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