For Manchester City fans, the next transfer window is likely to be somewhat more emotional than most. Incomings and outgoings are an important part of any summer, but rarely does one group of supporters face up to saying goodbye to a whole group of legendary players at once.
Whether they be out of contract or just not fancied by the boss, a good number of the footballers picking up their boot bags and leaving the Etihad Stadium for the last time will be guys that were integral in several trophy successes since 2011. The core group of the side that has won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two League Cups are still City players, but probably not for long.
The process of ‘moving on’ really started last summer when Pep Guardiola made the slightly surprising decision to build his City team without established goalkeeper Joe Hart. England’s Number One was sent out on loan to Italian Serie ‘A’ side Torino and, though he is due back in Manchester at the end of the season, it would be he an enormous shock if he doesn’t find a permanent home elsewhere in the summer months. The emotional bond beyond Hart and the blue faithful is quite unique; he represented the last real link between pre-2008 City and the club we know now. He’d worked his way up with a team that could never be completely sure of Premier League survival and became pivotal in ending their 35-year trophy drought.
It hurt when he left. No matter the temporary nature of the initial move – everybody knows the plan is for it to be more permanent. The connection between the supporters and Hart was spelled out when Guardiola gave him a start – and the captaincy – against Steaua Bucharest. The fans in attendance that night belted out Hart’s name, paying tribute to a modern legend all evening, knowing full well it would be the last chance they would get to do so. He was as emotional as we were; City and Hart were parting ways and everybody just had to accept it.
His inevitable permanent exit in the summer will open up the wound somewhat, but his won’t be the only move that will bring a lump to the throat of supporters or have fans claiming they’ve just got something in their eye. Other icons of this trophy-winning era will also be leaving and it will no doubt be a wrench to say goodbye.
Chief among them could be club captain Vincent Kompany. Signed in 2008 and originally deployed as a defensive midfielder by master-tactician Mark Hughes, the Belgian became a pivotal figure for the team in his natural centre-back position. He is also a fantastic ambassador for the club. His 2012-title winning partnership with Joleon Lescott remains the last time the team really had the defence right and was instrumental in that success. Kompany scored one of the most significant goals in the Blues’ history when his header defeated Manchester United just three games from the end of the season. It hoisted the side into pole position to win the league – their first such triumph in 44 years – and further cemented his hero status amongst the supporters.
Injuries have since cut-short his career. It’s heartbreaking that a man who has given so much to the club should have to suffer such trauma, but every time he gets close to a return he breaks down again. The succession of injuries over recent seasons have meant that he can no longer he relied upon, through absolutely no fault of his own. Guardiola can’t be expected to view Kompany as one of his key men when he’s hardly been able to use him in this campaign, and a future elsewhere will give City’s number four a better chance of real playing time. Hopefully, when that decision comes, it will be made by Kompany himself. It will be a sickener for all concerned, not made easier by the necessity of it.
Pablo Zabaleta is another legend that looks likely to leave. The Argentine became a fan favourite with his hard work and his deep love of the City he now calls home. The self-declared honourary Mancunian was so keen to adapt to local culture that he was known to enjoy an evening meal from the local chip shop, on occasion. His improvement over his time with the club saw him go from reliable right-back to one of the very best in the game, earning himself the Player of the Year Award in 2013, as voted for by his adoring public. Like Kompany, he joined just before the takeover and has been pivotal in every success since.
There remains a significant question mark over the future of Yaya Touré. Like Zabaleta, his contract expires in the summer, though one assumes there is a reasonable chance of his stay in Manchester being extended. Nobody is more synonymous with City’s new golden era than the Ivorian; he’s scored huge goals on the way to every trophy and has a particularly good relationship with showpiece occasions at Wembley. However, if he were to leave, his exit will be somewhat easier to take than the rest. After a period where his relationship with the club saw him exiled from the team, he apologised and was re-instated by Guardiola. He’s now instrumental to the side and the fans sing his name again. If he does depart, he’ll do so having completed something of a redemption story, with a legacy worthy of his immense contribution to the club.
Whatever happens this summer, Manchester City are set to lose a crop of players whose names are forever etched into folklore. Each is worthy of one day having a solid gold statue outside the Etihad Stadium. Their exits will be the real signalling of a new era. The losses might be necessary, but it won’t make them hurt any less.