Hot on the heels of an emphatic 3-0 victory against Manchester United in the derby, Manchester City supporters must feel like they’re on cloud nine today.
On the topic of the Manchester derby and English football, here’s a new excerpt of the recently-released eBook by World Soccer Talk Senior Writer Kartik Krishnaiyer that touches on the derby and several other topics.
Blue With Envy is available to purchase as an eBook for $4.99. Professionally published, the book is highly recommended for soccer fans, and is available for the Amazon Kindle, Nook, as well as in several other formats including PDF, txt, etc, and is now available in iBooks for the Apple iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.
Here is the new free excerpt:
Chapter 15 – Growing Pains
The summer of 2009 was filled with international tournaments for those of us in the United States. The US had two difficult World Cup qualifiers followed by a trip to South Africa. They participated in the Confederations Cup and defeated Spain in a shocking upset but lost twice to Brazil, including blowing a 2-0 halftime lead in the Final. Then came the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the US’ march to the final. As someone covering the American scene at the time, I lost track of transfers and the demands of daily coverage of a US National Team that was playing as often as a club side during the summer of 2009 — twelve games in all between June and July.
The final of the Confederations Cup had been awkward as Elano and Robinho both featured prominently in the Brazilian comeback. Still, I lamented the US loss and in our post-game show on World Soccer Talk, we began dissecting the fact that the US featured so many players based in Europe who were with second-tier sides. The hope was that more and more Americans would move to bigger clubs, maybe even City.
When I was able to refocus on the club, the signing of Carlos Tevez was in particular satisfying. Tevez’s addition was a shot at Manchester United. Perhaps those of us who were truly envious and jealous of Manchester United needed to feel like we had put one over on the Red Devils. We were so hungry and desperate for success it seemed like we were willing to take any player from anywhere, particularly if it bothered Sir Alex Ferguson. Tevez was an established head case, something we would be painfully made aware of time and time again in the next few years.
I felt American fans of City were really getting tired of living in the shadow of Manchester United. The Red Devils were the most popular team in the States thanks to the runaway success they’d had. All the City fans cheered loudly the previous May when Barcelona beat United for the Champions League title. We cheered like it was a victory of our own. Envy tinged everything we did. Now we had the added burden of now being hated by many of the fans of clubs we were previously naturally aligned with. The issue of our takeover and the immediate riches City found itself in divided supporters of other non-top clubs. Many were happy to see United, Chelsea, and Arsenal get a real run for their money (no pun intended) by a new upstart club with the financial muscle to battle the established forces while others were jealous of another club with a history of failure “lucking” into a takeover that changed our fortunes almost overnight.
Another factor became apparent as we approached the 2009-10 season. A few Americans I spoke to who were previously neutral on Manchester City were now concerned about the potential links between the Abu Dhabi Royal Family and international terrorists. While this wasn’t widespread, those who mentioned this to me really did bother me. Finding “pure” owners of any top English club was nearly impossible, so why single us out?
As the 2009-10 season approached, I was spending more and more time in Orlando for reasons unrelated to soccer, but the number of Brits in the area, both visiting and permanent, made it a neat place to be for the season. I like to call International Drive in Orlando “Little Lancashire” because of the number of tourists from northwest England that visit. Florida is, of course, one of the top tourist destinations for Brits, particularly those from the North of England. You consistently see Liverpool and Manchester United shirts on people visiting the area. Occasionally, you’ll see Manchester City or Everton shirts. One pub on International Drive was packed for a Newcastle-Middlesbrough game the previous season when I was in town, showing the strong base of support in the area for any big team from the north of England.
As the 2009-10 season opened, news arrived via World Soccer Talk that ESPN had sublicensed some Premier League rights from FOX Soccer and were now showing weekly Saturday 7:45am games. The first match between Hull City and Chelsea was an event for those of us who had longed for the Premier League to become more mainstream.
The goal for City’s season was to finish in the top four and qualify for Champions League soccer the following season. After a tenth place finish the previous season, anything in the top six would have been a marked improvement but considering the outlay of funds on new players such as Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, and Gareth Barry, simply improving wasn’t enough for the owners. In all we spent over £150 million on new players, easily a club record and also a record for one window in English football.
The campaign got underway with a game against Blackburn, a local rival and City manager Mark Hughes’s former side, but a side that was becoming less and less relevant in the bigger picture of English football. Blackburn’s recent history was in many ways a cautionary tale for City. Blackburn had won the Premier League title in 1995 with big spending Jack Walker as the owner and the Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish managing them. Walker spent tens of millions rebuilding Ewood Park and buying Rovers a team. The long-term vision for the club was that they were supposed to become self-financing but that never materialized. Soon after that Premier League title-winning season, Walker’s star strikers Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton both left the club for big money deals elsewhere. Within four years of winning the title, Blackburn found itself relegated.
The manager who took Blackburn down to the second flight of English football was a personal favorite of mine — Brian Kidd. In the era when I was a ballboy with the Strikers, Kidd wasn’t necessarily the most influential player but he was the guy who scored goals effectively every which way possible. Kidd had been Alex Ferguson’s number two for Manchester United. Kidd celebrated with the legendary Scotsman when Fergie won his famous first career league title after defeating Sheffield Wednesday in May 1993. It’s an iconic scene that still plays regularly today when Ferguson’s managerial legacy is discussed.
A Mancunian through and through having played for both United and City, he played until the end of the Matt Busby era with the Red Devils but he had also been an influential player for City as Manchester City came within a point of winning the title. In the 1976-77 season, he moved to Bolton before ending up in Fort Lauderdale. Mark Hughes had played under Kidd at Manchester United and brought him back to the club in 2009 to work with the young players.
The Blues won the first four games of the 2009-10 season, but the fifth game was at Old Trafford against Manchester United. It was the one City fans had waited decades for. We were facing United perhaps as equals, and even if they were better than us the margin between the two clubs had significantly diminished, or so we thought. The previous night Miami FC had played the final game of its second division season at Lockhart Stadium. I had actually been the co-commentator for the broadcast but my mind was wandering during the telecast. All I could think about was the next morning and Old Trafford and the hope that this match was going to signal the changing of the guard in Manchester.
The game was a classic but Michael Owen’s goal deep in stoppage time gave United the 4-3 victory. It reinforced what being a City supporter was all about. Supporting the Blues was about hope more than it was about good soccer, and ultimately it was about failure. Social media lit up with the usual front-runners who discovered Manchester United not because of some connection to the club that was real, but simply because they were Manchester United and they did nothing but win.
I couldn’t take the banter and I went into a deep depression. I shut off my phone for the rest the day and didn’t jump on the Internet to read post-match reports. In fact I went to bed for several hours in the middle of the afternoon. It was a depressing and humbling blow, perhaps the worst I had felt about a City result since the last relegation. The scenes of United’s captain Gary Neville running up and down the touchline taunting our supporters played over and over in my mind. It incensed me but part of me said “You know what, Gary Neville is now taking Manchester City as seriously as he takes Liverpool.” Despite the defeat, we had arrived.
A funny thing happened to the supporters I talked to after the game that week. Any lingering doubts about Sparky (Mark Hughes’s nickname) as a manager and as a true City man were erased. The fact was he was a United legend meant he probably should never have considered managing Manchester City, let alone the unhappiness that had persisted about the dismissal of Sven-Goran Eriksson. Hughes showed his anger towards the officiating crew in stoppage time and his constant needling of United and Ferguson in the press made him even more likable to supporters.
What became apparent early on was that City was not able to put games away. The team was leaking goals and lacked the cutting edge upfront to finish games off. Through October and November, the club had seven consecutive draws in the league. These draws were largely against lesser sides such as Wigan, Bolton, Burnley and Hull. In fact, Burnley got its first result away from home all season against Hughes’ Manchester City team. Hull City, who were eventually relegated, got their first point away from home since the previous May.
In one game against Fulham, which I listened to in a Hounslow hotel room during a stopover on a journey from India back to Florida, City threw away a two-goal lead and almost lost the game in the end.
Sparky did however have a team that was performing well in the League Cup. Considering how desperate most City supporters were for a trophy, this took precedence with some, but not the board. Following a 4-3 victory over Sunderland in December, Hughes was dismissed and Roberto Mancini, who had recently led Inter Milan to multiple Italian league titles, was hired as manager.
Mancini inherited a team clearly suffering from a crisis of self-doubt. The team that was in transition from relegation fighter to Champions League contender had drawn too many matches thanks to comical defensive breakdowns. While the team claimed some players of great quality, they weren’t being used as regularly as they should. Mancini came in and instantly rubbed some players the wrong way, especially Craig Bellamy, Roque Santa Cruz and Shay Given were not the same players after Mancini took over. In hindsight, we now know Mancini was already aware of Joe Hart’s exploits at Birmingham City having spoken to Sven-Goran Eriksson about the young English keeper upon taking the job. Mancini had every intention of bringing Hart back to the club when his loan spell was over and making him the number one keeper. Perhaps Given was aware of this, and that helped fuel his loyalty to Hughes.
Meanwhile, in my life I was moving away from writing and journalism and towards working on the other side of the desk. The fall of 2009 had seen lots of issues circulating around the NASL, American soccer’s second division. The owners of the clubs were in dispute with the league itself over the future direction of the sport as well as television and other commercial rights. Brian Quarstad, the excellent proprietor of the Inside Minnesota Soccer website, and myself were really the only two reporters covering the story closely on a day-to-day basis. While some local beat writers covered the story closely as well, the notoriety brought by coverage of this second division situation propelled me to a unique position where once a breakaway league was formed, the owners wanted to sound me out about my feelings about how they should handle their communications strategy. One thing led to another and eventually in early January 2010, I was hired to handle the communications and public relations for the NASL, the newly formed American second division.
In this role, it became crucial that I promote local soccer but at the same time work within the national soccer framework to link fans of the Premier League to their local clubs. It was a daunting task, and after spending three and a half years on the job, I walked away in May 2013 around the same time Roberto Mancini left Manchester City. Our tenures overlapped almost to the day.
The increased expectations around Manchester City brought more pressure every week while watching games. Previously we had been happy just to just to get 40 points and stay in the Premier League. I did not want to have to feel the pressure of winning and getting three points every single Saturday. Supporting Manchester City had always been about the experience, the heartache, the bonding with other supporters over the joy that rare wins over United brought us. Winning was never part of the expectation. It was never part of the deal. Once the club became about winning and chasing trophies, it became difficult for me. And the relationship fundamentally changed at that point. I cannot say I love Manchester City any more or less prior to the takeover but the relationship was just different.
After I had started my job at the North American Soccer League, the only thing that really mattered personally would be to qualify for the League Cup Final, which would give MCFC its first trip to Wembley in 25 years. Our last trip had been for the 1986 Full Members Cup final.
The two legs in the League Cup semi-final against rival Manchester United were painful and reinforced what Manchester City was all about. In the first leg at Eastlands, it felt like we were thoroughly outplayed and my excitement about the tie gave way to nervousness and to Cityitis. What seemed apparent from the opening kickoff was how difficult this task was going to be. How difficult it was for a side that had not won a trophy in 34 years to face Manchester United when everything was on the line. The Gary Neville/Carlos Tevez public spat gave the match an additional impetus. The previous week United Captain Gary Neville had publicly attacked Tevez and the Argentine responded scoring twice in a game we probably deserved to lose. We won 2-1 but those of us who had been around just sensed it was a lead that we would squander at Old Trafford.
On the day of the second leg, I had a press conference in Tampa as the Tampa Bay Rowdies, one of the traditional brands in American soccer, were returning to action. After the press conference, I settled in at a local watering hole to watch what I thought was going to be a humbling match that we couldn’t compete in. Instead, despite their superiority, United left it late again. They left it so late that they once again gave us false hope.
False hope when we played United in a big game seemed to be a recurring pattern. It happened three times during the 2009-10 campaign with United scoring three winners deep into stoppage time. Watching our supporters in the stands on TV and reading my Twitter feed, I was proud of how City fans had conducted themselves. Our fans were clearly more up for the game then United were. And on Twitter, our supporters took the usual abuse coming from the red half of Manchester with grace and dignity.
Ultimately City got knocked out of the League Cup by United.
Following our elimination from the League Cup, the team found resourceful ways to get results including Gareth Barry’s late goal to equalize at Stoke and Adam Johnson’s dramatic equalizer at Sunderland, the club he supported as a boy. Things never fully clicked and ultimately the club fell short of reaching the Champions League with Spurs beating us to the fourth spot with a win at Eastlands on the next to last match day of the season.
The curse of “Cityitis” had struck yet again. As they say, money cannot buy everything. At this point, it had bought us only deeper heartache.