Forty-four years ago, Manchester City broke their record transfer fee and splashed out £60,000 on Francis Lee from Bolton Wanderers. Several months later, they celebrated their first English championship for thirty-one years. At the start of this season, they broke that transfer record again and it was the man whose arrival at The City of Manchester Stadium did this, the £38m Sergio Aguero, who scored an almost inconceivable goal three minutes into stoppage-time to bring the title back to the club on an afternoon of emotional extremes which encapsulated why we love and loathe this beautiful, extraordinary, sanity-testing game.
At five to three this afternoon, their job was easy. A win at home against a relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers would be enough to do it. Anything else, and they would be reliant upon Manchester United failing to take all three points from their trip to Wearside to play Sunderland. The stage was set for an afternoon that might have failed to live up to expectations. After all, Manchester City’s home form this season has been little short of sensational and Queens Park Rangers have carried something of a haunted look about them over the last few weeks. It hardly seemed inconceivable that Manchester City could bag an early goal, close the game out and leave us wondering what all the hype had been about. This, though, is Manchester City, a club with a long and noble history of finding unlikely ways to put their supporters through the mill, both in success and in failure, and this was a tradition that they lived up to in spades this afternoon.
The first half was an noisy but edgy affair. Queens Park Rangers defended with composure and confidence. There was no way in the world that they were merely here to make up the numbers. And when the news filtered through from Sunderland that Wayne Rooney had given Manchester United the lead in their match, the sound of sphincters tightening hung heavy in the air. With three minutes to play of the first half, though, a sudden chink of light. David Silva to Yaya Toure. Toure on to Pablo Zabaleta. Zabaleta’s shot, powerful but not brilliantly placed, spun up out of the Queens Park Rangers goalkeeper Paddy Kenny’s hand, up, down and over the line to give City the lead. Half-time provided an opportunity to grab the breath and take stock. City, overwhelming in possession without having shaken off the impression that their players were dripping with nerves, had the goal. It was now theirs to lose.
And this being Manchester City, they almost did. The leaden-footedness of their first half performance spilled over into the second and in three minutes a hopelessly misjudged headed clearance only flicked the ball into the path of Djibril Cisse, whose shot beat Joe Hart inside the near post to bring Queens Park Rangers level and bounce Manchester United back to the top of the imaginary “As It Stands” league table. It took seven minutes for the pendulum to swing back to City. Joey Barton has in himself (and for better or for worse) been one of the stories of the season, but a sudden rush of blood away from the head saw him lash out at Carlos Tevez and earn himself a red card. As he left the pitch, he followed this up with a kick at Sergio Aguero. The importance of this delay in proceedings can hardly be understated.
Before the ecstasy, however, came the agony. Sixty-six minutes had been played when Queens Park Rangers emerged from their shell. Armand Traore beat Vincent Kompany on the left-hand side and crossed for Jamie Mackie to beat Hart with a downward header to give them the lead again. Thirty-eight games. Eight hundred million pounds. Twenty-four minutes plus stoppage time to salvage the title. City huffed and puffed. Faced with a red and white wall between their players and the goal, they threw players forward in search of the two goals that they now needed to lift the trophy. The television cameras lingered on those whose emotions had overcome them and were already in tears. Some couldn’t take it any more and chose to left the stadium to be alone with their thoughts outside the ground.
This, though, is Manchester City. Where there is a script to be followed, they will find a way to defeat it and this doesn’t always have to manifest itself in failure. It looked, however, as if this time the bridge to be crossed would be one too far. Paddy Kenny pulled off a string of fine saves. Whenever City did get the ball within a few yards of his goal, it occasionally took on properties as if it was being controlled by remote control from Sunderland. The minutes ticked away, and desperation started to leap from the television screen. Two goals in ten minutes became two goals in five minutes, which then became two goals in stoppage time.
And then it came. Silva’s corner was headed in by Edin Dzeko, and The City Of Manchester Stadium erupted. Two goals in three minutes had become one goal in three minutes and Queens Park Rangers had lost their composure a little. Mario Ballotelli got himself in a tangle on the edge of the penalty area, the ball squirmed loose and Sergio Aguero thundered a shot past Kenny to take the league championship to the blue half of Manchester for the first time since several years before the introduction of decimal currency in the United Kingdom. This time, there was to be no heartbreak at The City of Manchester Stadium. Somehow, going via degrees of improbability which came close to redefining the laws of physics, Manchester City were the champions.
Cynicism and detached sneering is very fashionable these days. Sometimes, however, the sheer intensity and insanity of the drama being played out in front of us manages to find a way past this facade and leave us sitting, glassy-eyed and with our jaws having plummeted floor-wards, our heads lolling as we struggle to come to terms with what we have just seen. This was a last day of the season that we will remember for the rest of our lives, a day when all that can be done is to sit back, shake the head and wonder at the marvel of a sport that somehow manages to confound our expectations at every turn. Manchester United, who dropped their air of invincibility of the last few weeks of the season, will be back. Of this much we can be certain. Today, however, was not to be their day. Somehow, with a display of bloody-mindedness which shows the myth of the top-earning footballer as a mercenary for what it is, Manchester City became the champions of England. It was a finish to a season of such drama that we may never see again.
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