It was not his manager's face, nor his own family up in the stands, but the stadium clock that Dedryck Boyata searched for as he undertook the longest walk that he will know in football. Eastlands was still reverberating to his dismissal against Arsenal six weeks ago and, as he cast his eyes up to the north-west corner of the ground, he was hoping, amid all that sound and fury for reassurance that this experience had not been quite as brief as he feared.
"I was walking off the pitch and checking the time, just checking the time, that's all I can remember," Boyata recalls now. "Everything went too fast but I remember saying to myself during the game that I was cool. I was on it. I'd played two balls through and we nearly scored, you see. I was feeling positive and saying to myself, 'Yeah, I'm doing good.' And the next thing I know I've made that mistake and I'm asking myself, 'Why?'"
The clock did not help him, of course. The cold, hard truth was that Boyata had survived just five minutes against Arsène Wenger's side before his mistimed tackle on Marouane Chamakh brought the player down and dictated the course of City's 3-0 defeat. They devote a lot of time to mental preparation for setbacks at City's academy, whose graduate Boyata is the only player yet to have broken through fully into Roberto Mancini's expensively assembled ranks. But the 20-year-old Belgian acknowledges there is no time to learn on the job amid City's breakneck pace of development and doesn't mind admitting that he's not quite over that cold October afternoon just yet.
"Since that day it's been a bit difficult, I would say. You say to yourself that you can get over it but sometimes it's just hard. These things you get over but it takes time. The gaffer gave me another chance straight away to play against [Lech] Poznan [in the Europa League] and [things] didn't quite happen for me again. I made a header and it went to the back of the head of the other player and it went in."
There does not seem to have been any condolence from Mancini about that Arsenal experience. "But that's the thing – as a player you know you just have to get over it, forget it, stay focused, you see. It's quite hard. If I still want to play, I have to get over it."
A mental battle laid bare. This is quite a rarity in the rarefied environment of top-four football but you feel that Boyata will win it because he carries a joie de vivre into his football to go with the imposing physique and attacking dimension in the right-back Mancini has turned him into. Boyata certainly was not the academy staff's first pick of those players who would make it and he had only ever played centre-back before Mancini arrived. But the Italian saw something that others didn't and selected the home game with Chelsea in September, no less, to give him his first start at right-back in a senior game.
Chelsea. The very word brings out a smile in Boyata that eases that Arsenal memory into the background. It was a matchday when he literally didn't believe his ears as Mancini gathered the players in a hotel meeting-room two hours before kick-off, read out the team and scribbled the names on a white board. All the familiar defensive personnel were up there in black marker pen – Hart, Touré, Kompany, Zabaleta, but in the right-back slot Mancini jotted 'Bo'. "There were two of us whose names start with 'Bo' – me and [Jérôme] Boateng," Boyata says, taking up the story in the surrounds of a social club where he is about to breeze through a Q and A with City's Cheadle supporters' association, one of the many such events the football club run. He is equally at ease in this, his first national newspaper interview.
"He said 'Boyata' but everybody in the room thought he was thinking 'Boateng.' I stood up and went to ask Ade [Emmanuel Adebayor]. He was laughing and I asked, 'Is it me or Boateng? He said, 'You' but he then he had to ask someone else." It was only when Boyata stepped into the City dressing-room that he knew that Mancini had given him his moment. "Your jersey is just hanging there if you're in the first XI and the rest of the jerseys are to the side. My jersey was with the first XI. As soon as we got to the changing rooms I saw it."
The defender, whose first international cap came alongside City team-mate Vincent Kompany in the extraordinary 4-4 draw with Austria in Brussels in August, has always seemed to need others to remind him that he belongs in the top bracket. He started out life as a striker, just like his Congolese father Bienvenu Boyata, who, having settled his family in Brussels, became a goalscorer for Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, a side now in the Belgian third tier. But when he began impressing as a converted defender for the Saint-Josse municipality junior side it was his father, these days running a motor dealership, who urged him to move to the higher standards of professional club White Star. "It was exactly the same there. I went to White Star and I never wanted to move and he made me move from there as well. He was telling me all the time that I was not improving enough."
The next move was to FC Brussels, and it was while playing for them in Northern Ireland's prestigious Milk Cup youth tournament in 2007 – Danny Welbeck featured for Manchester United in the same competition – that City spotted him in a side which had been undefeated before exiting on semi-final penalties to eventual winners Fluminense. Academy staff at City will tell you that it was Boyata's size (6ft 2in) that caught the eye. "He was a big lad," says one. But Mancini saw more than that. Intriguingly, it was 23 months before taking the City manager's chair that he witnessed Boyata, playing in the same City academy side as his own son, Filippo, who spent six months on loan from Internazionale at the club when Mark Hughes was manager. (It didn't work out in Manchester for Mancini jnr, who is now at Virtus Entella in Italy's fourth tier).
"[Mancini] saw me, Vladimir [Weiss] and Abdisalam Ibrahim that day," Boyata says. "He saw our training session and everything but I don't know it was from there he remembered us." The Belgian certainly did not feel he was ahead in the pecking order last Christmas when the City reserve-team coach told him that he would have to cancel his flight back to Brussels because Mancini was short of defenders. His mother Brigitte – Congolese-born and a care worker in the city – celebrates her birthday on Boxing Day and Boyata was not delighted to hear he would be missing it. "The young players who are staying at Carrington have been here for ages and we don't have much time to go home, so when someone tells you that you have to stay to make the numbers up, you don't really take it really well."
His first City start, in the FA Cup third round at Middlesbrough, offered its compensations but the game which opened many eyes to Boyata's potential was City's biggest in generations – the Carling Cup semi-final second leg against United at Old Trafford in January, into which they carried a 2-1 lead.
They lost 3-1 that night but Boyata, plunged in at centre back as Joleon Lescott recovered from surgery and utterly undaunted by Wayne Rooney, was one of the silver linings.
Boyata has not played since the defeat to Lech Poznan and now he finds himself in a situation which, for good reason, they try to create in the minds of the academy youngsters: that of waiting for another shot in a starting XI. The challenge of breaking through is formidable – there was £54.4m of defenders playing in City's 3-0 win over Red Bull Salzburg game on Wednesday – but Boyata believes his brain can help him win the battle. "When you leave the academy and you see a lot of foreign players around you it's great because you are living in a kind of culture club," he says. "You have to take all you can from that and then you just have to be patient and wait. You can't worry. You don't need to think that far ahead."
And where that lonely walk against Arsenal is concerned, you don't need to look back either.
City's Academy products
Vladimir Weiss Skilful winger now on loan at Rangers, having spent time at Bolton last season. Played for Slovakia at the World Cup.
Abdisalam Ibrahim Leggy, box-to-box midfielder born in Somalia but who has played Under-21 football for Norway.
John Guidetti 18-year-old Swedish striker, rated as a natural goalscorer and currently on loan at Burnley.
Ben Mee Imposing 21-year-old centre-back who captained City's 2008 FA Youth Cup winning side. England Under-21 international.
Alex Nimely Young Liberian striker who has rejected his homeland in the hope of representing England.Reuse content