Watching football fans watching the football
It wasn't love at first sight, but like many a Man City fan Mark Booth is now hopelesly besotted with Bobby Manc...
First impressions only last if reinforced by subsequent behaviour. The friends who endure often make dreadful introductions and slowly whittle away at preconceptions to take their places in the pantheon. So it is, it seems, with football managers.
When Roberto Mancini replaced Mark Hughes at Manchester City, the nature of the appointment – just two hours after a 4-3 win over Sunderland – turned fans’ stomachs. On that very day, 19 December 2009, Mancini was apparently in the stands to witness the final game in an 18-month tenure that looked doomed from the moment Robinho signed on the dotted line.
As is obvious from this notably saga-laden transfer window, no football deal takes two hours to go through, so it’s hardly idle conspiracy to suggest that Mancini had been lined up in advance.
"Ah, Signor Mancini… I've been expecting you"
The Arab owners wanted a more glamorous alternative to the dour Welshman, a man with a winning pedigree who could usher a new power into world football. However, the results were much less immediate than the appointment.
Hughes’ time at Blackburn cemented a reputation for aggressive, results-based football: a British interpretation of catenaccio with rigid banks of four, long balls aimed at a target man intended to hold the ball up to bring the wingers into play behind the opposition full-backs.
At City, under pressure to combine results with attractive football, Hughes terminally compromised his ideals as he was forced to accommodate a luxury player. Robinho's £32.5m arrival had little to do with Hughes, bringing a strangely easy on the eye, but not wholly effective brand of football.
After a strong start to the 2009-2010 season City quickly fell away from the challengers, an inability to close out games from winning positions characterising Hughes’ stewardship. Although City were in sixth place at the time of his departure, they had won just two of their last 11 matches, drawing four others they had led in to drop eight points and three places.
At a club almost synonymous with being in flux, inconsistent performances were blamed on successive seasons of massive recruitment drives. After spending £70m in summer 2008, £50m in January 2009 and another £70m in summer 2009 Hughes was under immense pressure and shortly after the Sunderland game he was sacked – to nobody's great surprise: that morning's papers had all but confirmed the impending axe.
Standing alone: as City beat Sunderland, Hughes awaits the inevitable
Hughes left City in sixth place, well in contention for the promised land of the Champions League, but the itchy trigger fingers of the Arab bank-rollers won out and Mancini was brought in from a self-imposed 18-month break since being sacked by Internazionale in May 2008.
His winning mentality was obvious in his CV: three consecutive Serie A titles with Inter and a string of Coppa Italia victories stretching back to his time at Lazio. Even so, the trophy-starved City faithful were less than enthusiastic, with the common rhetoric being that Hughes deserved more time to finish what he’d started.
Despite having a reputation as a charming, articulate and intelligent man, Mancini has something of the cool, unreadable poker player about him. His press conferences are largely by-the-numbers affairs; he’s not a man for emotional speeches or public meltdowns – he’s a calculator, a plotter. A serious man. His only concession to whimsy is the ever-present sky blue and white scarf.
"Hmm… I'm gonna new a new neck-warmer"
The 2009-2010 season concluded with City a Peter Crouch header away from the Champions League, but they finished in fifth, the minimum improvement on their position at the time of Hughes’ termination.
With Mancini under criticism for his perceived negative approach, the rumour mill began turning – could he be shown the door for failing to deliver Europe’s premier club competition to the City of Manchester Stadium?
As it was, Mancini remained in charge and began work on yet another £100m+ recruitment drive, bringing in Mario Balotelli, David Silva, James Milner, Jerome Boateng, Yaya Toure and Aleksander Kolorov. Finally, Mancini was building his own vision of Manchester City and the fans’ icy feelings towards the Italian began to thaw.
If truth be told, City remained inconsistent in the 2010-2011 campaign, just ever so slightly less so than in previous times, and in a league with no one outstanding team. Knives were sharpened externally after a dire 0-0 draw at Arsenal as goal-fattened neutrals voiced disgust at Mancini’s “anti-football”.
Not that the man by now nicknamed “Bobby Manc” by the City fans seemed to notice. He knew that Arsenal away (still months away from League Cup Final meltdown) was one of three matches where he’d bite off your hand for a point. City were under no obligation to entertain the rest of the league; Mancini remembered above all that he would get Champions League qualification or the boot.
Opposites attract: Wenger and Mancini do the honourable thing
But what is a top–four finish with City fans so trophy starved? A stuttering FA Cup campaign, littered with awkward replays against Notts County and Leicester City, was primarily used to give expensive reserves a run-out, only appearing on Mancini’s radar of priorities as his side spluttered to a semi-final date with neighbours United.
A 1-0 win in the Wembley derby booked a final date with Stoke City. This was where something seemed to click: the inconsistency that had dogged City's previous campaigns seemed to evaporate, and they were finally on a roll.
FAN'S EYE VIEW, Thu 21 Apr: Why City should concentrate on the CupFAN'S EYE VIEW, Thu 21 Apr: Why City should concentrate on the League
What followed was six weeks that no long-suffering City fan would ever forget, even if it were all to end tomorrow with the Arabs taking their money elsewhere. A few images from those heady weeks are burned into every laser-blue retina.
The first was a vital late Edin Dzeko goal that sealed a 1-0 win at Blackburn. The expensive import was probably spared scrutiny due to a misfiring Fernando Torres but this goal, in context, was worth its weight in gold.
Another was Peter Crouch’s own goal, ironically in exactly the same spot he’d ended City’s Champions League aspirations the previous season. The final, most enduring one was Yaya Toure steaming in at Wembley, 18 yards out, lashing the ball past a helpless Thomas Sorenson to end the 35-year trophy drought.
Somewhere under there is a goalscorer
Bobby Manc’s name rang out from the stands at Wembley long after the final whistle. For good measure, after a clinical end to the season Mancini even finished joint-second, behind Chelsea on goal difference. A slow burning will-they-won’t-they romance had become a love story.
Still, Mancini’s greatest challenges are yet to come. For the first time City will have to juggle the Premier League and Champions League. Central to those plans will be the potential departure of Carlos Tevez and the procurement of a suitable alternative.
All of this, under the most intense media scrutiny of any Premier League club and with a squad more than capable of spontaneously combusting, means that Mancini’s next 12 months will be nothing if not fascinating. His withdrawal of Mario Balotelli for showboating in a friendly with LA Galaxy shed more light on Mancini's vision. To build a side in his own image. Plotters. Calculators. Serious men.
His status in the club history books and in the hearts of the City faithful is no longer pending approval; it’s now a question of how far he can go. First impressions are a b*tch.
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