Saturday, December 3, 2016

TENDER IS THE NIGHT

The great noises of football rang out at the Etihad. Grunting, chafing and wailing, mainly.

The smell was of burning rubber. Whether this emanated from the tyres of Antony Taylor's getaway car - revving like a lunatic infront of the City superstore - or the pile of used Goodyear Ultra Grips being prepared to put on his tribute bonfire further up the concourse was unclear.

A four point lead had been gained by the visitors, but it had been a match that could quite easily have delivered City their first home league win in four attempts.

After three slovenly 1-1 draws with Southampton, Everton, where the Dutchman Stekelenburg had the game of his life and a Middlesbrough side, which had spent the first 65 minutes shuffling about infront of their own penalty box, City had now more or less gifted a serious title rival three points. It came in a small sequinned box with sky blue ribbons on it. Inside - you imagined - Antonio Conte and his willing young men might find the rest of Nicolas Otamendi's brain, a sprig of heather and Gael Clichy's allegorical novel "How To Pass To The Moon".

Chelsea, lest anybody be fooled, are a tenacious and well drilled unit under Antonio Conte. Their midfield terriers are excellent and in Victor Moses, they had an outstanding, if slightly surprising, man of the match. The winger played studiously as a full back and was the Johnny on the spot time after time to block, clear or nullify a variety of potent City threats.
Clichy contemplates the moon.

Those threats had come streaming down the flanks, where Jesus Navas linked well early on with Kevin de Bruyne, speed of foot and lightness of touch taking them away from flashing legs. On the opposite flank, once Leroy Sane had cleared his brain of surprise to be playing, he too cast aside his jittery start, opening his thighs and showing his class, as David Coleman might once upon a time have said.

Oddly, it was De Bruyne's profligacy and selfishness - charcteristics not usually attributed to the Belgian - that would turn the game rapidly and completely in Chelsea's favour in the opening scenes of the second half.

With "Anthony Taylor of Altrincham" showing up strongly in the first half for the visitors, City may well have felt slightly hard done by. Certainly the wall of opprobrium shifting gaily down the stands towards the hapless man in black might have confirmed for him that he was having a particularly short-sighted day. If refereeing is about flow and control, vision and understanding, Taylor was revealing a blind river vole's grip on such skills out on the park.

David Luiz's obvious body charge on Sergio Aguero might have gained a free kick on another day and possibly a red card from another official, but here it merited only a shrug and a look of oranges, lemons and plums from the official. When Aleksander Kolarov attempted something similar on Eden Hazard later on, he was shown an immediate and friskily demonstrated yellow card. Nicolas Otamendi, starting authoritatively, but soon to descend the rungs to danger level defending, also received a yellow from the suddenly fussy official for a perfectly clean tackle in the first half.

"Just about deserve the lead at half time, but Anthony Taylor is a constant threat for them" - Ric Turner on Twitter

For a moment Taylor stood over him in savage triumph, not the tiniest pang of doubt pulling at his taught features. He was at once master of ceremonies and harbinger of good news. The messenger with the bald head. You felt, even if you sloshed a pail of freezing water in his face, he wouldn't wake from his exultant reveries. 

Despite this, City were making decent inroads and, as the half finished, finally got some reward, as Navas's dangerous centre looped in off the unfortunate Gary Cahill. Marcos Alonso, so long so strong on the left flank for Chelsea, had stood off Navas just enough to allow his cross to make it into the box.

The match swung on two elements at the beginning of the second half, one unusual, the other painfully familiar: First De Bruyne was central in spurning two gilt-edged chances. With Sane driving forward through the middle, he set the Belgian free and advanced into the box for the simple cut back which would have been side-footed home. Instead De Bruyne shot inside Courtois' near post and his countryman saved.

Here he comes, airborne and taught.
Even worse was to come as Navas outpaced Alonso and centred brilliantly but at pace. De Bruyne's outsretched foot reached it but the pace of the delivery took his simple side-foot high onto the upper part of the bar and away for a goal kick. It felt just a matter of time before City wrapped the points.

Instead, a useful onslaught exploded into bits.

Within seconds, Otamendi had been royally dealt with by Diego Costa and Chelsea were level. One on one, Costa dealt with his defender like a fat child unwrapping a KitKat after a difficult hour without snacks. A second aberration for the Argentine came straight after, as the same player turned him like an ageing tango partner and set up Willian for the second. Otamendi displays simple principles of dive and thud, frequently containing therein his own doom, written in stark capital letters. Here they were again, this time in neon for effect.

Nothing was going right. Red cards followed as City's patience finally frayed.

A match that was in the palm of their hands now rested in Chelsea's back pocket.

Friday, November 4, 2016

THE MAN IN THE MIRROR

"This one says FIFA and this one says FA 
José Mourinho seemed particularly unimpressed from his seat in the crowd. Roberto Mancini certainly wasn't keen. Even Sven Goran Erikssen, the kind of man you imagine has difficulty finding anything disagreeable enough to warrant raising his voice, bristled at the mere mention of the Consett Contraversial. 

Mark Clattenburg, it seems, can boil rabbits wherever he goes.  

Sometimes you really hate yourself for getting ideas in your head that a referee might just have it in for your team. You start harbouring the preposterous thought that an actual English-born official - upright, pale, given to gentle smiles whilst propelled by strangely inappropriate legs  - might be anything other than 100% straight laced. 

As the gradual erosion of Typical City continues on its meandering path, the slow release from Cup for Cock Ups, the washing away of Cityitis, so the men in black look upon Manchester City in a different light. Calmer, more benign, more understanding and forgiving of the team's gallant efforts to play Pep's attacking football.  

Those faded memories of Ged Brannan slicing the ball crisply into the Kippax and Craig Russell running like his legs were being gradually worn away by an intricate process of long-shore drift. Those sweet little moments you thought had all but gone.  

As City have evolved into Premier League heavyweights, Champions League shoe-ins, yearly contenders, so those dodgy decisions that referees and their starry-eyed assistants always managed to conjure in favour of Ferguson's United and whoever was in charge of Chelsea that half season, seem to have started happening to City too. 


It was a little slow working to start with. Poor Mark Hughes saw the Big Money float in but didn't stick around long enough to benefit from it or from the softening gaze of the men in black. Instead he had to put up with a Manchester derby where his City side made a wonderful fight of it only to lose to Michael Owen's strike in the 7th tremulous minute of the five added on. Hughes, jabbing wildly at his wrist, had been on the end of one of the last great inexplicable things.

Before that Svennis had dragged his tiring City side to St Andrews and, as a handy little warm-up for the season's unforgiving denouement at Middlesbrough (eight-bloody-one), had witnessed a refereeing decision that -- until last weekend -- was probably the worst against City in recent history. 

In a match where Rob Styles, for it was he, had already kind of sent off Radhi Jaidi then changed his mind because he wasn't sure who had committed the foul, you just knew the hapless man was merely warming up for the big one. Sure enough, Sun Jihai, that block of solid defensive muscle, happened to enact the merest of touches, shoulder-to-shoulder with the home side's visibly more muscular Gary McSheffrey. It was not even an incident worthy of a second look, never even the slightest whiff of foul play, but the penalty was given. 

Sun gave one of his best "what's happening now" looks, better even than the delightful face he pulled after City's 4th at Tottenham in the FA Cup comeback game, that said "How this? What the fuh?". The world turned a little slower with a weird grating noise audible in the background. Mild mannered Svennis called it "crazy" in his best just-bordering-on-peeved voice. 

Those were very much the days, consigned, as we thought, to the great footballing dustbin.

Now it is City more often than not pulling rabbits out of injury time hats. It is City benefiting from referees too busy smiling at David Silva's lovely hair to book him for telling them their mother is a lady of the night in Spanish and it is on City's behalf that they are no longer so very bothered about offside when it's Sergio tip-toeing his way through a nervously exposed opposition defence. 

Except that, occasionally, owing to the power of the sheer hopelessness of some people, it does still happen. 


Which brings us in a round-about way to Mr Mark Clattenburg of Consett, County Durham.

Mark Clattenburg, you imagine, loves the roar of the crowd. He enjoys the shouting and the clapping and, perhaps just as much, the booing and the swearing, the noises of the pent up masses, watching powerlessly as he carves up their teams chances of success. It is, you imagine, immaterial which noises he can hear from out of camera as long as there is some focus directed towards the bristling man on centre stage, the man with the whistle and the reborn hair, the Man Who Decides Things on the Television

Clattenburg has been deciding things in his own inimitable way for well over a decade now. He has been making the news rather than helping football players do so for a long time, with his special brand of firm but poised, his take on stiff, manly arbitration liberally juiced with a slightly theatrical presence that smells like it might have come from the goofier outtakes of Zoolander

He has his way, does Mr Clattenburg. From allegedly calling John Obi Mikkel inappropriate names during a Chelsea match through asking City's bench how they put up with Craig Bellamy, minutes before issuing the same player with two quick yellow cards, to body-popping across the turf in excitement when giving a Stamford Bridge penalty against City, the trotting vanity project from the North East has always had a whiff of the night about him.
  
***


Manchester United v Tottenham, January 2005

Remember the classic moment when Pedro Mendes' astute lob had travelled so far over Roy Carroll's line and into the net that few saw the need to even appeal. Carroll, lying prone and embarrassed in the back of his net, had fished the ball out from two feet inside his goal, but the officials steadfastly refused to see what a full Old Trafford had seen. It was not a goal, not according to the ref that day. You'll never guess who it was.

Everton v. Liverpool, 2007

In the usual cut and thrust of a Merseyside derby, the ref appeared to have decided to give Everton defender Tony Hibbert a yellow card but was interrupted in his act of frisky self-confident policing by man-with-a-mission Steven Gerrard. After a brief cordial chat with the Liverpool skipper, Hibbert's punishment was suddenly and freakishly upped to a red card, leaving the hollow-brained official persona non grata at Goodison for the following five years. Who was this unique chap? Well, it'd be some kind of a coincidence, but.... 

Result: Not a single Premier League game officiated by the Confident One at Goodison between 2007 and 2012. 

Manchester United v Portsmouth, Charity Shield August 2009

Controversially pulled from reffing the curtain raiser to the new season after revealed to have racked up £60,000 worth of business debt. Suspended by the Ref's Association, owing to "issues to do with his business affairs", but was reinstated some months later. Clattenburg that.

City versus Arsenal, 2010

“Then an early red card. Clattenburg is no stranger to odd decisions, both on and off the football pitch, and his manner when reffing leaves a little to be desired (wide eyes, slicked hair, bit-fond-of-myself strut, high volume go-aways accompanied by theatrical arm movements) and he seems very keen to join a long line of men in the middle who don't wish to go quietly about their business. Not often is there a match refereed by this guy that reaches the 15 minute mark and people are asking "who's reffing today?". Here, by broad consensus, Boyata's ungainly lunge from behind left him with an easy red card option, but still...."
 
Just keep asking yourself the same old questions
“That Arsenal took City to the cleaners was partly a historical inevitability (look up the scores over the past ten years or so), given wings by Dedryck Boyata's naivety and Mark Clattenburg's willingness to feature in the morning after's headlines as often as is decent....”

Bolton v City December 2009 

"I don't appreciate it when referees go out for the second half and tell my support staff who they like and do not like in my team," - Mark Hughes 
"Mystifying" and "laughable" just two of the words used to describe the referee's performance on this occasion. It was of course, once again, Clattenburg, who having sent off Craig Bellamy  for being heavily tackled by the notoriously "lightweight" Paul Robinson, was heard to ask manager Mark Hughes "How do you put up with him?"

“Referees would come into sharp focus during 2012 and here was a grand start by the infamous Chris Foy dispatching Vincent Kompany for a daring and expertly executed sliding tackle in the Manchester rain, reminding many of the performance by Mark Clattenburg, who had sent off Craig Bellamy for being tackled at Bolton the previous season. Foy and Clattenburg, like all poor referees, would be high profile on many more occasions in 2012. The good ones, of which there are still mercifully a few, go about their jobs largely unnoticed. Clattenburg could not do more for his self-promotion if he wore a belisha beacon for a hat and brandished an eight foot steel mace as he ran around....”

Chelsea v City, December 2011

Here Clattenburg managed to get rid of Gael Clichy with one of his characteristically flourished red cards. He watched disinterestedly as José Bosingwa upturned David Silva in the box for a penalty as obvious as his hair replenishment project. 
Big Match Verdict: Get on with the game and stop looking at me like that, otherwise you'll be joining your little French mate in the bath.

Chelsea v City 2014-15 

“Fernandinho in the centre was immense, shutting out the threat from Matic and making up for Fernando's lack of zip. Matic is an immense player and can run riot through the central areas if left
Au revoir, Gael
unchecked. Much like the missing Yaya Touré, if allowed to boss the middle areas, he will do just that with consummate ease. It is curious that City's raids on the Portuguese Liga for defensive midfielders has brought Garcia and now Fernando northwards but never alighted on Matic, easily the best of the lot. With Clattenburg generously allowing a string of his fouls to go unpunished, whilst booking Fernando for leaving a loose leg hanging, Matic could maintain a robust presence and City needed all of Fernandinho's wiry energy to stunt the big Serb's progress
...”

Tottenham v City and City v Tottenham 2015-16

“Manchester City v Spurs at White Hart Lane, which created some hot air. This latter game attracted attention for good reason, as there was some short-sighted refereeing and the game also featured a linesman, who was unable to see Kyle Walker straying two yards offside three paces in front of his eyes, which were glued on the action at the time.

To add insult to injury, the third of Tottenham's goals was clearly offside too, with Harry Kane stroking in the rebound from Eriksson's majestic free-kick. Kane was clearly offside when the free kick was taken, rendering his effort when the ball smacked back to his feet off the crossbar illegal.
That he appeared to have ramped up his ideas on offside and how it should be interpreted was strange in the extreme, as, by the time Spurs came north for the return game, the rule did not appear to bother him unduly at all. He had at least significantly reinterpreted his views on how handball works and Raheem Sterling's backwards blocking of a free-kick, which ended up hitting him in the kidneys, went down as a special moment in the career of a special referee. 

That he has now stirred the loins of City's red cousins after the Premier League derby, when he allowed Claudio Bravo's erratic debut shenanigans to go unpunished with red. More recently he again did them the disservice against Burnley of apparently playing such an active part in the away side's 0.0 draw that Mourinho had to volley abuse at him in the tunnel at half time. This altercation saw Mourinho sitting sullenly in the stands for the 2nd half, having received a red card from Clattenburg. That he was also the man in the middle for City's 6-1 Old Trafford demolition in 2012-13 will not have been forgotten in those parts.

Unfortunately, the well-used homily that my enemy's enemy if my friend, doesn't quite work in this case. For Clattenburg's every appearance at the Etihad brings sighs of disappointment from the stands. 
  
When he has finally left the green fields of England for the last time, he will be remembered for the enormous fuss he has caused down the years and you get the feeling that is probably how he would have liked it. 









Wednesday, October 19, 2016

GROWING PAINS



If I were you i`d change my name again
They don`t care what they do to you believe me
This is the coronation of the king of thieves
His occupation is the king of thieves
He can steal more than you can save
You can take him on, but you`re not that brave


ALL HAIL THE KING OF THIEVES!

The 5th meeting between these two greats of European football coincided at last with City giving Barcelona a run for their money. No wait. That can't be right. City. Barcelona. Thumping win. Putting the upstarts in their place. Another inglorious notch on City's bums-in-the-air bed-post.

You do not give a team a run for their money and lose 4-0. You do not need to check the timelines of Mark Ogden and Duncan Castles to know that. 

Barcelona, fluent in Catalan, Spanish, football and mickey-taking, had all of the answers and ended up winning very comfortably despite missing a penalty. So Pep’s two returns to the sacred homeland have ended in a 3-0 defeat with Bayern and a 4-0 defeat with City and still they clap the bugger like he was walking on water

Estupendo!

A game that started as a poor copy of the northern clog dance hyped to the moon and back between United and Liverpool, gradually developed into a fast-moving pastiche of pretty shapes and impossible angles, impossible shapes and pretty angles. Barcelona, you just knew it, were right up for a game of football and City – didn’t you just guess it – had brought a tartan suitcase of silly disguises with them. 

First the tactics. Guardiola decided it was to be a night without Sergio Aguero. With a trident of Messi, Neymar and Suarez at the other end, City’s new messiah had opted for a strikerless formation. Or had he? These are always the questions that quiver on the lips. Maybe there would be three strikers. Might Kolarov appear up front. Kompany, at least, had made a three minute cameo appearance there in last weekend’s exercise in futility against Everton. Or was Guardiola drifting quietly towards his paradigm of a team full of little pretty midfielders with insignificant beards?

In the end all was fluid, with a 4-2-3-1 morphing into a 4-3-3 on to a 3-5-2 with Pablo Zabaleta suddenly trudging proud and strong in central midfield and then an anti-disaster 4-4-1 with rush goalie and all hell breaking loose all around us.

If Saturday’s tea party with Scouse Ronald had been a fascinating tactical skirmish, this was more of a run around the bushes. Barcelona’s precision gliding is on another plain of course, with Messi’s twinkling feet and Neymar’s exhilarating change of pace to the fore. Rakitic too is a prince of the subtle pass and the boy Umtiti, dragged with his unfavourable name from the Lyon banlieu was an absolute monster at the back, gobbling up yards like a new lawn mower.

After a ragged first quarter, beautiful things began to happen, both sides contributing to a tableau of colour and relief. Then, with a routine clearance to be swiped at, Fernandinho, apparently wearing his nan's carpet slippers, hit the turf teeth first, allowing Messi to glide in, swivel and touch the ball home. The Argentinean’s balance and change of direction is reminiscent of Maradona, or, dare I say it, Georgi Kinkladze, but his speed of thought and pace on the ball are better even than Il Pibe. Extraordinary how a little man like that can dance and dance and dance and still nobody can get a foot to him. Kolarov, keen to rake his studs down the genius's shin, wore the look of the man who has lost his coat. 

But City pushed. Lest it be forgotten in the howling and the wailing. From minute 35, the game was being taken to the home side. By half time, the away team in their party orange had had more goal attempts than the masters themselves. De Bruyne, with his hair crying out for a different-coloured shirt, and Nolito, both forced panic and Gundogan slithered through brilliantly to force a fantastic save from his compatriot Ter Stegen.     

"You hear a lot of criticism" - Bravo on being a goalkeeper.

In defence all was never far from dangerously unbalanced, but things were holding out. Fernandinho had a yellow to his name for trying to remove Neymar’s appendix and Otamendi was horizontally airborne to scissors kick the ball to safety, but it remained 1-0. A cleverly-thought quick corner from Nolito even put Gundogan through on the keeper again but he lofted it onto the roof of the net. Sterling too was running at Digne, a ropey replacement for the limping Alaba and getting plenty out of his exchanges. With Pique soon to burst a gasket too, hope sprang eternal. Certainly the sight of Mathieu arriving, a proper Jeremy in his loping gait, inspired some confidence.

But instead, we were forced to look at the other end. Bravo tapped a clearance two feet to Suarez and, as the toothy one lofted his chip, the Chilean stuck out a glove to save. Sadly, being a full three metres out of his area, it meant good night Florence and God bless us all.

With more gifts offered by De Bruyne and Gundogan, Barça were flying. Nolito, wearing number 9 and playing for a fleeting moment in the central attacking role, gave way, as injury to Zabaleta and Bravo’s shenanigans meant no Aguero. Instead we had Clichy! 2-0 down at the Nou Camp, a man less and Messi/Neymar looking like they could reinvent the turbine engine in their spare time, it was lights out, Aunty, and sleep tight.

Still there was time for rare stuff of gold to unfold. Gundogan’s foul-up gave Messi his hat-trick. Stones, on his big European night out, running for a third time into the back of his own net to join the ball. 10 wins were morphing before our eyes into 2 defeats and 2 draws. A crisis emerging. Guardiola struck down in his prime with his first debilitating bout of Cityitis. Crusty great carbunkles growing everywhere on his clean, smooth visage. It is surely the end of days.

Still more, yet more. Kolarov – for it is he – sliding in like a Belgrade bulldozer. Neymar’s penalty swatted away by the spot kick king Willy Caballero. Back comes the cocky little Brazilian. A bit of weaving and it’s 4-0. Cool, classy and untouchable. Pep stares into the neck of his water bottle. It’s getting narrower and there’s a metaphor in there trying to get out. 

City have played their best football yet in the Catalan capital and received their heaviest tonking. Football. Lovely football.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

THE ADVENTURES OF PEP GUARDIOLA

"Manchester City are the best team I have faced in my managerial career so far..."
So spoke Ronald Koeman, manager of a beleagured Everton side, at the end of an enthralling contest that saw Guardiola's City attempt to resurrect Joe Royle's Typical City with a performance that involved yet more innovative formations, two more missed penalties, an avalanche of scintilating attacking play, an opposition goal from a freak breakaway that was their only attack on City's goal in the first 70 minutes and capatin Vincent Kompany playing as a striker for the last ten minutes.

Breathtaking, ridiculous stuff.

The scoreline will suggest City's unfortunate venture into negative returns continues apace. The usual suspects will be rubbing their hands with glee. Anyone, who watched the match, however, will attest to the fact that Guardiola's men led a full-on match-long barrage of the Everton goal, only to be met by carpet defence and - when that finally started to melt under the pressure - a goalkeeper in Maarten Stekelenburg, who decided this was going to be his day of days. Saving two penalties might be enough for some people but the lanky Dutchman saved the best for an astonishingly agile stop from Kevin de Bruyne's piledriver, as City turned the screw in the last quarter of an hour.

An intriguing game had started with yet another tactical shuffle from the Catalan. A three man defence. Against a team in the top six. That one of the three was the featherweight Gael Clichy led some to wonder aloud if one of the midfielders might be about to appear at right back. Fernandinho, the most likely candidate, stayed put  alongside the mobile Ilkay Gundogan in a two-man shield of the sparse defensive line. Ahead it looked like City were completing the set-up with a 3-2-2-3, Sterling and Sané both pushed up high alongside Kelechi Iheanacho in the central role. Koeman later suggested he had envisaged this and played three up front, although "upfront" in this case meant just beyond the half-way line.

No Aguero and no right back. Good start.

As it turned out City could have played with one defender, such was Everton's lack of ambition. Packing the two lines infront of their keeper, they were content to feed the ball out through Gareth Barry and Tom Cleverley as far as the halfway line and then hope God's will would take over for them. For long periods this was as far as they got. In actually carrying the ball across the halfway line, Everton were an experiment in treating the attacking half as an area to be avoided at all costs. When they did get the ball across the sacred white line, it invariably came via the big boot of Phil Jagielka and was aimed vaguely at either Lukaku or the gaping spaces around him. The useful prompting of Gerard Deulofeu - who had been pushed up further towards Lukaku to try and provide an outlet - proved a little too cavalier for Koeman's liking on this occasion, so Everton's best player was hauled off so that they could pack another workmanlike runner, McCarthy, into an already busy midfield.

City's patient passing eventually produced two penalties, either side of a goal from Everton that had against the run of play written through it like a stick of Blackpool rock. The first, given when Silva fell hopefully over Jagielka's trailing leg, looked a poor decision, but was probably designed to make up for the fact that the referee Michael Oliver had already failed to give a clearer penalty for an Oviedo trip on Leroy Sané as he twinkled through on the right side. Sané in fact had been City's brightest player in the opening half hour.

The second, more clear-cut, was for a badly timed lunge by the same Everton defender on Sergio Aguero. Jagielka and his partner Ashley Williams at the back must have felt like they had been trying to hold back a stampede of buffalo with a trowel and a desert spoon by the end of this onslaught.

Needless to say, both penalties were saved by the flying Dutchman, both at reasonable height, both close enough to the middle of the goal slightly to the goalkeeper's left side

De Bruyne had taken the first, Aguero the second. City have now missed four this season. In fact, worse than that, much worse, they have missed four penalties in two games and Aguero has failed with three of them. Even this startling laxity might have proved academic, had Stekelenburg not suddenly taken capabilities usually only reserved for the most far-fetched science fiction movies. In the cold light of day, all that was wrong with this performance was the way the penalties were wasted. Some might also add that so much possession close to the opposition box should also have led to at least one goal in open play too, but that would be to ignore the game's outstanding player, Maarten Stekelenburg.

Everton's goal, an outstanding piece of raiding by Lukaku, who ran onto a brilliant flick from Bolasie in midfield (Otamendi diving in gung-ho just as it had been reported his illness was cured), which suddenly saw him steaming up the inside left channel with only Clichy in front of him, made City's defence suddenly look alarmingly open. It had been pressing up as much as the visitors' cautious gameplan would allow and been caught by the ultimate sucker punch. Questions have of course been asked of this department of the team for a season and a half now and this game will give the critics more ammunition.

City have a chance to adjust their profligacy in a low-key game on the continent this week. With the energy levels rising, the passing exemplar and the odd tactical tweak never far away, it will be interesting to see how it all goes for Guardiola's men back on his old stamping ground. If they are awarded a penalty, however, it might be wise to play it back towards the centre circle and start afresh.

Everton
Steaua
Villa
Barcelona




Monday, October 10, 2016

ON THE EDGE OF DARKNESS

A crucial goal at Everton in the cup, 1981
When Gerry Gow announced his arrival at Maine Road with a well-executed sliding tackle on Norwich’s Justin Fashanu, a noise came down off the Kippax that had not been heard at all that season. 

Fashanu, a six foot three amateur boxer, crumbled in the centre circle like a column of sugar. Gow lifted himself off the floor and was away to chase the loose ball without even a second glance at the pole-axed striker. It was 1st November 1980, a wind-swept autumnal day, with yet another afternoon of discontent rumbling through the old stadium. 

Three weeks into John Bond’s tenure as City manager, after the ignominious sacking of Malcolm Allison, City were trying to lift their tired carcass from the foot of the old First Division.

When people think of this period and how Bond moulded a side that not only beat the drop comfortably that season, but went on to lose an extremely tightly fought League Cup semi final with the all-conquering Liverpool and the Centenary FA Cup Final with Tottenham, they think of Bobby McDonald and Tommy Hutchison, a desperate-duo of signings from Coventry that set everything in motion. In fact, it was Bond’s third signing, a week or so after the first two had swept in from Highfield Road, that made the most telling difference of all. 

While McDonald, a left back, weighed in with many crucial headed goals on the road to recovery and Hutchison crowned a fantastic renaissance with a goal at each end in the Wembley final, the whirling dervish that Bond had introduced to midfield really made the difference to that talented but frail side.

Gerry Gow, with stringy hair and knock knees, did not exactly provide a particularly powerful visual presence, unless you were moved by scarecrows, but he more than made up for it with a brand of midfield tackling that would make later perpetrators of the tigerish-schemer role like Joey Barton and Nigel de Jong, look like placid pussycats.

Gow was tough as teak, an old school bruiser, who feared no one and nothing. His ability to crunch into an early tackle like his life depended on it put many an opponent off for the rest of the game. Those that chose to battle on left the field in no doubt about the tussle they had just allowed themselves to be a part of. The Scot, bought from Bristol City for £175,000, liked to get his retribution in first, as the old saying goes.

In fact, had chairman Peter Swales not allowed himself to be swayed by Bond, Gow would never have made it to Maine Road at all, having not even been deemed worthy of taking a medical. In the end he took the medical and failed it, owing to an injury-ravaged knee. Bond persuaded Swales to take the plunge anyhow and Gow signed an elaborately worded contract  to cover for repercussions to his health.

He quickly established a foothold in a midfield that had up to then featured the gentle tip-toeing of record signing Steve Daley, pretty passing of youngster Steve Mackenzie and orthodox plodding of local lad Tony Henry. On many occasions – with the ragged-haired Scot added to the line-up - the midfield battle was already won as the teams walked out onto the pitch.

Gow, wearing his shirt outside his shorts and his hair falling lank and unkempt around his shoulders, was the universal key. A hitherto timid City side, pretty in possession but paper thin without the ball, became difficult, obtuse and stubborn. With Gow smacking anything that moved in the middle areas, the likes of Paul Power and young Dave Bennett flourished in the spaces. As opposition bodies crowded round to try and counter the flying limbs of City’s very own Hibernian threshing machine, so Dennis Tueart and Kevin Reeves got about the goals further forward and Tommy Hutchison roamed the wings unmolested.

Gow thundered in a goal against a cowed Southampton as City’s stride lengthened and confidence flooded back into the side. Scoring again, twice, at Selhurst Park, two weeks later, the granite tough Scot looked, somewhat surreally given his actual physical appearance, like the complete midfield general. At 28, with the legs of a 45 year old, he was the glue holding everything together as that 80-81 season took off towards the clouds.



It would be impossible to name his best game for City, because he marked every single performance with his presence and every single shin with his studs. Scoring in the titanic battle with Everton in a never-to-forgotten 6th round FA Cup battle at Goodison, he was in his element. In a mud-spattered, no-holds-barred midfield quagmire, Gow stood up for City against a fierce home onslaught with 56,000 baying for blood and helped serve City a draw that would turn to victory in the replay. He would say later that he loved to battle, as it was all he really knew and that the sight of the Kippax as he ran out of the tunnel would fire him up to do his very best. “I’d have died for that great club and those fans,” he later told City historian and author GaryJames.

In the final against a measurably more talented Tottenham side, Gow’s willing and dogged persecution of Osvaldo Ardiles delivered midfield supremacy in the first, drawn game, which represented City’s golden opportunity to carry off the cup. His performance that afternoon in completely subduing a man who had two years earlier been the hub of Argentina’s World Cup win on home soil, was something to behold. Ragged and disheveled, he did not let the talented play-maker have a second’s rest.

The sight of him, hair lank and dripping with sweat, running himself into the ground during an energy-sapping extra 30 minutes on that heavy Wembley pitch was quite something. But then Gerry Gow was quite something. A player, whose spirit far exceeded his talent, whose indefatigable soul kept him motoring well after his brain had told him his body was done.


That he succumbed to cancer at the age of 64 will be a surprise to many. To those of us, who thought Gerry Gow was totally indestructible, we have been delivered quite a shock today. He was, like the rest of us, only human after all. Rest in peace, Gerry, and may you still occasionally hear the noise – a mass hum of surprised appreciation – that rolled down off the Kippax that time, when you put in that first crunching tackle in the sky blue shirt of Manchester City.   

Gow in his Bristol City days, telling Rovers' Frankie Prince who's boss.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

TODAY'S OPPONENTS: TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

White Hart Lane has been the venue for some stirring City performances in recent years with Edin Dzeko notching 4 goals there in a stunning 5-1 victory in 2011, an emphatic score reproduced just three years later.

Spurs old stamping ground was also the venue for perhaps the most stunning FA Cup comeback of all time, when City won there 4-3 after being three-down at half time, a match that involved a taster for the future, when Joey Barton availed himself of an early career red card for chatting unnecessarily to the referee. Barton it was who also scored his first ever City goal on this ground in the 2003 league game in a surprise late season 2-0 win for Kevin Keegan's side.

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It was a year ago almost to the day that Manuel Pellegrini took his fast-starting side south to take on Tottenham in a game lost 4-1 by City. Aided and abetted by old friend Mark Clattenburg, City's collapse was quite the eye-opener. Having led through Kevin de Bruyne's goal, City fell apart with a number of dubious decisions leaving them trailing 4-1 by the 79th minute. This match confirmed that the previous week's home collapse to West Ham had not been a flash in the pan, after City's coruscating 5-win start to the season under the Chilean. Although big wins over Bournemouth and Newcastle were to follow, it was clear that Pellegrini's side did not have quite the iron grip on proceedings that people wanted to believe they had.

Spurs completed the double over City in the game at the Etihad with yet another dreadful display by Clattenburg, giving the away side a crucial penalty when an innocuous-looking cross was belted straight at Raheem Sterling's kidneys.
Kit troubles in 85-86

Before this double calamity, City's record against Spurs had been near-exemplary, losing just once in the previous ten games and scoring a hat-full of goals along the way. The mere mention of Tottenham sent Sergio Aguero scurrying to the boot room for his kit.

In the 20 years prior to that, City had found Spurs hard going, but the overall picture is incredibly even, with both sides enjoying longish periods of supremacy over the other. Out of a grand total of 151 meetings, City have won 58 to Tottenham's 59. A win this season would thus not only maintain City's four point lead at the top, but also even things off perfectly.

No History Whatsoever: Spurs have been chugging along nicely since 1882 and, although they only have two league titles to their name (1951, 1961), they have built a sturdy reputation as a better bet in the lottery of knock-out football.

Like the City of old, it takes a particularly quixotic profile to become a "good cup side". They managed to enhance this hard-won reputation even further last season, by capitulating in the run-in to the Premier League, when it looked like their win at the Etihad might help catapult them past Leicester.

Gerry Gow at Wembley
Average gates in the mid-80s trailed off badly to the 20,000 mark and City played there in both 1973 and 1986 in front of crowds as low as 17,000. Throughout much of the 70s, however, White Hart Lane, with the magnificent Shelf running down the length of one side of the pitch much like the Kippax did at Maine Road, regularly housed crowds around 50,000, as Spurs sides containing Martin Chivers, Steve Perryman, Martin Peters, Alan Mullery, Glenn Hoddle, Ozzie Ardiles and the dinner-plate handed Pat Jennings strutted their stuff.

Quirks: Spurs played City twice in the 80s and 90s at Maine Road when the home side had to change kit. In 1985-86 referee George Courtney deemed their white kit and sky blue shorts too close to City's wearing of the reverse on a sunny August afternoon and the Blues were forced to wear their red and black stripes. Eight years later the weather - this time thick mist - was again the reason for City having to change again, as the TV cameras could not properly distinguish one side from the other. City changed to all maroon that afternoon. Curiously both games were won 2-1 by City.

Playlist: In 1980-81 Spurs's night time midweek visit brought John Bond's first victory as new manager, after Big Mal had been shown the door by the eager Peter Swales It was debut night for Bobby McDonald and Tommy Hutchison, Bond's double capture from Coventry, as City ran out 3-1 winners. Bond's first game in charge had been a dull home defeat to Birmingham the previous Saturday. The win over Tottenham kick-started City's season, going on a run that carried them up into mid-table, a League Cup semi-final with Liverpool and the centenary FA Cup final, against Tottenham.

The final replay - lost 3-2 by City - is remembered to this day as one of the greatest-ever FA Cup finals, with Ricky Villa's slalom winner casting an unnecessary shadow over a volleyed equaliser by Steve Mackenzie, which was one of the most majestic seen at the old stadium. The first game, ending 1-1 thanks to Hutchison scoring at both ends (just as Sterling did with unerring timing in midweek), was perhaps midfield schemer Gerry Gow's best performance in a sky blue shirt. Bought from Bristol City just too late to play in the above-mentioned league game, Gow was an absolute stalwart during City's resurrection and spent his time at Wembley snapping at the heels of danger man Ardiles.

In the early 90s, Ardiles returned to Spurs briefly as manager and produced a side with his infamous "diamond" formation, which shone more like anthracite when Spurs shipped up at Maine Road.








Ardiles had attempted to construct his side around Romanians Gica Popescu and the talented but flaky Ilie Dumitrescu, with Teddy Sheringham and Jurgen Klinsmann further forward. With artists Micky Hazard and Nick Barmby doing the midfield holding, Spurs were as secure as a tutu in a hurricane. On 22nd October 1994, City manager Brian Horton decided to match Ardiles's wild caution-free football with his own deeply fantasy formation. The result was one of the best adverts for attacking football even these two advocates of style had mustered down the years.

City and Spurs had always been known to put on a show when playing each other, as the frequently still do, but this cavalcade of slip-sliding topped the lot.

Horton matched Ardiles with a front four of Nicky Summerbee, ex-Spurs man Paul Walsh, Niall Quinn and the man of the match left winger Peter Beagrie. City ran out 5-2 winners in the end, the first time they had reached five against Tottenham since Spurs' relegation season of 76-77 when a Peter Barnes-inspired City had hit them 5-0 at Maine Road. As then, City had prospered down the flanks. For Barnes and Tueart, read this time the names of Summerbee and Beagrie were writ large.


"This was a throwback to how the game used to be played" - BBC Match of the Day commentator, John Motson. 

With the Kippax demolished and the rain teeming down, the City and Spurs fans housed in the open got an absolute soaking but the game had been so enthralling, few people had even noticed the discomfort.

Two seasons earlier City and Spurs had produced another memorable game, this time in the FA Cup and this time for all the wrong reasons. City had reached the quarter finals for only the third time since winning the cup in 1969 (the others had been a rain drenched drubbing at the hands of Liverpool in 1988 and the never-to-be-forgotten replayed tie with Everton on the way to the final with Spurs in 1981) and a home tie with Spurs allowed the faithful to think of further progress. However, despite an early lead through Mike Sheron, Peter Reid's side imploded in time-honoured style and by the time the crowd emptied onto the pitch in scenes that the Guardian's David Lacey called "a disquieting image, turning the clock back to hooliganism's worst excesses of the 70s and 80s..." the dirty deed of another cup exit had been secured.


In truth Lacey's description was something of an over-reaction. At no time during a five minute pitch invasion by 2-300 supporters did the scene resemble Millwall's best efforts at Luton or many other notorious images from the decades before. What it did confirm was that the spectre of Hillsborough, still so fresh in the minds, had not been enough to quell certain elements from taking things to the brink. City's day and their cup hopes lay in tatters among the impressively large dollops of horse manure on Stan Gibson's pitch. On a day to supposedly celebrate the opening of Peter Swales's woeful new Platt Lane Stand and see City into the last 4, the headlines were made of grimmer stuff. City would not have the merest sniff of the FA Cup semi-finals again until 2011 when a victory over Reading took the club on to face Manchester United at Wembley, nearly 20 years later.


"There is nothing like being knocked gloriously from the cup and this for City was nothing like it." - Gideon Brooks, Daily Express

In 2003, City played in both cup competitions at White Hart Lane. Although the achievement in the FA Cup match was extraordinary, the League Cup exit (1-3) in the November before had something of the night about it too, with City managing to succumb to a goal from Tottenham's infamously shot-shy Helder Postiga. The £6.25 million transfer from Porto had not troubled the netting one single time before this game and indeed would never trouble the goal again in his time at the Lane. One goal in England and it came against City.

The second cup tie that season is well documented in many places, including the book And He's The Left Back Remember by Howard Hockin and some other fellow. City's stirring comeback will be remembered vividly by all who saw it, a testimony to the club's utter refusal to conform with anything approaching what the long-suffering fans expected from them. Things have changed a bit in the 13 years that have passed and City under Pep Guardiola threaten to become a beast that everyone can rely on to do the expected. Tottenham too have added a degree of consistency that had long been absent, as these two maverick clubs with matching reputations for the flamboyant and the frivolous look to a serious future of proving people's hopes in them to be correct.

1990-91 First game of the season after the 1990 WC. A new start for football? A brave new world of popularity? Two years later the Premier League would be inaugurated. For City, with Niall Quinn, and Spurs, with  Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker, returning World Cup heroes would add to the sparkle. By the end of this season Spurs would have won the FA Cup (against Nottingham Forest), but within five years, City would be heading to the second tier and, within seven, preparing to visit the third. For some the brave new world would be a shrieking, catastrophic false dawn. 





Monday, September 26, 2016

CELTIC FRINGE


Manchester City and Celtic have never met in a competitive match before. The 2016-17 Champions League Group C therefore puts City into an all-but unprecedented situation, playing a competitive fixture against Scottish opposition. However, despite its lowly status, the Texaco Cup of 1971 saw City's first and hitherto only proper fixtures against a Scottish side.

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While there have been many high-profile matches between sides from either side of the border (Leeds v Celtic, Liverpool v Aberdeen, Manchester United v Celtic, Nottingham Forest v Celtic, Rangers v Leeds all spring to mind. Even Dunfermline and West Brom and Aberdeen and Ipswich and Leeds and Kilmarnock have squared up to each other over the years), City have steadfastly avoided being paired with Scottish teams.

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AIRDRIE!

Two games against Airdieonians in 1971 delivered a 2-2 draw at Maine Road and a 1-2 defeat at Broomfield Park sending City packing from a tournament that did not last long, despite its interesting format. Just over 15,000 watched the first leg end in stalemate, with City's goals from Ian Mellor and a Mike Doyle penalty cancelled out by Goodwin and Busby for the away side, who had played with understandable - yet on City's part underestimated - spirit.

Ian Mellor nets for City in the 2-2 draw with Airdrie at Maine Road
A large Broomfield crowd of 13,700 saw Airdrie prevail in the second leg by a 2-1 scoreline. These two fixtures - played some 45 years ago - remain the only competitive matches between City and sides north of the border to date.

Even non-competitive games with Celtic can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The first was a 1-1 draw in 1953 pre-season, a game which saw City field a very strong side - Trautmann, Branagan, Little, Revie, Ewing, Paul, Hayes, Hart, Broadis, Clarke and Cunliffe.

In 1970 Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer took a strong side to Parkhead to play Jock Stein's remarkable side (picture at the top shows a gathering of football minds). The match had been switched to Hampden Park, as the photos and programme stills show. Still feted as the first British winners of the European Cup, after the Lisbon Lions beat Internazionale in the Estadio Nacional of Lisbon, Celtic held City to a 0-0 draw.

Reporters were issued with crampons and a roll of rope.
Francis Lee takes on Jimmy Johnstone
John Hughes gives skipper Tony Book plenty to think about
Programme cover and inside shots courtesy of Graham Ward 


TOLKA!

It would be over 20 years before the two sides met again, in a pre-season friendly at Tolka Park in Dublin.  With the customary strong southern Irish backing for Celtic, City's supporters were treated to a difficult afternoon's viewing as Celtic ran out 3-1 winners. It formed part of player-manager Peter Reid's preparation for the all-new Premier League, which would kick off that August for the very first time with a Monday night live-tv fixture against QPR.

Fitzroy Simpson and Paul McStay tussle at Tolka Park, Dublin in 1992
The 70s witnessed two City pre-season appearances in warm-up tournaments for the coming action in Division One. In 1976, City were part of the Tennent's sponsored Caledonian Cup, drawing with Southampton, before losing a marathon penalty shoot out to go into a 3rd/4th place play-off with Partick Thistle, a game won easily 4-1.

SKOL!

Three years later City returned north as invitees in the Skol Cup, taking place at Tynecastle, home of Hearts. City lost 1-3 to Coventry City, resplendent in their new brown Admiral away kit, then drew 1-1 with Hibernian, before ending their presence in Scotland with an identical score against the hosts.

In modern times, City faced Celtic in pre-season in two consecutive summers, 2008 and 2009, one taking place in Manchester, the other in Glasgow.

As far as Manchester's competitive record against Glasgow is concerned, City will attempt to uphold a near-perfect record established by neighbours United, their only defeat in eight competitive fixtures with either Rangers or Celtic came in the 2006-07 Champions League tie at Parkhead, won 1-0 by Celtic.

1979-80 City v Coventry at Tynecastle Park


Celtic also showed little interest in holding on to manager (and ex-hoops legend) Billy McNeill as their boss in 1983. With City freshly relegated and looking for a new messiah to lead them back to the promised land, McNeill was persuaded to come south and duly took City back two seasons later, before jumping ship in ignominious circumstances to join Aston Villa.  As both Villa and City went down that season (1986-7), many City fans later enjoyed recalling how McNeill had managed to steer two clubs to relegation in the same season.

Here are all the other City matches against Scottish opposition:

In 1953-4 City played Hearts at Maine Road to inaugurate the floodlights, winning 6-3.


1972-73
Partick Thistle
Sweden
5-0
1973-4
Aberdeen
away
1-0

St. Johnstone
away
1-0
1981-2
Rangers
away
0-2 see image below
1984-5
Hibernian
away
0-0

Partick
away
4-1
1995-6
Hearts
away
1-5
1997-8
Livingstone
away
4-0

Stirling Albion
away
0-0

Kilmarnock
away
4-0

Falkirk
away
1-1
2014-15
Dundee
away
0-2

Hearts
away
2-1


Other Tedious Stuff

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