All good myths should follow the same pattern. They begin with a few murmurings by a couple of people and, before you know it, the whole thing has snowballed out of control, there’s mass hysteria and, more often than not, the Daily Mail is involved somewhere or other. In this case, thankfully, they’re not embroiled in it, but the myth has quickly gained momentum like the rumours of a football’s extra-marital affair with [[SENTENCE DELETED DUE TO LIBEL ERROR]].
This one concerns City’s left footed, right winger: Adam Johnson. I appreciate at this point I’m going to divide a lot of fans. Not literally, I should point out, I’m not going to be slicing anybody in two. Not today, at any rate (sorry to disappoint). But what I am going to say is probably going to go against the grain for many blues: Adam Johnson is not as bad as a lot of fans would have you believe.
And, yes, I have watched every game he played last season (with the exception of the 3-3 draw with Sunderland because I didn’t get in from work in time to get to the ground). For the record, I don’t think he had the best season, either; I actually think he was poor, but he was by no means as bad as a lot of fans seem to think.
A rather unscientific poll on my Twitter account this week produced the result of 89% of the sample of fans who replied to me expressed the opinion that he’s not good enough for City’s first team. Most said his attitude was poor, he doesn’t make a big enough contribution to the team and his workrate wasn’t as high as it should be for a top level team. Just over 2% said he looked the spitting image of Ian Curtis.
As the myth goals, he only ever scores ‘unimportant’ goals (however, when you’ve won the league on goal difference, I’d maintain every goal was a necessity). He’s the man that joins the action from the bench when the game is safe and scores a good effort to make it a five rather than a four goal winning margin. He doesn’t come looking for the ball. He’s often not involved in games for large spells, sometimes without even touching the ball.
I can’t argue with his lack of influence in most of the games he appeared in – he seems to be a shadow of the man who was beating full-backs at will and running at defenders with speed when he first arrived. In fact, in the whole of the last season, I remember him doing it twice: Once to set up Balotelli at home to Bolton and the other to ‘win’ a penalty against Fulham (and by ‘win’, I mean dive, because he made sure he connected with the defender and, no matter what commentators will have you believe “contact” doesn’t “entitle a player to go down” – it’s a contact sport). But after that: Nothing. Zip. Zilch.
This could be false data, though. Both of the times I remember his runs have resulted in goals; perhaps my memory has edited out the ones that led to nothing at all. In the same way, they say it often feels like years pass by much quicker when we’re older – do they feel like that or are we just doing more stuff our memory decides to chop out of the final edit (mundane things like work)?
Anyway, back to the football.
The goals accusation is a little harsh. Here are the games that he netted in last season and the score that his goal made the game: Blackburn (a, 1-0); Aston Villa (h, 2-0); Wolves (a, 1-1); Wolves (h, 3-1); Norwich (h, 5-1); Stoke (h, 2-0) and Norwich (a, 6-1). Seven assists (in all competitions) then need to be added to those seven goals to make up his 2011-12 stats. On the face of it, not a huge contribution from an attacking player, but a little bit more in-depth review says that conclusion could be a tad unfair.
Competitively, he started just 16 games and came on as a substitute in 21 more, featuring in a total of 37 of a possible 54 matches. He actually missed more games than he started. Four of his seven goals came in games he started, not when he came on as an impact substitute. Looking deeper, when coming on as a sub, he played less than 20 minutes in 13 of his 21 games. He was on the pitch for 1566 of a possible 4860 minutes. When averaged out, that becomes a goal or an assist every 112 minutes.
By way of a comparison, Sergio Aguero made 41 goals or assists in all competitions last season, playing 3470 minutes: Giving him a goal or an assist ever 85 minutes. Not a huge amount of difference, given that, for a fair few of Johnson’s substitute appearances, City were in the process of killing off the game, rather than looking to get in front.
All of this, however, raises the question: Why doesn’t Adam Johnson get more game time if, statistically, he’s not too far behind someone who had a brilliant first season in the league? He puts in important goals, provides important assists with little game time, yet he barely seems to get a look in.
And it’s a funny situation because most fans, myself included, would have expected he’d contributed a lot less to the season than he has. It doesn’t feel like he does that much when he’s on the pitch. He doesn’t seem to influence the game, he doesn’t seem to be a threat for City and he doesn’t seem like he touches the ball all that often. It just turns out that, when he does, he’s not as wasteful as we thought.
But therein lies the problem. By having a player who’s not involved for large spells of the game, the team are, effectively, playing with a man down. Ok, so he’s still somebody that needs marking and he still performs his defensive responsibilities – something which he has improved since Roberto Mancini publicly criticised. But his strength is having the ball at his feet, running at defenders and being dangerous in and around the opposition’s penalty area, yet he might only do that once every 30 minutes.
The very best football teams are greater than the sum of their parts. That’s to say, when every part of the machine is playing to the best of their ability, if you were somehow able to quantify that and add it up, that total would be lower than the overall performance rating of the team. In other words, David’s needlessly overcomplicating a very simple metaphor. Again.
The problem City are facing is that, when Adam Johnson’s in the team, he presents something of an optical illusion. An anomaly. He’s providing the results more regularly than expected, but he’s not putting in good performances and hasn’t put in a top class performance for a long time. With him on the pitch, it often feels like the team isn’t greater than the sum of its parts because he far too frequently represents a void that isn’t being filled.
And this may seem like I’m being critical of him, but I don’t want it to be as harsh as it may be coming across. I like him; I think he’s a good, dangerous player on his day. I think he’s not been given a decent chance to be that player in a long time, with a few fleeting appearances from month to month.
He’s got a lot of potential – and I don’t mean that in the way that word is often used. I don’t mean that he could be a brilliant player in three or four years when he has more experience; I’m not talking about long-term potential. Rather, I mean he could be a brilliant player next week. He has the potential to take on three men and beat them and he has the potential to do it right now, he just hasn’t lived up to that for 18 months.
He’s not helped that City’s style of play doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a tricky winger. The blues like to keep possession, move the ball quickly and drag their opponents all over the pitch. The attacking players tend to like to swap positions and move around to get their opposition’s defence all over the place, and that’s not particularly helpful to the man who wants to hug the touchline and make jinking runs in and out of the full-back position. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for him in the system; Roberto Mancini has built a flexible team to be able to change it around when necessary.
The sad thing is, Adam Johnson is probably living on borrowed time. He has the ability, he has provided better than he gets credit for, but we haven’t seen his best in far too long.
If I was the manager, would I sell him? Well, yes, providing a good offer came along. However, I wouldn’t be seeking to remove him from the books; he still has a lot to offer City and we don’t need to sell him for selling sake.
Even so, next season I’d like to see the Adam Johnson that City signed, rather than the one that’s been pulling on the blue shirt for the last 18 months. Now’s the time for him to step it up and start putting in the performances. His chances are getting fewer and far between; if he doesn’t do it soon, his opportunity will have passed.
I disagree that he’s not good enough for City’s team, I think he is.
But only when he’s playing well.
Podcast host David Mooney’s book, Typical City, is now available to pre-order in paperback from here – or the ebook is already available to download in the Amazon Kindle store here. Here’s a preview of what’s inside…
It’s something of a sad affair when you’re a 24 year-old male and you can be considered an expert on something that isn’t picking your nose or scratching. But I, and I daresay most other City fans of a similar age and demographic, am widely knowledgeable about a subject that could be described, at best, as irritating and, at worst, downright infuriating.
The 2011 FA Cup was City’s first trophy in 35 years. The 2012 Premier League title was the first time the Blues have been the best team in England since 1968. If I’m honest, it does make me laugh the horror and shock experienced by Arsenal fans that they – get this – haven’t won anything since 2005. How can any team anywhere have no success for seven years? It must be so difficult for them.
I have friends who support Bradford and Wolves. Imagine how they feel.
My earliest memory of a City match is being drenched to the bone wearing a black bin bag in the Platt Lane Stand of Maine Road as Mark Robbins scored a late winner for Leicester in the early 1990s. To be honest, since then, despite often seeing signs to the contrary, it wasn’t quite the success story that that five year old had hoped for.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been good times. I’ll never forget the promotion season under Kevin Keegan, the five added minutes at Wembley in 1999, the derby day victories – especially the Munich anniversary game at Old Trafford, the end of season pushes for Europe… but despite the success signs being present at regular intervals, City have fallen at several hurdles more often than a horse with three legs running the Grand National. The seeds have always been in place, but the flowers have never quite blossomed.
In fact, they normally withered and died.
Though City’s problems started long before I can remember, I think the first relegation from the Premier League in 1996 sums up the club better than any long winded metaphor I can conceive. The image of Steve Lomas holding the ball next to the corner flag to preserve a 2-2 draw that would be marginally enough to see City safely down into Division One was trumped only by that of the substituted Niall Quinn bursting from the dugout to inform his team-mate that a point wasn’t enough to save the club. It was then generally agreed that City should be searching for a winning goal.
That goal, obviously, didn’t come and it was the start of a rollercoaster seven years where City blew every other yo-yo club out of the water and chose to yo-yo between three divisions, instead of the more conventional two. In fact, I got my first season ticket in the 1997-98 season and – just to give you some perspective, here – I didn’t watch City play in the same division in consecutive seasons until 2003-04, after they had stayed in the Premier League the campaign before.
Skip forward to April 1997. City had two games left of the season and were battling against relegation to the Second Division. Their games couldn’t have been better – they were playing two teams also fighting to avoid the drop – QPR at home and Stoke City away. Two victories would keep the team in the division.
And it was going well when Georgi Kinkladze gave City the lead against QPR. But, as always, it went disastrously wrong when first Mike Sheron levelled. It was a goal that only City could have conceived. After Martyn Margetson had illegally picked up a backpass and been penalised for it, rather than carry the ball back to his goal and get back into position, he simply handed the ball over to the nearest QPR player, who took a quick kick, squaring to give Sheron an open goal.
It didn’t end there. Jamie Pollock then wrote himself in QPR folklore, scoring the own goal that put City’s opposition ahead. Credit where credit’s due, though, it was a bloody good own goal. So good, in fact, that QPR fans hijacked a poll and voted Pollock one of most influential men of the last 2000 years. He ended up rating higher than Jesus.
City rescued a draw, but that meant that, on the final day of the season, they would have to beat Stoke and hope that one of Portsmouth or Port Vale lost. And, in a turn of events that could only conspire against City, both of those teams won, while City thumped Stoke 2-5. Nothing changed in the league and City were down.
Then, at the end of December 1998, I was sitting in the back of a blue Peugeot 405, at the tender age of 11, listening to Andrew Dawson slot the ball past Nicky Weaver and condemn City to a 2-1 defeat at York. At the time, I probably didn’t realise how much of an important moment in City’s history it would be, but that defeat left the club in their lowest ever league position – I suppose it’s times like this that remind me just how lucky I am that it didn’t all spiral on downwards from there, really.
When Joe Royle applied the brakes to City’s downward slide that December, he was able to shuffle things about to get the club out of reverse and put them into first gear. By the time the playoffs came along, City had gotten up into second gear and climbed out of the league at the first attempt, albeit with a cough and a splutter.
With a squad that was largely unchanged from the season before, City finished the next season in fifth gear and flew into second place, guaranteeing automatic promotion to the Premier League. Though, needing just a point to ensure second place at Ewood Park on the final day of the season, the club didn’t half do it the hard way: They were a goal down at half time thanks to Matt Jansen and Blackburn had hit the woodwork four times, while a David Johnson goal at Portman Road meant Ipswich were leading, putting them into second place and City in third.
But goals from Shaun Goater, Mark Kennedy and Paul Dickov, as well as an own goal from Christian Dailly, saw City promoted and the City fans were confident once again. The confidence was boosted by the summer signings of Paulo Wanchope, Alf Inge Haaland, Steve Howey and, notably, the former World Player of the Year, George Weah. Even the manager himself was talking about the possibility of getting into Europe.
Of course, City were relegated.
In came a new manager, namely Kevin Keegan, and with him some new and exciting players – the gem of the 2001-02 season being a free transfer by the name of Ali Benarbia. But it wasn’t a one man team by any stretch of the imagination; Eyal Berkovic played with him in the middle – leading to many satirical and perhaps ill-judged headlines about how Arabs and Israelis can work together. Stuart Pearce joined to shore up the defence, while, despite later admitting he didn’t get on with the manager, Shaun Goater hit the form of his life, becoming the first City player since Francis Lee to score over 30 goals in one season.
With the Division One title under their belt and some excellent football played, City moved on to the next level and finished ninth in the Premier League the following season, qualifying for the UEFA Cup thanks to the Fair Play League. The run of form saw City beat United in Maine Road’s final derby game. Added to that, the signings of Nicolas Anelka and Robbie Fowler gave the club a bright outlook.
And that meant it was no surprise to any football fan anywhere that the club was nearly relegated again the following season. Aside from another impressive derby day victory and one of the best comebacks in football history at Tottenham in the FA Cup, there wasn’t much for City fans to cheer about. The club was knocked out of the UEFA Cup earlier than expected to the Polish side Groclin. In fact, had it not been for David James’ penalty saves to preserve draws against Wolves and Leicester, and Leeds’ catastrophic goal difference, City could have been in a lot more trouble than they actually were.
Despite starting well, Keegan’s tenure at City ended with a whimper. He resigned just after a home defeat to Bolton, allowing Stuart Pearce to take charge for the end of the 2004-05 season, where City fans would be presented with yet another false dawn.
It all started well for ‘Psycho’. Apart from defeat at Tottenham in his first game, City finished the season with an unlikely leap towards the last UEFA Cup spot. Going into the final day of the season, City sat in ninth and Middlesbrough sat in eighth spot (which would have been enough to qualify for Europe). Typically, it was City against Middlesbrough at Eastlands that would decide both clubs’ fates. City needed to win. For Middlesbrough, a draw would have been enough.
So, at 1-1 with five minutes of the game left, Pearce made his first managerial “last-roll-of-the-dice” decision. With an extra forward on the bench, he opted against putting Jon Macken on in place of Claudio Reyna, choosing instead to play Nicky Weaver and stick David James up front for his height. Then City won a penalty… a goal would leave Middlesbrough less than a minute to find an equaliser and City seconds away from another European campaign.
Robbie Fowler stepped up and missed.
City were gunning well under Pearce, until a series of injuries and suspensions saw the club win only one of their last 10 games of 2005-06 and an utterly awful season of struggle, not helped by a total lack of funds, followed in 2006-07, encompassed by the club’s inability to score at home after New Year’s Day. In fact, that season, City scored 10 home league goals – three of them in one game. If you missed that match with Fulham, you missed 30 percent of them.
‘Psycho’ moved on and he was replaced by the former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson. The club was taken over by Thaksin Shinawatra and anticipation spread when news broke that millions of pounds worth of new and exciting players had joined the club. City got their first derby win at Old Trafford in 34 years and enjoyed a first derby double in even longer.
And, at Christmas, it was all looking good and City were in fourth – confidence of a top four finish was at an all time high amongst City fans. But a disastrous second half of the season, culminating in an 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough, saw the team finish ninth. A European place was gained through the Fair Play League… again.
Despite a ropey first season, Hughes started his second campaign at the club well. Excellent performances were joined by clean sheets and early victories, but as Christmas approached on the horizon, form began to dip. A 4-3 defeat at Old Trafford in time added on to time added on was a bitter pill to swallow. And it was those four goals where it all started to go wrong for Hughes.
The following game, West Ham at Eastlands on Monday 28 September, was his last league victory until Saturday 5 December. For 68 days, City didn’t manage a win in the league. Nor did they slump to a defeat, but rather they drew seven matches, throwing away leads and gifting away silly goals.
After the victory over Chelsea that December, City managed just one more win before Hughes lost his job – in true City style, everybody knew that he had been sacked during the game, including the man himself. In his final three games, against Bolton, Tottenham and Sunderland, City picked up four points, but conceded nine goals. And, ultimately, it was the defence that many people thought led to Hughes’ downfall.
Then Roberto Mancini arrived.
City just missed out on the League Cup semi final, losing to another last minute United goal. They just missed out on Champions League football, losing to a late Peter Crouch winner in the penultimate game of the season. The end of the season came and it felt like another false dawn.
But that was buoyed by summer signings of quality players.
Of course, it was a mixed bag to start with – win, lose and draw in the league – but, slowly City turned on the style. One or two blips in form didn’t blot the copybook too much and, once the club had gotten into the top four on Sunday 19 September, 2010, they never dropped out of it.
For the first time in a long time, City did everything right, both on and off the pitch. And it resulted in automatic qualification for the top European competition and a successful FA Cup campaign, including a satisfying semi final revenge against the team from across town.
But it doesn’t end there. The following season, City began with their third trip to Wembley: The Community Shield match with Manchester United. City’s performance was a disaster, but, somehow, they ended up two goals in front, on the stroke of half time – thanks to Joleon Lescott and Edin Dzeko. United’s pressure told, however, and two quick goals after the break pulled them level.
It was at this point so early in the season that Vincent Kompany’s role in the success of the club began to be spelled out. He made a rather uncharacteristic mistake in the final minute, gifting the ball to Nani and the Portuguese winger ran half the length of the field, took it past Joe Hart and slotted it into the net. At that stage, it felt awful to witness, but looking back at the end of the season, Kompany would come out on top.
The response to that defeat was immediate. A record breaking start to the season saw City smash their way to top spot, scoring goals for fun. Notably, Tottenham were dispatched at White Hart Lane 1-5 and United fared even worse, losing out to City at Old Trafford 1-6. It was their biggest ever Premier League home defeat and it was at City’s hands. Worse for them, it put the Blues five points clear of them in top spot.
To their credit, however, United battled back. Soon, on level games, the two Manchester clubs were on level points, City only on the top of the league thanks to their superior goal difference. But, just as it looked like it was going to go to the wire, March 2012 happened. A wretched month for City, the club started it two points clear of United on level games. Defeat in the first game of April left the Blues eight points behind, again having played the same number of matches. The points lead had gone. Even the goal difference lead City had boasted was no more – United on +51 to City’s +49.
Seemingly, the false dawns were back and big time. It was painful.
Roberto Mancini publicly conceded the title. In every interview, he denied that City could win it and confirmed the club would simply carry on doing their best, but it wouldn’t be enough to take top spot. Call it a mind game with United or a mind game with his own players to ease the pressure, either way it worked.
United lost to Wigan, while City thumped West Brom. The gap was five points again. The Reds then threw away a two-goal lead against Everton at home to draw 4-4, while City beat Wolves. The gap was down to three points – with the Manchester derby to play.
For United, a win would see them virtually crowned champions, with them needing one point from their final two games. A draw would keep City at arm’s length and likely allow them to retain the league. City needed to win, or else it was curtains.
Step forward Vincent Kompany. The captain. Leader. The man who had made the error in the Community Shield to lose the game. The man who had been sent off – wrongly – in the FA Cup third round tie at home for a challenge, again with Nani. On the stroke of half time, his bullet header gave City the lead and it would turn out to be the goal that would decide the game. The Blues were back on top of the league, again on goal difference.
A hard-fought win at Newcastle, matched by United’s result against Swansea, left the league going down to the final day of the season: For City, it was QPR at home. Level points and an eight goal advantage meant that, should the Blues win, it would take a goal frenzy from United at Sunderland to steal it from them.
In many ways, it’s fitting that Roberto Mancini’s successes have come in games over Stoke (FA Cup) and QPR (Premier League). Thinking back to 1998, it was the games against these two clubs that saw City drop into their lowest ever league position and it signalled the worst time to be a City fan. Okay, so the Blues went undefeated against them back then, but that wasn’t enough. The 2-2 draw and the 2-5 win left the Blues relegated to Division Two.
Now, 1-0 and 3-2 wins have ended City’s trophy drought and left the club sitting as the best team in England for the first time in over four decades. It’s remarkable the coincidences that football can throw up sometimes.
And, after so many false dawns, this all feels too good to be true. It feels like we’re all going to wake up and it’s going to have been a horrible trick played on us by our minds: No Champions League, no FA Cup, no Premier League winners medals and City still hanging around Division Two and being the laughing stock of football throughout the world. Yet somehow still playing QPR and Stoke.
But here’s the good news: This is no dream.
City are back.
Well, the scramble for the fixture list is over again for another year and we now have a rough idea about what order City will play the 19 other Premier League teams in. Obviously, this isn’t set in stone because there have been no games moved for TV and then there’s the inevitable cup replays and European ties to factor in throughout the season, but, either way, we still have a fairly rough idea of what’s facing us.
Let’s start at the beginning: The opening to the season could have been kinder, but it could also have been a lot worse. Southampton (h) is a good tie to be starting with, though we should be wary of expecting a victory because the visitors are the underdogs. Being newly promoted and riding the crest of last season’s high-flying wave means they’ll have nothing to lose as they come to us, especially with last season’s home record for City, but it should be a game the home side would win. The last meeting between these two sides in this fixture was a 3-1 win for City, in the FA Cup in 2006-07.
Then, early on in the campaign, we get rid of the traditionally tricky matches away at Liverpool and Stoke, both of which City have struggled with in recent seasons. While you’d hope that City have kicked on and will better themselves at those grounds this year, playing these games early in the season means there’s plenty of time to catch up any points lost if we do go on to slip up – a draw at Stoke last season was almost problematic to the title challenge.
The first Manchester derby (in the League, at any rate – there have been more than the usual two in most recent seasons) pops up in December, which is looking like a tricky – but doable – month. United at home, obviously the highlight, but it does involve a boxing day visit to Sunderland, where Roberto Mancini has never won as City boss in three attempts. On the whole, though, it looks to be quite a nice Christmas period, with three winnable games around the 25th [Reading (h), Sunderland (a), Norwich (a)].
March was where City’s title bid last season very nearly flew off the rails and here’s hoping to a better month this time around. In a perverse kind of way, the fixture computer has made sure it won’t be easy, however, as the stumbling block that is a visit to Goodison Park appears smack bang in the middle. The other ties, Aston Villa (a), Wigan (h) and Newcastle (h), however, were all fixtures City went on to win last season.
April kicks us off with the second league derby of the season and this one being City’s visit to Old Trafford. It’s a tricky one to call because it’s near enough to the end of the season to perhaps be decisive in the title race – assuming both clubs are competing again – but also far enough away from the end of the season to offer the loser some chance of getting back into it. United, also out for revenge of last years 1-6 drubbing, won’t be making this easy, especially (effectively) losing to City to lose the title in 2011-12.
Finally, after the hurdle of a visit to White Hart Lane, the fixture computer appears to have been as gentle as possible with the blues’ end of season. The final four games are against sides you would expect to be in the lower half of the league – Swansea (a) might be easier of harder than last year, depending on how well they are doing and if any ‘second season syndrome’ has kicked in. The same can be said for the visit to Reading, as they could be down, safe or somewhere inbetween.
But here comes the crucial variables. Starting with the Champions League: Last season, you’ll remember City were home before and away after every group game in Europe. And City weren’t given the kindest draw in the competition, being put in, arguably, the most difficult group. While we have to wait to see how that will pan out (group stage drawn on 31 August 2012), we know where the games will be played.
This season, the blues are away before the first four group games and home before the last two. Following the Champions League matches, though, are five home games, the only away day being a trip to Stamford Bridge after group game five. It’s not especially pleasant when you realise that matches against Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and United follow European games, too. Tricky.
Here’s how it’s looking:
Stoke (a) – ECL Game 1 – Arsenal (h)
Fulham (a) – ECL Game 2 – Sunderland (h)
WBA (a) – ECL Game 3 – Swansea (h)
West Ham (a) – ECL Game 4 – Tottenham (h)
Aston Villa (h) – ECL Game 5 – Chelsea (a)
Everton (h) – ECL Game 6 – United (h)
Next up is the African Cup of Nations. Last season’s taught us how much City missed Yaya Toure, as, without him in the spine of the team, City struggled and looked like they couldn’t change the tempo of games. Granted it wasn’t helped by a poor decision that saw Vincent Kompany suspended (with Kolo Toure away), but it’s good to be wary of what fixtures the competing players will miss.
The tournament will run between 19 January 2013 and 10 February 2013, meaning the African players will be away for almost a month. We won’t know what the FA Cup or any potential League Cup games will be looking like, but during that period there are four Premier League games currently scheduled: Fulham (h), QPR (a), Liverpool (h), Southampton (a).
Not brilliant reading when you know the problems QPR caused City last season. Throw into the mix the fact that City have, recently, often led against Fulham at home before going on to draw or lose (11-12 won, 10-11 drew, 09-10 drew, 08-09 lost, 07-08 lost, 06-07 won, 05-06 lost, 04-05 drew, 03-04 drew) and Liverpool, who are never an easy game, and it could be a very difficult period.
Overall, this season looks like it will probably be a constant challenge. There doesn’t appear to be a long run of games where you would expect a City victory like there was at the beginning of last season. However, given how the fixture list ends, how it will treat us over Christmas and how it’s been a little naughty with us around the Champions League group games, it looks like it’s going to be an interesting first defence of the Premier League title.
While it was in the September of 2008 that Sheikh Mansour took control of Manchester City Football Club, the 2008-09 campaign for the blues wasn’t the best on the pitch. In fact, it ended with the team outside all of the European places and had a Christmas Day in the relegation zone wedged into the middle of it. That was the last time that City met United just twice over the course of a season; every year since then, there has been more than the minimum two Manchester derbies.
Those two derbies of 2008-09 were bleak for City: Two defeats, no goals and barely a shot in either. There was so much between the two sides, you’d never have believed the gap had looked smaller the year earlier – when Sven’s side had twice beaten their local rivals. Fast forward to a new manager and throw in a few new players and progress had stalled somewhat.
But that’s when City got serious. In a manner, the club declared war on the team from across town. With a summer of additions – including the high profile signing of Carlos Tevez – the blues had suddenly gone from a team with no European football to one that was pushing to finish fourth in the Premier League. That transfer saga was the start of where the bad blood began to get worse between the two Manchester clubs. Previously, City’s mid-table woes and relegation battles had mattered little to United’s title challenges and European nights, and vice-versa. The sides met twice a year and battled it out, with the bragging rights at stake.
But that Tevez switch signalled the start of City’s rise; the now infamous poster being a cheap dig that got United’s back up and had those in charge of the reds foaming at the mouths. They were rattled. It added extra feeling to that first meeting between the two sides and it felt, for the first time in a long time, that City were somewhere near to pushing United all the way. It was the first step in the blues’ rise; they went in off the back of four wins. Of course, we all know how it ended: Michael Owen stole the points with a goal in added time to added time.
We might not have realised it at the time, but that game marked the beginning of a new era of Manchester derbies. This was no longer the haves against the have nots; this was the beginning of a fight for power. City were trying to wrestle it from United and it was no longer simply bragging rights at stake. This was league position and future success for City. For United, it was a battle to stay in poll position and to avoid being eclipsed by their nearest rivals.
Before that match in 2009-10, Sir Alex Ferguson uttered his famous “not in my lifetime” quote – in answer to the question of whether City would go into a derby match as favourites. Not only has he since been proven wrong on that front, as the blues have now gone into a derby with shorter odds than United, but he has himself passed comment on it, claiming the blues were where the money should be placed for this season’s FA Cup tie.
As much as us City fans don’t want it to be true, the fact of the matter is United aren’t going to just go away. They’ve had dominance over England for nigh on twenty years and, as is the case with any sort of evil, undemocratic Empire, the idea of giving up power isn’t one that is ever jumped at. The inconvenience of the matter is that, to become top dogs in this country, City are going to have to dismantle what United have built brick by brick. Mario Balotelli almost hit the nail on the head; he said ‘Why always me?’, when he should have asked ‘Why always them?’
Since the takeover and since City have been climbing the table in their quest for success, they have had to overcome United at every significant point. The coincidental and slightly queer fact that the reds have been constantly standing in the blues’ way for every little achievement is quite symbolic of the fight as a whole. They have what we want and we have to forcefully take it from them. To be a success, we have to stop them from stopping us.
Back in 2009-10, City had their best chance yet of picking up silverware, having just smashed three past Arsenal’s kids and made it to the semi-finals of the League Cup. Leaving the ground, fans were desperately trying to find out who the club had drawn. And then the news broke: Manchester United. To make matters worse, it was the most difficult draw, being the home leg first and the away leg second.
The reds, having played a weakened side all the way up to that point, signalled their intent to the competition and towards City. One could be forgiven for thinking United were more concerned from stopping the blues winning the cup, rather than winning it themselves; the policy of playing fringe players stopped immediately when it became obvious City were serious about lifting the trophy that so many teams shun. United won that battle, but only just.
The progress for City took another dent later that season. The push for a Champions League place over Tottenham, Aston Villa and Liverpool appeared to be swinging into the blues’ favour, until one Manchester United rocked up at the City of Manchester Stadium. A last minute goal again won the game for the visitors, and that sparked a run of form that saw City lose out to Spurs in a penultimate match ‘playoff’. While City had clearly improved, they were still some way behind United.
Then came last season. City managed to earn one more point in the Manchester derbies than the campaign previous, but that was a somewhat soul-destroying and wholly forgettable 0-0 draw at Eastlands. The undoubted highlight of which being the final whistle, when fans could finally go home and wonder how better they could have spent that ninety minutes. In fact, it’s the fixture in February that is more telling – City turned up at Old Trafford and were marginally the better side, a marked improvement on the year before. They only lost that game due to a freak, out-of-this-world, unbelievably good goal, that, on another day, would have landed somewhere on the M60.
But that wasn’t the half of it. With City looking to end a trophy drought of over three decades, it looked like the FA Cup was going well. The big sides were dropping out and the blues had been given favourable draws against lower league opposition and, on the one occasion they drew a Premier League side, it was at home. But then, just before the quarter final with Reading, the balls were pulled out of that strange bowl thing on ITV and, if they got through, City would be paired up with United. At Wembley. The reds were, once again, blocking the path of City’s progress.
This time, City came out on top – and deservedly so. Rooney was missing, as was Tevez, and both sides went toe-to-toe for the honour of being an FA Cup finalist. The banner at Old Trafford proudly displayed the years since the blues had won a major trophy (not that they care, obviously); it wasn’t officially sanctioned by the club, but clearly endorsed, as, had they wanted it gone, it could quite easily have been removed. Roberto Mancini had previously failed on his first attempt to fulfil his promise of tearing it down.
To do it, he was going to have to get the better of United. First it was the League Cup. And then the FA Cup. As we know now, he kept that promise. He went on to complete the cup run by seeing off Stoke in the final and lifting the trophy last May.
The next time the two sides would meet was the Community Shield: The opening game of the season; the curtain raiser. And, back in August, nobody would have predicted just how significant the two teams that contested that match would be. It’s telling now that the showpiece for the English Premier League would be contested by the two teams vying to win it nine months on. City threw away a two-goal lead to lose that game and, from that point on, proceeded to smash records in the opening months of the season, as team after team were dispatched en route to October and a trip to Old Trafford.
A United win would see them leapfrog the blues into top spot. A City win would see them open up a five point gap at the table’s summit. It would turn out to be the blues’ biggest step yet in taking a wrecking ball to Sir Alex Palpatine’s Empire. Six huge hits were sustained that day and City inflicted United’s largest ever Premier League defeat at Old Trafford. Fans that had been arguing that the gap between the two clubs was getting shorter began to argue that it was actually getting wider: That blue had become more dominant than red.
Of course, that was too premature.
The FA Cup was next: The third round draw threw these teams together once again. But for an unjust red card, it could have been a different story; but a club mustn’t lament its bad luck. United made it into the pot for the fourth round, though City gave them a scare, with one man fewer for eighty of the ninety minutes and from three goals behind. That first cup might have gone in the trophy cabinet, but the second one after it was still not going to be an easy task.
And now it comes down to this. This evening, City host United for the final time in the Premier League this season. A home win will see the blues back on top of the league on goal difference. A draw will play right into the reds’ hands, giving them a three point lead with two games to play. An away win will all but confirm the title is heading to Old Trafford. While many of us hoped that the title race would be over well before this match, when the fixtures were announced it was always going to be inevitable that this would play a key role.
United have stood in City’s way in everything they have tried to do since the takeover. If City are to knock United into second place in this country, then they will have to do it both literally and metaphorically. In the wartime metaphor, the battles have been tight and close, and, for three years, City have been gradually gaining ground, while United have stagnated. But in the literal world, the reds have stopped the blues on several occasions in the past.
A win this evening will go some way to swinging the balance of power and will take the war to its next level. United stood in City’s way for Champions League qualification and that was eventually overcome. They stood in the way of a trophy to break the duck and that was eventually overcome. They now stand in the way of league progress. It’s do or die. All or nothing. Win or lose.
To exorcise the ghosts of the past, the torment of United’s success compared to the blues’ exploration of England’s lower leagues, City simply need some success of their own. To get it, however, it seems like they are always going to have to get the better of their rivals.
The next battle in the war begins tonight.
That’s that, then. March is done and dusted and it’s a not-so-polite fuck off from me towards the month that has been as good for our title hopes as that last packet of biscuits has been for my training schedule before the Manchester 10k. From a possible fifteen Premier League points this month, City have taken eight. Two wins, two draws and a defeat and finishing the month two points off the top of the league, having played a game more than the leaders.
City started the month five points ahead of second place, also having played a game more. Throw in an exit from Europe and only one of City’s seven games in all competitions producing a good ninety minute performance from the blues and it’s probably been the worst month of the season.
Despite it still being mathematically possible, it’s at this point where I nail the Mooney colours to the mast and confirm, if the mildly sombre tone of this column so far hasn’t already done so, that my towel is in the ring and I have come to the conclusion that City will probably not win the league this season. For me, the time has come to be realistic, rather than optimistic.
The warning signs have been there for a while and a draw with Sunderland isn’t where it’s gone wrong. In fact, at home isn’t where it’s gone wrong, given that point against the Black Cats meant that was the first time since February 2011 that City didn’t take all three points in a home game. The costly errors have been on the road. Fulham and Liverpool early on were minor setbacks, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Same with Chelsea and, to a degree, Everton. But soon, Swansea happened and then Peter Crouch proved why he’s a Jedi, being a true-to-life example of Yoda’s words: “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Nevertheless, hand on heart, I can honestly say I’ve not been convinced by an away performance of City’s after the derby victory in October.
Since then, City have played ten times in the league away from The Etihad Stadium and picked up 12 of a possible 30 points. Of those ten games, City have won three (QPR, Wigan, Aston Villa), drawn three (Liverpool, West Brom, Stoke) and lost four (Chelsea, Sunderland, Everton, Swansea). And they’ve not been particularly convincing in any of them, unlike the away games before them (Bolton, Tottenham, Fulham (albeit a draw), Blackburn, Manchester United). Last season, this stuttering away form and near perfect home form (remind you of anyone?) would have been good enough, but, unfortunately (perhaps unluckily) for us, this season, it’s not.
In fact, any other season, City would probably still be in front and favourites. But, this season they’re not and, the truth is, I wonder where our next away points will come from. Wolves at Molineux is the only game I can see City taking maximum points from; Arsenal, Newcastle and Norwich are away days I really don’t fancy.
And now we’ve hit the situation where United can lose the derby, but still win the league. City need a favour off somebody else. Of course, though, if that favour does come, City really need to help themselves, something they haven’t been doing for the last month, at the very least.
Yet, whatever the outcome, this will be City’s best ever Premier League season, given the club has exactly the same points total now as they did at the end of their previous best ever Premier League season – ie. Last season. Year on year for the last three campaigns, we have had our best ever in the Premier League; there’s been progress and there have been lessons well and truly learnt. Roberto Mancini’s City have always been better with each passing season.
This season, his side re-wrote the record books early on. They stole the consecutive home wins record. They’ve given United their biggest ever home Premier League defeat. They’ve played football the likes of which most City fans have only dreamt of. And this is why anybody considering that the manager should lose his job if the club doesn’t finish top of the pile is so, so wrong.
Okay, so the progress hasn’t quite been as drastic as expected. Last year, we ended the trophy drought and made the step up to the Champions League. This year, barring any disasters, we have stepped up at least one league position, with more points and more goals. And we’ve genuinely challenged for a title – that still could be ours, however unlikely you or I think it now – instead of flirting with the top spot having played three more games than anyone else over Christmas. Mancini has been building on what he’s achieved each season and to scrap that and start again with a new man is ludicrous.
Look at where that’s gotten Chelsea.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be disappointed if we don’t win the league. We most definitely should; we’ve been on top of the thing for months, so not to finish the job is upsetting. However, the future is surely brighter for City than you would immediately think: Chelsea and Arsenal have fallen away and need strengthening to be able to fight for the title again, especially the latter of the two. United are weaker than most seasons (though not as weak as some would have you believe) and they haven’t played the quality of football that’s set them apart from most of the division – surely, without investment and improvement, they can’t keep on scraping through for another 12 months?
Meanwhile, I’d suggest City will come back stronger next season, whether we win the league or not. Think for a moment of next season’s title challenge if we don’t win it this season; Roberto Mancini most definitely isn’t going to let the squad go out all guns blazing and fade away again. Now imagine City do win the league this season; Roberto Mancini most definitely won’t let the squad go out all guns blazing and fade away again.
Think of how you felt last season when Wayne Rooney’s overhead kick hit the back of Joe Hart’s net. Then think back to October and how you felt the next time those two teams played out that particular fixture, specifically when Dzeko’s second wriggled through De Gea. The overhead kick doesn’t matter so much anymore, eh?
So be disappointed that we dropped two points to Sunderland. Be disappointed that we handed the initiative to United. Be disappointed if we don’t come back and win it. But look at the bigger picture. That title is certainly coming and it’s coming soon.