Football: Royle aware of City's limits

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The Independent Online
YOU WOULD not have known it from a sell-out crowd of more then 32,000 and ticket touts punting for spares, but these are hard times at Maine Road, leaving people to wonder whether they can be made easier and what the priorities are. "There is a lot of indignation about the place," Joe Royle, the City manager, said after Saturday's 3-0 victory at home to Blackpool.

Royle felt that he had chosen the wrong word, but in truth it summed up Manchester City's predicament. After all, who gave them a second thought when Super League was revealed to be more than a remote possibility?

Depending on which source you listen to, City's debts could be anywhere between pounds 12m and pounds 20m and their chairman, David Bernstein, announced before Saturday's 3-0 defeat of Blackpool that there will soon be plenty of spare pegs in the dressing-room. "At least another 10 players will have to go," he said.

Towards the end of last season City had more dead wood than you would find on a rotting schooner, with 54 professional players. "We've got the squad down to 39, but we need to reduce further," Bernstein added.

The troubles that saw City plunge from sixth place in the Premiership to the Second Division in four seasons are perhaps best summed up by the fact that the playing staff includes players who were signed by four different managers.

Royle has been letting light in. "There were youngsters here who never got a chance to show whether they are up to it," he said. A bright midfielder, Gary Mason, who was only slightly behind Paul Dickov as City's best player against Blackpool, had never got further than the third team. "The lad has ability and from the way he gets about the field he must have four lungs," Royle enthused.

Saturday emphasised the quite remarkable enthusiasm and loyalty of City's blue-clad supporters: a standing ovation for a relegated team and an energising response when things began to go flat in the second half. "They deserve so much more than they've had to put up with," Royle added.

Reality, however, is in a fixture list that served the old joke about going places this season: Macclesfield, Walsall, Chesterfield and Gillingham. "We've had things the wrong way round," Royle added. "Smashing stadium, big crowds, marvellous support, but no team. Without a team you are nothing. Today was a good start but a revival isn't going to happen overnight, so we mustn't get excited. I think we are on the right lines now, but climbing out of this division won't be easy."

So what about the indignation Royle referred to? "You are picking me up on one word," he said. "What I meant is that people have been deeply disappointed by what has happened here. It's difficult for them to accept what has happened. Maine Road can be a marvellous place to play, but some of those who were brought here couldn't handle the situation, never settled down."

Even if Royle succeeds in getting City back to the Premiership in three seasons, it would still leave them having to solve financial problems that cannot be met simply by reducing the wage bill.

Super League is inevitable and much closer than implied by guarded statements. Royle, however, does not think it affects the mood of City's supporters. "What they want is some idea of sensible progression," he said.

Progression will not embrace extravagance. Big names who figured in City's decline have departed: the dazzling Georgi Kinkladze to Ajax, for whom he recently scored a hat-trick, Uwe Rosler, Kit Symons, who took off for Fulham after refusing reduced terms.

Many of the faces in City's line-up now are unfamiliar to occasional observers and the collective method is best described as purposeful. Royle's most urgent task was to raise fitness levels.

"I don't think we'll be found out on that score, but players are not being sent out there just to run themselves into the ground," he said. "With the confidence that a good start brings, I think we'll be able to play a bit."

Even so it was a while before City got the measure of a Blackpool team made up largely of players picked up on free transfers, finally breaking through when the visitors made the ancient mistake of not playing to the whistle. Supposing that a free-kick had been awarded, they stood still. Dickov did not, turning inside to set up Shaun Goater in the 26th minute.

Dickov's alert and energetic probing brought City a second just after an hour's play when he sprinted at the heart of Blackpool's defence to create an opening for Lee Bradbury, whose pounds 3m transfer from Portsmouth last year has too often looked like a tribute to Terry Venables' shrewdness. The goal could not have impressed Royle because he quickly replaced Bradbury with Jim Whitley. Dickov went off too, but not before crossing for Kakhaber Tskhadadze to get City's third.

The crowd sang "Blue Moon", the sun shone and outside the ground a small boy asked if City were top of the league.

Goals: Goater (26) 1-0; Bradbury (62) 2-0; Tskhadadze (79) 3-0.

Manchester City (3-5-2): Weaver; Tskhadadze, Wiekens, Vaughan; Edghill, Mason, Pollock, Goater, Horlock; Dickov (Alsop, 87), Bradbury (Jim Whitley, 67). Substitute not used: Fenton.

Blackpool (3-5-2): Banks: Bardsley, Butler, Hughes; Bryan, Blunt (Conroy, 58), Bushell, Clarkson, Hills; Bent (Malkin, 75), Aldridge. Substitute not used: Carlisle.

Bookings: Manchester City Vaughan. Blackpool Clarkson, Blunt, Bushell.

Referee: G Frankland (Middlesbrough).

Man of the match: Dickov.

Attendance: 32,134.