Wednesday, July 30, 2014

LIVERPOOL

Until relatively recently Liverpool represented a mighty thorn in the side for City. Blues fans had come to expect very little from games with the Merseyside Reds. Things have changed somewhat, however, and a brief period of level playing field has moved on to a tilt towards the Blues these days. Liverpool's recent resurrection to title challenger status means games with them have once more become high profile nerve tinglers. Here's a brief stumble down Memory Lane.

















Monday, June 30, 2014

"I'VE GOT ONE LEG SHORTER THAN THE OTHER..."



David Mooney is not only a prolific writer and talker on all things Manchester City, but also a purveyor of excellently written, eminently readable tales about this grand old club of ours. He has already been responsible for four books on City and one piece of fiction named Granny Killer, reputedly about Jimmy Frizzell and a misunderstanding over a small tub of creosote. 

For those, who have not yet managed to get a copy of his latest work, "Looks Like Scunny Next Season", featuring fascinating interviews with each team member from the history-changing play-off final in 1999 with Gillingham, here's an extract to whet the appetite. 


 6: Kevin Horlock

“I know this sounds terrible, but I still didn’t think that was enough. I didn’t envisage what was going to happen after that. I thought the time was up. On a personal point – and I know it sounds dreadfully selfish – I thought ‘we’ve had a terrible day, but I’ve scored at Wembley and I can tell the grandkids that’.”

We were sitting in a downstairs room of Needham Market FC’s clubhouse and, naturally, there was only one place where the discussion could start. Just like Kevin Horlock on the pitch, when his goal at Wembley in 1999 hit the back of the net, there were few in the stands that celebrated it. With the board for stoppage time being raised and it pulling the score back to 2-1, thousands of fans thought it was too little, too late.

“Obviously it’s an even better story to tell the grandkids, now!” He adds, after a moment’s pause.

“All I remember was that, as a player, you really want to try and get back into the match. I remember trying to cover as much ground as I could. When we were defending, I tried to get back – because, obviously we couldn’t concede another one.

 “Then I just remember the ball breaking forward and thinking I needed to get to the edge of the area as quickly as I could. Obviously, I’m not the quickest player in the world. Luckily enough, maybe being a bit slower helped me run onto the ball, rather than have to back-peddle for it.

“I remember arriving and the ball just seemed to come across for me. All I was thinking was just ‘hit the target – head down, get a good connection and hit the target’. 

“It was a good strike. You can look at it as quite a good goal, I suppose, because I stayed quite composed – but maybe that was due to the fact I thought the game was over anyway! Maybe if it was to equalise like Dicky’s was, I’d have probably skied it!”

Even through chatting to him for a brief few moments, I can tell that Horlock is the joker in the pack. There’s a cheeky charm about the way he talks and he’s very humble about his own contributions to the City team that won promotion in 1999. When we first met – in the bar area of Needham Market’s clubhouse – he was clearly well liked by the staff and players that were there. As he walked in, three players, who’d been on the pool table, immediately started a game of ‘one-upmanship’ with him, ribbing him about his pool-playing ability. And Horlock gave as good as he got, too.

He’s capable of serious, too, though. After talking about his goal, we started talking about the bigger picture with regards to that match.

“We realised what a big game it was,” he says. “Not only in that season but in the history of the club. If we’d have languished in that division for much longer, then who knows what would have happened? We knew we had to get out at all costs – and it did go down to the last game.

“I sensed there was a little bit of tension, knowing that we were massive favourites. We had everything to lose and nothing to win, really. I sensed that amongst the lads and certainly felt that way myself.

“We tried to keep preparations as low key as possible,” he says. “Joe [Royle] was good at that. He kept the pressure off the boys and maybe that’s where I came into his plans a little bit.

“Joe didn’t sign me at Ipswich just because of the player I was,” he explains. “I think he saw me as a person who could take the pressure off. I used to have a laugh in the dressing room; I used to have a bit of fun. And speaking to people in Ipswich now, he actually signed me for that reason. Not just my footballing ability.

“So, Joe kept it low-key and I tried to keep it that way, too. It was a game we had to win and that adds pressure in itself, without having to deal with the opposition and Gillingham were a big, strong team.”

What Horlock doesn’t realise at this point is that I had already spoken to Joe Royle. I have to ask him about an incident that I’d been told about by the then City manager.

“We’d been out for a walk,” the former midfielder says. “We’d got down to the hotel and we’d all gone out for a walk and a cup of coffee down the road. On the way back, there was a monsoon. It was torrential rain. A few of the boys rushed in, but – and this will sound pretty immature now! – me and Jeff [Whitley] were stood there.

“There were a few tourists taking pictures of the rain. Then eventually they were taking pictures of me and Jeff because we looked bloody idiots, to be fair!

“I just said to Jeff, ‘I’m not going in, I’m going to stay out here for a long as possible.’ And Jeff being Jeff said he was staying out as well and it turned into a bit of a stand-off of who was going to stay in the rain the longest. And when I say rain, it was unbelievable. It was torrential.

“We were stood there getting drenched and I looked over Jeff’s shoulder and the manager was the other side of the glass window of the hotel saying, ‘get yourself in here now!’. So then it became survival of the bravest.”

A wry smile appears on his face as he adds: “Jeff went in first.

“It was funny,” he continues. “I think Joe probably laughs about it now, but he wasn’t best pleased at the time because we had a big game the next day. But they were the sort of things that took the tension off the boys, they found it quite funny. Joe pretended he was angry, but I’m sure he was laughing inside.”

In the February of that season, City travelled to Dean Court to face Bournemouth. In the end, the Blues would draw 0-0, but it would turn out to be a very welcome point after a truly bizarre refereeing decision – one Horlock would never forget.

When I ask about it, he laughs. “Where do I start?” he says.

“It was a big crowd and the majority were City fans,” he explains. “I don’t know whether it got to the ref. Jamie Pollock had just been sent off and there’d been a few dodgy tackles flying around – like I said, we were big fish in a small pond and everyone wanted to kick us and beat us.

“There was a break-up in play,” he continues. “I don’t know what had happened, I think someone had gone down injured. But there’d been a tackle about a minute before on the halfway line and I was just walking towards the ref to question it. I didn’t even speak and that’s the craziest thing. In his report, it said I didn’t say anything to him.

“I was walking towards him and he just flashed the [red] card at me.”

He says he didn’t think the card was for him at first: “I’ve not seen footage of it since, but I’ve looked over my shoulder thinking he’s thrown it at someone who’s behind me. And he said, ‘no, you, off you go!

“And I said, ‘what for?’ and he replied, ‘off you go’.

“So I’ve wondered what was going on. I’ve walked off into the dressing room and Jamie Pollock was getting out of the shower having been sent off previously and he said to me, ‘what’ve you been sent off for?’ and my answer was ‘I actually don’t know.’

“Joe [Royle] has come in after the game and said to me ‘what did you say?’ and I said to him, ‘I didn’t actually say anything!’ He said, ‘you must have sworn at him,’ and I replied, ‘I didn’t say anything to him.’

“Then the referee’s report came through and his words were that he’d sent me off for walking towards him in an aggressive manner. Which is bizarre, isn’t it? I walked fairly quickly towards him, maybe. I’ve got one leg shorter than the other, so maybe it looked like I was being a little bit aggressive.

“But I was just going to ask him about a foul previously. It’s something that everyone remembers and it’s funny now. But it wasn’t at the time when I ended up missing a few games because of it.”


* For details on how to get a copy of this or any other of David's works, click here 


 



Thursday, June 26, 2014

CEPHALAPOD MOLLUSC AHOY



I have been dying to use that headline for some time now. Anyone, who has had the pleasure of being given a handshake by an octopus will know exactly what it's like to play football opposite Fernando Francisco Reges, Manchester City's new all-action midfielder.

It was around the time Fernando, born in Alto Paraíso, Brazil, earned praise from all quarters for his tireless tracking of Manchester United’s star men in a 2009 Champions League quarter final ultimately lost by his club FC Porto, that his star really began to rise and in particular, his unfeasibly telescopic legs began to take on a life of their own. Industrious, energetic and originally highly effective in a restricting no holds barred midfield role, he became known amongst the Porto faithful as o polvo, or the octopus, his gangly legs seen as gadgets for getting in the way of even the trickiest opponent bearing down on the home goal. The ability to extend a long limb to remove the ball from an opponent or fly in with a trademark double footed lunge whilst keeping the feet low and facing sufficiently downwards to avoid sanction have made him famous in Portugal. He possesses an uncanny ability to slide in and wrap those legs around flying limbs and ball and steal it like a midnight thief.


As time has gone on and his role at the then Portuguese champions began to evolve, football watchers in Portugal became aware of other facets to his game. Far from a useful and reliable nicker of balls from the feet of advancing strikers, the then Brazilian was full of energy and could gallop up the pitch in no time at all. The initial safe short passes out of deep lying midfield began to take on more dimension too and he has developed into one of the best all-purpose midfielders of his type in the Portuguese league and beyond.

 
Fernando enjoys a moment of notoriety v Sporting

Fernando’s record at the Dragão is impressive: in seven years with the club he has won the Europa League, four Portuguese League titles, four Portuguese cups and five Supercups (the local equivalent of the Community Shield, which always counts as a trophy at City), whilst at the same time also gaining another valuable asset for City, Champions League mileage, in total 34 games’ worth. As time has gone by, Porto’s well-defined methods of finding young South American talent and moving them on to the bigger European leagues at a huge profit, has meant that Fernando, along with goalkeeper Helton, have become the club’s most experienced players. Not only that, in the midfielder's case, but also one of the playing staff’s most discreet members off the pitch and one of their number's most consistent on it. 

As the call to play for Brazil never came, Fernando took the step on 15th December 2013, of taking out Portuguese nationality, not an uncommon move for Brazilians plying their trade in this part of the football world. Indeed Deco had done the same thing at Porto whilst wiry attacker Liedson also made the move at Sporting and current international Pepe is also a naturalised Brazilian. This decision not only supposedly made him available for Paulo Bento’s Portugal but meant that any move to another European country would not be tied up in administrative red tape. Having grown up as a footballer in Portugal, he has remained a staunch admirer of the skills of Dunga and Gilberto Silva, other master craftsmen in his position on the pitch. Ironically the Brazilian national team has gone from one that placed little emphasis on the need for a holding midfielder to the current situation where Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and City’s Fernandinho are all high profile parts of the Selecção's game plan.

Like many of his kind, Fernando left Brazil at a relatively early age, having played for Serie C (third tier) Vila Nova in Brazil, but was bought by Porto ostensibly on the back of a string of eye-catching displays for Brazil in the 2007 South America Youth Championship. After a year on loan with the now defunct Estrela de Amadora in Lisbon, Fernando began to forge himself a reputation in the north, picking up admirers at Juventus, Inter, Roma, Liverpool and Manchester United as his match time at Porto increased. 

Under the stewardship of wily old Portuguese coach Jesualdo Ferreira, Fernando gained an increasing amount of playing time, inheriting the octopus moniker for his ability to stick out his so-called tentacles and wrap them around the ball. A reputation as an arch tackler and tidy-up merchant did not do him justice, however, as his present day incarnation is much more mult-faceted than that. Once Jesualdo gave way to younger coaches in the shape of André Villas Boas, Vitor Pereira and Paulo Fonseca, it became evident that Fernando had become an undroppable fixture in the side. As the official FC Porto website still claims today, 


Fernando reads the game as few do, recovers the ball with incredible ease and rarely commits fouls, making him one of the least booked players in the League. He is also capable of keeping it simple and is an efficient passer. The number 25 is omnipresent and has evolved into a player who can also create in the attacking part of the pitch”.

 

But there is another side to the player’s career that needs addressing too: while he has an innate ability to clear up muddles on the pitch, off it is another story altogether. He has never played for Portugal because of a wrangle about documentation and dates between the FPF (the Portuguese Football Federation) and FIFA. After three months of FIFA pondering an announcement was made: Fernando was not officially Portuguese at the time of being involved in the afore-mentioned Brazilian Under 20s tournament and thus could not play for Portugal. 

When negotiating to move to City last December, the transfer also became bogged down in an unholy mess of paperwork, resulting in the player eventually re-signing for FC Porto, to enable them to continue to demand a transfer fee come the summer (his contract was set to run out in June). In some ways the renewal of the contract told City that they would get their man, albeit at a price. That price, just €15 million euros, is still something of a snip. Porto hold 80% of the player’s registration and it is understood that City have bought him outright, as no other scenario would be possible thanks to premier league registration rulings. If his recent career has been blighted by red tape, and the occasional red card, it is clear that Porto’s omnipresent number 25, will be a good fit in the Manchester City number 6 shirt, vacated this summer by stalwart defender Joleon Lescott. 

So, is Fernando purely cover for Fernadinho and Yaya Touré? The latter’s announcements via his ever-comical personal representative Dimitri Seluk are becoming hard to decipher. After cake gate, a small storm is now brewing over complaints about City restricting the time he could spend with his dying brother. Whether these are odd moments of preamble to yet another contract negotiation, or the big Ivorian really wants out, only time will tell, but, interestingly, as Portuguese football expert Vasco  Mota Pereira says, The one aspect where Fernando may suffer is City's tactical formation: He has always proved to play exponentially better when acting on his own (usually in a 4x3x3). In the words of the great Fernando Redondo, playing him alongside another midfielder "is like playing with one eye closed". 

O JOGO, Porto's daily football paper, carries the news today


City’s liking for a roaming supposedly defensive midfielder (Touré) and one with more fixed responsibilities (Fernandinho) does not immediately tally with this. However, Manuel Pellegrini’s liking for fast raiding players coming from deep to support the front four, will certainly click with the new improved attacking aspects of the ex-Porto man. Mota Pereira continues “Fernando is probably one of the best (and most underrated) holding midfielders in European football at the moment. His evolution at FC Porto over the past few years was nothing short of astonishing, as he progressed from an exclusively defensive midfielder to a ball-playing one. Under Jesualdo Ferreira, he learned to master defensive actions and positions to perfection; under André Villas-Boas and Vítor Pereira, he was asked to be the primary hub of these possession-oriented sides and given the possibility to roam forward. Despite his improvements as far as technical skills are concerned, he cannot be considered a master of the art, particularly in a team like City. Not unlike Javi García, Fernando excels when his team are compact but the Brazilian-born midfielder is able to sweep and press higher up due to his more adventurous positioning and physical skills. On the other hand, while the Spanish midfielder is not exactly comfortable on the ball, Fernando is always willing to provide an out-ball to his team-mates.” 


 Whether he is seen as a stand-in for one or the other part of the traditional two man City central midfield or a starter in his own right, City fans are set to see yet another impressive performer striding the Etihad pitch come August.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: IS VARIETY THE SPICE OF LIFE?



The majesty and splendour of Plzen

Let me take you back a few years. Remember Aston Villa beating Bayern Munich in Rotterdam with a clumsy swipe from Peter Withe’s simple black Puma-clad foot? Or John Robertson bouncing Forest’s daisy cutter winner against Kevin Keegan’s Hamburger SV? How about Porto beating Monaco 3-0 in Gelsenkirchen in José Mourinho’s first final, ten years ago? Fine, memorable moments in the history of a spectacular club competition and not a single one of them likely to be repeated ever again at the rate we are going.

ESPN writer Miguel Delaney recently posted an interesting article, reflecting on the continental porridge that we are slowly but surely falling into, as far as carrying off the Champions League is concerned. It is without doubt a tournament that creates different emotions, depending largely whether your team is participating in it or not. Manchester City, for so long the ugly bridesmaids looking in through the steamed-up glass at a party that they had practically never been invited to (apart from one inglorious occasion when some noisy Turks destroyed our concentration), now include themselves in a tiny elite group of clubs that look set to dominate this competition for years to come. Who in their right mind can see anyone from outside Bayern, Real, Barcelona, the Manchesters City and (perhaps even) United, Paris St Germain and Chelsea winning it in the future? Delaney includes statistics that fair numb the senses, but probably only confirm what many of us have been thinking for a long time: we are fast heading for a closed shop:

The number of years since the following clubs had tasted glory in the European Cup/Champions League around the end of 1996-7 season is in the first column. The number of years since their last win as of today stands alongside in the right hand column. Just look at how the it has all changed...

CLUB                                                          1996                                        2014
Real Madrid
32
0
Manchester United
31
6
Bayern Munich
25
3
Barcelona
40
1
Chelsea
-
2
Manchester City
-
-
Paris St Germain
-
-

City struggle with Fenerbahçe in '68
As Delaney points out, the figures at the end of the last century suggest it was – after all – quite a difficult trophy to win. The number of different winners was inspiring. The list below, from the time when English clubs dominated in the late 70s to the Italianate end of the 90s looks just how you would want a trophy hit list to look. Sadly, there is a proliferation of clubs that either do not exist as top flight contenders anymore or are becoming rare birds at these sorts of occasions in the modern football era. The entrants from Sweden, Romania, Belgium and Holland are these days more or less resigned to filling their pockets whilst making a quick exit stage left. they are merely making up the numbers. Even Italy’s finest, past heavyweights in this tournament down the years, look wistfully towards the latter stages and retreat to the warm embrace of the Europa League, where Benfica, Ajax and a host of other past glories often await them.
 



As well as the afore-mentioned Villa, Forest and Porto, it is difficult to imagine the likes of Marseille, Red Star Belgrade, Hamburg, Roma, Steaua, PSV or Sampdoria ever coming anywhere near again. Even clubs, who are still relatively big noises in their own leagues (Roma, Juventus, PSV, Liverpool) are unlikely to make a splash again on the big stage like they once did.



UEFA have constantly tinkered with the European game in an attempt to, in their words, increase competition, and in the eyes of many, ensure a revenue stream that dissuades the giants from breaking away and forming their own tournament. When the Champions League began in 1992-93 (what a year that was), with Glasgow Rangers and IFK Goteborg coming close to the final as losing semi-finalists and Marseille and Milan actually making it, there were two series of groups. The second phase was later discarded for the
Just another night at the Nou Camp
format we have today, whilst qualifying arrangements have been tinkered with to allow more representatives from smaller UEFA nations to get as far as the groups.. This has had a twofold negative effect: firstly, the gap between Bate Borisov and Barcelona means their like are thrashed and turfed out every year. Secondly, the loser’s winnings keep them way above their own domestic competition, so they may return each year to be humiliated by Bayern and Real all over again. They have become simultaneously untouchable kings in their own territories and cannon fodder internationally. Witness the hoo-ha these days if there is a debutante in the group stage or if an unheralded team like Malaga (although propped up with dubious finances) make a bit of a splash. By the time we reach the quarter finals each year, the draw throws teams together, who now play each other four or five times a decade. Unless you are one of these teams, the interest level is surely unsustainable and, even if you are, the attention must begin to drift a little as Barcelona hove into view yet again

City, new to this sumptuous banquet of noblemen, have already had to visit Prince Ludwig's lair twice and they have only participated three times. City’s opponents in the Champions League so far have been:

2011-12
BAYERN
NAPOLI
VILLAREAL
2012-13
REAL MADRID
BORUSSIA DORTMUND
AJAX
2013-14
BAYERN
CSKA MOSCOW
VIKTORIA PLZEN

City’s chances of drawing Real, Barcelona or Bayern yet again next season are high, given they are likely to emerge from Pot Two. Already a familiarity is seeping into the experience and we have only seen the side escape the group phase once in three attempts. It is likely that City will, FFP attempts to derail them notwithstanding, become one of the staples in this diet of stellar teams, megastars and wide-eyed camera-holding spectator-tourists. How are we going to feel about that? Until City win the thing – and this will surely happen one day, given the momentum the club now has and despite its historical bent towards avoiding such glamorous outcomes– it will no doubt hold a sufficiently high level of interest for most onlookers. The chance to see City step out in the cathedrals of Europe (and Plzen) is still a novelty of high enough value to attract many of us brought up on the away end at Huddersfield and trips to the Baseball Ground, but how much time do we still have in this world of unhappy millionaire footballers before even this becomes a little too stale for our liking?

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Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; bitter, confused and maladjusted. Watching City since 1974 with fluctuating amounts of disbelief.

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