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?

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.




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


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, 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.




Buy Howard’s new book “And He’s The Left Back, Remember”, a look back at 10 classic Manchester City matches, here.