Manchester City have come a long way since the despair of the 90s and will be hungrier than ever to return to the top next season
Almost a year ago, Sergio Aguero’s 95th minute winner against QPR propelled Manchester City to their first league title since 1968. Images and sounds from a sunny afternoon in May will be seared in the minds of the blue and red sides of Manchester. Aguero’s extra touch to take him beyond the desparing lunge of the defender. The violent strike into the corner. Martin Tyler’s scream. Aguero ripping his shirt off. Joe Hart clutching Gael Clichy in a bear hug and burying his face in the defender’s shoulder.
City deserved their title. For those who are old enough to remember, it seems oddly less than 15 years ago that the club sank like a stone to become the first European trophy winners to be relegated to the third tier of English football. It was almost certainly the bleakest period in the club’s history. After clawing their way back up, fortunes changed. Salvation came in the unexpected form of the Commonwealth Games of 2002, which gave the club the opportunity to leave behind their beloved if ageing home of Maine Road and move to a stadium that gave them a platform for real success.
In 2007 City joined Manchester United in experiencing an injection of money for the price of their soul. Like Malcolm Glazer before him, Thaksin Sinawatra arrived in Manchester with bags of cash and a dark past – two years previously he had been ousted as Thai prime minister amid allegations of human rights abuses. Nevertheless, Sinawatra’s short-lived tenure brought in Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta who have since become the cornerstones on which the club’s success on the pitch has been based.
Walking away with a tidy profit of around £120 million, Sinawatra’s sale of the club to the Abu Dhabi United Group set the stage for period of almost unfathomable spending. Whereas the Glazer’s takeover of Manchester United involved borrowing an eye-watering sum of money and loading debts onto the club, Sheik Mansour brought along hard cash which was used to purchase Gareth Barry, Carlos Tevez and Kolo Toure among others, with a bill amounting to over £100 million. Supporters waved fake banknotes from the stands and dressed as Sheiks. Soulless, some might argue – but the era of soul has ended at the top echelons of Premier League football and it was an understandable triumphalism born out of suffering through the days of Division 2.
The Abu Dhabi Group heralded the promise of real success for the club and Aguero’s stoppage time winner was that promise fulfilled. Derided as a team of mercenaries and individuals by some (this author included) their year was characterised by consistently brilliant performances by Joe Hart who comfortably outperformed David De Gea at United. Vincent Kompany emerged as a dominating leadership presence, steering his team through the distractions of Mario Balotelli and the fallout between Roberto Mancini and Carlos Tevez. Even Tevez, for all his theatrics and flaws, was devastating in front of goal.
But the art of title defence is the defining element of consistent success. One gets the sense that Kompany, like Roy Keane before him, will regard his team’s failure to repeat its success as unacceptable. Never one to shy away from criticising his players, Mancini has, at times, taken issue with his squad’s lack of drive and focus. “The reason there is a gap like today [in the league] … probably there is more attitude, they wanted,” he said, following City’s loss to Tottenham two weeks ago, a defeat that effectively handed United the title. “They started the season and they wanted to win after last year. There are many reasons why we lose but I repeat, they deserve to win it.”
Mancini has lamented that the club’s failure to sign Robin Van Persie was a critical factor that enabled United to pull clear so decisively and the Dutchman’s contribution to their rivals should certainly be considered a crucial difference. Joe Hart has been unable to quite reach the heights of consistency he hit last season. That wet, miserable afternoon in Southampton when Hart allowed the ball to squirm between his legs and Gareth Barry passed into his own net was a back-breaker for City’s season.
But nothing breeds success like failure and it is unlikely that Manchester United will be able to stroll so easily to a 21st league title next season. Mancini will not allow his superiors to be so passive in recruiting new players and the hunger for revenge will be shared by owner, manager and players alike. Deadwood will be discarded and cash will be splashed, most probably in a more pragmatic manner than last summer. With similar thinking from United and the impending return of Jos Mourinho to Chelsea, Manchester City will have to return to the top of their game if the next chapter of their history can live up the one they wrote last May.