football: Cursed by Manchester madness

Frank Clark is not the first manager to fail at Manchester City.
Click to follow
NOTHING illustrates the chaotic nature of Manchester City better than the hiring and firing of Frank Clark. On his first day, 14 months ago, he had to wait in the car park for half an hour while the sacked caretaker, Phil Neal, cleared his desk.

On Tuesday evening he took a call from Francis Lee, the City chairman, while en route to watch Sunderland. Lee wanted to see him so Clark, who had reached Leeds, offered to turn round. No, it can wait, he was told. Yesterday morning Clark woke up, turned on the radio, and found he had been sacked.

Since City are second from bottom in the First Division, the worst placing in their 111-year history, it should not have been a surprise, but there was much sympathy and a significant number of people - both City fans and outsiders - suggesting he should have been given more time. Part of this is because Clark is such a popular figure but part is recognition that at City he held the game's poisoned chalice. City are a big club. Everyone says so, so it must be true, but are they?

Their honours haul (two titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups and a European Cup-Winners' Cup) is not that impressive. It is 22 years since they won anything and they are steeped in debt. The only areas in which they now resemble a big club is in their support - which remains solid at around 30,000, a remarkable figure - and their public profile. To an extent this is more a reflection of the newspaper industry than the football one. Manchester was once a major newspaper centre and still possesses an unusually high number of football reporters. So that whenever a City story breaks - and break they do - there is no shortage of writers to cover it. City, as a result, get more attention than a number of their Premiership superiors.

City's expectations are inflated from terrace to boardroom and the reality is made to appear all the more awful by Manchester United's overwhelming success. Clark has had money, quite a bit given City's debt, though not as much as he had anticipated, and he has been allowed to hold on to Georgi Kinkladze, but he has not been able to overcome the effects of City's pretensions to grandeur.

Given that Lee, Dennis Tueart, who is now an influential director, and several other club employees, were players in the club's golden decade from 1967-77, this is hardly surprising. Not that it was any better under the previous chairman, Peter Swales.

He worked through 13 managers in 22 years. When Lee arrived, four years ago this month, he pledged that those days were over. Joe Royle, Clark's successor, is his fifth manager (not including Neal).

The latest dismissal has an element of scapegoating, and it is not just the fans, who had belatedly turned on Clark, who are being appeased. Lee is in the middle of a power struggle with various directors and prominent shareholders fighting for power.

Royle was a success at Oldham, but a failure at Everton, a club with similar problems to City. Everton at least had some Premiership players; City just have players with Premiership wages. When they were relegated 21 months ago they had one of the biggest wage bills in the land. Players had to go but only the better ones were wanted - Garry Flitcroft (bizarrely sold in advance of relegation), Niall Quinn, Tony Coton, Steve Lomas and Keith Curle. Others, such as Nigel Clough, remain, in a highly-paid reserve team. Good clubs do not want them, bad clubs cannot afford them.

City do have some good players, and among the 37 Clark used were 11 internationals. This season City beat an in-form Swindon 6-0 as well as defeating Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough. Yet they also lost to Blackpool in the Coca- Cola Cup and to their once patronised local rivals: Stockport County, Crewe Alexandra and (at home on Saturday) Bury. It is typical of the City saga that Bury's goal was scored by a former City season-ticket holder, Paul Butler.

It has become an act of faith to go to Maine Road, attending more in hope than expectation, with only the prospect of some marvellous sleight of foot by the inconsistent Kinkladze to brighten the ordeal. While United are on the nation's screens entertaining a European power- house at the Theatre of Dreams, City fans head for the chamber of horrors, their communal sense of gloom encapsulated in the name of one several pressure groups: Free The Manchester 30,000. It is almost ghoulish, this desire to be able to say, when the good times return, "I was there when we lost at home to Bury."

However, in the dark moments on the Kippax, City fans are being forced to ask themselves whether the good times will ever return? Or will they become another faded Lancastrian team, living on memories, like Burnley, Blackpool and Preston?