Manchester City fans have long laboured against a condition which has debilitated their health for years, making them wary of possibility, certain that fate is going to punch them hard in the guts.
Joe Royle, the former manager, was the first to diagnose the ailment. 'City-itis' he called it, its symptoms manifested in the absolute certainty that when presented with a decent chance of success the club would contrive to mess it up.
The most extreme example of its awfulness was on the final day of the 1995/96 season, when City, still with the chance of escape from relegation in their own hands, redefined the term cock up to manufacture their own demise. No-one of a blue persuasion needs reminding of manager Alan Ball’s reckless instruction in the closing stages of home game with Liverpool, with the scores level, that his players to waste time in the mistaken belief that a point would be enough to preserve their Premier League status. He had been given false information from a member of the crowd about scores elsewhere and thought he was safe. He wasn’t. City needed to win, but instead of pressing for the goal that might have saved them, they squandered away their last few minutes in the top division playing keep-ball by the corner flag. The only response to such wilful self-destruction was to do what City fans did: laugh about it.
When Sheikh Mansour took over City, he was not amused by that element of the club’s past. He was not pumping in millions of his oil fortune to associate with incompetence. He wanted the place to epitomise ambition, achievement, aspiration. Not cock-up.
Yet, whatever the glow of success the Mansour regime has brought to the lives of grateful City fans, the fear of 'City-itis' lingers. It would be hard to find a long-term City fan who does not worry the condition might still play a part in this season’s title race. With Liverpool so spectacularly blowing it on Monday night, they remain terrified that their team could still throw away the title, however gift wrapped it may have been by Steven Gerrard and his careless colleagues. Any City fan who does not have a tightening knot of trepidation growing in their stomachs ahead of the game with Aston Villa has clearly only found connection with the club in the last couple of seasons. Those with longer affiliation will tell you, however gilded the players might be these days, anyone who pulls on a blue shirt is capable of falling over their own feet.
Which means if Manuel Pellegrini negotiates this final hurdle comfortably it will be his most significant gift to the City fans. If he can expunge all suggestion of 'City-itis' from the collective memory at the Etihad, that will be his greatest service. If he can make his followers believe the team is now a ruthless, slip-up-averse piece of engineering that will be some achievement.
In truth, Pellegrini has all the tools at his disposal to complete the job tonight. Any team with Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Yaya Toure in it really need not be toying with fate. My prediction is they will steam roller Aston Villa and effectively have the title wrapped up before ripping up West Ham at the weekend.
And when it happens, the manager can rightly take huge pride in the turnaround. He will have been largely responsible for the transformation from a bunch riven by internal division and disruption into a fluent, trophy-accumulating machine. He may have been much mocked for his insistence earlier in the season that City were in for four pieces of silverware. But if he ends up with two out of four, not so many will be laughing at him. Least of all his most sneering critic, Jose Mourinho.
No longer will Pellegrini be the nearly man of Mourinho’s insistence, the manager always destined to come second. He will be a double champion.
It is not easy to understand precisely how he will have done it, mind. With a huge ego like Mourinho you can see what he brings to the party. With a tactical plotter and planner like Roberto Martinez or Brendan Rodgers, you can see their imprint on the team. Pellegrini is so publicly undemonstrative, so determinedly dull in his press dealings, so rigorous in his refusal ever to say anything that might pass as interesting, it is hard to know precisely what he brings. But whatever it may be, it is of enormous value.
What is certain is that the players trust him. What elite athletes look for in a coach is someone who they think will improve them. That was David Moyes’s downfall at Old Trafford: the senior pros simply did not believe he had the wherewithal to make them better. The City players clearly have no such reservations about the Chilean. You only have to look at the improved performance of someone like Edin Dzeko to see the benefits of mature man management. Everyone looks happier, more relaxed, less stressed than they did under Roberto Mancini. They look as though they are enjoying themselves.
And it is that enjoyment that ultimately will bring an end to 'City-itis'. When you are having fun, you don’t have fear. City won’t mess this one up. And when they win the title, you never know, the man who engineered it, might even allow himself a smile.
- Sports & Recreation
- Manchester City
- Manuel Pellegrini