Ball's City of living nightmares

Dateline Manchester: A manager experiences how the other half live as his friendship with the chairman is tested; Norman Fox studies the strain of life at the foot of the Premiership
ENCOURAGED by Manchester City's 4-0 win over Wycombe Wanderers in the Coca-Cola Cup on Wednesday, Alan Ball risked what few of his 16 predecessors over the past 35 years had the nerve to do and tempted providence. He sent a message to members of the Press, with whom, for the moment, he is not on speaking terms, saying they could call him in his office from tomorrow on. Such confidence that a City manager could guarantee to be in his job from one week to the next flies in the face of history, let alone recent results.

Ball, like some of his players and a lot of City supporters, had brave, optimistic but overhasty visions of an upturn in the prospects of a club almost always in the shadow of its neighbours at Old Trafford but never under such heavy clouds so early in the season. Already bottom of the Premiership, they face a month in which only remarkably forgiving City loyalists would bet against three more Premiership defeats (Manchester United away, Leeds at home and Liverpool away) and every chance of an extension to their worst record in over a century.

What's more, City are now drawn against Liverpool in the next round of the Coca-Cola Cup, also within the month. Beating Wycombe Wanderers one day after Manchester United lost to York City was celebrated as a minor double to lift the spirits before this next round of expected trouble.

By comparison with earlier ones, the past fortnight has been a joy for City supporters, but less as a result of beating Wycombe, who lost confidence terribly after conceding a second goal, but because of United's demise in both the Uefa and Coca-Cola competitions. Asked whether that sort of compensation is really worth more than a hoot of derision from behind the goal or if the old rivalry with United remains at the root of City's permanent struggle, one supporter outside the ground before Wednesday's match admitted: "What rivalry? We aren't in the same league as United."

After the match, though, he was full of the "bring on United" posturing that makes City fans so wonderfully enduring and probably the most long- suffering of all.

These are the fans Ball offended after the recent match against Middlesbrough when he talked about the "tribal" nature of the game in Britain, with all the emphasis on winning. When asked what he thought about that remark, another City fan said: "Why else does he think we come? . . . we only come to see City win."

There are not many more dyed-in-the-wool City fans than the team's spirited midfield player Ian Brightwell, whose enthusiasm for the cause, he thinks, gets misconstrued by referees. He reckoned that all the team needed was the confidence of seeing the team's strikers score a couple of goals, and it did not matter whether the opponents were two divisions lower. "We needed that but we've got to believe in ourselves against better sides than them. We've got to defend better and get better support for the front men."

Ball was saying nothing. The reason he was not officially speaking to the press was partly because someone speculated that he was about to have a clear out ("I only said we had 42 players, which is too many") but mainly because they keep saying City are not much good. The consensus amongst the northern reporters, who have seen it all before, is that Ball should grow up and stop digging himself into deeper trouble. They say he should appreciate what real criticism can be like - his predecessor, Brian Horton, found out. But if the coming three weeks brings the predicted results, the question is whether Ball will be able to turn to his friend and club chairman, Francis Lee, and expect that the three-year contract signed as recently as July is really a tenancy agreement or something to be paid off in the traditional City manner.

Ball's permanent whining about referees, and all manner of other excuses, emphasises that he never really had much idea what managing a big club was like, and he admits as much: "I know I've taken on something that is bigger than I ever realised." Years of brushing shoulders with famous managers left him with firm ideas about their failings but apparently no more able to avoid their pitfalls. Among many criticisms, he once accused the former England manager Don Revie of "blaming everyone except himself". While largely sympathetic, City supporters are making exactly that accusation against Ball.

The impression given by a lot of supporters is that they forgive Ball his complaints and his mistakes - not including the selling of their popular match-winner Paul Walsh - and sympathise with him now that he has to face the prospect of selling the useful German striker Uwe Rosler, and even the only outstanding midfield player on their books, Garry Flitcroft, in order to buy other players who might give the team a better balance and security. But the question they really want answered is why they battled for so long and hard to get rid of the unpopular chairman Peter Swales and 18 months ago campaigned on the Forward with Franny ticket only to find that Lee appointed one of his mates to probably the most difficult job in the Premiership. People like Tommy Docherty keep saying that Ball must be given time, which Lee maintains is not in question, but the fans are concerned that they have a manager who seems to be learning the ropes of big-club management as he goes. To them, Southampton, Ball's previous largest club, is not on the same main road.

Lee and Ball seem on course to test their friendship. Ball says: "I know what the supporters are saying, but I've said it might take five years to turn the club round." Five years at Maine Road? In the past 30 only Tony Book and Joe Mercer have achieved such longevity, and while Lee says he will remain loyal, he also talks about success needing to be only 18 months away.

Lee is facing what at most clubs, not including the highly profitable United and Blackburn's sugar-daddied Rovers, is an eternal dilemma. His personal fortune would be enough to buy a fairly good centre-forward but bailing out City and buying them players was never his intention. "The club must pay its way and improve its turnover," said Lee, who took over a pounds 6m debt. The present turnover is in the region of pounds 9m a year.

Meanwhile, this week United have announced profits of pounds 20m with merchandising alone producing a turnover of pounds 23.5m. Looking at the past fortnight, Lee suggested that the most significant result was nothing to do with goals but United's achievement in doubling their profits and increasing their merchandising revenue by 65 per cent in a year. Changing strips more often than managers obviously pays.

The Maine attractions: Twenty things City have that United haven't

1 A place in the third round of the Coca-Cola Cup

2 A chairman with extensive contacts in the wastepaper industry (butchery is so messy)

3 A manager with a World Cup winner's medal

4 A manager who took Stoke down into the Third Division proper for the first time

5 Manchester-born supporters

6 A ground in Manchester

7 The undying love of Oasis

8 And Eddie Large

9 The eternal pleasure of having sent United into the Second Division with a goal from a back-heel by a former Old Trafford hero

10 A bribery scandal: in 1905 Billy Meredith was banned. Worse, United signed him, and when his suspension ended he was joined by three other City players the club was forced to sell in an illegal payments case. The next year United won the title

11 A ground with a record attendance of 84,569, compared to Old Trafford's puny 76,962

12 City don't employ overseas strikers who kung-fu mouthy opposing supporters

13 A far safer policy is to sign unknown Georgians, sight unseen

14 City have given employment to twice as many managers as United since the War

15 23 September 1989: United, cocky from beating Millwall 5-1 the previous Saturday, strutted into Maine Road, to be sent packing by the same score

16 In 1934 City won the FA Cup, beating Portsmouth 2-1 in the final due partly to a player described at the time as "the finest right-half ever seen at Wembley" - the 25-year-old Matt Busby

17 City have never had to play a game at a neutral ground because of their fans' misbehaviour

18 City have won the League Cup twice to United's once

19 United may be ahead in the League Championship stakes, but where it really matters, the Second Division, City have won six titles to United's meagre two

20 City have never been beaten 3-0 at home by York