Manchester City drew 0-0 against Birmingham City at Eastlands yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t the greatest result or performance that they will manage this season, but they managed a point and kept a third successive clean sheet. Such is the burden of expectation brought about by the amount of money lavished on the squad over the last couple of years or so, though, that the team was booed from the pitch. Such investment, as supporters of the club this season are starting to find out this season, carries with it as much burden as it does reward. The dissatisfaction displayed by Manchester City supporters yesterday was the first truly public display of unhappiness by the club’s supporters since Roberto Mancini became the manager of the club and it raises question, and this in itself may mark a milestone in the evolution of Manchester City from a normal Premier League club towards an approximation of a “super club”.
Manchester City, as their rivals are so keen on pointing out at every opportunity, have now gone for almost three and a half decades without a trophy. In that time they have been relegated from the top division of English football on four occasions – in 1983, 1987, 1996 and and 2000 – and spent one season in the third tier of English football before being promoted back through the play-offs. Over the course of this time, their supporters have gained a reputation as being possibly the most fatalistic in the entire Premier League and this perhaps manifests itself most noticeably in a gallows humour that is arguably unlike any other in the division. They have turned on managers before. Hell, they’ve turned on chairmen before with a ferocity too often missing from the modern game. This, however, feels different to the ire turned upon the hapless likes of Alan Ball, Brian Horton or Jimmy Frizzell.
The club remains in fourth place in the Premier League, of course. The may not still be there by the end of the season and it may be considered underachievement when viewed through the prism of the astronomical amount of money thrown at the club over the last couple of years or so. However, they remain on the brink of launching a serious, concerted championship challenge. To change the management of the club would appease some of their support and would make certainly make newspaper headlines, but in the cold light of day would it have the desired effect upon the team. Mancini has been in the job for just under a year. Manchester City seem unlikely to find anything like consistent success if they replace their manager every year, when things are not quite going their way. A new manager would mean beginning the rebuilding process from the bottom up again. Such instability may mean that plans of winning a major trophy for this season may have to stay on ice, and there is never anything cast iron to ensure that bringing in a new manager could guarantee success.
Recent performances certainly seem to have divided the Manchester City support. Some feel that Mancini needs to go now. Some feel that he needs to change his tactics, which have been criticised as defensive. Others feel that he should be given until the end of the season because there is nothing for the club to gain by changing anything between now and then, whilst some feel that the current criticism of him is knee-jerk stuff and that he will manage turn things around at Eastlands with a little time. There certainly seems to be merit in pointing out that the “crisis” of being in fourth place in the Premier League and worrying about whether Arsenal will pull further clear in third place whilst having some hard work to do in the Europa League is some way from being the most disastrous situation in which a football club can find itself.
It is easy for football supporters to be afflicted by tunnel vision, viewing everything within the game only through the perspective of their own club. For all of the money that has been lavished upon Manchester City, the truth of the matter is that getting into the Champions League is phenomenally difficult to achieve and, on the top of that, the Premier League has felt considerably more competitive from top to bottom this year than it has for several years. There is also, of course, an element of stirring going on within the media. Many people, journalists included, want Manchester City to fail – some for noble reasons, others for altogether more prosaic or selfish reasons – and the mere fact that they have spent what they have spent means that they are sitting ducks for critics. This external pressure isn’t something that is going to dissipate in the near future.
The question facing Manchester City supporters now is where they decide to draw that line in the sand. No-one would seriously suggest that that supporters of the club aren’t entitled to question the decisions made by the manager or to criticise him. If external pressures are building up, should they add to them or fall in behind the manager? Can they do both? Older Manchester City supporters may look back on the last day of the 1982/83 season, when Raddy Antic’s improbable goal sent City into the Second Division, or those crazy final minutes at Wembley in 1999 in the play-off final against Gillingham, when a lost cause was picked up, brushed down and given a new lease of life through a sheer force of will.
Times have changed a lot since then and, whilst some Manchester City supporters will doubtless be unhappy with their team’s performance yesterday, a broader perspective confirms that they have been luckier over the last few years than they might feel today. They were lucky in getting the use of a new stadium for the cost of converting it for football use and an affordable yearly rental from Manchester City Council and, while there is plenty of criticism that we can offer towards their current owners, no-one can deny that they have at least given the blue half of Manchester a chance to dream. Roberto Mancini may or may not be the man to end the clubs three and a half decade long wait for some silverware, but it’s difficult to imagine how their position would be significantly improved by replacing him at this precise moment in time.
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