Watching football fans watching the football
It's been a great week for Man City. After 35 trophyless years, they've reached the FA Cup final – and Spurs being held by Arsenal strengthens their chance of finishing in the fourth Champions League slot. But which is more important: winning a cup or reaching the Champions League? FFT backroom legend Mark Booth knows which he'd prefer…
Call me an idealist, but no-one in my school playground was recreating goals scored in a fourth-place play-off. Even if that's what the forthcoming Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspur game effectively becomes, it's not what football should be about.
Football should be all about semi-final Manchester derby showdowns, about Wembley finals, about trophies as opposed to the Champions League’s economic temptations. Again, maybe it's a romantic notion, but I'd prefer City to actually be champions of something, or at least contenders, before contesting a Champions League match.
I know that not everybody shares my view. Roberto Mancini would probably have accepted defeat to Manchester United at Wembley for a guaranteed Champions League berth in next season's competition. To me, this logic is at best showing an alarming lack of perspective.
City are no strangers to staring enviously over the garden fence at United's recent embarrassment of silverware. The arrival of Sheikh Mansour and his riches looked finally to have redressed the balance and was set to usher in the dawn of a genuine golden age in City's history.
But it's not been as simple as that. Despite sticking closely to the Roman Abramovich model of signing a blend of established Premiership steel and continental flair, City have seen their fair share of off-field trouble bleeding onto the pitch. Some rudderless showings have jeopardised a Champions League spot that seemed in the bag for much of the campaign. Typical City, one might say.
Without being too cynical, the club’s owners are all too aware that there will be a cluster of ageing world superstars keeping half an eye on the Premier League – and particularly the battle between City and Spurs for fourth place. If City were to capture the position, players would find themselves free to take that final payday in north-west England without accusations of greed or lack of ambition.
Would an FA Cup win alone be enough to tempt those players to City? Probably not. Would it do the team any favours to start mixing more big egos into a dressing room already struggling for headspace? Probably not.
It had seemed that the FA Cup was little more than an afterthought for City this season, a chance to satisfy the squad's fringe with rare outings to stake their claims for more regular inclusions. Few stepped up to the plate. In truth, City had hobbled to Saturday's semi-final, with replays required against Leicester and League One Notts County as well as an unconvincing 1-0 win over Reading.
Then in the second half of Saturday’s semi-final it was as if something clicked: the trophy-starved energy from City's support seemed to transfer to the pitch and all of a sudden City were a pack of wild sun-baked dogs first to every ball, a faint scent of silverware in collective nostrils.
On more than one occasion Jose Mourinho has referred to Chelsea’s League Cup triumph in 2005 as being the catalyst for his success at the club. City could experience a similar effect should they emerge victorious against Stoke on May 14. City have undoubtedly put together a squad brimming with quality – but with the relatively young average age and the fact that they’ve won nothing together before, that all-important winning mentality is clearly missing.
There’s no doubt that the Champions League experience would be of benefit to this freshly assembled squad – and there’s every chance they could have their cakes and eat them – but too often fourth place seems paramount. Sadly, it seems Mancini would choose the league every time.
The enigmatic Mario Balotelli's late play for headlines couldn't take away from it being very much City's day on Saturday. Forget the opposition, the scenes at the final whistle from the thousands of weary, mangle-savaged Blues in the crowd would have been almost as frenzied given a 1-0 win over Bolton on the same occasion.
Try telling one of those fans on Saturday, in the throes of an unfamiliar euphoria, that finishing as the fourth best team in a league would beat the sight of the indomitable Vincent Kompany lifting that famous old trophy come May.
That said, definitely don't rule out a 1-0 Stoke win from a 93rd-minute Rory Delap throw. Just look out for the wry smile on the face of the first City fan the camera cuts to.
Disagree? So does Mark's fellow City fan Paul Wheatcroft. Read his thoughts here...
It wasn't love at first sight, but like many a Man City fan Mark Booth is now hopelesly besotted
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