it at Barcelona – arguably with less fronts to fight on and with better players. Now Ferguson has done it at United.

And so the old enemy has gone. But will City fans, in a strange kind of way, harken back to the days when they had a clear target to rail at? Maybe, but I sense most would prefer to face a United team without Ferguson, rather than one with him at the helm. Most would rather forget this era. Most will miss ol’ Baconface like a hole in the head.