Sunday, 13 May 2012
The Redemption of Manchester City
Manchester City 3-2 Queens Park Rangers [Premiership, Etihad Stadium]
And so it all came down to the final day.
On May 6 the Big Two had each won their penultimate league encounters – City defeating Newcastle, 2-0, at St James’ Park; United overcoming Swansea City by the same scoreline at Old Trafford. It left the two teams level on 86 points going into the final match, City boasting a goal difference of +63 to United’s +55. With United due to play Sunderland, away, while City played host to Queens Park Rangers, the season had boiled down to a straight contest for the right to the Premiership crown.
It was 44 years since Manchester City had been champions of England. Back in May 1968 the Blues had travelled to Newcastle on the final day of the season, level on points with Manchester United and needing to beat Joe Harvey’s team of ‘Pop’ Robson, Wyn Davies and Ollie Burton to secure the title. A 4-3 victory, with goals from City legends Mike Summerbee, Neil Young and Francis Lee, had clinched the championship, sparking a golden era for the club. The day was memorable for the two lashed-home strikes from the Blues’ captain, Young…you would have had to have been well into middle age, though, and likely greying at the temples, in order to remember those feats and the exploits which were to follow in the years immediately afterward: Young smashing the ball into the roof of Peter Shilton’s net as City, in red and black, defeated Leicester in the ‘69 FA Cup final. Glyn Pardoe finding grace on a Wembley quagmire to clip home an extra time winner against West Brom in the League Cup final of 1970. Francis Lee drilling a penalty through goalkeeper Hubert Kostka’s legs as the Blues won the 1970 European Cup Winners’ Cup against Polish side Gornik Zabrze. Dennis Tueart executing a dream of an overhead kick to win the 1976 League Cup against Newcastle.
Those feats had been followed by decades of disappointment and instability as the club yo-yoed between the top divisions, rarely threatening to succeed, proving all too often to be the architects of their own misfortune. There had been the false dawn of Malcolm Allison’s managerial return in ‘79. The generation of talent squandered under his tenure. The misadventurous marquee signings who had failed to shine. There had been the grinding mill of the Swales years, when manager after manager had been installed with the aim of reversing the club’s fortunes, only to find their shirt-tails successively trapped in the revolving door of Swales’ frustrated ambitions.
There had been the disappointment of the ‘81 cup final, after which City were not to reach so much as a semi-final for 30 long years. There had been relegation under John Benson in ‘83, as the big names began to exit (in order, so the rumour went, to pay for new stand roofs); relegation under Jimmy Frizzell in ‘87, as the purse strings tightened yet further and the Swales Out! campaign began to find its voice; relegation under Alan Ball in ‘96, when, during a final day fixture against Liverpool, the team had resorted to timewasting by the corner flag in the mistaken belief that other results were going their way and that a draw would be good enough for survival.
Worst of all, there had been the ‘98/’99 season, spent in English football’s third tier, hacking out results in the tiny stadias of uncelebrated provincial towns, before finally clinching promotion with last gasp heroics in a Wembley play-off final against lowly Gillingham.
Now, a home fixture against QPR stood between Manchester City and redemption. Rangers…managed by Mark Hughes, who two and a half years previously had been so unceremoniously removed from the post of City manager to make way for the coming of Mancini. Rangers…who sported three City alumni among their number (the young right-back, Nedum Onuoha; the diminutive former England winger, Shaun Wright-Phillips; and their captain, the trouble-prone midfielder Joey Barton). Rangers…the club with the weakest away record in the division, themselves needing to stave off relegation by bettering Bolton’s result at Stoke…up against the club with the strongest home record.
Did City dare to dream? This was judgement day. The team would have to deliver. After today there would be no second chances, no further acts through which to claim their destiny. All there was, was now. They needed simply to win the match. Across the stands the emotion which had hold of the City faithful was fear: fear that the ill-starred luck which had for so long dogged the club would strike again. Fear that United would, once more, manage somehow to pull the rug from beneath them. The supporters had been led up the garden path too many times for there to be any confidence about sealing the deal. There had been too many disappointments along the way, too many defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, too many debacles haunting the collective recent memory.
What we were about to witness, irrespective of the result, was to be witnessed in sheer pain.
QPR lined up in a 4-4-2 which didn’t lack for attacking potential, but their shape was defensively-minded. As the game kicked off it became swiftly apparent that whenever they lost the ball their centre-forwards, Bobby Zamora and Djibril Cisse, would drop back to complete a six man unit intent on containing the most dominant midfield in the Premiership. For Rangers, too, this was to be a long afternoon. Vigilance, for the visitors, would be key. The crowd stirred when on 3 minutes Aguero flicked the ball through for Tevez but Rangers’ centre-back, Clint Hill, was able to poach it from beneath the Argentine’s feet.
It was to be the way of things for much of the ninety minutes that followed.
The game was young but City quickly found that their favoured channels through the middle were to be resolutely blocked by a narrow QPR team shape. On 5 minutes Aguero chased down a lost ball on the left, stole it from Barton and pulled it back inside for Tevez. Sensing the lack of options in front of him Tevez tried instinctively to shoot but mistimed the strike. The ball span free to Yaya Toure, who repeated the mistake, skewing his shot high and wide. Moments later Nasri was to again shoot from distance, firing tamely wide in the absence of a route on goal, with City nerves still to settle.
Twelve minutes had gone by when the news came through that Stoke had taken an early lead against Bolton. The Rangers fans were bouncing in the South stand but their team were already defending frighteningly deep. Tevez, Nasri and Silva were jinking and probing, looking for that opening through the middle where City liked to play, but there was a forest of Rangers shirts ahead of them. As a consequence the Blues’ full-backs, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy, began to roam forward on the flanks, where the space was, as Rangers’ own full-backs, Taye Taiwo and Nedum Onuoha, stood off them in favour of constricting the centre. Yaya Toure, emerging from deep midfield, began to spread the ball out left and right, and the crosses began to fly in from the wings. On the quarter hour mark Rangers’ goalkeeper Paddy Kenny fumbled one and the ball almost fell to Nasri but Kenny was able to claim it at the second attempt. Moments later he saved from Silva at the near post, after Tevez had laid the Spaniard on. As the visitors cleared their lines Kenny could be seen taping up his fingers, having evidently bent them back in claiming the ball. Whether this was to prove a factor in what was to follow was to remain unknown.
The possession was all City’s but QPR had set out their stall. The way to stymie City was by now well-known throughout the league.
In simplest terms, Rangers were trying to strangle them in the middle of their own defensive third.
Barton clashed heads with Barry and went down in a heap. Then Zabaleta fired over a cross which Tevez couldn’t connect with. The problem for City was that, having being forced out wide to the wings they lacked the height in the penalty area to get on the end of the crosses (Tevez and Aguero each standing just 5’8” tall). Then on 21 minutes the news came through that Rooney had scored at Sunderland. United were ahead. Another turn of the screw. Another call for urgency.
Again, City poured forward.
Nasri sent in a cross – low, this time. Aguero swung a foot at it but Anton Ferdinand, brother of United’s Rio, tasked with vigilance over the diminutive Argentine, was able to block. Wright-Philips tried to help the clearance on, only for the ball to connect with his hand just outside the penalty area. Silva took charge of the free kick but could direct it only into the wall.
Once again, City tried to go through the middle.
Once again, Hill was able to clear.
Half an hour had gone. Already in the stands heads were in hands.
Cross by Clichy. Away by Hill. Shot by Silva. Charged down by Barton. A tense hush had begun to envelop the Etihad. Then an eerie, sarcastic whistling. Belief was ready to drain like the blood from paling cheeks.
Yaya Toure was proving instrumental in orchestrating the play from midfield, but on 34 minutes he played a long cross-field ball to Nasri and immediately clutched a hand to his hamstring. He signalled to the City bench that he was okay, but a pronounced limp told otherwise. Mancini was at the edge of his technical area. It was clear that the Ivorian would have to be withdrawn. Meanwhile Aguero crossed from the left, but there was no one there to get his head to the ball. Tevez tried a one-two with Nasri. Once again, Hill was on hand to clear.
QPR were living dangerously; City seeking the wit to break them down.
Then on 39 minutes…first blood.
Zabaleta crossed from the right. The ball was cleared as far as Silva, who played a short pass in to Toure, still hobbling from his hamstring injury. Despite the pain Toure showed good feet to flick the ball onwards into the path of Zabaleta who had drifted inside from the wing and was breaking into the penalty area. The ball was under his feet but the Argentine nevertheless managed to improvise a lob. The ball looped up. Once again, Kenny fumbled at it – was he carrying an injury? – and the deflection span perilously towards the far post. A stadium held its breath. Kenny was scrambling desperately in the effort to reach the loose ball. Wright-Phillips was tracking back. At the last instant the goalkeeper flung himself, full stretch, at the ball as it rebounded off the post, beyond his finger-tips, and over the line. Goal! The stadium erupted. The Poznan broke out. A weight had been lifted. A tightness of the chest had been eased.
At last, City were in the lead.
It had taken Zabaleta – the extra man on the right, unmarked and unattended by QPR’s narrow back four, the man who, consequently, had seen more of the ball than anyone – to drift inside and unlock the Rangers’ defence. As City passed the ball across the back four, settling, collecting themselves, steeling themselves for the remainder of the task, Nigel De Jong, the arch enforcer, Mancini’s go-to man when he needed to slam the door shut in front of the defence, was warming up on the touchline. The stadium was in full voice now. Toure’s number went up on the board and De Jong went on to replace him.
As the first half drew to a close they were singing Mancini’s name into the rafters.
At the Stadium of Light, United were leading Sunderland, 1-0. At the Britannia, Bolton had scored twice towards the close of the first half, and were now leading Stoke, 2-1. As things stood City had their name on the Premiership trophy by virtue of goal difference. Rangers stood to be relegated from the division.
A single goal, though, would be enough to change everything.
That goal, the most dreaded development, was to occur three minutes after the restart, and it was to change the complexion of the game entirely. There seemed little danger when Wright-Phillips, on the break, lofted a high ball towards Cisse in City’s defensive third. Lescott was in position to intercept but he mistimed his header, sending the ball straight into Cisse’s path as the Frenchman advanced on goal. With just Joe Hart to beat the striker allowed the ball to bounce once before throwing everything he had into a full-tilt, moon-or-bust half volley, which seemed to fly from his boot like a shell. Hart flung himself low and to his left but the pace of the shot was too much for him. The ball shuddered into the net at his near post as the home fans looked on, stunned into silence.
Rangers were level.
Against the run of play, as this so staggeringly was, the strike was almost too calamitous to believe. As the Frenchman celebrated with his teammates an all-too-familiar feeling was taking hold in City stomachs.
An inescapable nausea was on the rise.
The tempo was lifted, now. The home side probed. Rangers cleared. Then, as the visitors broke momentarily free of the onslaught, Tevez tangled with Barton, off the ball, on the edge of the Rangers penalty area. Barton had taken a series of knocks as the afternoon had worn on, with Tevez just the latest to lean on the temperamental Rangers captain. Now Barton reacted with the reckless throw of an elbow. Tevez went down. The linesman waved his flag. Referee Mike Dean, who hadn’t seen the incident, went over to consult.
Tevez was rolling around on the floor. Players were converging in a melee around the referee. Mr Dean conferred with his linesman then returned to the fray, drawing the red card from his pocket and brandishing it at Barton. Barton remonstrated. Dean ordered him from the field. Barton turned to go and, seeing Aguero, jammed his knee in the back of the Argentine’s legs. Aguero went down. Kompany waded in. Barton tried to head-butt him. The two teams were on the verge of a brawl as a member of Rangers’ coaching staff arrived on the pitch, attempting to usher his captain from the field and down the tunnel.
Was this a break for City? A man up with 57 minutes on the clock, the would-be champions redoubled their intent. Tevez fired the free kick into the wall. Nasri met the rebound with a low drive on the turn. Kenny kept the ball out with his feet.
Zabaleta swung a ball in from the right.
Taiwo cut it out for a City corner.
As play paused Mark Hughes sent on Traore for Cisse, evidently in the attempt to go to a more defensive shape. A draw, of course, would be good enough for Rangers. At that moment in time it would have occurred to no one that Rangers might go on to win the game…yet, moments later, the unthinkable was to happen.
As Rangers made a rare break into the City half Traore got the better of Kompany on the left, pushing the ball past him and beating him for pace. As the Senegal international advanced into space vacated by City’s marauding right-back, Zabaleta, Zamora moved into the box in a central position, screaming for the ball. He was tracked by Clichy. Traore looked up and, instead, crossed to the far post where Jamie Mackie was arriving, completely unmarked. The cross was perfect. Mackie met the ball with a text-book header, pounding it down hard into the centre of the goal-line and then up, past the floundering Hart, into the City net.
1-2, and with a little over 20 minutes remaining, City’s dream lay in tatters.
There was a barely suppressed hysteria now. Hughes was pacing his technical area, animated. City fans were clawing their faces, the shock of this second Rangers goal sublimating itself in sickening slow-release. Mancini was flouncing on the touchline, his back momentarily turned on his hapless players. It seemed inevitable, now, that the manager would make a change, and so it was that on 69 minutes Dzeko came on for Barry.
At last a tall striker to aim at with those crosses from Clichy and Zabaleta.
Once more the ball went out wide. Once more the cross into the box was volleyed clear. Rangers had all nine outfield players behind the ball, City’s forces advancing on them like an army encircling an encampment. Nasri across to Tevez. Across to Zabaleta. The same movement back and forth across the line. The same lack of opening in the defences ranged in front of them. Back to Tevez. In to Nasri on the edge of the area. Back to Tevez. Back to Nasri, then across to De Jong, venturing forward from midfield. Cross from Clichy. Hoofed up-field by Hill. Retrieved by Hart, who was by now able to foray as far as the half way line, unchallenged, so deep were Rangers defending. Out to Kompany.
Kompany fed Zabaleta on the right. Zabaleta crossed. This time Dzeko got his head to the ball – at last, some height in the target area – but only just. City were getting closer now, though. On the touchline Balotelli was preparing to come on. On the edge of the Rangers ‘D’ Nasri was jinking this way and that in the attempt to find space. He had barely made a reverse pass all afternoon, so narrow and congested was the space in front of him.
Mancini’s last throw of the dice was to bring off Tevez – from whom there was to be no fairy tale ending to the season – and send on Balotelli. At the same time Hughes took off Zamora – a centre forward exhausted by his defensive exertions – and replaced him with another forward, Jay Bothroyd. A cheer went up among the away support as the news came through that Stoke had scored against Bolton. The score at the Britannia was now 2-2. As things stood, with an implausible lead at the Etihad, and Stoke drawing with Bolton, QPR were safe from relegation.
The ball was with Clichy on the left. Inside to Nasri. To Silva. All of a sudden, Balotelli made a run across the Rangers defence. Nasri fed the ball through the backline – it seemed like the first reverse pass he had made all afternoon – and though Balotelli was unable to retain possession, fouled by Bothroyd, here was a new sense of movement in the City attack. Here was the chink of an opening in the QPR defences.
Here, at least, was another glimmer of hope.
Silva took the free kick from the left. The ball was headed clear as far as Nasri. Across to De Jong. De Jong took a shot but the ball was cleared. Aguero picked it up by the left hand touchline. Somehow, stretching out a foot, he managed to keep the ball in play, cutting back a fizzing low cross which Dzeko attacked at the near post. The netting rippled, and a roar went up, and for a moment it looked as though the Bosnian had scored, only for the roars to choke in the throat as the home crowd realised it was only the side-netting which had been disturbed.
Still the Blues pressed forward. “Come on City!” urged the crowd. Seven minutes were remaining. Seven minutes for City to salvage their destiny, their dream, their heart-scarred pride.
Zabaleta won a corner on the right. Once more Lescott, Kompany and Dzeko moved into the penalty area. Silva swung over the cross but the ball was cleared. Clichy picked up possession in a central position, just outside the area, and tried to take the ball past Wright-Phillips, who obstructed him. The whistle blew. Wright-Phillips appealed to the heavens but the free kick had been given. Clichy sprinted over to recover the ball as Kenny organised his wall. Balotelli took the kick. Into the wall. The Italian lashed at the rebound but his shot was charged down by Derry. Dzeko picked up the loose ball on the left, slipped, recovered, then sent in a cross which was headed clear. The ball reached Kompany. To Silva. To Nasri. Back to De Jong. Across to Nasri. Cross from deep. Dzeko was able to get his head to the ball, but his effort fell kindly for Kenny.
Five minutes. Nasri crossed from the left. Collected by Kenny. The ball was played up-field then won back by Balotelli in his own half. To Lescott. Back to Balotelli. Out to Zabaleta then back inside to De Jong.
Headed clear by Ferdinand.
Four minutes. Kompany. Out to Zabaleta. Inside to Silva. Dispossessed by Traore. Away by Taiwo.
Three minutes. Derry, Traore and Taiwo were playing keep-ball in City’s half. Mancini was screaming on the touchline, his hands pumping angrily in the air.
Two minutes. Cross from Zabaleta. Away by Derry. Retrieved by Hart.
One minute. Corner cut out by Onuoha. Corner cut out by Traore. Corner headed straight at Paddy Kenny when it looked easier for Balotelli to score.
The siege was total now. It was as though QPR had curled up in the foetal position on their own doorstep as City tried frantically to beat the life out of them – but somehow they just didn’t seem able to land the killer blow. What a debacle this was! What a resounding confirmation of every imputation of City, typical City, as the perennial tragi-comedians of English football. Losing against relegation candidates QPR! Despoiling their own coronation day. The exits were busy now. People were streaming out of the ground. There was only so much that some could to take. To have the misfortune be have been born as, or to have subsequently self-identified as, a City supporter…well, it didn’t bear thinking about. This was a shambles which might never be lived down, by club or supporters alike. In the stand City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak had the box seat to witness the self-sabotaging impotence of the club which his master, Sheik Mansour, had poured a billion pounds into. Now the Sheik, watching, so it was said, from his bolt hole in Abu Dhabi, could also see for himself the brittle treasure he had purchased, laid bare as hollow, paste and broken; a club which lacked the courage to complete when it mattered.
In footballing terms what was happening was the distillate of City’s season on the pitch. For two years Roberto Mancini had drilled his team in the mantras of 4-2-3-1, of playing through the middle, with Silva and Nasri providing the short, exquisite balls around the penalty area to unlock opposing teams’ defences. Rangers, for their part, had adopted the prescribed response – standing off the wide players to defend narrowly across the width of their penalty area. Now, it seemed as though you could have thrown a blanket over the whole of the Rangers team, so narrowly did they line up across their area. City’s irresistible force had come up against QPR’s immovable object – a ten man defence intent on spoiling the Mancini plan.
It was the triumph of mediocrity over fantasy.
Ninety minutes were up, with five minutes injury time to play, as Nasri took yet another corner from the left. Kenny collected first time. The players moved out for the kick up-field.
What was to happen was to turn everything on its head.
Kenny launched the ball long and to the right, where it went out of play. Clichy took the throw-in, finding De Jong in the centre circle. He played the ball to Silva on the right, who played a short ball to Zabaleta on the overlap. Zabaleta’s cross was cut out by Taiwo.
A corner, once again, on the right.
Silva took the kick and as he did so Dzeko at last shrugged himself free of his marker. As the ball swung over the Bosnian rose imperiously – and this time the cross was inch perfect. Dzeko was able to rise unchallenged and head the ball powerfully past Kenny into the middle of the QPR net. Goal!
In the stands there was euphoria.
The clock said 91 minutes 15 seconds.
Surely there was too little time for another?
It may never be known if Rangers switched off at this point, but certainly, from the way they kicked off, launching the ball aimlessly up-field, they were evidently content to settle for the draw, safe in the knowledge that it would ensure their Premiership survival. Hart retrieved the ball, hurriedly, and took a throw-in to Clichy in the left-back position. Clichy brought the ball up-field, the crowd roaring him on. He played the ball outside to Nasri, who ran at the Rangers defence then checked and flicked the ball back to Clichy. Clichy was tackled but Nasri managed to pick up the loose ball. He crossed. Hill headed clear. Shaun Wright-Phillips picked up the ball and began to run with it, stumbling over a challenge from Zabaleta.
Throw-in to Rangers.
Again the visitors lofted the ball leisurely into City’s defensive third, again ceding possession at the death of the game.
Onuoha’s throw-in found Lescott, who nodded it over to De Jong. The news came through from Sunderland that United had won at the Stadium of Light. United would be champions unless City could score again. Meanwhile the clocked had ticked over into the 94th minute.
De Jong found Aguero in a central position, just outside the Rangers penalty area. Aguero played a wall pass to Balotelli and set off for the return, but as he did so Balotelli lost his footing under a challenge from Ferdinand. As he fell he stuck out a leg to help the ball into the onrushing Aguero’s path.
This was the ball! Here was the pass through the defence that City had been waiting for! Balotelli was on his backside but the ball he prodded through was nothing less than perfection. Aguero had ghosted past Hill, Ferdinand, Derry and Wright-Phillips, all of whom were converging on the stricken Balotelli in the effort to retrieve possession. As the ball came through it left Aguero 12 yards out, facing goal, with only Taiwo between him and the target. The angles were all in the Argentine’s favour, though. Aguero was perfectly placed to push the incoming ball past the challenge of the defender, leaving him with a clear sight on goal.
With a touch he took it rightwards beyond Taiwo’s outstretched leg. Could the Nigerian have thrown more into the challenge? Perhaps. Aguero now had a clear sight on goal, but the ball was escaping him. He had one chance to get his foot around it and throw as much power as he could into the shot. Who knows how many prayers were whispered as the Argentine shaped himself to shoot? How many childhood dreams, dreamed over long, despairing decades, hung in the balance? How many lips were pursed on the silent plosive of the word: ‘Please..?’
The clock read 93:20. Hearts were in mouths. Heads were in hands. Everything was on the line. The pain of it, now, was too much to bear. In the moment, in the context of this one, final chance Aguero seemed poised to hit the strike before the ball ran away from him – but then Balotelli had seemed just as poised with his header, moments earlier, and had managed only to direct it straight at the ‘keeper. The angle was tightening. Hill and Derry were scrambling desperately back in the attempt to cut out the inevitable strike. Kenny was crouched just a yard or two off his line, braced for the incoming shot. Aguero’s backlift caused him to transfer all his weight from his standing foot into his kicking foot, and as he struck the ball his body twisted in mid-air as he fought to maintain his balance. His connection was sweet, though, sending the ball at mid-height to Kenny’s left side. The ‘keeper flung himself desperately at it. Around him, his penalty area was like a war-zone finally overrun by an inevitable enemy incursion.
The ball flew thunderously into the net at his near post, beyond his grasp, and in an instant there was pandemonium.
Aguero had his shirt off, swinging it round and round his head until his teammates caught up with him and he disappeared beneath a pile of bodies. In the City half Joe Hart was running circles, arms outstretched, the fires of salvation lit beneath him. On the touchline Roberto Mancini was locked in a three-way embrace with his staff. But it was in the stands where an orgiastic mass of humanity – some forty-eight thousand people, or near enough – had hit fever pitch as emotions pent up for 44 long years spilled forth into a riot of unbridled, hysterical joy. Across the Etihad, in every stand, in every corner, banks of electrified onlookers were roiling in a cauldron of uncontainable energy…clutching, pulling, jumping, screaming…speaking in tongues of ecstasy, dancing a rite under the May sun, convulsing as one spectacular, exorcised entity.
A semblance of order was restored for just as long as it took Rangers to kick off again. Once again the visitors played the ball aimlessly up to the corner flag. They knew they were safe from relegation now. Clichy took the throw-in, sending it over to Hart. The goalkeeper trapped the ball with his right foot, then touched it with his left, and then Mike Dean blew his whistle and Manchester City were the champions.
The scenes which followed were those of the aftermath of a miracle, in which the hordes, possessed by the spirit of what they have just witnessed, lose control. All actions are an attempt to give vent to the magic. Nothing need make sense any more. Social order is temporarily suspended. The rules simply don’t apply. No officer or agency could stand in the way of such a tidal wave of hysteria…for that was what this was: mass hysteria. A release from all conditioning. A communion, however brief, with whatever lies beyond our grey and stolid world.
Within seconds of the final whistle spectators were pouring over the hoardings which surrounded the stadium’s playing field, streaming onto the pitch, throwing their arms around their victorious heroes, dancing on the common just as the stadium announcer beseeched them to vacate it. It wasn’t just dancing though. People were on their knees – bewildered, transported, some deeply crying. Many held their arms aloft or outstretched in the beatific pose, rooted in the historic moment, faces flushed with emotion.
Some raised banners. “We are the Champions” “Veni Vidi Vici” “Not In My Lifetime” read one, a reference to Sir Alex Ferguson’s vow, some three years previously, that United would never be reduced to the role of underdogs with respect to their “noisy neighbours.” The quote had passed into legend as a promise that City would never usurp United as Manchester’s, or indeed England’s, premier side. City fans had feared that it would never happen in their lifetime. For so long, that had been all too easy to believe. Now though, the hoodoo had been broken. The ogre was slain. The wicked witch was dead. This wasn’t Kansas anymore.
“Please leave the field of play,” intoned the tannoy system as stewards in orange hi-visibility jackets chased trespassers, at random, across the turf. Flares were lit, chants were sung, embraces tightly held. What did such scenes signify in so Godless a country as England? What did it mean for light to banish darkness in the way that it had for the people gathered here today? How was it that the spectacle could so misdirect us as to induce such awe when the final hand was dealt?
Maybe an academic could explain it in a paper, or maybe a drunk could spell it out over beers in the local pub. Without a doubt, though, it meant something different to support Manchester City. The journey had been long and hard, and the fruits only rarely tasted. It had always been easier to put one’s cares into the support of Manchester United, with its triumphs and its feted history extolled at every turn. To have supported City was to have embraced an alternative worldview, to have opted out of the glory trail, to have taken the worst that the fates could throw at you just as your neighbours revelled in riches unimaginable.
Had City bought themselves the title? It would long be argued, but on the day itself the facts spoke for themselves: they had won it, fair and square, over the distance, overcoming their own demons in order to do so. Over the 38 game season they had scored the most goals (93) and conceded the fewest (29) and to most eyes had played the most attractive, attacking football. It had fallen, as near as damn it, to the last kick of the last game of an epic Premiership season, just as it had in 1989 in the old First Division, when Michael Thomas’s last minute goal took the championship to Arsenal. Yes, we had seen last gasp heroics before, yet still they awed us when the fates turned fearful, unrealised dreams into hard reality.
Now, the hysteria abated and the party began. On the Etihad’s big screen a ticker wound down from 44 years to zero, mimicking United’s own ticker with which the Old Trafford faithful had taunted City over their barren, potless years. The tannoy played Blue Moon. Slowly the pitch was cleared. From the tunnel emerged a coterie of those heroes from the previous, golden generation. Francis Lee, ruddy, barrel-chested and proud; Colin Bell, bespectacled and still elegant; Glyn Pardoe, heavy-coated, nodding at old acquaintances as the group made their way towards the podium which had been erected for the victorious team to collect their medals.
Then Mike Summerbee and Tony Book emerged with the trophy. Book, City’s loyal servant as player, captain, manager, scout and honorary president; Summerbee the winger who, during ten years at the club, between 1965 and 1975, had seen all of City’s previous golden age. They made their way along a line-up of City’s staff to place the trophy on its plinth.
David Platt, the first team coach, and Brian Kidd, the assistant manager, followed. Then Ivan Carminati, the fitness coach, Massimo Battara, the goalkeeping coach, and Atilio Lombardo the reserve team coach. “And now ladies and gentlemen,” declared the stadium announcer, “please welcome the champions of 2012…Manchester City!”
A roar went up. Roberto Mancini, Italian flag knotted round his shoulders, stepped on to the playing field, followed by his squad, each wearing shirts with ‘CHAMPIONS 12’ on them. They made their way along the guard of honour, shaking hands, swapping high fives with the City staff. “And now the first to receive his winners medal…Roberto Mancini!”
One by one the City stars bowed their heads to claim their medals. Joe Hart. Pablo Zabaleta. Sergio Aguero. Micah Richards. Gael Clichy. Joleon Lescott. Samir Nasri. Mario Balotelli. David Silva. Nigel De Jong. Edin Dzeko. Aleksander Kolarov. Stefan Savic. Yaya Toure. Carlos Tevez. James Milner. Gareth Barry. Adam Johnson. Kolo Toure. Then it fell to Kompany to raise the trophy. An expectant murmur was raised from all corners of the stadium as the club captain took hold of the silverware, his teammates spilling forward to gather round him. An exprectant murmur was raised as he thrust the trophy skywards, the whole stadium exploded into cheers. Cameras flashed, streamers flew, fireworks crackled from behind the platform. Hey Jude issued forth on the sound system. The dream had come true. A 44 year old demon had been exorcised.
‘Typical City’ syndrome had, once and for all, finally been laid to rest.