Season Review, part 1.

2008/09 then, quite uneventful by Manchester City's standards; a fugitive owner on the run, the great and the good of Abu Dhabi to the rescue, a UEFA Cup campaign that involved fans traipsing to all corners of the globe, us single-handedly proping up the transfer market, humiliating domestic cup humblings at the hands of the once-decent Notts Forest and the almighty Brighton, Hughes (according to the press at least) permanently on the verge of being handed his P45, some exceptional football at home, largely aimless drivel away, and now a summer looming where we'll be linked with everyone from David Villa to David Rennie. Funny in a way then that it should end in such middling circumstances; no relegation fight, no real shot at Europe (certainly not the proper sort), a cup final still seeming nothing but a pipedream, just, well, compared to the column inches filled, quite dull.

Hughes was always quite a humbling choice as manager, and one that certainly split the fans. It was generally agreed, though, that we needed someone to bring a bit of stability to the club in light of Sven's haphazard 'whack a side together overnight and see what happens' approach, soon found out. This sort of appointment was never going to yield results overnight, or even a season. Players who've had an easy ride during Sven's reign (even beyond that if you consider Pearce's inexperience and Keegan's anti-climatic final two seasons) aren't suddenly going to get their backsides into gear, and any sort of blunt and serious management strategy was always going to be met with mixed feelings by those who've largely been in slow-mode previously.

For me, the job Hughes walked into was a huge one, not least because of the sheer size of the squad, largely dead wood, and as we touched on above, one that had been bereft of leadership for some time, and the fact that barring a short period of stability under Bernstein, the club has been ran woefully from top to bottom for the best part of three decades. In a way then it's sort of ironic that Hughes was appointed whilst the club was still in the hands of Shinawatra. In hindsight, that was probably nothing more than a move to save funds on his part, but still, a shrewd one nonetheless.

Anyhow, we enter the season neither overly optimistic or unduly pessimistic and with a new multi-million pound hotshot Brazilian forward from CSKA to boot (can't see how that might go wrong). One of Hughes first acts as manager is to steadily get on with trimming the fat of the squad, and come the first day of the season we've already got one foot out of Europe after a 'typical City' home performance against Danish giants Midtjylland. We open up our domestic campaign at a sunny Villa Park, Boj-less, Dunne-less, hopeless, essentially okay going forward but still with Tal Ben-Haim at centre-half pretending to be a Premier League footballer. A win at Eastlands against West Ham follows before a disgraceful return leg in Denmark in which we play Micah Richards in midfield, are thoroughly outclassed, but manage to bag a last-minute own goal and win the lottery that is penalties. Cracks papered over, no problem. Then it all kicks off...

First off, City fans up and down the country go mental on hearing that SWP's on his way home. Hughes' stock goes up instantly. Then three days later, a transfer deadline day generally expected to be drab after a number of boring, drawn-out, high-profile Premier League transfers had failed to materialise since it opened is brought to life. Word hits the wires that Frank has sold up, that the incumbents have millions, billions, trillions, and suddenly fans of clubs who've spent years blowing equally obscene amounts of money start finding the fact that someone else might be doing it immoral. Convinced it's all part of some elaborate Big Red joke we take it with a pinch of salt initially, then the bids start rolling in, starting with a lazy, Bulgarian, Andy Garcia-lookalike who'd recently decided mid-table Spurs just weren't quite up to his sporadic moments of 'genius'.

In hindsight, we were lucky to miss out on Berbatov, but it was fun making them lot pay an extra £10m. Dr (really?) Al-Fahim gets on the airwaves and declares we'll sign the very best of the world's players; Torres, Villa, and some creosoted showpony from over the road amongst others. People start getting carried away, the media goes into overdrive linking us with everyone bar Soft Mick, and fans start talking about fantasy XI's and titles. Sour Alex keeps Berbatov under lock and key (despite Spurs having not accepted a bid) and in just a few hours we appear to've gone from signing everyone to no-one. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Sky Sports News ITKer/office brewmaker Andeh Burton takes a break from shuffling between mobile phones, none of which probably work, and pretending to speak to any number of his non-existent footballer mates to tell us that City have agreed a deal with Real Madrid for Robinho. Manchester City, the biggest laughing stock of English football for years are about to not only shatter the British transfer record, but also send toadying goon Peter Kenyon into hysterics as he has to inform his arms-peddling gaffer that the unrivaled big spenders of English football have been gazumped. Cue days of mongs outside Eastlands with tea-towel's for headscarves.

Fate, playing its hand as it sometimes does, decides that Robinho's debut will be against his previous suitors, where we're thoroughly outclassed. Though we've overtaken them in the money stakes in just a few hours, to do so on the pitch, if we had any doubt, is going to take a good while longer. For me, that day proved just how big the distance is between us and the Big Three (i'm not sure Arsenal really warrant to be classed in the same boat as those directly above them any longer), a game in which Chelsea could afford to bring on players we'd later be linked with £20m+ moves for (Drogba & Alex), and leave two on the bench that would attract eight-figure bids themselves (Ivanovic & Bridge), one rejected, one sadly accepted.

Until Christmas we continue to sandwich sporadically good results between awful, half-hearted away performances, and the press, always looking for a story, give Hughes little chance of staying in his position. A number of journalists tell us he'll be sacked by the summer/the window/the end of the week, and that he probably doesn't pick the team anyway, all proved to be rubbish as the year pans out. In many ways the UEFA Cup comes as a welcome distraction for the manager; results at Omonia Nicosia & Schalke prove that, shock horror, we can actually play away from home. Frankly abhorrent displays at Wigan, Bolton & Boro suggest the European wins might've been one-offs and the mood around the club is once again one of apathy. The faint hope of a bit of European silverware, and a side that at least shows a little urgency infront of their own fans saves the manager from what for a short time seemed like the inevitable. Fantastic wins over Portsmouth and Arsenal especially stand out, yet as usual they're both followed with disappointing results against the sides who would end the season in the top two positions; Yoonited and Liverpool, the latter involving a quite heart-breaking second-half performance in which we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Anyhow, stumbling towards the festivities we look like we're just about winging it. Throwing points away, the defence gone to shit, great result followed by stupid defeat, all as you might expect. The shining light for the season, a young, slightly-mental, formerly-toup├ęd boy from Cobh, seemingly the only one prepared to consistently step up to the plate, he soon grows from being a largely underperforming squad player (indeed one that was almost sold to Sunderland in the summer) to being our key man, vital to absolutely everything we do, and one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the country. I wouldn't even like to think where we might've finished had it not been for Stevie Ireland. At times he looked like the only player in the side on anywhere near the same level as Robinho, and the goals he both scored and made meant that in hindsight our performance in both league and Europe could be looked back on as at least respectable.

In many ways the performance against Hull came as a bit of a shock. Four up in little over half an hour we looked exquisite. Coming on the back of six without a win, too, and a terrible showing at West Brom, it was the day that, more than any other, i realised that with that side we were never going to find any sort of consistency, we were either going to be great or horrible, and as much was proved the following week, spineless for 85 minutes at Ewood Park, much of the same aimless hoofs, a wafer-thin midfield, people running around not really knowing what they were meant to be doing, then Hughes, unlike him to make a good call from the bench, brought on young Danny Sturridge, we managed to nick a couple of goals meaning that the calender year could end on a semi-positive note. Of course, the window was round the corner. We'd splodge billions on some of the world's elite, get things off again with a routine victory at home to Forest, and knock a few more dodgy Scandanavian sides out of Europe on the march to Istanbul, probably...

No comments:

Post a Comment