Friday, April 15, 2011

Far from final semi-final thoughts

City-United FA cup semi-final day, Blues’ first since 1981 and the legendary Paul Power goal that beat Ipswich at Villa Park. United, on their regular trip to the twin towers (and with the likelihood of another trip there in May if they beat Schalke), will be heading up Wembley Way with a spring in their step, a bit nervous obviously because to lose to City on such a stage is unconscionable, but with the weight of reason on the side; not many think their team will bottle it. Also-rans in the Liverpool-led 80s, the club are the prime beneficiary of the era of Premiership commercialisation, and their fans are the perfect capitalist avatars, never ones to defer gratification, whether over the course of 97 minutes or the long-haul of a season. An unlikely comeback is their metier.

City fans travel to Wembley giddy in expectation (it’s an unusual day out for us) with many also sick with nerves. The mate I sit with at Eastlands says he has never got that infamous defeat at the hands of Spurs’ Ricky Villa out of his system, and neither did the club, in many respects. Thirty years on, this season is one of the best opportunities to exorcise that horror, which in turn would get that other infamous monkey of our back of all the years without a pot.

United, players, staff and fans alike, will constantly tell you they have bigger fish to fry, but then spend virtually all their fan-time putting ‘little Citeh’ in their place in what arguably goes beyond puerile to just plain tedious. It’s their superiority complex, the bully in the playground at work. City, for their part, can’t match the other lot for history, size or even success in the derbies themselves (the last 30 years have seen something like a mere six victories over Utd) but since United’s cause became national and then international Blues feel they are more intrinsically embedded in Manchester, the famous northern city that used to lead the way. This local rivalry is one of football’s more notorious but sustained without the balance of Celtic-Rangers, Inter-AC, Barcelona-Real. Yet for sheer mutual hatred and existential difference between the two outfits it’s big.

This season common consent will tell you United do not have a classic team and have rode their luck a lot to get into a possible ‘treble’ scenario again but I ditched this view around about Christmas. If they play a full strength side there’s hardly any weaknesses in their side at all – in defence, three world class players and a Brazilian aggro merchant that’s coming good, three or four players with quality out wide and further quality upfront. With Scholes losing legs and interest, the centre is the only area of worry so they don’t play through that area. Sure, beyond their first 15 or so it starts to look weak but the fringe are used judiciously. They sometimes struggle in games and look like they have no Plan A but their Plan B, waves of attacks, crosses and half chances, is pretty good. Then there’s the much vaunted ‘will to win’, ‘pride in the shirt’, etc.

City by contrast were judged to have built a great squad but Mancini’s systematic/stifling style of play seems to have belied our potential and blown the chance to aim even higher in a generally poor Premier year. We have a good core, but exorbitant buys – Boateng, Kolarov, Dzeko – don’t seem worth the money even in market values let alone City values, while others – Balotelli – have at times been embarrassments. We’re told, and the case looks clear, that we have no Plan B in games. Yet it’s these players we’ll be relying on at Wembley. All will be forgiven of those that haven’t done enough if they stop United’s Plans and come up with a few credible ones of their own. But are the lads who don the Sky Blue aware of our rich history, the loyalty of our fans, just what it means – will they play for the shirt?

City fans keep being asked this false dichotomy – would we prefer top four or beating United in the semi? – as if that’s the only option on the table. Of course it’s not, and of course we’re all well aware that while we could beat United, win the cup and finish top three or four, we could equally lose to United and finish fifth. Given a similar scenario, the reaction from a United fan in this case would be – beat City, finish top of the pile and hoover up anything else that’s going. Because that’s what they do. Because they have earned and trade on this excess of confidence.

I was planning on offering my real-world newspaper 600 words on the Manchester semi-final, as they like a bit of sports colour from time to time. But it would have needed to be full of objectivity and free of bias, and I would have had to write it even if the Rags won. But I’m not trying to make it in sports journalism having had 15+ years at the back end of journalism so I don’t need to stick my head above the parapet.

United’s avowed ‘spirit’ is kicking in, they say, it’s the ‘business end’ of the season and Ferguson is a past master is tailoring campaigns to when it matters. In our expanded modern media hacks jump on anything bad to do with United such as players telling the camera to fuck off or the manager belittling referees, but they also give more than favourable coverage to United because they have a more than average amount of coverage, as the biggest team. ‘News conferences’ by Fergie take on the character of religious gatherings, where his every word is reported verbatim, rarely challenged then dressed up with matter-of-fact headlines and therefore given the illusion of implicit support. With his wealth of experience he deserves such lack of mediation, they argue.

There’s a lot to admire about United’s performances but you do feel such coverage about the ‘red juggernaut’ is pretty beneficial for them. They of course then have the insouciant affront to rare up about being victimised about the Rooney charge, touchline ban, etc when they were totally justified even if allowing for FA amateurism and inconsistency – Ferguson is happy to play the victimisation card even as he knows, on the balance of decisions, nothing could be further from the truth.

So despite City two and a half years ago following Chelsea in being the latest to ‘ruin football’ (but please tell me how you otherwise break up a decade-long cartel in a benign circle of financial privilege coming from almost guaranteed top-tier European football), we have somehow still not extricated ourselves from the underdog’s position in fixtures as ‘massive’ as this, and you get the feeling City may well be the neutral’s favourite. A win could stop a Rag landslide and shake things up a little which people have long been saying is necessary. All this is placed for Blues in the context over fear of the Fifa financial fair play rules, misgivings of Mancini’s management style and the intentions of the Abu Dhabi owners.

So while United are the modern consumer-hedonist’s choice, they ‘do what they want’ and what they want is endless gratification like the proper naughty rogues they are (sorry, some of them are; a great many others just ride the myth), City’s work-in-progress brings frustration and requires a lot of patience. Yeah Blues do their own thing and always will, but rarely under the collective banner of City success. We need to transcend pride in being a Blue to being the delirious face of a team who have picked up a pot.

With the profile of this derby greatly expanded, every defeat by them makes it harder to achieve the plans of the wider City ‘project’ so for me there is no alternative to this semi but a win. And there’ll no doubt be another post on Sunday on this theme if we do. If we lose … well we all deal with the feeling in different ways but I’m sick of ‘feeling philosophical’. As a team we may not be ‘ready’ but it’s high time we ‘man up’, do what needs to be done including throwing Mancini's caution to the wind if necessary and experience derby victory when it matters as a catalyst for even greater achievement.
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