Manchester City Player Ratings for Season 2014/15

After an ultimately disappointing season, I’ve had a look at how the squad prepared, with some wildly varied results.

Joe Hart – 8.5

I’ll be honest, I‘ve had my doubts about Joe Hart. There’s no doubt he’s a great keeper, but I’ve never been convinced he is world class. I still have issues – his distribution exasperates, his decision-making for crosses is not always perfect and he can flap a bit, but what keeper doesn’t make mistakes? The truth is he has had a great season, and has improved under a new goalkeeping coach. His performance in Barcelona was phenomenal, and he topped that with the save of the Premier League season against Swansea. He is the number 1 for the foreseeable future – that’s one less thing to worry about, at least.

Willy Caballero – 4

A wasted move and a wasted season for the highly-rated keeper, after years of stellar performances for Malaga. Many a City fan decided he was rubbish after two games, which is a shame, as he is nothing of the sort and Pellegrini, who will know him well, clearly saw him as serious competition for Hart, but whilst England’s Number 1 has improved all season, Caballero has never been in a position to challenge for the keeper’s shirt, and doesn’t appear to have settled. He is more than good enough though for the Number 2 spot, so I hope he stays, but a return to Spain for a small profit seems highly possible – perhaps to Valencia.

Richard Wright – 10

Another flawless season for perhaps City’s most consistent keeper – ever.

Vincent Kompany – 6

The most depressing squad score I will probably ever give (hopefully). It has been a poor season for our once-inspirational skipper, and you’ll all have your theories as to why. He continues to pick up niggling injuries, and his form has been erratic to put it kindly. The defence as a whole has struggled at times of course and you hope that a summer of rest will see him come back stronger than ever in August.

Eliaquim Mangala – 7

The £42m enigma. The man it was hoped would be the final piece in the defence jigsaw has had a mixed debut season, not helped by his expected partner suffering a mid-career crisis. Once the total fee that City paid for him (a fee you suspect City did their best to hide) became public knowledge, then the pressure was doubled on the young Frenchman. For the future, the fee doesn’t matter – it was a ridiculous amount to pay for the defender, ANY defender, and I doubt he will ever truly be valued that highly. However, what is done is done, and there are enough signs to feel that Mangala can still be a huge success at City. He started impressively, carrying Diego Costa in his pocket, and he certainly seems to relish a physical scrap, but a number of calamities soon after, most notably at Hull, damaged his reputation and perhaps his confidence too. The fact is that City’s defence has been something of a mess all season, by our high standards at least, not helped by Pellegrini rarely playing the same back four for two consecutive games, until the title had gone anyway. The fact also is that Mangala played pretty well most of the time, but was let down by the odd rash moment, another foible of a proactive defender. He was often the best defender on the pitch and the criticism has snowballed way past the truth. The problem is that Kompany is a proactive defender too, and two proactive defenders is a dangerous mix. Still, Mangala has to be given a permanent berth in the team now – we’ve invested too much, and his performances are good enough to consider doing anything else.

Martin Demichelis – 7

A fair season once more for the suave Argentinean, shaking off World Cup final disappointment to put in a steady shift, as we expected he would. Didn’t hit the heights, but didn’t disappoint either, though it’s hard to quantify his level of performance considering the changes made to the defence each week. Here for another year, you’d expect him to be used more sparingly next season.

Dedryck Boyata – as you were. No idea why he is still at City, apart from quotas of course.

Pablo Zabaleta – 8

Many will claim that City’s number 1 cult hero had a mixed season, and there is some truth in that, as his performances did dip earlier in the season, though he was hardly alone. Impending fatherhood obviously played on his mind, but for me he still was a rock for most of the time, and was clearly a class above new arrival Bacary Sagna, not that Sagna had much opportunity to prove his worth.

Bacary Sagna – 6.5

There seems to be a common practice amongst a minority to label all of our “back-up” players as utterly useless whenever they manage to get on the pitch. Sagna was nothing of the sort, but had little impact on our season, though was given the nod in the odd big European game. The disappointment for me was that I vaguely recall him putting in a succession of excellent crosses as an Arsenal player, but we saw very little evidence of that in the past season. The question is, will he want to remain as an occasional player? I doubt it.

Aleksander Kolarov – 6.5

On his day, Kolarov is a wonderful asset for City. Powerful surges down the left, bullet crosses that any decent striker should relish, and a wonderful repertoire of free-kicks. Unfortunately, it’s not always his day, and to me he seems utterly disinterested some games. Half the problem is that Pellegrini (or many of us) don’t know who the best left-back at the club is, which benefits no one. Kolarov plays best after a continued run in the side, as most players do, something he only got at the tail-end of the season. This is an area that I feel City need to improve, with someone new.

Gael Clichy – 6.5

Favoured for more league games than Kolarov, he’s been ok, as usual, but never really excelled – that is Clichy all over. Never terrible, never brilliant, he is for me an able back-up but not good enough to take this club forward – no left-back at the club is.

Fernando – 5

Well done to Fernando Reges, the Premier League player with the highest pass completion (91%) in the league last season. Proof, if proof were needed, that stats can mislead. Again, to continue the theme, Fernando was not as appalling as some make out, he just had very little to offer, is nowhere near the dynamic player we were led to believe, and is not good enough at screening that defence, though this is not always his fault, as responsibility lies with the formation chosen by the manager and his midfield partners. He will undoubtedly be given more time, and we have a tradition of hating our defensive midfielders until they begin to find form and are promptly sold, so hope springs eternal.

Fernandinho – 6

Another play for whom 2014/15 was disappointing, though I’m not sure it was his fault. Clearly traumatised by the shellacking handed out by Germany at the World Cup, Fernandinho was a slow returned to the City fold, and his season was split between the pitch and the bench, which made little sense as he rarely failed when called upon. For some reason Pellegrini didn’t see him as integral to our shape, but I hope we see more of him next season, as otherwise what’s the point of spending £30m on a great player to use every other game? He is a victim I guess of the “midfield problem”, of finding the right pairing in the middle, especially when playing two upfront. With Yaya Toure now looking to stay, that problem is set to remain.

Yaya Toure – 7

Ah yes, the most-talked about player yet again this season, with the world’s most idiotic agent. It’s been a bit of a comedown season for Yaya, after the season-defining contribution of last season. Of course he suffered terrible tragedy during the summer, which puts arguing over a cake into perspective somewhat, and with yet another African Cup of Nations depriving City of his services for over a month, his season was underwhelming. Still, he still did more of note than most players, and chipped in with 10 league goals from midfield. As always, the problem is playing him in a 4-4-2, where he can get overrun, where his position fails to play to his strengths, and where the better teams and those that play a high tempo game can ensure that games pass him by. I think the time might be right for him to go, but will be secretly delighted to see him remain – I just hope we make full use of him next season, as the team’s success is closely linked to that.

Samir Nasri – 6

A season that has promised much has rather fizzled out for the enigmatic Frenchman. He put in some promising performances, and scored a vital goal in Rome, but it hasn’t really happened for him since and injury finished his season for good. I get the feeling he will go this summer, after a City career that was good but never quite scaled the heights. Still, for annoying Arsenal fans by winning stuff and telling them where to go, he has my eternal gratitude.

Frank Lampard – 7

Brilliant for a short-spell (and scorer of some important goals), it’s been a strange but enjoyable cameo from one of my all-time Premier League favourites. When he first arrived, I didn’t really give it much thought, as I didn’t expect to see much of him before he jetted off to the States in the New Year. As it turned out, he had a great purple patch in the autumn, including a crucial equalizer against Chelsea. Soon he was the cause of a diplomatic incident with New York City, and it seemed a fruitless exercise falling out with a sister club, as his appearance waned thereafter, but he has featured again much more as the season drew to an end, and capped it off with a trademark last-day goal. A credit to his profession, and a thoroughly decent bloke, it was good to see him in City’s colours, if only briefly.

David Silva – 8.5

My all-time favourite player, possibly worth a 9, but I had to separate him from Sergio somehow. Again, not perfect, though this season saw him improve slightly in front of goal, which is his only obvious weakness, apart from goalkeeping, caber-tossing and origami (so I’m told). Still, another season of Silva doing what Silva does, and it continues to be a joy to witness most matches. Beautiful ball control, exquisite passing, he works between the lines and is a nightmare for opposition teams. If he ever leaves I’m off to support Chelsea.

James Milner – 8

The Yorkshire Figo has probably played his last game for City, and more’s the pity, though I still retain some hope that he sees SENSE and re-signs for the project.
An important squad member, if not a clear first-teamer, he has had a good season, putting in a series of consistent, steady performances, taking up the striker mantle when we didn’t have any, and coping excellently, and generally doing all the things you expect him to do. Tireless worker, some assists, some goals, no moaning, few injuries, he is the perfect professional. Let’s hope he realises that playing in the middle every week is not worth going to a weaker team.

Stevan Jovetic – 3

It’s hard to get lower than a 4/10, but Stevan managed it. A disastrous season, capped by being dropped from City’s Champions League squad so that Wilfried Bony could sit on the bench instead. A season where it was hoped that Jovetic would finally show his worth never materialised, and he was eventually frozen out by Pellegrini, sneaking back onto the bench for the final league match. He will surely leave in the summer, naturally for much less than we paid for him, which is a shame, as I had high hopes for him, but it just never happened, much like his ability to dress himself properly.

Jesus Navas – 6.5

A player I really like, but as we know, frustrates much of the time. The frustration is that you just know he is capable of anything, but always seems to fall just short. Still, he is what he is – a good squad player with bags of pace who works hard and stretches opposition teams. I hope he stays for years to come. His blind crossing marks him down, though most crosses by definition will find a defender, and also because his goal threat has dried up completely, which is not really good enough for a wide man, who should be chipping in with at least a few.

Scott Sinclair – 10

One of the greatest prospects in world football, Sinclair has been brutally side-lined and his career wrecked by a club with more money than sense. Clearly the best player at the club, with also the best looks and most buxom girlfriend, his repeated omission from the side remains one of the greatest mysteries in the modern game, and I just hope he can resurrect his career at Aston Villa, where at least Tim Sherwood will appreciate his tremendous skill and passion for the game. Shame on you City. Shame on you.

Sergio Aguero – 9

Well, what really needs to be said? Another injury lay-off that had the knock-on effect of him being below par for a few weeks on his return have probably prevented him having a record-breaking season, but in a team that failed to live up to expectations and bowed out of cup competitions often with a whimper, he once more outscored everyone with ease and was a class above, though it should be noted he is human and still had his off-days like most of us do. The best striker in the Premier League, I keep praying that he stays for the next season, for when he does go I may cry a bit, or perhaps a lot.

Edin Dzeko – 4

Let’s face facts – Edin has been utter pants this season. His grumpy face as he traipsed round the Etihad pitch after the Southampton match told a story, resembling a hen-pecked husband told he has to spend 8 hours helping his wife find a nice blouse in the Trafford Centre for Tracey’s hen do the following week. Basically I’m saying he didn’t look very happy, and with good reason, though he has resorted to lazy mode this campaign, with the ball-retention skills of Adolf Hitler (see the Albert Hall archives for further details). This time around, he couldn’t even come good at the business end of the season, despite getting a few outings. A summer exit would be best for all, and thanks for all the memories.

Wilfried Bony – 6

Hard to jusge too much just yet as he was signed whilst away in Africa, and came back soon before Manuel Pellegrini finally twigged that playing one up front may be the way forward. Just the two goals then, has come on and looked lively, but with some erratic finishing – he will be judged properly next season.

 

Manuel Pellegrini – 7

Tough one this. Many think he should get a 3, after a frustrating season where his stubbornness seemed to derail the whole season, and his inability to adapt cost us dear, the nadir being a terrible 8 defeats in 15 games from early January onwards. And yet, whilst the pressure may have been off, we did once more finish strongly, yet again winning our final 6 games, we finished clear in 2nd, 9 points ahead of United, we were beaten by a team in Barcelona who are quite simply on another level, and whilst the domestic cup performances were appalling, I blame the players as much as Pellegrini, and the knock-on effect of a mid-season jaunt to Abu Dhabi, which left the players in revolt. It looks like he will stay for another year, and with some proper investment in the summer, I am hopeful he can sign off on a high.

From Russia, With Love: My Emails To Internet Scammers (and other stories)

I have recently released a new book – From Russia, With Love – My emails to internet scammers (and other stories), in which I took on various identities to converse with scammers from around the world. Below is a small extract, with my first love, Tatiana.

 

From: Tatiana
To: Howard

Hello my dear friend Howard !!!

Again the smile on my face and joy in my heart.
All this, thanks to your answer. Did you like my photos?
on them not visible my height, it may be interesting to you, my height is 172 centimeters, weight 54 kilograms.

I value communication with you. I live in a studio apartment with my daughter. I divorced with my ex-husband, I divorced when my daughter was 1 year old. He was cruel to me, cheated on me and he did not appreciate me like woman. I have not seen him for 6 years. He does not help us with daughter and did not interest in our lives. I’m disappointed in him as a man. From family I have only mother Nadejda, Svetlana grandmother. My father died 9 years ago. He had an accident in a car. I loved him very much.

He was a real man. It is a pity that he is not with us … probably you wondering why I’m not looking for a man in my city? my city very small and all the good men are already taken :)

I dearly with you chat!  I’m very tired of being alone.

Time goes by for me. My daughter is growing. She often asks me why her friends have a father, and she no??? I want her to live in a complete family. I want her to have, like all children have a mom and dad. I myself cannot substitute for her father.

Tell me a little about your life … Tell me about your family, work and how you like to spend your free time? I look forward to your quick response!!!

Sincerely Tatiana!!!

———————————–

To: Tatiana
From: Harold
Subject: Super Mario

Oh my darling Tatiana,

I too have a smile on my heart and joy in my face. Every time you reply the clouds part, though that may be due to a brisk south-easterly breeze.

I LOVE your photos, and my friends do too! Please feel free to send some more. You are very beautiful, which makes me wonder why you would want an old, washed-up ex children’s TV presenter like me? I guess love can bridge the divide.

You seem to have such a tough life Tatiana. It makes me weep – but I can certainly empathise (understand and share the feelings of another) – only this week I stubbed a toe on the edge of a coffee table, and lost my house keys. Turns out they were lodged behind the fish tank, bizarrely.
The world can be crazy sometimes Tatiana, with many a winding turn.

What about me, I hear you ask? Well I am a bit smaller than you, but I wear special shoes, so don’t worry about that. I weigh 65 kg, and I like bird watching, TOWIE and a certain noble sport (the sport in question being badminton, of course).

I had a torrid affair for three years with a librarian – we used to make love in the military history section – but she left me Tatiana for a chartered surveyor in Harrogate. They have lovely gardens there, so I am told.

Now I am all alone, just me and the fish. And the swingers club. The looks I get when I throw the keys for a Morris Minor into the bowl.
I used to be on TV a bit, but the work has dried up – I opened a supermarket in Radcliffe last year, and that was the last media work I think I will ever do. I had to cut a ribbon and talk about the swimming baths. They gave me £50 and some vouchers for Batchelors Cup A Soup. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse (try their Cream of Asparagus – to die for!). Now I do a bit of taxi work, nights mostly, near the airport.

I have no family. My mother disappeared whilst holidaying in Bermuda, and my dad is in prison for murdering an otter. Animal cruelty is not tolerated in the UK Tatiana – my dad made the front page of the Prestwich Gazette.

But I must apologise immediately. In a previous correspondence you requested my phone number. Well I am afraid my landline is out of order at the moment, and BT say it may be for a while. So should you need to contact me please phone 969 4927. This is the number for Luigi’s Pizzeria. Luigi is sadly no longer with us (he moved to London two years ago), but the manager Mario will take any calls and pass on a message to me. He only speaks Italian though, so hope this won’t be a problem? Eccellente!

I will not abuse you Tatiana. I am loving and kind and thanks to Fairy Liquid, have gentle hands. I hope we can be together soon, just you and me, and at a push, your daughter. We can party like it’s 1999.

Eternal love

Harold (that’s H.A.R.O.L.D.)

otter

———————————————-

From: Tatiana
To: Howard

Howard

You have no idea how I am glad to your answer. I’m in very good mood. I’m glad that you understand me and your intentions to me are serious. Now I know that I have a good friend. Even though we are far from each other.

Today is a very hard day at work … As I said, I I work in a local hospital … I have a lot of work. Since I’m one sometimes I need to earn. I get a call from nearby villages, to do massage for adults and small children.

Sometimes people whose children I do massage do not give me money. They give me meat, milk, potatoes. All what they are rich. I cannot refuse them. Many children have problems with backbone.  Without my professional treatment, children are poorly developed. Many do not have the money, and asked me for help.

My mother brought me up so that it is necessary to help people! I like my job! I have many times been invited to work at the clinic in Moscow. Luring big salary. But the money in life is not the main thing. I hope that you have the same opinion.

And I’ve never lived in a big city. I think the big cities spoil people! I want to learn how about your life?

Now I have to go to work. In a minute the patient will come. I have to finish the letter. It makes me feel sad. When I am writing you a letter as if you were next to me.

And now I must go and I say goodbye to you till tomorrow Howard.

Tatiana.

—————————————————————-

To: Tatiana
From: Harold
Subject: Die Hard

Tatty,

I have been in a good mood for over a week now. The hours fly by. The days merge into one. My heart skips a beat when I hear the familiar ping of an incoming email. Imagine my disappointment when it is not from you, but simply a promise to make me “bigger”, whatever that means.

I’m happy being 5ft 2” Tatiana.

My intentions could not be more serious Tatiana. They are as serious as a situation where a NYPD cop goes on a Christmas vacation to visit his wife Holly in Los Angeles, where she works for the Nakatomi Corporation. While they are at the Nakatomi headquarters for a Christmas party, a group of bank robbers take control of the building and hold everyone hostage, with the exception of the NYPD cop, while they plan to perform a lucrative heist. Unable to escape and with no immediate police response, the NYPD cop is forced to take matters into his own hands.
That’s how serious my intentions are.

Gosh Tatiana, your life is so sad. You should come and work in a UK hospital, though I fear conditions would be worse here. Can you do 18 hour shifts Tatiana? Can you remain awake for three days at a time?

You need to tell your people that massages cost money. Not root vegetables or stuff from udders, nice as they are. I’m sorry to hear of the many spineless children, who do not develop. We have similar here in UK – children have no respect. Many wear their trousers too low, so you see their grundies. It’s not nice Tatiana. They play music loud on public transport, spit a lot, and never give up their seat for me when I have gout. I blame the parents, and the Tories.

FYI, my favourite vegetable is the sweet potato. So versatile.

Money is not everything, I agree. More important to me is companionship, salt and pepper spare ribs and a full cable subscription (including Sky Atlantic – Game of Thrones IS BACK!!!).

I live in a big city, Tatiana. Here began the industrial revolution, the 1st computer was made, the atom was split and Jamie Pollock scored the greatest own goal of all time. We have a rich history. I couldn’t live in the country as all the takeaways would be miles away.

A few things about me? Well you know my height and weight. You know I live in Manchester, the greatest city in all the world. You know I used to work on TV a bit, entertaining children. You know of my love for fish, and ribs. In my spare time I watch football – do you like football Tatiana? One day I will take you to see my team – don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of room.

I hope your patient came. I don’t blame him. I must go now too – it is snowing outside (madness) and I must build a snowman with the owner of the garage next door. He’s brought along a carrot and some pebbles.

Reply soon my love.

HAROLD

You can buy my new book here: From Russia, With Love.

 

Manuel Pellegrini: The Once-Charming Man Who Tarnished His Legacy

There’s no hiding place on the internet. We can all feel stupid laughing at David James  who predicted City finishing outside the Top 4 this season, and I stayed up most of the night deleting all the articles I wrote saying nice things about Manuel Pellegrini. Charming my arse.

There were a lot of ridiculously angry people at the Etihad yesterday, venting their spleen and getting most upset over some men kicking a football around, badly. We invest a lot of time, effort, money and emotion in the team we support, but with hindsight, tweeting abuse to the wife of Martin Demichelis probably won’t help matters in the long term,  and perhaps suggests you’re something of a cretin to boot.

But apart from the fact that finishing outside the top four would be both embarrassing and a huge blow to the plans of Pep Guardiola, would seriously hamper eight years of preparation that led up to this point, apart from that, it is simply baffling that we find ourselves at this point. And the saddest thing of all is that Manuel Pellegrini has successfully dismantled his legacy at the club, and, along with others, seriously damaged the near-future too.

I can accept City not winning the league – it happens, and it will happen many times. Sometimes teams don’t perform to their potential, sometimes managers make mistakes, injuries hamper progress, decisions go against you, whatever. We won a cup, got a day out at Wembley, have progressed further in the Champions League than before, and a top four finish would have meant an ok season, but with the bonus of Pep coming in and hopefully weaving his magic. A low level of competence would have seen City reach these goals with so many teams misfiring in the chasing pack. Mancini had his bad season too, and is still revered – that’s why this season was vital to the way Pellegrini would be judged, and after such a scintillating start why what has followed has both baffled and disappointed so many. And a top four finish would mean a season without Champions League football for United, Chelsea and Liverpool, we could have been in pole position for years to come, unless you believe 20 years of Leicester City dominance is forthcoming.

But I guess this is the City way. Somehow, going into the international break, City sit in the top four. Somehow. They have a dodgy penalty call at Stamford Bridge to thank for that, and the strangest season in Premier League history to thank too. Any other season, and we’d probably be out of the race already. The international break gives the manager the chance to welcome back De Bruyne and Nasri, though don’t be surprised if Aguero and others manage to pick up knocks whilst jetting round the world.

You’ve probably seen many of the statistics on this season, and they are truly horrific. City have picked up 36 points in the last 25 games. That’s the form of a lower mid-table team, and that’s the form of six whole months. Southampton are the only semi-decent team beaten in the whole season. We failed to score against United, and took a few pastings too. Decisions have gone against us sometimes, injuries have been harsh, but there is no excuse for statistics like this, not with the squad that Pellegrini has at his disposal. The Pep announcement can thus not be blamed for the poor form as it was rubbish anyway, though it has somehow managed to get worse, which is quite the achievement. City may not have beaten many decent teams all season, but since the news that our managers were changing in the summer, we haven’t even beaten one of the top sixteen in the league. We’re running out of teams to beat, and the only exception was an Aston Villa team that literally didn’t want to be on the pitch, and they still held out until the 2nd half. You wonder not only where the next win is coming from, but how on earth we will hang onto 4th place. The bookies still make us favourites, for reasons that escape me. Either way, managers and players move on all the time, so the news of change should not really affect the players, who should have the professionalism and desire to want to win trophies right now, this season.

And yet in the same way that Louis Van Gaal pulls out a result when he seems doomed, so City have performed well enough away from the league to confuse matters somewhat. The Champions League progress and group win, the League Cup in the bag, two teams dispatched with ease in the FA Cup (two teams we couldn’t score against in the league), before waving the white flag at Chelsea. A strange season when poor form is so focused on one competition, and sadly the competition that matters most to most of us.

And with hindsight the demise has been brewing for eighteen months. The situation has been masked somewhat by the bizarre club record running win in the league right in the middle, straddling two seasons that both secured 2nd place last season then had the press declaring us champions in waiting this. But a couple of injuries and it all went to pot. Losing a spine of a team will disrupt any squad, whatever the budget, but the problems go far deeper than that, far further than one man alone. The players themselves must take flak as the buck stops with them, whilst the transfer policies that were praised at season-start look far flakier now, and you wonder just how wisely we have spent after all. On defenders alone, it has clearly been haphazard and downright disastrous.

It’s easy to be swayed by a bad run though. Chelsea showed that changing managers can reinvigorate, and only two months ago Pep Guardiola was widely called a coward for taking the easy option at City. Now there’s widespread talk of a huge squad overhaul being necessary. The truth, as always. lies somewhere in between.

And so bad is the situation, so lethargic is the play, that many want sacked a man who is leaving in two months anyway, which speaks volumes about the rapid decline that has hit this team. The supporters of Pellegrini are dwindling away to family friends and asylum members. Get Brian Kidd in. Get Vieira back, somehow. What’s Alan Curbishley up to these days?

And the saddest thing for me is that Pellegrini, who had his critics from the start, will leave with few supporters. His stubbornness, strange tactics, failure to prepare for the opposition and reluctance to take pressure off the squad by trusting in youth has left a jaded squad stumbling towards the summer. No players have improved, many have regressed. For all the negativity and gloom around the club right now, it has rarely been in better shape and we as fans have gone through much, much worse, but I cannot remember a time I have wanted a season to end so much. That’s partly due to Pep, but also due to the awful form that has spread an apathy and anger around the stands. Add ridiculous pricing policies from our owners and the result will be plenty of empty seats in the remaining games for the banter boys to laugh at.

The title is gone, it was gone weeks ago. Somehow this squad must regroup and fight for that Champions League place, or else the progress of the club will be damaged greatly. There are certain players that cannot be trusted right now, and it’s time the manager realised that and played to his squad’s strengths. Maybe, just maybe, with a bit of luck in front of goal and the return of crucial players, this season can be saved. I can’t say I’m hopeful.
Still, there’s no hiding on the internet. So imagine how embarrassed I’ll be about this blog when City go on to win the league.

To Manuel Pellegrini & Willy Caballero – A Gamble That Really Paid Off

I’m not one for believing in fate, or for things being written in the stars. It’s as mythical as a club’s soul or United’s DNA. But as the whistle blew after 120 minutes of nerve-jangling action, I couldn’t say it to anyone around me but I was thinking it: wouldn’t it be typical if Willy Caballero ended up being City’s Wembley hero?

And so he was. A lot of apologies have flowed forth on social media and message boards since, following a week-long torrent of criticism and outright abuse at the prospect of Manchester City not fielding their strongest available side in a cup final. Now we all feel a bit stupid, kind of.

Well yes and no. Pellegrini’s comment that he would rather lose a trophy than his word should be taken in context of the words of a manager who had just won the match. I am not convinced he’d have said such a thing if City had lost, and if he had, I can just imagine the criticism that would fly his way. It would show he was a man of honour, but modern football sometimes demands honour is put to one side, the need for results and success all-consuming. Managers speak differently after matches according to their mood – a winning manager is much more likely to overlook the three penalties his team didn’t get that day than a losing manager who sees no fault in his own selections or players, but seeks to blame the referee instead.

But his word was gospel on this occasion, and he had promised Caballero the role. Pellegrini of course can see through guff and realise that the goalkeeper resembling a rabbit in headlights that we all witnessed against Chelsea is not an accurate portrayal of City’s back-up keeper, however many people go on Twitter saying he’s rubbish. He’s no worse than Mignolet for starters,  and Pellegrini was hardly throwing the match like the previous week by selecting him.  One of La Liga’s best keepers and all that, but it clearly hasn’t worked out over in England, though City fans are rarely happy with the reserve goalkeeper, somehow expecting a Peter Cech type figure to spend every week on the bench. It’s not easy playing an occasional game, and for Caballero, the future surely lies elsewhere – but he didn’t turn up at the Etihad off being rubbish at his trade.

And there’s part of the problem. Occasionally a club manages to get a really good keeper as a back up, as Chelsea have done quite successfully in recent years, but it’s not easy and it’s thus quite rare. Naturally a top class keeper will expect regular football, and even a very good one will. In fact, virtually all professional footballers will expect to play regularly, whatever their ability – it’s a short career and one you’d think they’d want to look back on as a memorable and exciting one.
So it’s no surprise that some managers use their number 2 keeper for cup matches, and Pellegrini is not alone in this regard. Joe Hart doesn’t really need a rest, but there is logic in letting Caballero take over for our Capital One Cup games and any FA Cup games against “lesser” teams. The problem is the dilemma it creates when a big game comes along. Do you keep to your word, or do you do what’s best for the fans and the team, by picking your strongest team?

I thought Pellegrini would wilt and pick Hart. After all, he’s on his way soon, as Caballero probably is, so a fall out or a back track would not have disastrous consequences for the squad. Even Caballero might have understood his reasoning, citing that form is a prerequisite for selection. But as we saw, this was not Pellegrini being stubborn as he is known to be, but being honourable, even if it ended up leavin him with egg on his face. Having brought Caballero from Malaga, I can well imagine he has a close bond with Caballero, and his word is therefore an absolute bond.
And have no doubt, this was a ballsy decision. Most of us would have washed our hands of the decision and picked our strongest eleven, leaving us immune from criticism after the match. But Pellegrini stuck to his guns, and now with hindsight we’re all glad he did. Caballero was superb, as any sane person with an iota of football knowledge knows he is capable of being, and having saved a penalty last weekend he continued the trend seven days later, doing something Hart doesn’t often do by not committing to the dive, thus turning the pressure onto the penalty taker.

And the biggest gamble of all, that waving of the white flag at Stamford Bridge, a decision that could have wrecked his legacy, paid off. Brave, stubborn, but in the end it turned out OK. A Capital One Cup trophy does not make this season a success, but it prevents it from being a disaster, providing a top four league spot is secured, and it is a trophy after all, another great day for the fans, and clearly meant a lot to the players too, who we hope will be galvanised now to push on further – for who knows what can still be achieved in this confusing season? As Aguero saluted his “grand willy”, I hope they are already looking to securing a repeat performance on Wednesday – with slightly sharper shooting hopefully thrown in for good measure.

And whilst this was perhaps the trophy that Pellegrini should not have taken seriously and blooded kid after kid, it has still given the fans two wonderful occasions to saviour. The best moments don’t have to be graded by the importance of the trophy. That winning penalty, the celebrations, the feeling as the cup was lifted, the euphoria too of the semi-final 2nd leg – those feelings will never dim, it’s part of being a football fan, and it was a long wait to experience them. Six out of seven victories at Wembley too for me is a fine record, long may it continue. And yesterday gave us a new story too, and there’s little better than seeing a player so often maligned get his moment in the sun and at least temporarily prove his doubters wrong. Yesterday was much-needed, the Liverpool history clique can crawl back into the woodwork for at least a few more days, and the team delivered when it was really needed again. So I raise a glass to you Willy Caballero – you used to be shite, but now you’re alright.

Was Manuel Pellegrini Right To Sacrifice The FA Cup?

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Disrespecting the cup. The cup killers. Pell hell. You’re “kidding”. The day the FA Cup was mortally wounded. Not my words of course.
Shed a tear for modern football, as City have done it again and “killed” the beautiful game. You have to wonder what we’ve got lined up next. If we’re not booing the Champions League anthem, a ditty protected by the lord himself, we’re fielding weakened teams, ramping up wages (and ticket prices), only filling our stadium to 98% capacity and wasting the careers of youngsters and English footballers in general. Next up: bidding £200m for Neymar.

But of course we all know City didn’t “kill” this competition, a competition in which they’ve reached the final twice in five years. No, others have already done a good job of doing it before. That’s why the weekend press was full of discussion about how to revive this noble trophy, yet come Sunday it seemed everything was OK again until Manuel Pellegrini chose his young team. Strange that.

The truth is that those in power have crippled the FA Cup by constantly messing around with it and pandering to money and broadcasters as ever. From changing the kick off time (it should be 3pm on a Saturday – always), to allowing league programmes on the same day as the final, to moving it from the end of the season, to spreading quarter finals over four days, to having Friday night and Monday night games, to moving the draw time and having it in the middle of the One Show with a full array of gurning full kit wankers on hand to grin into the camera when their team was pulled out of the hat, to failing to help teams with a crowded fixture list who then inevitably will field weakened teams, unlike other FAs, who actually help their teams be successful,  to having semi-finals at Wembley to pay off the gold-plated ivory tower, thus completely demeaning the occasion of the final. By pressuring a team to pull out to play in a poxy tournament across the globe in order to impress FIFA, to letting the competition be run by TV companies meaning that Manchester United appear on TV 50 times on a row despite having not won the competition in that eleven year period. Now there’s talk of scrapping replays and midweek games. Clueless, utterly clueless, and a world away from my childhood, when sitting in front of the TV to watch the FA Cup final was a huge event, whoever was playing (it was never my team, after all). Now the world has changed, tribalism means I may not watch the final at all and TV coverage has saturated the market, but it’s no excuse for damaging the oldest cup competition of them all.

Not that the FA Cup is dead. It is not all about Arsenal or Manchester City. 736 teams competed this season, starting on 15th August, some wonderful stories and journeys emerge every time, and revenue from a “glamour” tie can keep clubs in business. It’s not just about the latter stages and viewing figures.

But what of Mr. Pellegrini? Well, not being able to simply play the game on the Saturday seems ridiculous, but would Pellegrini have played a stronger team a day earlier? I’m not sure. This seems to me like a classic case of misdirection from Pellegrini. He was probably sacrificing the FA Cup whenever the tie was played. Pellegrini could have had a full side available and still lost at Chelsea, and then had to have got past Everton and then two more games to win the cup. I’m not saying he did this, but by playing such a youthful, inexperienced side, he had his excuse to lose. We all know that the Champions League is the more important prize for our owners, and whilst it isn’t for me, it’s kinda tough because owners who have invested so heavily in our team have the right to prioritise, as without them we wouldn’t have such dilemmas anyway.
You may say we can’t win the Champions League, so what’s the point, but we must try, and we must progress in it, and if you think we never had a chance, I also presume you’d have been happy with Pellegrini throwing the group stages by playing kids? Right?

Alan Shearer and Graeme Le Saux can sit there on behalf of their paymasters bemoaning City’s team because it has ruined their big event, but their complete ignorance of circumstances offers nothing to the debate. Barcelona players might want to play every match, but then Barcelona don’t have seven players out injured, don’t have a separate cup final coming up, and also don’t play two games a week right through the winter, having the good sense like pretty much every other country to afford their players a winter break to recharge for the run-in.

Of course managers have been sending out weakened teams for years, especially those teams for whom not being relegated is the sole aim. Arsenal and Hull fielded weakened teams the day before City, and Liverpool have escaped any significant criticism for exiting the FA Cup after fielding weakened teams in two successive rounds, but that’s hardly a surprise as they are not City, and their manager is the wonderful Jürgen Klopp, not the dour Manuel Pellegrini.

Like it or not, clubs will always prioritise – they have to sometimes, with up to 60 games in a season, and saying that players should just play really doesn’t show a good understanding of how athletes perform and the importance of rest, recuperation and fitness, especially when looking to avoid injury and perform at their peak. With a five hour flight to a country in a totally different time zone, the three day gap for City’s squad is not the same as a team playing two games in the same period domestically, or even having to go to somewhere like Paris. As the outspoken fitness coach Raymond Verheijen made quite clear on Twitter – “as two rest days is PROVEN to be insufficient and Champions League is priority over FA Cup, how can one blame Pellegrini for not taking risk of unfit players?”
Indeed. He added that coaches will not prioritise competitions if governing bodies help their clubs. The Italian FA do this, but our FA have shown no inclination of helping clubs – I guess the feeling will be that with more wealth and better players, they just have to get on with it. But when other FAs help their teams, it puts English teams in Europe at a disadvantage, and prioritising then weakens domestic competitions too. After all, on average, teams have a 40% less chance of winning after only 2 rest days against an opponent with 3 or more rest days, and I’m sure Pellegrini is well aware of such statistics in a game now dominated by analysis.

Playing on the Saturday would have allowed both Chelsea and City three days’ rest after and before their respective Champions League games, but it was the police that scuppered this.  The total crowd at Chelsea and Fulham would be less than one game at Old Trafford, but policing two separate games separated by two tube stations is a rather different proposition to policing one game, or City and United on opposite sides of a city. Still, the day is long, it could have been done.

Pellegrini could have avoided this situation though if he had bedded in the odd youth player over the past two and a half years. There have been plenty of opportunities – Capital One Cup matches, substitutions when comfortably winning matches, and more. But he hasn’t so now he throws them all in at once in something of a fit of pique and rather hangs them out to dry. Having said that, the players will hopefully have gained something from the Chelsea match, and won’t be scarred by losing heavily to such an accomplished side, but the result was inevitable, even at half-time perhaps, and we really didn’t learn much about our youth players. Chelsea could have scored ten, our young players were outclassed, but this tells us little, as they could become world beaters in the future, they never stood much of a chance over 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge, especially when the senior players alongside them underperformed yet again. But with greater integration previously, the young players would have been better prepared for this match and the strain they’d have taken off the senior team would have probably also meant fewer injuries.

The key to this entire debate though was the injury list. City could hardly afford to take any more injuries to key players and thus effectively throw away their chances in three cup competitions in a week. In some ways, whilst this has been painted as a move designed to protect City’s Champions League chances, the cup final on the horizon may have played an even bigger part in Pellegrini’s thought process, as it is City’s best chance of silverware, even if it is the smallest trophy of them all, and the Champions League is two-legged after all, so a defeat can be rectified. A Sunday tie gave Pellegrini his escape clause, a reason to protect the remaining fit players for Wednesday and beyond.

Whatever the reasons, sacrificing the FA Cup was a gamble, and we’ll only know in a week whether it was worth it or not. Lose the next two cup games, and Manuel Pellegrini will look rather foolish, as the date of his departure crawls towards us, his team limping from one game to another. Let’s hope that the sacrifice he made this weekend and the vitriol he received as a result was all worth it.

Enough Is Enough – Ticket Prices Need To Fall & Fall Now

Unless you’ve been asleep for a few days you will probably be aware by now that on Saturday, a section of the Liverpool fans walked out of their game versus Sunderland in the 77th minute as a form of protest at new ticket prices being brought in for their new stand next season, a significant rise on before. It is thought that up to 10,000 made for the exits, prompting a rather catastrophic team collapse. The two incidents may or may not be linked.
Like many football directors, Ian Ayre has since proceeded to handle the whole affair terribly. Poor excuses that fool no one, a seismic failure to understand the issues at hand, a cancelled Q & A session (worse than never having one in the first place), and the price increases have also had the side-effect of hitting many disabled supporters, many of whom cannot just relocate, for obvious reasons.

But what the Liverpool fans did is not the first of its kind, though any publicity it creates can only be a good thing. The only way that owners can be held to account is a collective effort from fans. Manchester City fans (and others) have been boycotting ticket prices for years – this is not a new phenomenon. City fans do it by simply not turning up anymore – by “jacking in” everything they used to love. No fanfare, no banners, they just drift away and find better ways to spend their hard-earned money. Enough is enough, and booing a Champions League anthem is not sufficient to guarantee attendance. Success is costly, and many just can’t take the strain. I stopped attending away games a good few years ago, as have friends who rarely missed a game home or away in the old days. Maybe we got older and have other responsibilities in life now, the excitement of going to matches as a child and teenager no longer there, the thrill of a packed terrace gone forever.
Maybe. Maybe modern ticket prices mean it’s an old man’s (or woman’s) game now anyway. Either way, some have had enough, some don’t feel it necessary to attend anymore. Modern football has killed their enthusiasm. Drifting away though provides no headlines, provides no articles, and everyone turns a blind eye. Or not.
Because what has been the response from swathes of rival fans?
To mock.
To count empty seats and deride those who had been priced out of the beautiful game. Even City’s “official betting partner” Paddy Power revel in City not selling out on their social media platforms. When City offered 2-for-1 Champions League tickets, the club was widely ridiculed for having to give tickets away to fill the stadium. We’d reached a point where Manchester United fans were mocking a rival club for not forcing fans to purchase tickets and for selling them for a third or a quarter of what they had to pay themselves (if they’d actually been in the Champions League at the time). We had, and continue to have Arsenal fans baying on Twitter at their rival’s attendances whilst being royally ripped off week in, week out and doing nothing about it. So wouldn’t it be nice if fans grouped together not to mock, but to deal with the issue at hand?

I’ve come to accept that modern football at the top level entails corporate areas at grounds, and will not lose sleep over a small section of the ground being exorbitantly priced, if there’s a demand for that, as long as there are affordable seats for those that want them elsewhere. It’s when there isn’t that the problems begin. The creeping corporate areas at the Etihad have pushed some out of their seats into new areas, which is hardly ideal, but at least there are affordable seats elsewhere. This season I relocated to the new 3rd tier of the south stand, where season tickets are available from as little as £299. Mine is £380, less than what it was four years ago. It’s a bargain. The club have made excellent progress on many ticketing issues, but still put their foot in it occasionally, seemingly out of touch with modern life and the modern working man/woman. Thus this week, ticket prices for the Dynamo Kiev tie were announced, around the £30-£40 price range. Ignoring the fact that tickets for the 1st leg are an astonishing £4.50 (things work differently there), the price is all wrong, even if it looks competitive compared to rivals’ prices. City are at Wembley in a few weeks – 30,000+ will be forking out up to £100 for tickets, plus travel, accommodation, the odd pint of mild and more. Then there’s the FA Cup match at Chelsea for some. Then there’s the possibility of further cup matches should we progress further in the two remaining competitions. By the time that’s all over it will soon be time to renew for next season. If your team is quite successful, it never seems to end, and the club don’t waste any time taking the money out either. For all of us, there’s food, there’s merchandise, there’s travel, all the extras. It’s incessant.
Dynamo Kiev will provide tough opposition, but they are not a glamour team, by any stretch of the imagination. The tie at the Etihad will not sell out. That is obvious to all City fans, so presumably is obvious to those who decide the prices at the club. So why was it priced this way?

And I’d even have some tiny little inkling of why owners do this if I really thought it gave them an advantage in the “market” or on the pitch, but it really doesn’t. Liverpool’s price increases would cover little more than one more failed footballer bought from Utrecht and loaned out to Rotherham after failing to impress. It would cover the cost of Eliaquim Mangala’s big toe (right or left foot, take your pick). It’s irrelevant, a tiny, worthless pebble placed in the revenue stream, as ticket revenue becomes less and less important to clubs as TV deals break through the stratosphere. The earnings from Hong Kong’s Premier League TV rights alone is enough to cover huge prices reductions across the board at City. From Hong Kong alone. Why do owners continue to create PR disaster after PR disaster for such little gain? After all, I can’t fall out of love with football, I can’t go and support another club – I am committed to this until the day I die. Following a sports team is not like any other financial transaction, so the argument that if you don’t like it then stop going just doesn’t wash. It’s not acceptable for fans to be priced out of a sport awash with money.

And this new TV deal on the horizon is huge, beyond rational explanation, making a £10 ticket rise the equivalent of charging a man who has just bought 8 diamond rings 5p for a carrier bag. And with each TV deal, the working man forlornly hopes that the extra revenue will be passed onto the fan, and every time, with a few exceptions, it goes instead to those who already have more money than they can spend. Ticket prices have risen by about 1000% since the start of the Premier League in 1992, a tad ahead of normal inflation rates. This new deal may approach £6bn, but the truth is with foreign TV deals, highlights packages and all the other add-ons, it’s really nearer to £9bn. You often hear talk of modern footballers being disconnected from the fans, but you can hardly blame them for living in a bubble. We’re targeting the wrong people really – it’s the ones that run the game, right up to Scudamore, Taylor and their peers that are disconnected, and have created the situation we find ourselves in today.

City and others have made steps on ticket prices. United and Arsenal will freeze their prices next season – United have for a good few years now, though Arsenal still managed to infuriate fans by lumping a surcharge on their Barcelona tickets. Staggering. The fact is that whilst freezes are a start, there is little excuse anymore for clubs not only to freeze prices, but to drastically reduce prices across the board. Will any club have the cojones to break from the pack and do this?

And the thing is, City’s decision makers know all this, they know the economics of tickets sales as much as any of us. They reduced prices for FA Cup games and it sold out even when we were playing lower league teams. The atmosphere was better, the team responded, we got to Wembley twice (four times in truth). The place was rocking against Everton in the Capital One Cup, and we won again. A full house means increased takings at the bars and food stalls, so the income is probably just as much even when prices are reduced. It’s simple logic, it’s common sense, and we can all see it.

And there are two separate issues with ticket prices – home fans and away fans. For too long, away fans have been treated as the unwanted neighbours at matches, placed in the worst parts of the ground, with the worst facilities and some of the most exorbitant ticket prices. The truth is that away fans are the lifeblood of the modern game, as without them it barely seems worth bothering anymore. Atmospheres at modern stadia are bad enough in this country (in many, but not all grounds) without hitting the travelling fan and thus removing even more atmosphere. The call for price caps on away tickets is needed and a small step in the right direction, and it was soul-sapping to see my team and many of the other “big teams” are against the proposals for a £30 price cap. How utterly depressing. They just don’t get it do they? Income from away fans is such a tiny percentage of a club’s revenue (well under 1% for most teams), then it’s hard to fathom why a team would oppose such a move apart from spite. At least the teams in favour are looking to set up their own reciprocal scheme anyway.
I went to the odd early “Twenty’s Plenty” meeting, which wanted an even lower cap on away ticket prices, as the name suggests. There were lots of good ideas, but it felt futile to me, due to the powerful machines we as fans are up against, including market forces and supply and demand. Their cause and passion was admirable though, MPs have been involved, and the campaign will not stop until goals have been reached.

So how do we protest against modern ticket prices? Not attending does work. It’s why Manchester City have had very competitive prices in cup games, but it has not spilled over sufficiently into league games, where most seats are pre-bought in the summer. That’s the long game though, and it depends on owners caring whether seats are filled or realising that a full house brings in different revenue streams and fans for life. Visible protests like the one at Anfield are powerful. Already there is talk of Liverpool’s owners revisiting their plans, there are talks of further protests and journalists are writing about the issue en masse. Even Alan Shearer is discussing it on Match of the Day. There appears to be momentum, so it needs to be maintained, and we all need to join in if we feel strongly on the topic.

The game has changed – we all need accept that. No more terracing, no paying on the gate, no wooden stands, crumbling stadia, everything sanitised and safe, at the top level at least. No Football Pink, social clubs, goal updates on Piccadilly 1152, no relying on newspapers to know what happened. Now it is a sport of big business, of branding, of money, money, money. More and more money, piled upon more and more money, and the bubble is always seemingly about to burst, but it never does. But the irony is that the money that has swamped the game could just be the thing that saves it. If club owners could utilise their full brain power for just one moment, they would realise that they don’t need ticket sales anymore. They don’t need to squeeze every penny out of the match-going fan. The game is global, the appeal too, the revenue comes from all corners of the earth, from Albanian TV to Indian merch buyers to noodle partners in Peru. A rise in ticket prices makes little difference to a club’s chance of success, it is an extra corner in a match or one re-taken penalty in a season. It is less than that, because if the game was given back to the working classes, if the game became affordable to all, whoever you supported, the owners would benefit as much as the fans would. So if we can all see this, then why can’t they?
We need to keep telling them until it sinks in. Fans are the lifeblood of any sport, and one day we will have had enough – and all the TV deals in all of the world can’t make up for that. Only when fans are no longer taken for granted, their unconditional support no longer guaranteed, will progress be made. Thankfully it seems a groundswell has begun, and changes could be afoot. English football needs this to happen.

How I Love & Hate Modern Football

Do you enjoy football? Is the passion still there? Is it not what it used to be?
Well, it’s possible to love AND hate modern football, because you’ve probably always loved and hated football, you just didn’t always give it much thought. Football has never been perfect, your club has never been perfect, the players have never performed perfectly, the sport has never been run perfectly, and things have never gone exactly how you had hoped. But we still love it all the same, right?
Right?

Nostalgia’s a wonderful thing, though it ain’t what it was. The Parkside, floodlights at night games, the terraces of Moss Side, chips in a cone, a pound to mind your car, mister. The Kippax, outside toilets, mis-shaped stands, Helen’s bell, Gene Kelly, white dog poo, jumpers for goalposts. Back alleys, season ticket books, restricted views, relegation, promotion, relegation, relegation, promotion, promotion. Back in the big time. Trevor Morley’s moustache. Tight shorts. Inflatable bananas and hooliganism, ID cards, crumbling grounds and tragedy.

I’d happily argue football was certainly no better an experience in the old days. In fact, we’re spoilt rotten nowadays, and that seems to be what actually annoys some. A game for the working classes is fading away. But football was a right mess in the 80s. Half-empty and crumbling stadia, hooliganism, tragedy, and as much poor football as ever. Away games were fraught with danger, but if you were young that was part of the thrill. Or even if you were older, perhaps. Then football became sanitised and we gained a lot and lost a little too. Many teams moved to shiny new stadia after Hillsborough, because it was a better alternative than re-designing existing grounds and ripping up terraces, and things were never the same.

And with all this came the problem of ticket prices. Many of the old faithful have fallen by the wayside as prices increased steadily over the past decade and more. Inflation for Premier League football tickets since its inception hovers around the 1000% mark.  Lord Justice Taylor really thought his report would lead to an era of cheap seats – he couldn’t have been more wrong. With the Premier League, money became king and clubs ripped off fans for every penny they could. City’s owners have helped out more than many in certain areas, but prices are still generally far too high, across the board, and across all leagues.
Taylor famously wrote in his report: “Clubs may well wish to charge somewhat more for seats than for standing but it should be possible to plan a price structure which suits the cheapest seats to the pockets of those presently paying to stand.” Supporter groups saw immediately that all-seater stadia would not be used to benefit fans, and so it proved. In 1989-90, the cheapest season ticket at Anfield was just £60 and £96 at Manchester United. And as corporate seats start creeping further outwards around grounds, the “common man” is slowly squeezed out.

For many, modern football means a lack of atmosphere at grounds. It is a problem, but let’s not pretend that every match was a bubbling cauldron of passion twenty years ago. There were games played in near-silence then as they are now.
However, I truly believe that the accessibility of football has reduced the atmosphere in football grounds. Not only do you not have to go to the ground to see your team anymore, but there is so much football available, everywhere, at all time of the day, all week, there is so much to read about, so much social media discourse, that the match is less of an event now. In the old days, there was just the match, the Football Pink and the odd article in the Evening News. You could take a day off work and scroll through Ceefax or re-mortgage your house and phone Clubcall, but the week revolved around matches.

And with football seen more as entertainment, we are obliged to spectate sat down. No alcohol at your seats please. No sharp-ended items either, or bags, or cameras, or anything that could disrupt the Premier League’s product. Live football would become 50% more enjoyable overnight if a section of the crowd were allowed to stand, and if the away support, crucial to a match atmosphere, were not treated as the poor relations.
There’s probably a scientific study somewhere that shows people sing more when stood up, but either way, it does make a difference for me. The thing with terraces too is that with no allotted space, you had to get in early to get your spot, and that built an atmosphere more than in the modern stadia where many of us go to our seats at kick off (or later). Nowadays, many can’t even be bothered watching the whole match anyway. Beat the queues to the bar, beat the traffic too – time has never been more precious.

And dare I even suggest that life was harder for more “in the old days” and football was a release? I certainly would suggest the result didn’t quite mean as much to the average fan as it does now – I doubt there were fans apoplectic with rage after a home draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers or at the lazy ambling style of Paddy Fagan. Nor Woolwich Arsenal fans hijacking polls on their players or pushing their chest forward whilst talking about net spend. Once the internet gave us all a voice, many of us gradually became a lot angrier.

Now you’ve got us all discussing financial results, injury records, team spends, we’ve got the sodding banter brigade, Lad Bible, YNFA, Paddy Power twitter accounts, we’ve got the seat counters, we’ve got the history boys, we’ve got the Robbie Savages and we’ve got the bloody Michael Owens. We know how much ground every player covers, we know their pass completion rates, and we know about every other part of the game, should we wish to. We’ve got ex-referees as celebrities and in commentary roles, we’ve got analysis until our brains bleed, and somewhere in the middle of all that, we’ve got some football matches too after which we slow incidents down to a tenth of their speed and view them from 15 different angles to ascertain how much “contact” there was. I tell you what, I’ve seen them given, and if he’s felt contact, he’s got a right to go down Trevor.

And there’s the little things. You can’t turn up at the gate and pay, you can’t make an impulse decision to go to a football match. You have to jump through hoops and pay money just for the opportunity of attending.
But anyway, age catches up with us all. Personally, the fact is that I’m middle aged and don’t act like I used to, have other priorities and football isn’t the same as it was even though it is just as important, albeit in a different way. I wish it wasn’t sometimes, but it is. David Silva’s indifferent form can really put a downer on my week.

At City, when loyalty could be purchased via Platinum schemes, then the goalposts moved. Elsewhere, when Sky and other broadcasters considered it acceptable to move games at short notice and make fans travel 300 miles on a Monday evening, they shifted further. When we’re playing a 39th game in Dubai, we may as well knock them down altogether.

So are we disconnected from our sporting heroes now? Is this game no longer “ours”?
Are the players and fans disconnected? Well it would be nice if the players acknowledged the eight fans left in the stadium at the end of a game for their staggering dedication to the cause. But seriously, they should. Jurgen Klopp was mocked for leading the players hand in hand to acknowledge the fans recently after a home draw. As usual many fans completely missed the point, as it was not a celebration but an acknowledgement. Holding hands probably isn’t necessary, we’re British, but the acknowledgement is – and players shouldn’t have to be prompted. It doesn’t change my life or view of things, it’s not a deal-breaker, but it does matter, it does mean something.

However, let’s not pretend that there used to be some magical connection between players and fans, players that would get the bus to the ground and have a pint of mild in the social club afterwards. I’ve never had a proper connection with players, they’ve always been a distant entity, who exist in a different world to me. I want them to play well, I expect little more. Those I’ve met seem nice enough, and that’s good enough for me. Others get a bigger club connection no doubt, it changes from club to club, and in the lower leagues, but at the top table there always been a divide between players and fans, at least in my lifetime if not before. Now you have to buy something to meet a player.

What about between club and fans? Well that’s not the case with City, and anyone who suggests that it is worse than it used to be has a very selective memory. The club has never had more discourse with fans even though the Points of Blue liaison has gone, and there was even a fans forum just last week. I’m not sure who went or how you get an invite, but there was one. There was no discourse with Peter Swales or Franny Lee, we had no say, unless we protested outside the ground and waved a few placards and the like. The club was often run shambolically and without any thought to the fans. We had scapegoats in those days, and more of them. More managers too. The club do listen to fans nowadays, though we still wait for real ale at the bar, but revenue is king and it rather gets in the way sometimes.

But there’s no answer to what’s wrong, if anything, really. For those City fans that do feel disconnected from the modern game, there are differing reasons. Ticket prices. A perception of not mattering to the club. Atmosphere. Tourists. Players that don’t care. Modern football. Sky. The entrance music. The time it takes to get a pint. Bespoke pies. City Square. Too many club emails. The half-time entertainment. The tannoy. Wilfried Bony. Pellegrini’s substitutions. The lack of youth players in the 1st team. Corporate seats. Moving seats. Rubbish seats. No Garry Cook. Invisible owners. Loyalty points. Kick off times. UEFA. FIFA. Platini. Financial Fair Play. Smoking restrictions. The weather.

If it’s atmosphere, you could always do something about it. Stay to the end, make some noise, and support the team. You may get more back. If you are silent at matches, you’re part of the problem. I know I am. The club aren’t responsible for you cheering on the team, the people in the ground are. It’s up to you or else have a man with a loudhailer at the front geeing us all up with renditions of the invisible man.
Football has changed, and it will continue to do so. It may not be to our liking all the time, but it’s still football, and it still has the power to provide me with thrills, spills and move my beating heart like little else. It shapes my mood, it makes me swear, abuse, cheer, gasp, laugh, argue, scream and sing.
Same as it ever was.

 

 

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Howard’s new book, written with the wonderful Simon Curtis, is available in paperback and Kindle format on Amazon now.

And He’s The Left Back, Remember! – A Minute By Minute Look At 10 Classic Manchester city Matches
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hes-Left-Back-Remember-Manchester/dp/1519755619/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1453801777&sr=8-1&keywords=howard+hockin

 

Yaya Toure – A Club Legend & A Fraud. No Wonder His Agent Is Worried.

How times have changed. It’s not that surprising that a 32 year old footballer is rested by a club playing two games every week, but it still hints at a changing of the guard. Yaya Toure only made the bench for the visit of Crystal Palace at the weekend, but was introduced in the 2nd half, and the change in the team style and tempo was immediate. You sometimes don’t know what you’ve missed until it’s gone, though Fabian Delph helped us through it all.

Football fans can argue, and thus disagree about, anything. I’ve already seen a City fan dismiss Kevin De Bruyne as useless, after all. Raheem Sterling is both England’s greatest young talent and just a speed merchant who can’t even shoot straight. Don’t get me started on Jesus Navas. Many other players at other clubs provoke similar divides in opinion. However, has any player attracted the level of debate as Yaya Toure?
The answer’s no by the way.

He’s lazy, he’s slow, he’s overpaid. No he’s not, he’s misused, he’s misunderstood, he’s capable of genius like few others. He’s untouchable. Leave him alone. He’s arrogant. He’s a scapegoat. He should be sold. We’re less of a team without him.

City have, and have had, plenty of players that split opinion. It used to be easy of course – there was a certain consistency in our players, which is not necessarily a good thing, but now the bar has been raised so, so high, and so have expectations. There’s no time for a £50m player to bed in. But no one can dispute that Yaya Toure was excellent value for money, so why does he attract so much attention?

After all, it seems some players are close to untouchable. Sergio Aguero and David Silva can play badly for weeks and there is a wall of silence. Such form may often be fitness-related to be fair, something that is rarely the case with Yaya, though he is no spring chicken now so is surely just as prone to the same issues especially when playing twice a week. Maybe it is because they are “silky” players, who you know little about off the field and who exist without complication. We know what they bring to the table, we know where to play them. They have certain skills on the field that make all football fans go weak at the knees and question their own sexuality. Yaya on the other hand, is harder to bracket, a player with a rare combination of skills, as his career has shown.
Just what is his best position? What’s more, he gives off the impression that he is hard done by in life occasionally, and this may affect how people judge him on the pitch, not just off it.

Manuel Pellegrini thinks it is his languid style that deceives some to think he is lazy. It is certainly a factor. Some fans have even claimed the racism card for the flak he continually gets. Without proof of that, it is a spurious claim. What I do know is that it is certainly not all Yaya’s fault. To exaggerate a point, you wouldn’t criticise Sergio Aguero for performing badly at left back. So why criticise Yaya Toure when he is deployed in a role that neutralises his strengths and concentrates instead on his weaknesses?

“If Yaya Toure had Gareth Barry’s work rate” is a roundabout criticism I read of him recently. If my aunty had balls. If Lionel Messi was 6 foot 4. If, if, if. A pointless strawman argument, as he is not in the team to run around and cover, he is in because of a specific skill set, as is every other footballer in the world. Yaya Toure is a player with magnificent ball retention skills, almost impossible to tackle, world-class passing skills, a deadly long-range shot, a footballer with pure power and poise who has a knack of scoring crucial goals. He is a destructive not a restrictive player. They’re his skills, so utilise them.

We all know that Yaya Toure once played in central defence in a Champions League final, we all know he wasn’t a particularly destructive and offensive player at Barcelona (certainly not compared to his peak in 2013/14). But it is surely clear now that Toure does not specialise in going backwards. He does not prosper in a two man midfield against high-energy opposition, such as Liverpool and Southampton. The problem is he is at his best when close to the opponent’s penalty area, but City have stockpiled players to fill those areas. In fact, even without Toure, it could be argued there are too many. De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling, Nasri – they’d all prosper behind a striker. I think only Sterling seems more at ease wide, but could see him centrally too. Should Yaya adapt his game to play more of a defensive role? Not really, though it’s natural to suggest he tries a bit harder when he is bypassed by a mobile, energetic opponent.

Anyway, if you think Yaya is lazy during matches, your eyes are deceiving you, perhaps because he doesn’t make those last-ditch tackles or rush back to track runners. Perhaps because of that languid style, a style that seems to produce a slow lumber across the pitch when it really isn’t the case at all. To pick two games where City fans were left frustrated, and one where Yaya was heavily castigated for his contribution in the first 80 minutes, we see that in both games Toure covered the 2nd highest distance of any City player. In last week’s frustrating 0-0 draw against Everton, Jesus Navas not surprisingly covered the most ground, clocking in at 11.81km. What might surprise you is that Yaya was 2nd with 10.91km. In the 2-1 defeat at Arsenal, Kevin De Bruyne covered the most ground at 11.42km, and once more the lazy “can’t be bothered” Yaya Toure was 2nd with 10.94km. Maybe he covered it all in the last 10 minutes?
Yaya’s bursts have decreased, the turbo button growing rustier by the month, so his movement is more consistent across the 90 minutes perhaps. He certainly can’t cover 11km by ambling back into midfield twenty times a match, though perhaps we should expect our midfield players to cover the most ground. He is criticised because there are no desperate lunges, no manic sprints, no last-ditch clearances. But then there never have been. It’s just that when he’s not winning the league or scoring 20 goals from midfield, it becomes more of an issue.

When the next 8-tiered birthday cake is flown in this May, Yaya will be celebrating his 33rd birthday. Plenty of midfield generals have had to adjust their game as time caught up with them. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and more. They weren’t fed to the lions by their own fans, those fans realising they were in the twilight of their career and thus they couldn’t do everything they used to. The solution of course is to use such players more sparingly, but that isn’t the case with Yaya, often the first name on the team sheet, though he is at last being substituted more often, and now rested. Again, is this his fault for being picked? Would he really strop and tear up his contract if given a lesser role?

City don’t rely on Yaya Toure now. That’s the truth of the matter. It is the cyclical nature of football that the man that contributed more than anyone to our success in the past four years is no longer a vital cog in the machine. He’ll move on at some point, and so will we. He still has a role to play, but it is not as an automatic starter every week. He either accepts that under a new manager who won’t automatically stick him in the team every game, or he can move on. Simple really. What’s also simple is that he is close to irreplaceable. When he goes, City’s style may change as he has a skill-set close to unique, certainly unique to his current club.

Now of course he isn’t helped by his off the pitch antics and his personal spokesman.
I’ll not hold any grudges or resentment against the antics that became known as #cakegate as his younger brother was dying, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how horrible that period of his life must have been. We know his agent likes to shoot off with whatever drivel pops into his mind that particular day, but Toure is not going to dispose of a man who is a close friend and after whom Toure’s son is named. We must assume, though it is just that – an assumption – that anything Dimitri Seluk says has gone through Toure first –it’s Yaya’s drivel, so to speak. Do you really think he lets his agent freely say whatever he wants? We must also assume therefore that Toure is the most precious of footballers. He’s not alone in that respect of course. He and his peers demand recognition for their feats beyond wealth and trophies – hence the pointless Ballon D’Or ceremony every year. Getting rid of his agent as many demand will not only never happen, it would change nothing. Then we’d have a new agent saying the same things. And do you care? Apart from a tiresome transfer saga every summer, it’s not highly relevant to fans how precious a player may or may not be.

I have some sympathy for Yaya’s grumblings. African football is not always appreciated, Yaya himself, as we have all seen, is not always appreciated. He’s done it all, but you wouldn’t know this if you perused online for a few minutes. He wants his place in history. Get used to it Yaya – City players don’t get player awards.

Any player can take the attitude of being worried at the rumoured arrival of a new manager. No player knows what this new man wants, who his favourites will be, how he’ll shape the team, though educated guesses can be made. But most level-headed players would welcome the challenge, rather than having sleepless nights.
Hence, Seluk’s recent outburst, desperately trying to paint Pep Guardiola as some kind of managerial fraud, was the protests of a worried man. His client is worried. Very worried. What is Yaya if not the main man? If not a vital cog in the machine? There’s no point being a big fish in a small pond. Toure is now used to being a big fish in a big pond, and it’s hard to give that up. He left Barcelona because he didn’t feel appreciated, and he will probably leave City the same way.

It will be a shame if when the time arrives for Toure to leave, it is not done in a friendly manner. Something deep inside tells me it won’t. It will be a shame because whatever happens in the future, we shouldn’t forgot for one moment what happened in the past. The cup semi-final winner. The cup final winner. The other cup final goal. The two goals at Newcastle. The twenty goals in 2013/14. And so much more. He’s a club legend, and he always will be. It’s such a shame then that some fans can’t even decide if he’s even any good any more. And if his exit is acrimonious, his deserved legendary status will be tainted for some. But never for me.

 

Manuel Pellegrini – The Man That Should Always Have Our Respect

If you support Manchester City football club and have spent any time on social media in the past year, you may have noticed rather a lot of dissent, squabbling and outright abuse – at fellow fans, at players, and of course at Manuel Pellegrini. In the old days, the only ways to show your dissatisfaction at the group of mercenaries that at that particular point in time were not fit to wear the shirt was to hold placards outside the players’ entrance, or more commonly spend 90 minutes shouting obscenities from the terraces whilst veins bulged out of your neck. It was therapeutic, I guess, especially as the Manchester Evening News wouldn’t print my letters.
Now of course it’s a very different world. The internet has given us all a voice, with mixed results. The Dalai Lama/Piers Morgan. Iain Macintosh/N & S Custis. Typical City/Republik of Mancunia.
Players are in a way more distant from the fans than ever, but also more open to abuse, via a Twitter account, Facebook page or simply by eating a meal at one of Manchester’s three restaurants. It takes a special type of moron to tell a football player that will never read your message what you think of them on social media sites, but we all cope with disappointment in different ways. For some too, everything is either black or white – there is no grey matter in between. Criticise Yaya Toure and you are a borderline racist, compliment Pellegrini’s substitutions and you are a managerial fraud’s No. 1 apologist.

One person who has copped it more than most in the past year has been that so-called “fraud” Manuel Pellegrini. The charming man who brought us two trophies in his debut season seems a world away. Or not. As it happens, he hasn’t changed one iota – only the results have, and thus his treatment by so-called supporters.

You may think that Manuel Pellegrini has done a good job at City, you may think he has grossly underperformed. You may think that with the squad at his disposal, he should have the league wrapped up by Christmas, even though it’s not technically possible. Whatever, you are entitled to your opinion, and there is no right answer. What cannot be doubted however is how much class the Chilean has shown during his two and a half years at the club. Abused by fans, abused by fellow managers, written off and considered a dead man walking for much of his tenure, the man has handled everything thrown at him with dignity, a man who has sacrificed a lot to manage in Europe. One barrage of criticism towards a Swedish referee saw his guard drop, but it was a rare lack of composure.

He gets it. He understands. He is remunerated nicely to do so, but that is not a valid argument when you compare him to his peers. Nevertheless, as recent interviews showed, he accepts how the world of football management works. Pellegrini could have created untold problems for City’s owners and damaged the club’s image and we couldn’t have blamed him for it. Many other managers would, many others would certainly go to town on the club after departing with all the rumours that have hung around Pellegrini like moths around a lightbulb for almost a year now. Manuel Pellegrini won’t go to town on anyone. He’ll leave with dignity and with thanks to those he served.

Of course, he was always a stop gap. He knew he was there to fulfil a three year contract, to project a kinder image, and the contract extension was little more than a golden handshake. He was keeping the seat warm until Pep Guardiola rolled into town, and that is still the intention. If Guardiola changes his mind, there’s awkward decisions to be made, but for now, that’s the plan, and Pellegrini accepts this. He’ll go somewhere else and replace someone else. After all, he replaced Mancini, and would no doubt have been approached before the Italian was dismissed – it would be amateur of a football club and business not to plan ahead, irrelevant of the mock outrage from elements of the press.
But I’ve read some drivel over recent weeks. No change there then. You might think you are now. Should we get Rodgers in until the end of the season? Can we get Vieira back? We should never have let De Jong go. It is a hard fact for some to accept, but barring a catastrophic turn of events, Manuel Pellegrini will remain Manchester City’s manager until the end of the season, and almost certainly no longer. Don’t like it? Tough. You’ll get over it, so try supporting the team in the meantime – you might actually feel better about the world if you do. The sad thing is that when City’s history is revisited at some point in the future, say 30 years from now, Manuel Pellegrini may be little more than a footnote for many. And for me he deserves better than that.

One thing most Pellegrini haters have in common is their continued idolisation of Roberto Mancini. I mean most of us feel the same way anyway, so no harm there, but there is a link between the two managers in perception that can cloud judgment and can lead to swathes of history being wiped out or conveniently ignored. After all, how many times have I heard now that Mancini was sacked because of results, or because he didn’t say good morning to the tea lady? (it’s a lot). Why can Mancini’s final season be written off as an anomaly, but not Pellegrini’s 2nd? You’re entitled to your favourites, because we all have them on and off the pitch (I for one love Jesus Navas), but it’s harsh to demean your club’s manager because he doesn’t fight with players, dress snappily or rant and rave on the touchline. Because he’s not box office. Maybe slagging off referees and players shouting on the pitch could help our cause right now, maybe it makes a difference, but that’s a separate issue. It’s always been that way, everywhere. Managers are treated differently not because of results but because of their demeanour and who they know. Manuel Pellegrini has few friends in the press, does not give out soundbites, keeps his counsel and maintains a poker face at all times. Harry Redknapp he is not. I expect some journalists to react accordingly, as he does not help them do their job. I’d expect better from fans though.

But does it matter if our manager is nice? Does the club need to be holistic throughout and tread on eggshells for fear of offending? Is it all about results, and nothing else matters? Well it matters to our owners of course, and it should matter to you. The football club you support is about far more than numbers on a scoreboard and a list of honours on Wikipedia. It is part of a community, it is also, sadly, a brand, an image projected across the world, a business. It is many things, which revolves around match-days, but consists of so much more. Yes, United fans won’t have cared about how nice Alex Ferguson was whilst he hoovered up trophy after trophy for over two decades, and I’m not saying they should, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect any manager of ours who acts in a dignified and respectful manner, as it is a separate issue to analysing results. It is, after all about affording respect to a fellow human being, rather than getting so angry about bringing on Fernando you burst an artery.

Whatever, the things I’ve seen said about City’s manager because of performances have been beyond the pale. Criticise his tactics all you want, criticise his selections, criticise the purchases. But remember the man. A man that despite the resources at his disposal still has to deal with injured players, personal lives, talented opposition, silent crowds, politics, the media and did his job to the best of his ability throughout. His best might not be good enough for you, but that’s really not the point. We have one of the classiest managers of my time as a supporter at our club, and for all the frustration he causes me, that means something to me, and I will always acknowledge what he has done for the club. He is no fraud, and knows more than you and I can ever dream of about tactics, formations, player performances and how to deal with the world he inhabits. I hope he finishes on a high, but if he does not, I hope others will see, despite his imperfections, what he brought to this club.

Football In 2015: A Review

Goodbye 2015. Twelve months of war, conflict and disagreement – and that was just Louis Van Gaal’s press conferences. It was a crazy year, and football did not buck the trend. A year that started with James Milner starring up front for Manchester City, ended with Chris Smalling finishing games up front for Manchester United. Strange times and the year of the underdog, unless you happened to be playing Barcelona.

It was a year that saw most of City’s squad either injured, coming back from injury, or just about to be injured.  City’s plush new academy was transformed into an Anchors Away hybrid with padding on all surfaces, but all to no avail. Sergio Aguero injured himself yawning, Fabian Delph dislocated his shoulder signing his contract, Vincent Kompany suffered his 17th calf injury of the year reaching for a tin of beans and pork sausages at the back of a cupboard and Wilfried Bony caught malaria despite not leaving Alderley Edge. City had everything in place for success, except fit players. D’oh!
Still, at the least the younger age groups are doing very well indeed – and so well that United took their ball home in a strop at one point and considered not playing City at youth level anymore as we were too aggressive in taking on youth players. Not quite so easy is it when you don’t have everything your own way?

And partly because of the sick bay that was the training ground, and partly for other reasons, it was a disappointing, underwhelming year for the Citizens. It started as it went on – a pitiful defeat at home to Middlesbrough in the FA Cup after a commercial jaunt to the Middle East that did no one any good except our bean counters. Take that Platini! The glorious 2-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday in the previous round seemed a distant memory. In Europe, the balls were warmed to the temperature of lava, and that could only mean one thing – Barcelona, and City weren’t good enough to overcome that obstacle, especially with the customary red card in the first leg.

It was little better in the league. In what was soon to be known as the third worst title defence ever, City went on a terrible run from January to April, with the odd spark, that saw them go from level with Chelsea at the New Year to out of the title defence by spring. A late surge saw 2nd place secured, a consolation of sorts. That man who we once thought of as charming was a goner – we all agreed on that. Then he signed a new contract. Still, at least we were confident of James Milner staying. Then he left.

The title was Chelsea’s, won at a canter, and another triumph for the special one. A new contract was duly signed, and years of glory beckoned. And then it all went Pete Tong. Jose Mourinho descended into his traditional bout of paranoia, bitterness and dissent, but the players did not join him for the ride. Their form deteriorated, the players looked like washed-up ex-pros on a legends tour, all expenses paid and the club doctor Eva Carneiro committed the cardinal sin of entering the field of play to treat a player feigning injury. The dressing room was never the same again. When Mourinho inevitably departed with Chelsea close to the relegation zone, the fans blamed the players not the manager, strange considering that when a whole team loses form, there tends to be a single reason for that, whatever they get paid each week. Good luck Hiddink, you’ll need it, the Dutchman taking on the 2nd hardest job in football, only easier than succeeding Harry Redknapp, a man who used a suddenly inflamed knee to jump ship and let his latest team QPR flounder toward the Championship and financial ruin. Good work as ever Harry!

City fans should be primarily concerned with their own team of course, but what was happening down the road just over the city borders allowed plenty of chuckles and reassurance for the future. To recap – previously, Louis Van Gaal arrived at Manchester United to reverence, red carpets and the freedom of the press pack. He had them wrapped round his finger, drooling article after drooling article welcoming a new dawn after the debacle of David Moyes, a rabbit caught in the headlights. So much better than the dour man down the road who had no sound bites but had actually won something in recent years. Van Gaal was box office, by which we mean he has a screw loose, the proverbial one pepperoni short of a pizza. And some ham. And there’s a lack of cheese. And no tomato sauce at all.
Slowly but surely, the truth dawned, the non-existent philosophy fizzled away and the global fanbase worried about United’s unique DNA and soul. The reverence faded too, the purchases piled up, the expenditure surpassed anything seemed before, but the results did not follow. In fact Van Gaal managed to do something no previous manager had done before at United – he made them one of the most boring teams in the land. The press turned, as they always do, but respect to Van Gaal, who throughout ensured his club tie was impeccable even as the hair descended to Donald Trump levels. And here was the thing with Van Gaal – he was upset at the criticism because men with his ego and sense of importance do not see failure. By the end of the year he was being dragged out of press conferences by security men whilst shouting VAN GAAL ARMY, VAN GAAL ARMY!  Such sadness in his eyes.
We all pray that he stays at Old Trafford for a long time, as of course Manchester United stand against the immediacy of modern life.

Ah, the press. 2015 was the year when we learnt five things from every match. A dour 0-0? Here’s five things I learnt – number 1 – defences were on top. A 6-6 thriller – here’s five things I learnt. One day I’ll tell you all about the five things I learnt about the Paris terrorist attacks and the death of Lemmy from Motorhead. This is modern journalism. Newspapers are on the decline in print form, and battles rage for viewers online, which means clickbait. The usual appalling transfer rumours persisted, none better than United’s summer attempts to sign every player in the world (even I was offered a two-year deal), the highlight being their pitiful attempts to sign Neymar and Muller, if these attempts even existed. In the end, the sycophants in the press had to do with the two most exciting young players in the world, one of whom now sits mostly on the bench. Martial looks alright though.

For once, City were proactive and aggressive in the summer transfer market, moving for the players they wanted, rather than secondary targets, and increasing the home grown rota at the same time. The transfer that hogged the headlines though was that of a certain Raheem Sterling. Yes, Fabian Delph’s embarrassing U-turn did deflect some of the attention, but it couldn’t really compete with the hissy-fits and desperate whining of the Liverpool old boys network, still, after all this time, incapable of comprehending that a player may want to leave their club to better themselves (see also Arsenal fans). Hence, $t£rling was subject to the most incessant bullying campaign and hatchet job of any young footballer in many a year. One by one, the Liverpool “legends” queued up patiently to have their say. Not only was history rewritten , Sterling now portrayed as little more than a speed merchant, for whom Liverpool got the best end of the deal, but also it was repeated as nauseum by the likes of John Aldridge, John Barnes, Michael Owen, Phil Thompson that it was better for his career to develop at the club he was at, rather than sit on the bench at City. Jack Rodwell! Scott Sinclair!
Still, I’m always keen to take advice off ten-club keen dogger Stan Collymore and nine-club Micky Quinn. Alan Brazil sobered up for just long enough to call Raheem a numpty, before having a little nap.

Never mind, we all got to have a good laugh as Brendan Rodger’s team failed to show the requisite character, and he fell on his sword, before Jurgen Klopp rode into town, and Liverpool were predictably courted as title candidates within weeks. Some people never learn.

It was a stupid year too. City booed the Champions League anthem, and there was ridiculous talk of punishment by UEFA, seemingly too ridiculous even for UEFA, but would you put it past them? Soon the whole world learned of the booking, and everyone was having a go. Mission accomplished. Racism was dealt with the usual way – paltry fines and closed stadia. That will teach those nasty racists a lesson, for sure.

Of course football’s governing bodies had better things to worry about in 2015. Finally the net closed in on the crooks and despots of FIFA and even UEFA, though you do get the feeling that Sepp Blatter will still be a part of the sport’s governing body, even after death (should he ever die).  Almost as gratifying was the fall from grace of Michel Platini, who was hard done to if you ask me – which of us haven’t overlooked a payment of $1.5m for a year or ten? I know I have (no rush, footballfancast.com). Still, it’s hard to suppress a smirk to see the downfall of the man who brought in Financial Fair Play on the behest of the status quo. Karma’s a bitch sometimes.

And so the 2015/16 Premier League season has reached the half-way point, and it has been the craziest of all. It may be poor management by the elite’s managers, the arrival of even more money into the league or just a hundred factors coming into play, but it has been a season of shock results and the so-called “smaller” teams matching the big guns almost stride for stride. Watford excel, Bournemouth are beginning to flourish despite crippling injuries, but of course THE story of 2015 was Leicester City. Many of us thought they were doomed when they appointed the tinkerman Claudio Ranieri, but they have gone from strength to strength and remain right in the title race. With the rise of Leicester City came the rise of Jamie Vardy, astonishing considering that only 7 years ago he was working in a beetroot factory. Naturally four months of good form has seen him linked with a £30m move. This won’t happen.
Elsewhere, Gary Neville gave up his punditry career to manage Valencia to a succession of non-victories. Big Sam turned down Real Madrid in favour of relegating Sunderland, Spurs and Arsenal are well poised for a title challenge in the coming months, Aston Villa less so, as they slide miserably into the league below. They probably should have kept Fabian Delph, the snake.

City continued to plod. Injuries reached new levels of absurdity, and the club had become Arsenal Mark II. Aguero tweeted that he had a small bump on his heel but was fine, then was out for a month. Vincent Kompany comes back from injury and walked back off the pitch after nine minutes. Players get malaria, calf injuries, a hundred muscle injuries and other conditions I’ve never even heard of.  Results have surely ensured that Manchester will have two new managers by the start of next season – performances have simply not matched expenditure and expectations, the nadir for me a draw against David Cameron’s favourite side West Ham Villa.

Still, City got a new badge – it was the talk of the town. Out went the three stars, which represented Thomas Cook trophy wins (beat that Liverpool),  and in came something round, three rivers, which in real life soon became one whole river known as North England and a red rose,  which represents City’s proud horticultural history. Anyway, I don’t care, though is it just me that sees the badge as gold and white? Or it blue and black? It keeps changing!

But there were still highlights for such a talented City team in 2015. First, the boring financial bit – the club made a profit! This was hard for most simpletons to comprehend, that City are now bringing in huge sums in revenue, so when we bought players in the summer, it was still seen by many who can’t comprehend such complexities as the death-knell for Financial Fair Play rules. Yawn.
We built a new tier on the third stand, just so rival fans could count the empty seats easier. How considerate of Sheikh Mansour. There was also the wonderful win in Seville, topping our Champions League group for the first time, those five goals in fifteen minutes versus Newcastle, the wonderful skills of Chelsea reject Kevin De Bruyne, every Sterling goal sticking it to the haters (haters gonna hate), the win over Chelsea, our longest ever winning streak, the continued development of Joe Hart, a cup semi-final on the way and a misfiring side was still the highest scorers at home this year. The less said about the defence the better.

It was a year of sadness too.  In 2015 we said goodbye to loved ones, from Manchester United’s DNA, Cecil the lion, Richard III, Brendan Rodger’s teeth, Harry’s car park interviews and Louis Van Gaal’s philosophy. #rip #ynwa

And so to the future. Will it be a 2016 with Pep Guardiola? Well that has been the main topic of discussion as 2015 drew to a close, the enigmatic football obsessive announcing that he will leave Bayern Munich in the summer. All the smart money is that he will go to lickle old City. How times change. Should he come to the Premier League, along with the likes of Simeone and with Mourinho (United?) and Klopp already here, it could make for the most fascinating of seasons. Raise a cup of Bovril to the future, and happy new year to you all.

 

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Buy Howard’s new book “And He’s The Left Back, Remember”, a look back at 10 classic Manchester City matches, here.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hes-Left-Back-Remember-Manchester/dp/1519755619/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1451650464&sr=8-1&keywords=howard+hockin

 

New Book – And He’s The Left Back, Remember. A Minute-by-Minute Look At 10 Classic City Matches

Before the modern day onslaught of the internet, mobile phones, live streams and global connectivity, there was just football and newspapers and Gerald Sinstadt’s curiously immobile moustache. In this book, the authors – Simon Curtis & Howard Hockin revisit some of Manchester City’s most memorable matches and, layer by dramatic layer, give old classics the minute-by-minute treatment, allowing the reader to share the nerve-tingling build up of tension that those who were there on the day felt themselves. This beautifully written and exhaustively researched book follows the dramatic developments in ten all-time classic Manchester City matches – and not necessarily ones that ended well for the Blues.

They are dealt with in And He’s The Left Back Remember in intimate detail and in chronological order, giving the following chapters: 1980-81 Tottenham 3 City 2 – FA Cup Final replay
1982-83 City 0 Luton Town 1 – Division One
1987-88 City 10 Huddersfield Town 1 – Division Two
1988-89 City 5 Manchester United 1 – Division One
1995-96 City 2 Liverpool 2 – Premier League
1998-99 City 2 Gillingham 2 – Division Two Play-Off Final
2003-04 Tottenham 3 City 4 – FA Cup 4th round replay
2010-11 Manchester United 1 City 6 – Premier League
2010-11 City 1 Manchester United 0 – FA Cup semi final
2011-12 City 3 Queens Park Rangers 2 – Premier League

The full range of human emotions, covered in ten enthralling contests that sum up the spirit and core of Manchester City Football Club.

You can buy the book in paperback or Kindle format here:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hes-Left-Back-Remember-Manchester/dp/1519755619/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1450110842&sr=8-8&keywords=howard+hockin

Enjoy!

Howard Hockin

 

Match Reports, Player Analysis & A Bit of Humour on Manchester City and all things football…

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