Early Doors

We’ll miss you, Mario

Early Doors

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The gift that keeps on giving is finally spent; the goose that lays the golden egg turned barren.

The bleak wasteland stretching out as far as the eye can see, pock-marked by bland platitudes and footballers behaving admirably, is the post-Balotelli landscape that now awaits English football. This morning, the party is over.

With news of the tabloid darling's imminent departure to Milan, English football's destiny is now rows and rows of grey-faced James Milner and Gareth Barry automatons, treating the game with the ultra-seriousness it appears to demand, conducting a life of bland anonymity and only ever partaking in respectful, muted celebrations.

As Balotelli's camouflage Bentley patrols Manchester for one last time - apocryphal tales of random cash giveaways trailing in its glorious slipstream - the epitaphs are already being written for his Manchester City career, and their content is easy to predict:

A lament for wasted talent, potential unfulfilled; criticism for betraying Roberto Mancini's fatherly support and guidance - strained though it may have been at times - with apparent indifference and persistent immaturity; highlighting the desperately poor run of form that has ensured Balotelli's last great game was the Euro 2012 semi-final between Italy and Germany last summer.

All of these arguments are grounded in hard fact, yet to rely solely on them obscures the fact that Balotelli wasn't merely a footballer during his time in Manchester - he was a media phenomenon, who sold millions of newspapers and attracted millions of page views.

He became English football's great eccentric after arriving from Inter in 2010, a compelling bundle of arrogance, cheekiness, fury and, most importantly, fun; a genuine character in a game that is so sorely lacking them.

Not for Balotelli the forced bonhomie and 'banter' that too often passes for a personality on the Soccer AM sofa. This was a player whose personality plays out on the pitch: the relentless excellence from the penalty spot, the audacity to score with his shoulder, the simmering 'celebrations', the reckless red cards, the attempted pirouette in a pre-season friendly.

This season witnessed a tipping point though, as his legend outstripped his achievement, exponentially and irreversibly. As productivity on the pitch waned, Balotelli was beginning to become more famous for his pranks than his end product: a Jeremy Beadle for the FA Cup in Association with Budweiser generation.

The Balotelli reality could no longer support the Balotelli myth. We expected ker-azy antics; we got anonymous performances. When he did try something a touch out of the ordinary - a backheeled pass in the derby against Manchester United - his failure to execute it was treated by some like a betrayal.

No matter that it was a perfectly legitimate attempt at a pass - nor that Balotelli hadn't actually had a bad game - he was swiftly substituted by Mancini, condemned by his manager post-match and then savaged on phone-ins and in columns with unusual vitriol.

English football had turned decisively against him, and the Guardian reports this morning that what truly sealed Balotelli's fate was a training-ground row with Mancini - caught on camera - coming as it did just minutes after his manager had given him a motivational talk about how it was finally his time to deliver and take his "chance".

As a snapshot of the Mancini-Balotelli relationship it seems pretty accurate: a fatherly arm round the shoulder followed quickly by grabs to the throat. Even after that contretemps, Mancini was still backing the boy he brought into the Inter first team, publicly at least, and no one can fault the Italian's persistence in trying to help Balotelli fulfil his potential.

Last night he said: "For me, Mario was like another of my children. It is difficult because I lost one important striker and that could be important in the next 14 games. But it is important for Mario - to be back in Italy, back with his family and to play for Milan.

"This is for Mario because we love Mario and he deserves to have this chance. We love Mario, Mario likes the players but I think he had this big chance to come back in Italy and to play for another top club like Milan. I hope Mario can continue to improve and can show all is well because I think if he works hard he can continue his growing and can become one of the best players in Europe."

Mancini - who after the derby defeat to United in December told Balotelli he was "throwing his quality out of the window" - tried both carrot and stick, but ultimately Jose Mourinho's warning that the striker is "unmanageable" proved correct.

This season has proved a dreadful waste of time and effort for all parties - that much is clear - yet even so we should not forget that Balotelli played an important role in helping City win their first trophy for 35 years when lifting the FA Cup in 2011. And last season, while Carlos Tevez was diligently improving his handicap on the fairways and greens in Buenos Aires, Balotelli was making an essential contribution to a title-winning campaign - not least in the 6-1 win at Old Trafford.

His time in England was always about more than football though. There was the car crash, the parking tickets; the lobbed luggage, the hurled darts; the tramp donations, the grass allergy; the school visits, the Lake District jaunt; the attempted prison break-in, the trip round Naples with the Mafia; the motorbike ban, the camouflaged Bentley; the spontaneous trampoline purchase, the bib that was as indecipherable as a Rubik's cube; the strops, the taunts, the training-ground bust-ups; the flicks, the tricks, the kicks; and, of course, the firework display that rendered a house uninhabitable.

That seminal Balotelli weekend was the Italian at his best. In the early hours of Saturday his house was set ablaze after an impromptu firework display, held in his bathroom, went horribly awry; on the Sunday he scored twice in a 6-1 destruction of Manchester United; on Monday he was unveiled as City's Fireworks Safety Ambassador. Farce and genius unforgettably entwined.

It will be said he wasted his talent - and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that is the case. But while he lacked the consistent excellence of Robin van Persie or the ultra-professionalism of Vincent Kompany, Balotelli had alternative appeal. And as the game grows ever more anodyne, English football can ill afford to lose one of its last remaining characters.

Arrivederci, Mario. We'll miss you.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Sissoko was magnificent in the first half, he’s going to be a powerful player in the Premier League. Moussa Sissoko made a difference today with his power and control, plus he helped Papiss, who had been a bit isolated – especially since Demba left. I have always had my eye on him and that was a nice little aperitif he showed tonight." - Aperitif? Alain De Pardew's French imports appear to be rubbing off on him already judging by his quotes following Newcastle's 2-1 win at Aston Villa.

FOREIGN VIEW: In lieu of any particularly interesting stories, we will bring you the front page of today's Gazzetta, which welcomes Super Mario back to Italy:

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COMING UP: It's Algeria v Ivory Coast and Togo v Tunisia in the African Cup of Nations, but that's just the aperitif for six Premier League games this evening, including Arsenal v Liverpool, Manchester United v Southampton and Reading v Chelsea.

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