Manchester City, above all other clubs, has provided fans and spectators with some of most farcical moments in football history. From match-costing maths errors to violent feuds, Rob Mac Carthy looks at the troubled side of the club’s history
As the Premier League season shifts up a gear for the final race to the finish line, the division’s two most successful oil refineries, Chelsea and Manchester City, find themselves locked in a predictable one-on-one battle for glory. Given the petrodollars that have been pumped into these clubs in recent years, it is not at all surprising that Chelsea and City appear to be the only teams with enough fuel in the tank to go the distance. Online forums will once again be overloaded by the righteous fury of the 99% – keyboards will be mashed by angry fingers decrying the idea of ‘buying success’. The fact that the inequality complained of – between clubs owned by billionaires and clubs owned by mere multi-millionaires – is not exactly straight out of the Communist Manifesto will matter not.
But given that English football is stuck with this duopoly until Manchester United rediscover how to defend and Arsenal rediscover that it is possible to finish higher than fourth, it may be worth considering which of City and Chelsea ought to be the footballing community’s preferred Champion. For football’s sake – with its cinematic scope for drama and potential for farce – England’s greatest travelling circus, Manchester City, must be worthy of the nod. Like the cursed protagonist of a Greek tragedy, City is doomed to fulfil its destiny as the jester of beautiful game.
This is of course a club with three stars above its crest for entirely decorative purposes, rather than denoting any recognised achievements. This is a club that has gained wealth and success almost by accident – having been sold to the Abu Dhabi Group simply because the club’s previous owner, Thaksin Shinawatra (prime minister of Thailand until a military coup in 2006), could no longer fund the club as his assets had been frozen by the Thai courts pending corruption charges. This is a club still blighted by that famously incurable case of ‘Cityitis’, a slapstick disease that has followed the team throughout its history.
5th of May 1996, City go into the final game of the season knowing they need only better the results of Coventry City and Southampton in order to avoid relegation. At 2-2 against Liverpool, in the dying minutes, rumour spills down from the stands of Maine Road to the dugout that this result is enough to keep them up, and so manager Alan Ball instructs his men to take the ball into the corner and see the game out. But the ‘information’ is wrong; with both Coventry and the Saints drawing in their respective matches, only a win will do. Cue pandemonium as the substituted Niall Quinn bursts out of the tunnel roaring at his teammates that they need to go for the win. Too late, City go down.
Flash forward to December 2013 in the Allianz Arena where a more prestigious prize is on offer, topping Group D of the Champions League, and Manuel Pellegrini is suddenly struck with a similar bout of Cityitis. While spectacularly leading Bayern Munich 3-2, but mistakenly believing that two further goals were required to overtake Bayern in the group, rather than just one, Pellegrini hauls off the twinkling David Silva with 20 minutes to go and elects not to spring top scorer Sergio Agüero from the bench. The whistle blows, City finish behind Bayern, meaning they draw Barcelona in the knockout phase, who duly dump City out of the competition.
If errors in basic arithmetic don’t provide the necessary source of calamity this season, then the players themselves are likely to do their bit. Manchester City has always operated as a cartoonish asylum for deranged professionals. Mario Balotelli is of course the most recent out-patient, released not long after a training ground bust-up with manger Roberto Mancini. But physical assaults on fellow inmates at City have always been remarkably common; most of which have involved former midfield enforcer Joey Barton. In December 2004, he stubbed a lit cigar into the eye of reserve team player Jamie Tandy, though in Barton’s defence, Tandy had tried to set fire to his shirt with a cigarette lighter. In 2007, in a more violent version of Mancini v Balotelli, Barton punched his teammate Ousmane Dabo repeatedly in the mouth during another ‘bust-up’, for which he was prosecuted.
Yet magically, because this is how Manchester City works, Barton became a City legend years after leaving the club. 13th of May 2012, in the final match of the season with City seeking to win the league for the first time since 1968, Barton lines up for QPR against his old club. The spectacular finish to the match is well known but there was more to the dramatic late turnaround than Agüero’s title-winning goal. City of course contrived to blow a 1-0 lead, with Cityitis striking down centre back Joleon Lescott, who managed to get a particularly tasty assist for QPR striker and professional surrealist Djibril Cisse, by corkscrewing a free header beautifully to bisect his own defence. The scene is set – enter Joey Barton for his greatest contribution to the club; kneeing Agüero up the backside, then attempting to headbutt Vincent Kompany. Barton is sent off, and though City then manage to concede a second goal despite facing only ten men, because again, this is how City works, the numerical advantage ultimately contributes to that breathless final few minutes of overloading the QPR box and stumbling gloriously to victory.
Manchester City, master of the tragicomedy, is a club that writes narratives with artistic flourish and reckless abandon – the Beckett of the Barclays Premier League. The ace in the hole this year may well be Chelsea hero and potential City legend, Frank Lampard. Sold to New York City FC, a City ‘franchise’ abroad, but seemingly being detained in Manchester against everybody’s will, Lampard could be the man to sink Chelsea’s title hopes and deliver the Championship to their rivals. With a punchline like that, it might be worth postponing that hatred of City for at least the rest of this season.