Monday, April 13, 2015

IN THE HEART OF ROARING LIES SILENCE

“...I remain restless and dissatisfied; what I knot with my right hand, I undo with my left, what my left hand creates, my right fist shatters”   ― Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
Quick out of the blocks, alert and aggressive, sure-footed and thrusting, a tuned-in-looking City took the derby to United for a mighty impressive ten minutes before deciding enough was enough and downing tools. Thereafter the baton was handed over to their counterparts, who went on to dominate the remaining 80 with Louis van Gaal's much maligned brand of, apparently, kick and rush doing far more damage than anyone could have imagined. It was far more than that, of course, but the tactics were simple and fresh and too much for City to deal with.

Spending a game of this importance being given the runaround by the one team they could not afford to allow that pleasure was not a particularly sound move by Manuel Pellegrini, whose swiftly diminishing box of tricks showed no lustre, no shiny surprises and not a single idea on how to pull the Blues back into a game speeding frantically away from his team from the tenth minute onwards.

A mauling at the hands of your nearest and dearest is not something owners and boards usually take kindly to and the money spent on City means Sheikh Mansour, Kaldoon al-Mubarak and the boys might just be in a slightly touchy mood right now. Being shown up by Manchester United is not, after all, something that has featured regularly during his watch so far.

As for the increasingly frayed-looking Manuel Pellegrini, specualtion will now -- if it had not already done so -- go into overdrive. Will he last until the end of today? The end of the week? Before or after the West Ham match? Or the end of the season? It all seems now to be just a matter of time.

As it became painfully clear which way the dice had fallen, Sky's coverage of the game gave us several uncomfortable close-ups of City's Charred Man and the closer they got, the redder his eyes seemed to be. Pellegrini has in recent times become a rather sad image of his team: tired, pasty and slightly bewildered-looking, forlorn, drawn and confused. The blood-shot eyes suggest a man deeper into the pressure game than he likes to let on. His "the buck stops here" quotes will weigh heavily on judgement day.


"It is my responsibility and the only way we can change this is by winning games..."

EMPTY WORDS EMPTY GESTURES

Winning games is precisely what City are not doing of course. This was the 8th defeat in 14 matches since January 18th. As Bacary Sagna said after the limp showing at Palace, "there are seven cup finals left for City". Well, there had been eight before that game and now there are six. It smacks a little of the Tiny Tim announcing there are only five sleeps till Christmas. And then what, exactly?

City, needing a big performance after all the recent desperate ones - were out-played, out-thought and out-manouevred by a mobile, aggressive United side, playing simple, effective football. Passing back to their keeper rather a lot, utilizing fast, robust long balls rather frequently, it still worked famously. Van Gaal's gameplan came unstuck initially with Aguero's opener but was vindicated by half time with United turning it all around and positively celebrated thereafter.

With Aguero notching his 99th and 100th City goals and the corner count (not that City's corners have produced a single item of interest in the last six months) heavily in City's favour, the attack carried a temporary threat. If you were a United fan after ten minutes, you might have been hoping to restrict the score to below recente drubbings, but there was a pleasant surprise in store for all prepared to keep the faith. City were about to go back into hibernation.

MAKING ASHLEY YOUNG LOOK GOOD

At the back there was carnage and much of it, it has to be said, was caused by yet another pedestrian
Pass the towel
performance by Yaya Touré. Himself dominated by the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini, he was caught dawdling in midfield time after time. His inertia pressed Pablo Zabaleta into a difficult decision between doing his job at right back and helping cover the overrun Fernandinho in midfield. This in turn allowed Ashley Young a miniature field day down the wing.

On one early occasion, lightly fouled in midfield, Touré, a big man, went to ground, producing the usual high armed theatrical protest from a prone position. Referee Clattenburg refused to play ball and let the game run on. As the resultant United possession morphed quickly into a proper attack, you looked for the fast back tracking bulk of Touré, but it never appeared. Jogging back, he made no attempt to catch up with play, contenting himself with a watching brief just inside his own half.

Touré's performance by the end amounted to a dereliction of duty, an abdication of sorts, a sad footnote to what has been a magnificent innings in Manchester. Who will now want to buy a player of his age (31) on his wages is anybody's guess, but the last two months have seen him join a lengthening list of players many City supporters will want out this Summer. Touré, the man who lit the blue touch paper against the same desperate foe in 2011's FA Cup semi-final, is one of the reasons City are where they are today: double Premier League champions, FA and League Cup winners. He will live long in the annals of City folk heroes, but his wonderful contribution is being tarnished by these late days of empire.

For those, who do not want to see blackness in the blurred and subjective terms of player and team performance, there are other more scientific ways of measuring just how grim it was out there: City's 4th consecutive defeat was the first time they had managed such an inglorious run since the Alan Ball masterminded relegation season of 1995-96.

City's pass accuracy in this game was an almost entirely alien 71%, a full seven points below the next worst for this season. So often were the targets of City players' passing missed that it looked like Alan Ball had had an influence on that too.

Similarites are being drawn between this fall-off of form and how Roberto Mancini's last season in charge finished, but this time two years ago City were producing a magnificent FA Cup semi-final performance to sweep Chelsea aside and book a place at Wembley. That "downing of tools" by Mancini's team looks magnificently celebratory in comparison to Pellegrini's late term offering in 2014-15.

The papers will now have their day, dispatching players to the summer transfer whirlpool and sucking out the managers foolhardy enough to offer themselves for a job, which will now involve wholesale overhaul of squad, post-graduate level understanding of financial fair play mathematics and the handing out of plentiful positive platitudes to a network of supporters becoming a little low on tolerance of a club that has again shot itself in the foot.

UNTYING THE KNOTS

Questions must be asked: Who has the final say on buying and selling? Are they being held accountable for the state of City's squad today? How have the powers that be let a brilliant squad age en masse? What input does Pellegrini have in player acquisition? Why was the decision taken to roll over and take UEFA's FFP edict with legs in the air and tummy waiting to be scratched? What has happened to the form of the side's bulwarks, Zabaleta, Kompany and Touré? Why was Lampard kept on then not played? Why was Bony bought and not played earlier (despite a month of action in Africa)? Why has nobody in the management team come up with a cure to City's ills when rattled out of possession by aggressive high-marking opponents? How come there is such a marked difference between City in confident possession of the ball and City (half-)trying to win it back again? Why has the club gone for a severe hike in season ticket prices when they needed to keep the hardcore support onside?

A mephistophelian knot of intrigue awaits City's manager this summer. If it is to be Manuel Pellegrini, a miracle of biblical proportions must now make itself apparent. If not, the faithful await news on who, how and when. Wheover steps into the breach will have a job akin to peeling the layers off an onion. Layer upon layer needs that man's immediate and undivided attention.

The runners and riders must wait for another day. The mainstream press is already tying itself in knots with different permutations. City now prepare to chase or be chased. A home win over West Ham will reignite the run-in for a club that has two in-form teams ahead of them in the pecking order for the 2nd and 3rd places that will grant straight qualification to the Champions League. Miss that and prepare for an uncomfortable mix-up with Lazio, Sporting or some mysterious invaders from the dusty east.

Clinging to small mercies used to be an occupational hazard for fans of this great old bastion of the slapstick and the colourful, but there are precious few to cling onto after Sunday's game.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

DERBY DAY



Mike Hammond digs deep to remember his first Derby match, in March 1983
Season 1982-83 March 5th 1983, Maine Road: Manchester City 1 Manchester United 2
Att 45,400  Scorers: Reeves; Stapleton (2); HT 1-0

 
IT’S
 

Saturday March 5 1983. A 10 year old sits in the passenger seat whilst his dad drives down the Princess parkway. As I look to the left, on the concrete banking, a slogan has been spray painted. It's a lament to Bobby Sands and remains visible amongst the weeds despite the fact that he had let go of life almost 2 years before.

Manchester was a different place then, but for one boy making his way towards Moss Side it's a special day. Past the brewery, the glorious aroma of hops are distinct even to my uneducated nose. We park up and four get out of the Ford Escort. Two blue and two red. It's not been a great season, and it will get much worse, but today is derby day. My first.

Sitting in the North Stand, the ground is full - officially 45,500 are present but it feels like more. I've never seen so many people before, the noise is tremendous. In the first half City go 1-0 ahead, my hero Kevin Reeves scores and life is good. At half time I look to my left, the kippax is a sea of blue scarves and the two women on the row in front delight me with songs of how fat and round Ron Atkinson is.
The enemy advance

Forty five minutes later and City's season has been summed up in one game. We had been top of the world after 3 games, 2nd in the league after 12, and then it went wrong. I look to my left again, that same Kippax is now a sea of red. I'm crying, deep heartfelt sobs. My red cousin consoles me, "don't worry, it'll be alright", but I know it won't. I wanted the day to be a great day, a day we'd beat United and gain the family bragging rights. It didn't turn out like that, and it was to be like this for a long time.

I have been to a lot of derby matches since that first time. On each of those occasions we have been considered by all right minded people as the overwhelming underdog. We have more than fought our corner though, and have frequently bloodied Fergie's nose. I've always felt that this match meant more to us blues than it did to them. It's always meant the world to me anyway.

In so many ways, something changed in the FA Cup semi final. Wembley in April was a watershed moment for City. I shed a lot of water too, lots of us did. We were the poor relations of the family no more, we deserved our place at the head of the table. For those of you who have been on a similar journey to me, nothing tasted sweeter than the that. You have to be poor to truly appreciate the finer things in life. United have never been poor, so i don't think its ever meant as much to them.


I was thinking on my train journey home from the capital that sunny day in April, about a quote from Dear John, by Nicholas Sparks:

"The saddest people I've ever met in life are the ones who don't care deeply about anything at all. Passion and satisfaction go hand in hand, and without them, any happiness is only temporary, because there's nothing to make it last"

We've been through a lot since my first derby, and I wouldn't have it any other way.




 

You can follow Mike on Twitter right here
 



Tuesday, March 24, 2015

FOOD FOR THOUGHT


Perched at the end of the wooden bar at El Pintxo, there is scant time to think about West Bromwich Albion. 

The artichoke has arrived slightly singed and, it has to be said, a little oily. You could, if you were being picky, accuse it of lacking a little salt too. I have taken it upon myself to eat some stuff that I would not normally wave a long pole at and the first item is sadly lacking in star quality. Expecting a delicious bite size Rakitic, I am already lumbered with a lumpy slice of Fernando. As it were.

At this rate, we are no more than a few short seconds away from retracing the safe old batatas bravas trail.

Spicy mayonnaise. Who invented that? And was he sufficiently rewarded for his findings?

Whilst the omnipresent pan con tomate and the over-generous triangle of tortilla de ceba cannot be ignored, there are also squadrons of intricately arranged anchovies and chef's best attempt at paëlla using noodles instead of rice. It's all happening in El Pintxo. 



The four ample-girthed French women alongside are tucking messily into a plate of char-fried chipsticks and traumatised egg. Egg and chips! The French ladies think they are being sophisticated but it takes more than Catalan egg and chips with a French accent to sway us. If the big one doesn't wipe the egg yoke from her chin, we might need the referee in to show a few yellow cards.

Dora brings more goblets of Estrella Damm. The talk can move from the French women and their treatment of runny egg to the real reason we are here: to see Lionel Messi being shackled by the machine-like efficiency of City's mechanical grip, Martin Demichelis.

Just like the regimental rows of anchovy fillets in front of us on the bar, Martin - pony tail or no pony tail - will eat the stumpy Argentine for dinner, the bottom of the Estrella Damm glass tells us. 

I check along the bar. There is nothing called Bits of Messi, or DeMichelis Delight. I chew down on a skewer of garlic prawns instead (not served here in a Premier League style sandwich) and consider for a moment what it will be like later on to see Yaya Touré decorate the Camp Nou with a replica of that monster run he finished with a goal against West Ham in the Capital One Cup or the weaving piece of one man destruction he visited upon Aston Villa at the Etihad that time. Narrowing the eyes just enough I find you can replace a hobbling Ron Vlaar with Sergio Busquets quite easily. One-nil to the Estella Damm.

It is not clear whether Sigmund Freud, whose clear notions of knowing but not-knowing might have liberally applied to Manuel Pellegrini in his somewhat bedraggled Year Two Format, has ever visited El Pintxo and bitten into the succulent pimentos padron, but he would almost certainly have enjoyed the delicate irony of Ron Vlaar invading our thoughts on the august Rambla de Catalunya. 

The Society for Psychiatry and Neurology of Vienna, to whom he (Freud not Vlaar) addressed his firm ideas on the subject in April 1896 will have known very little of how it feels to be dumped out of the Champions League. They will not have visited the raw disappointment of Bacary Sagna or the strange feeling of longing that bumping into Uwe Rosler in a dark alley bring, but this is all still in front of us, way in front of us.

First Plaza Reial for more sustenance. You don't watch Manchester City step out at the Camp Nou needing a two-goal win sober, after all. With some differences of opinion between the merits of €9 plastic beakers of Volldamm and the €1 cans of Estrella Damm being hawked around the square by a small army of entrepreneurs, predictions of City's fate later in the evening vary from the foolhardy through level-headed Mancunian despair to the absolutely outlandish.

Nevertheless the sun is out and Catalonia's capital is sharing a little cultural depth with north west England's finest. There is even a heavily tatooed man swimming in the beer can infested fountain. Joyous times are being had. Local women in fur coats step into the square and veer off dramatically on seeing the Gran Festa Mancunia in full swing.

 

***

A week earlier popular conjecture had it that City had two critical games to realign their season towards a satisfactory climax. The response so far from Manuel Pellegrini and his men has been to lose flimsily at Turf Moor. City, back to being a mystery wrapped in a conundrum, will now attempt to do to Barcelona in their own towering ground what they failed to do in the prefab grey slab of Turf Moor.

We walk the streets towards the tottering 50s edifice where City's fate will be decided, the raw upswell of Mancunian voices rises over the hubub of excited Catalan bonhommie. We clatter our way into Lizarran. One last uncoordinated attack takes place on the town's most recklessly displayed tapas.

Swaying newcomers watch in awe as access to hundreds of tasty snacks seems barred by nothing more than a guilty conscience. "You mean you just lift that up and take it?" one hungry man exclaims. "Fuckin ell. John, look at this, fellas. It's free. Call the others."

Replete, we take to the great ramps of the stadium, twisting their way up into the heavens. I appear in my unstable state to be wandering in a phalanx of over-excited forty-somethings directly behind a man whose profile - even from the back - seems familiar. 

I have seen the front version of Uwe Rosler many hundreds of times, the image of that smiling assassin throughout a troubled nineties decade that started for City in the Premier League and ended in the cabbage patch of the third tier. His goal poaching lit up our sad existences as City slid through Middlesbrough and off out to Lincoln and Port Vale. 

Well-known for his love of the Blues, despite being the high profile ex-manager of Brentford and Wigan Athletic, he is now lumbering along in front of me. "Uwe" I shout in my slightly falsetto excitement. 

And now he here he is grinning in front of me. 

I clasp him in the growing dark like the elated son reunited with his father after losing each other at a ferociously busy car boot sale.

The German, far from being peeved by yet another inebriated trickster wanting to be his best friend, puts his arm around me and starts singing. Even the prospect of Bacary Sagna suddenly seems palatable at this euphoric moment. We take a few steps together, arm in arm, sharing a verse of The Best Team In the Land and All the World, before he is coralled away for another photo opportunity with more over-excited fifty year olds from Denton.
***
We are perched high up just like last year, but there appear to be many more than a year ago. 5,000 apparently in place of last year's 3,500. We have numbered tickets too, an upgrade on last year's free-for-all. Down below is a multinational sea of plastic flag waving diehards from all corners of Planet Football.

That match starts and immediately Kompany is caught dawdling on the edge of his own box and Neymar nicks it from him and hits the inside of the post. It is to be another of those long evenings, we quickly agree.

There are clearly two outstanding performers on the pitch. Sadly for us, City's is the goalkeeper. "BraveHart" the Catalan press will trumpet with some lack of originality the next day. Barcelona's class comes in the shape of Lionel Messi, a darting, omnipresent maverick, who wreaks constant havoc on City's defensive lines. He is quick, he is sharp, he is unstoppable in his curving swerving lines and his unorthodox slipperyness.

Rakitic celebrates his piece of skill with the omnipresent Messi
City are chasing shadows. Messi is joined in the high ranks of the gifted by Rakitic, a maestro of subtle movement, the solid rocks of Mathieu and Piqué and - when they occasionally need him - goalkeeper Ter Stegen. I even find myself admiring Neymar's gritty workrate, which leaves me feeling glum and perplexed. Only Dani Alves sunglasses-and-gold-lamé-winklepickers-cavorting on the right is living up to expectations. 

City somehow withstand everything, with help from the goal frame and Joe Hart's elasticity. With ten minutes left, we are even treated to the award of a City penalty after Aguero is upended. We are going to draw level at the Nou Camp! Sergio dusts himself down and dispatches the shot mid-high to the keeper's right (all the others have been low to the left in my hazy recollection). It is duly saved and we slump in resignation, "fight to the end" dying in our throats, just as it was being dusted down for several more choruses.
***

Wait please, all those from 1983
Half an hour later we are still in the ground, evidently far too dangerous to be let out at the same time as the tourists that make up Barcelona's bedrock support. They have managed three bursts of "Barça, Barça, Barça!" in the whole game, but 92,500 of them have made up the biggest home attendance of the season so far.

The authorities are obviously under the impression that we have travelled on direct flights from 1983 and we are kept waiting for an interminably long period. Amongst our number are several gents too old to walk without sticks and many more that have obviously seen City in Europe when the penny farthing was the way around town. They wait, leaning on sticks and shoulders to be freed from this barbarous cell. Downstairs squadrons of riot police and shivering stewards await our every step. Too tired to even laugh we pass by in silence.


Back in the warm embrace of a bar down the main drag from the stadium, deflated, defeated and demoralised, the chat and the beer is flowing again.







 "If you cannot enjoy playing against Barcelona in the Champions League and fighting for the title, you should go and see a doctor." - Dr Manuel Pellegrini




I check quickly. There is space for an appointment the following week.

City have been eclipsed by a little man on the very tip of his game. His game being the flap-free, pose-lite array of deft touches and slide rule passes, gliding movement and unmatchable guile that has left City chasing shadows. Lionel Messi, a majestic king of the simple things has carried the game to (and through) City and only found Joe Hart capable of raising an answer of any sort. Nobody else has anything to say for themselves.

Just three days later, City will batter 43 attempts towards West Brom's goal, collecting perhaps the easiest three-goal victory in the history of the Premier League. The scandal of the stolen tapas will be quickly forgotten, even if the chasing on the pitch might linger in the memory a little longer.

The morning editions of Mundo Deportivo bring some telling adjectives to our attention. Barcelona's appear, to my inaccurate grasp of Spanish to embody power, greatness and supernatural ability, whilst City's are full of "decepcionante" and ""frustrado".

The full list for those lovers of language are here: Demichelis, the mechanical grab of all our dreams, gets a desultory "lento".


West Bromwich, not even allowed to look like Barcelona with striped shirts anymore, certainly bear no other small resemblance to the Catalan giants. Deprived of a player -- the wrong player -- after two minutes, they form the the ideal antidote to Champions League depression. From Pep Guardiola's grand legacy of tiki taka to Tony Pulis and the percentages game in the blink of an eye. The footballing week had brought us rich rewards, embarrassment and ends with the cold comfort of Premier League thud and blunder to finish.

This time it is City who play the Barcelona role, racking up more efforts on goal than everyday statisticians should be expected to keep up with.

Farewell to all this
With the memories of one of Lionel Messi's greatest ever individual performances beginning to fade a little, those football bruises are healing fast. The season is almost up for the Blues. For the rest of us, Barcelona represents the last of this season's forays into foreign climes. This is sad on a number of levels.

For Pellegrini and his players, however, this second consecutive steamrolling from Barcelona may also offer a watershed of kinds. Only the arrival of the summer months will tell us who is to survive what will almost certainly be a significant cull.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

THIS JARRING MAN

The juggernaut has ground to an almost complete stop. Voluminous palls of black smoke emit from its back end, whilst a rhythmic clicking sound comes from under the bonnet. Is it the sound of time passing or a proper man-sized problem under there somewhere? Its driver stands alongside, charred silver hair, eyes glazed, a helplessly wan smile playing across his grey features.

Manchester City under Manuel Pellegrini have run out of oil.

On Saturday, City - possessing one of the strongest squads in English football history - lost with a whimper to Burnley. Beforehand, I had written for ESPN that two season-defining games confronted the Blues. City did not play like the game at Turf Moor held the keys to the successful denouement of this stop-start 2014-15 campaign. They played like a team that had already given up hope. A team with its mind elswhere.

Worst of all, they played like a team trying to get rid of its manager.

Anyone from Barcelona watching at the weekend, must have left the ground puzzled. Was this the side that would attempt to wrest control of their last 16 tie in the Champions League from the tight grip of the imperious, near flawless FC Barcelona? How could all these great individual players, with their world-renowned skills and temperament, produce such a sodden, lumpen whole? And what, if anything, was the management team doing about it before Wednesday?

When, in the final minute of a scuttling, erratic performance, Pablo Zabaleta was brought down by a rash tackle, a degree of face might have been saved. The referee, possibly blinded by the 90 minutes of incompetence City had put on for the public up to then, waved play on and Burnley escaped to claim the win they so richly deserved.

On the touchline, the cameras homed in on Pellegrini, an increasingly embattled figure in his blue puffer jacket. The Chilean, briefly raised his arms at the prospect of a last minute levelller from the spot, held them there, opened his mouth as if to begin a sentence and froze. In this twenty-second cameo, he revealed himself briefly to the wider public. A man left with no passion, no voice and no energy to carry the fight forward. Even the elderly Arsene Wenger - you would have expected - would have exploded at this last desperate chance going begging. Mourinho would have been well inside the pitch's boundries f-ing and blinding in his own inimitable way. Pellegrini just stood there, like a man who has forgotten where he put his wallet and now cannot buy the bus ticket home.

Early success brings it own well-documented problems, as we have seen many times in the past. What last season looked like a man rising above the sweaty clamour of the tetchy and bitchy Premier League managers' rat run, a calmness, a control, a peacefulness that said I am quietly confident in what I am doing, this season smacks of diffidence, hesitation, worst of all, cluelessness, powerlessness. The Charming Man of yore stays rooted to the touchline like a ghost tethered to a pole.

A ghost, moreover, with no influence on the horror show unwinding before him. A spectre, a whisp, an aphemeral light, flickering before going out altogether, a light mist, a gentle trance, a far off sound that fades and floats on the wind.

Proceedings at the Etihad are beginning to take on worryingly similar dimensions to the end-phase of City's last great man in a suit, Roberto Mancini, who arrived a gladiatorial maestro and left with his reputation singed and folded. Taking City from nearly men to FA Cup gloryboys and then Premier League winners and Champions League participants, he ended his days - lest we forget - with his side refusing to play properly for him on the worldwide stage of an FA Cup final.

Those there that day saw the obvious final act of treachery, the final act of a play that had turned from light, breezy success story to Roman tragedy. A team, as well endowed as the current one, playing out a showpiece final against little Wigan Athletic much like yesterday's megastars trundled about thoughtlessly at Turf Moor.

With exactly the same result. A needless and lightly pathetic defeat when it was least wanted, least needed.

What are we reduced to? Vincent Kompany, that giant stone bulwark, once again dibbling a weak header to the first attacker, who, in this case, made decent connection and walloped it straight back to where it had come from. Zabaleta, that iron willed metronome, reduced to jittery hesitancy. Yaya Touré, the man who can carry an entire game before him, pick it up and mould it to his liking, a disinterested passenger in midfield. And worst of all, David Silva, the heart beat, the artist, the sculptor, reduced to misplaced little passes into areas of the field utterly devoid of dark blue shirts. The whole display stank of end of empire and only the Gods now know what is in store for us when we step timidly out on to the Rambla de Catalunya in three days time.

Pellegrini is heading down the same dark tunnel on this showing. Ineffective, unable to change the flow of things and stubborn to the point of spiting himself, those two games to shape the season have now become one. In Barcelona. The Nou Camp. Where only a two goal win or a high scoring one goal win will suffice. City have surprised us on countless occasions through the club's ridiculously unbalanced history, but that, my friends, would surely top the lot.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

THE COWARDS OF EUROPE


"This team will frighten the life out of Europe. It will frighten the life out of the cowards of Europe. It will take them and shake them and frighten them. Those cowards of Europe will not know what has hit them"


Mr Allison’s words. These were Mr Allison’s words. They were Mr Allison’s words of war and they were words of war made for the European Cup. For the players and staff of Fenerbahçe, the unknown Fenerbahçe, who must now surely be trembling in their hastily fabricated and cheaply constructed football boots, made out of goat’s hide and sticky back plastic.

The words of Mr Allison were in every newspaper. They were in English and in Turkish. Mr Allison’s words were translated into Turkish. Mr Allison’s words were in English. The words of Mr Allison made good reading in the newspapers for the readers. The words made good reading in Turkish, with their sedillas and their circumflexes and their noisy guttural palatalisation.

Mr Allison’s words looked just fine in Turkish and were read by the supporters and staff of Fenerbahçe, the unkown Fernebahce, with their makeshift boots and their cowardly aroma of sticky back plastic.

These were his words of war. These were his words of European Cup war.

***

No spine. One man team. This is what they said.

No spine. One man team, they all said. And they repeated it. No spine. One man team. All the newspapers repeated the phrase: one man team. It was a one man team and it was a team that was going to be beaten, because it relied on only one man. All the readers of newspapers digested the words and remembered them. It was a one man team waiting to be beaten, a one man team waiting to be dispatched, waiting to be parcelled off by the men from Rome.  

The words were not those of Mr Pellegrini. They were in English and in Italian, but they were not the words of Mr Pellegrini. These were words of war, but they were not Mr Pellegrini’s words of war. They were newspaper editors' words of war. They were the words of war for a different war, a war of newspaper editors waging war on reader numbers and website clicks.

And the reader numbers clicked by as the words flowed. And the war was waged on all of us.

***

Mr Allison looked at the team sheet and bit his nails. He looked at the team sheet and puffed on his cigar. He puffed long and hard on a big, fat cigar. He looked again and asked his captain what he thought. His captain said he thought it would be fine. His captain Anthony Book looked through his manager's hastily constructed cigar smoke and nodded.

It would all be fine, he said.

Mr Allison also thought it would be fine. All fine. Mr Allison looked at that team sheet and stared at the names upon it. It would be fine, he thought. His captain thought the same thing. Anthony Book, captain of Manchester City, thought exactly the same thing. Mr Allison's cigar tasted just fine too and the smoke smelled just right.

He looked through the list one more time, admiring it, staring at it: Kenneth Mulhearn, David Connor, George Heslop, Alan Oakes, Glyn Pardoe, Colin Bell, Anthony Coleman, Michael Doyle, Michael Summerbee, Francis Lee and Neil Young. That would do, he thought. That would do nicely.
And captain Anthony Book thought so too. It would do. Even though Anthony Book, captain and right back, captain and inspiration, would not be there to play the makeshift men from Turkey. Not only would it do, it would be fine.

***

Mr Pellegrini asked Mr Cousillas what he thought of the team’s chances in the circumstances. The circumstances were grim. No spine left, one man team. This is what the press had been saying. This is what the press had been saying all week. This is what they always said. And no spirit. No team spirit. And these were the words of war that the newspaper readers read.

Mercenaries with no team spirit. Mercenaries playing for the petro dollars. Petro dollars and nothing else. Oil money. No team spirit and no spine left. Just dollars from the micro petro state in the sun.

Mr Pellegrini rubbed his chin and looked at the team sheet. Joseph Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, Martin Demichelis, Eliaquim Mangala, James Milner, Samir Nasri, Fernando Reges, Fernandinho Rosa, Jesus Navas, Edin Dzeko.

But no spine and no spirit was the message from the men in the press.

It might not do, he thought. And Mr Cousillas thought that too. It might not do, they both thought without uttering the words one to the other. It might not do. It might not do at all. And the press might be right.

***

The day of the match. No sleep. A terrible clatter, banging outside the hotel, drums and shouting, wailing and sirens. A terrible clamour. A terrible clatter. People running around in the dark, car horns sounding, people wailing in the streets.

Kenneth Mulhearn rubbed his eyes and looked at the clock, the digital clock, the new fangled digital hotel clock. The new fangled digital hotel clock read 05:05. It was five o’clock in the morning. It was five minutes past five in the morning. Five past five a.m. Istanbul time. Local time. Time for the locals.
Kenneth Mulhearn rolled over in bed and looked at the curtains. Dark green curtains with a little yellow stencil pattern. The dark green curtains with a little yellow pattern looked back at Kenneth Mulhearn and he did not sleep anymore.

Next door David Connor also looked at his curtains, as did Michael Summerbee in Room 106 and Alan Oakes alongside in 108. Nobody slept anymore, owing to the clatter and the din in the street. The clatter and the din just kept getting louder and louder.

***

Joseph Hart awoke at eight-forty five precisely. The liquid crystal digital read-out on his mobile phone read 08:45 Roma. The mobile phone was vibrating and pulsing. It made little noise and the streets outside made little noise. Owing to the triple glazing and the specially chosen location and the police cordon of little yellow and orange bollards, the street outside made little noise.

It was a quarter to nine in Rome. Rome time. Joseph Hart thought of the day ahead, stretching, exercising, preparing, talking to microphones. Stretching, exercising, preparing, talking to microphones.

Joseph Hart looked into his mobile phone to find music and to find the newspaper headlines that would talk of mercenaries and last chance saloons and failure and gladiators and Roman ruins.

The mercenaries. The pound stretchers. The bunch of cowardly individuals that were not a team. The cowards of Europe.

Joseph Hart yawned and put on his headphones. Joseph Hart yawned and scratched his head and put on his headphones to listen to music.

***

The BJK İnönü Stadyumu was already packed. The new digital time display in the stadium read 09:23. Breakfast time in Istanbul. The BJK İnönü Stadyumu was rolling and rocking. The BJK İnönü Stadyumu was full to the rafters at breakfast time. 
Kenneth Mulhearn joined his team mates. David Connor, Michael Summerbee, Francis Lee. They all looked tired. Michael Summerbee did not look as if he had slept at all. Kenneth Mulhearn felt a little like Michael Summerbee looked. The players gathered in a meeting room. One by one they gathered in the small hot meeting room. One by one the players, looking tired and flustered, sat down in the hot and small meeting room to listen to the words of Mr Allison, who also looked tired and hot and restless.

Mr Allison did not smoke a big cigar.

Mr Allison looked at the players and sighed. Mr Allison’s confidence was shot through. Mr Allison, for the first time, wondered if they might not lose. Mr Allison told them that he felt confident and he repeated it, but his face told them another story, his eyes told them another story and everyone understood what his face and his eyes were telling them.

***

The Estadio Olimpico was empty. Thousands upon thousands of empty blue seats. A silence lay around the place.

Jospeh Hart arrived in the lobby with his headphones and his bag. Fernando Reges did the same, as did Fernandinho Rosa. They all looked bright and well presented. Mr Pellegrini noted that they all looked well presented and bright. Mr Pellegrini and Mr Cousillas both noted that all looked well and shiny eyed, that all looked like they had slept the sleep of the unworried, the sleep of the uninterrupted.

Mr Pellegrini told Mr Kidd that he thought everything would be fine. Mr Kidd nodded. He also thought everything would be fine. Mr Kidd looked at the faces and the eyes of Joseph Hart and Fernandinho Rosa and decided that all would be alright, that all would be alright.

***

The roads were choked. Choked roads with thousands of people. The players of Manchester City
looked out of the windows and watched the choked roads with their thousands of people. 

Kenneth Mulhearn looked at the roads and the people. Kenneth Mulhearn shifted in his seat and returned to his newspaper, with his bloodshot eyes and his heavy head, which kept sliding down the window. Kenneth Mulhearn did not feel at all like playing football.

Mr Allison looked at the roads and sighed. Anthony Book and Michael Summerbee looked at the roads and sighed.

The people bounced and jumped, bounced and jumped. The people in the choked roads lit flares and banged drums. They shouted and sang and made a frightful din. The din entered the coach and the players of Manchester City sank behind their newspapers, with the din ringing in their ears.

***

Joseph Hart and his team mates sat silently in their modern bus. It slid down empty streets towards the stadium in a swish of near silence. The roads were dark and still.

Joseph Hart listened to music on his headphones. Mr Pellegrini watched and sighed. Mr Cousillas and Mr Kidd watched and sighed. Mr Pellegrini looked at Mr Kidd and he looked at Mr Cousillas and Mr Pellegrini nodded.

The three men lent back in the chairs in the silent bus and felt comfortable. The players behind them looked rested and alert, rested and alert. Joseph Hart felt like playing football. Joseph Hart really felt like playing football. And so too did Pablo Zabaleta and James Milner.

***


The BJK İnönü Stadyumu was surrounded by people. They looked wide eyed and excited. The people jumped up and down and thumped their fists on the side of the bus as it edged forward, inch by inch, inch by inch.

Kenneth Mulhearn had a headache. He closed his eyes and he closed the curtains. The little curtains only went halfway across the window and the people thumped even more. Kenneth Mulhearn had serious doubts and serious pains in his head. He did not at all like the look of the scene outside his unfamiliar smelling bus.

Anthony Book revised his thoughts. He did not any longer feel that all would be well. He felt something knotting in his stomach and he turned to Mr Allison and told him so.

Mr Allison smiled a weak smile and said none of the things he usually said on the bus to the stadium.

Francis Lee gripped his knees and looked out of the window. Tonight was going to be a difficult night. Tonight was not going to be his night.

***

The Stadio Olimpico was already reverberating to the distant noise of firecrackers and song. Red favours fluttered past the graded windows of the luxury bus as Joseph Hart looked out at the excited throng. Joseph Hart adjusted his earphones and settled a little lower in his luxury padded seat. He did not hear the faint bangs or the distant cries. Joseph Hart heard only music.

Out in the dank streets, people moved in the shadows. No noise came through the graded windows. The graded windows shielded them from any noise. The bus glided and the people mouthed wordless things.

Behind him Samir Nasri looked out too and gripped his knees with his hands. Tonight was going to be an interesting night. Tonight was going to be his night.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

COMPETITION

Not really sure how we've all survived these long years without CampoRetro, but now they're here, they make a difference to our mundane and tepid lives, spent buying disappointing pies and chasing next door's cat with a cricket bat.

Now they have taken the wise move of offering one of these beauties for FREE. All you have to do is answer the question below the images. 






QUESTION: Of Mike Doyle, Paul Lake, Neil Young and David White, WHO WON THE GREATEST NUMBER OF ENGLAND CAPS?


You won't find the answer here, but you'll find a heap of stuff you'll want to wear: http://www.camporetro.com/Shop-By-Team/Premier-League/Manchester-City 

You should state preference for one shirt or another and mention in calm tones just how large you have become since becoming addicted to wagon wheels. Answers to the quiz should be sent in to competitions@camporetro.com
 
Entries in before 25th February please.

Best of luck and remember the answer is not, was never and never will be Buster Philips


Sunday, February 1, 2015

KINGS ROAD COUNTERCULTURE

Fernandinho put in a Man of the Match performance
Coming away from Stamford Bridge with a point, having come out on top in every aspect of the game except actually winning it, should not be scoffed at. For those stating it was the big opportunity missed, I beg to differ. An opportunity, perhaps, but it is diffcult to imagine there will not be more moments to take advantage of in the next three months. Even in the light of twenty four hours to digest the ebb and flow of a fascinating contest, the word "missed" might still not be the most apt.

Did anyone expect Manchester United to lose at Wigan and concede a ridiculously careless 4-4 draw with Everton three years ago? Did anyone believe Liverpool would self-combust against Demba Ba and the gathered might of Crystal Palace a year ago? Football continues to enthral and surprise and will no doubt do so again before the end of this campaign. We just don't know how and who it will affect.

City have plenty of previous on the catching up leaders against the odds front and, even if key players are three years older than the first time they managed it, they can plainly still do it. As some have begun to hint, a side whose core has has been together for four years, will soon necessarily begin the process of overhaul. But here at a darkened and atmospheric Stamford Bridge, it was City's elder statesmen carrying the game to Chelsea for long periods of a tight physical battle.

With Chelsea backpedalling to such a degree in the second half that they looked like the away team, City's territorial dominance was not matched with really clear cut chances. When chances of sorts did occur, they fell to an Aguero in improving form but not quite back to the full coruscating net-blasting impishness of pre-Christmas. Two other presentable opportunities fell to Fernandinho, one of the side's less potent threats in front of goal. The first he skewed just wide, then met a second half cross with a downward header so ill directed, it nearly burrowed underground before bouncing over the bar. The evening was, soon afterwards, done.

City, though, had much to be pleased about. Dominance is a fake friend when the opposition choose to reduce their input to stalling tactics, but in doing this, far from simply preserving their five point advantage, Chelsea were admitting they could not do any better.

As statements of intent for budding Premier League champions go, it didn't exactly shout superlatives from the main stand roof.

Pellegrini had clearly done his homework. Bacary Sagna, a surprise inclusion on the right of defence, had his best game in a blue shirt, raiding willingly up the flank and partnering the surprisingly effective Navas in subduing much of the obvious threat posed by Eden Hazard. Tellingly, when Hazard did free himself to get on the end of Ivanovic's crossfield pass, his cleverly volleyed cross back across the City area - taken early to wrong foot the onrushing defenders - resulted in the opening goal, with Kompany again looking suspect as he made it into position but retracted his right leg at the last moment. Whether trying to avoid knocking it into his own net, or uncertain whether he'd reach it or not, with Remy right behind him, Kompany really had to attempt to get his foot on it in one form or another.

This was a shame both individually and collectively, as both the captain and the side in general had been performing much better than of late. With Navas also finally pounding for the byline instead of circulating in that infernal cutting back loop that he sometimes seems trapped in, he was City's most effective attacking threat and, with Sagna, provided City with a strong outlet down the right.

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

With Milner providing his usual spirit on the other flank and David Silva desperately foraging for any tiny spaces that he might be able to open up, City bossed the game territorially, had the better of the possession stats, provided almost all of the game's shots on goal and - in their substitutions - were clearly the only side trying to win it as the game grew old.

One man's handywork
Five points remain between the two sides, still a mere trifle at this stage. With Touré and Nasri to return and the firepower of Bony to be added to this side, there is no reason to doubt that City can continue to provide a strong challenge in the coming weeks. Chelsea, stuck in a habit of playing the same side each week, may well rue this later on, if and when tired limbs begin to give up on them or loss of form finally affects some of their more important players.

All to play for, certainly. Chelsea have the points advantage but a supposedly record global audience watching on tv around the planet, will have noted which side was hungrier, which side had the greater cohesion and which side came closest to winning this breathless and compelling top of the table clash.

About Me

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

Poets and Lyricists