After Manchester City’s catastrophic 8-1 reverse at Middlesbrough on the final day of the 2007-8 season, Sven Goran-Eriksson, and a substantial proportion of the club’s supporters, wanted a quick decision on the Swede’s future.
Eriksson’s declaration that a decision should be made within hours of that match was the clearest indication that he wanted to be put out of his misery after rumblings from the club’s Thai owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, in the last few weeks of the season suggested that the man from Torsby would be on his way out of Eastlands.
The curtain wasn’t drawn on Eriksson’s reign for almost a month after the fiasco at the Riverside, largely as a result of Shinawatra’s insistence on marketing the club globally — witnessed last year through City developing close links with 6 clubs around the world – which meant he needed a coach for the team on their recent tour of the Far East. It is, after many years of deriding our neighbours for their appeal in Asia, a strange time to be a City fan.
When I wrote a half-term report on City’s progress for Soccerlens, a fellow Citizen on the comments for that article did not mince any words on my worries about Eriksson’s reluctance to switch from the 4-5-1 formation that had guided the team to 9 straight home victories in 2007, declaring that I was ‘talking bollocks.’ Don’t think for one second I am not grateful for the memories Sven brought to Eastlands, and there seemed to be many; the first day optimism and performance at West Ham, two victories over United and the blending of players with youthful exuberance and foreign class seen so prominently in the early part of the season, the highlight of which was perhaps the 3-1 home win over Newcastle. Not forgetting Sven completing successfully, albeit through the fair play award, Shinawatra’s aim of European qualification in his first term.
The disappointing manner of a home Carling Cup defeat to eventual winners Tottenham, minus red-carded Didier Zokora early in that particular game and an equally frustrating, with all due respect, FA Cup exit at Bramall Lane against a balloon assisted Sheffield United suggested worrying times might be on the horizon. It was a peculiar season in some ways, but in other ways it was ever so symptomatic of the Blues; in 2004-5 City crashed out of the FA Cup at Boundary Park, in 2005-6 they exited the Carling Cup at the home of Doncaster Rovers and in 2006-7 Chesterfield humbled the Blues in the same competition.
Just to elaborate on the definition of the syndrome that, love it or loathe it, is known in and around Manchester as ‘Typical City’, in 2004-5 City kept clean sheets at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge and held Arsenal to a 1-1 draw at Highbury.
Eriksson seemed to have virtually eliminated it for the first 3 months of the campaign, but the Blues swiftly appeared to lose their zest and the 4-5-1 system, which produced such free-flowing football when the midfielders offered adequate support, was easily worked out by a few visiting teams to Eastlands. Thaksin’s recent criticism of the second half of the campaign included the fact that motivation was lacking. This remains open to debate, fatigue and confidence may have played a part, but Everton outfoxed and outworked the Citizens to complete a double over them while Wigan ground out a goalless draw at the City of Manchester Stadium that rarely looked in any doubt.
By this time, bizarre as it sounds during City’s best ever Premiership campaign, I was growing frustrated at the team looking a shadow of its former self — not that they stuck to the plan of course, completing that famous double with a first victory at Old Trafford in over 30 years which looked, when Arsenal overcame Blackburn at the Emirates the following night, to have handed Arsenal the title on a plate. How wrong I was…
The downward spiral was bucked slightly with a win at Sunderland and an impressive home win over Portsmouth, but I felt the visits of Everton and Wigan to Manchester prior to them were both must-win encounters if we were to achieve a top-six finish. Rumours were gathering pace regarding Sven’s future before the capitulation against Fulham, after which I, and Shinawatra judging by his expression, were absolutely livid and the aforementioned defeat in the North-East.
The day before that final game there was a march at Eastlands in support of Eriksson, I felt personally that too many City fans were clinging on to the memories and overlooking the danger signs in 2008 and that feeling was only reinforced by the manner of City’s loss to Middlesbrough. The decision to publicise the fact there would be a thorough review into the club as a whole was interpreted by many that Sven’s days were numbered. It was not a well-timed or particularly wise choice to announce such a review. Undoubtedly, the players were psychologically shot in the final fixture — though some of Boro’s efforts were simply magnificent – and many City fans were critical of Shinawatra for this. I have already stated that his timing did not help but he was thousands of miles away from the Riverside that day and was not as responsible as some were making out.
Of course, another consequence of Thaksin’s declaration was to create the type of uncertainty which persuaded Sylvain Distin and Joey Barton to depart the club in the summer of 2007. Barton in particular was stinging in his criticism of the lack of ambition and planning at the club in a radio interview. Distin could not hang around forever and although he has not been missed all that much due to other defenders who need no introduction, it was in a very similar tumultuous climate that his former defensive partner Richard Dunne was strongly reputed last week to be considering overtures from many Premiership teams, Tottenham in particular.
He was rumoured to be highly disillusioned at Sven’s impending departure and his fears were not without foundation now that Eriksson has taken on the role of guiding Mexico to the next World Cup in South Africa.
At this point I will not blatantly lie and say I was not concerned last week when this revelation was announced, especially considering the rumours about Micah Richards and Michael Johnson following suit. I attempted to appease myself: whatever Shinawatra’s human rights record, he is still a businessman and must have some kind of contingency plan, I pondered to myself.
Luiz Felipe Scolari was the name who had been linked more heavily than most, but with his intention of keeping his future undecided until after the European Championships and City due to commence UEFA Cup action next month, albeit at Deepdale due to a Bon Jovi concert staged at Eastlands, it seemed unlikely.
Now, of course, the rest if history. The dust had no sooner settled before Eriksson was being unveiled in Mexico and City approached Mark Hughes. After all the uncertainty of the last few weeks, it was a relief to see City acting swiftly and professionally, partly a consequence of the acquisition from Nike of Garry Cook, who is already advocating the signing of Ronaldinho.
Hughes and Cook certainly fit the mould of Shinawatra’s ambition and vision. The latter explained recently he had to make the ‘ruthless’ decision to give Eriksson the boot, while Cook has stressed, while alluding to the potential signing of Ronaldinho, that there are ‘times when you need to be surgical and times when you need to massage a situation, which is what this case requires’.
It does not seem, on previous evidence, that any of these 3 lack ambition. Maybe an example of this is the way that City released a DVD of a double over United in a season. While the Blues have done this on occasions down the years, such as leaving Maine Road and the epic 4-3 win at Spurs in the 2003-4 FA Cup, or maybe it’s a personal thing but I hope there is a day in the future when we are going to Old Trafford in an optimistic state every term.
In reference to another of my previous articles, one only has to read my tale of 3 top managers to know what I think of Hughes. He demonstrated nous, passion and knowledge in abundance during his reign at Blackburn and, in all honesty while some City fans are expressing reservations about his Old Trafford connections, the man is a class act.
I recall Kevin Keegan in his programme notes against Portsmouth at the culmination of the 2001-2 campaign, announcing the impending arrival of Peter Schmeichel, stating that it should never be a problem to have a class act like that at Maine Road. I read somewhere recently that Hughes did the double over United in his second season at Ewood Park and I haven’t even entertained the thoughts that some City fans seem to have done.
My initial thoughts are that he will bring some of the Blackburn philosophy to Eastlands: plenty of spirit and an emphasis on the flanks and 2 up front. City have never really replaced Shaun Wright-Phillips and while there is an exciting prospect in the form of Vladimir Weiss (there may be a clip of his free-kick against Chelsea in this year’s Youth Cup Final on Youtube), Darius Vassell works hard and Steven Ireland can be enticing to watch, I wouldn’t half-mind David Bentley and Roque Santa Cruz!
Yet it is not really going to be the same for Hughes now in the way that Sam Allardyce found when he took on the Newcastle job. He won’t be talent spotting for bargains anymore, presumably, as there are already reports that he has £30m to spend this summer, maybe more, working on the assumption that Jo from CSKA Moscow will cost £20m and Ronaldinho another £15m.
There is another issue recently which has concerned me slightly, though, and again it comes back to Ronaldinho. I won’t cover this too much really as I wrote a piece on his potential signing a month ago, but a lot of the rumblings seem to have come from Shinawatra and his advisors regarding this signings, even Eriksson was not particularly aware of it when the speculation developed a couple of months ago.
Vladimir Romanov at Hearts and Roman Abramov’s part in signing Andriy Shevchenko have both shown the dangers of too much interference from the boardroom. Hughes does not strike me as the type of man who would tolerate too much of it, but for the time being he has stated he does like Ronaldinho. Shinawatra didn’t interfere too much in the transfers in 2007-8 and would more than likely use this coup to try and cease his frustration at the lack of times the City of Manchester stadium sells out. AC Milan’s initial hesitation at the price tag could be City’s gain.
I know for a fact that there are people out there, not just City fans, who despise the treatment of Sven (which I did not approve of and, for the record, would usually say 1 year for a manager to prove himself is crazy) and people in football circles who were staggered that City let him go.
But I am more excited about the appointment of Hughes than any manager for as long as I can remember in my life supporting City. One thing is for sure, after a flurry of activity at Manchester City Football Club in the last week, it is going to be a very interesting summer…