Clark proves the City stickler

Simon O'Hagan finds the new broom is sweeping carefully through Maine Road
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Supporters of Manchester City would probably say that you have to take your pleasures when you can, but it was a dubious comment on the season they are having that the biggest cheers during last Wednesday night's goalless draw at home to Sheffield United were in response to nothing that was happening on the pitch.

All football crowds revel in schadenfreude - it's part of the culture. But there was something rather desperate about the City fans' delight at hearing that Manchester United had gone a goal down at home to Wimbledon. The new City manager, Frank Clark, certainly didn't like it, and as he sets about righting things at a club where humiliation had been the order of the day, he feels a little dignity is called for.

"I've put a stop to other teams' scores being read out during the game," he said. "People who come here should only be interested in one result and that's ours. That's the only one that matters and I don't want the players or the fans thinking about anything else."

Although not all their own fault, City's struggles over the last year - relegation from the Premier League, the rapid descent towards the bottom of the First Division, managers coming and going through the revolving door - have turned them into a laughing stock in some quarters. And it's all made much worse when they look across town and see United preening themselves. But even though it is still early days in the 53-year-old Clark's reign, there is a sense in which his quiet, almost solemn, purposefulness may be just what Maine Road needs.

"I can understand the way the supporters feel," Clark said. "But what we have got to do is try to give them a team they can be proud of in their own right, not in relation to Manchester United or anyone else."

Although City are still in trouble near the foot of the table as they go into today's match at Oxford United, Clark can claim to have made progress since he arrived just before Christmas, following his resignation from Nottingham Forest.

Until then, the meagre eight occasions on which City had won had each been followed by defeat. After respectable draws against Huddersfield and Crystal Palace, City won a tricky-looking FA Cup third-round tie at Brentford last week and did not then go into reverse against Sheffield United, who were second in the table.

The match told Clark a lot about the task he has on his hands. City had abundant possession but created almost nothing out of it. United, apparently only interested in defending their way to a draw, made for obdurate opponents, but by the end City were resorting to hitting the ball long. "I think that's what happens when a team gets anxious," Clark said. "The players have been under- achieving for a while, but the instability at the club has not been good for them. It's up to me and the coaches to get them to relax and express themselves a bit more."

With pounds 10m having been raised through a rights issue and some measure of calm restored to the board room, Clark is now in a position to start the rebuilding he knows is necessary. His first signing came on Friday - Kevin Horlock, the Northern Ireland international, who was bought from Swindon for pounds 1.5m and who offers the sort of dependability and versatility that perhaps mean more to managers than to fans.

The big question on everyone's lips at Maine Road is, whither Georgi Kinkladze? Worth upwards of pounds 5m, the dazzlingly gifted Georgian is City's prize asset - adored by the fans, and often the only reason for watching City during the last season and a half. But with rumours of his departure surfacing about as often as Kinkladze himself zips past defenders, what does Clark have in mind for him?

"He's never come to me and said he wanted to leave," Clark said. "We've not had any offers for him while I've been here. At the moment, he's an integral part of the club and I hope it stays that way. If the day ever comes when he decides he doesn't want to play at Manchester City then we would have to look at that. But we're aware he is very much a favourite of the supporters, and that is a factor in anything that will be done." Does Kinkladze think he'll still be at City next season? "Maybe," he said on Friday. "Maybe not."

For Clark, it seems like just one of many concerns as he seeks to re- establish himself after three and a half largely successful years at Forest ended in disappointment and uncertainty over the future ownership of the club. There was also the feeling that he could do no more with the players. His response to the situation was characteristically honest. "The take- over business was becoming very difficult to deal with, and the fact that the team were having an horrendous run of results made me feel that resigning was the right thing to do."

Now he is right back in the thick of it. "You always have to prove yourself as a manager every week," he said. "I don't think you can ever sit back and say you've done it. You only have to look around - at Kevin Keegan for example, or Joe Royle down the road. Six weeks ago he was a hero. Now you've got the press saying he'll be out if he doesn't win a game soon. That sort of thing doesn't matter to me. I know I can manage a football club. But the cliche about only being as good as your last game - that's never been as true of managers as it is today."