James Lawton: City wise up to Hughes' theory of evolution
Gareth Barry's arrival at Eastlands signals a turning point for the world's richest club, as star-struck revolution gives way to a more considered new order
Friday 05 June 2009
Now Manchester City are really talking, seriously that is and to the point where the ill-judged move for Kaka in January can be consigned to somewhere back among the dangers of the learning curve.
It can go, along with all those other misadventures which so often happen when a vast and unexpected windfall is seen as the banker foundation of a successful football team, when assorted magnates and businessmen, not to mention glorified shirt salesmen, believe they know something about the game which left Sir Alex Ferguson, after 50-odd active and brilliant years, as confused and dismayed as a raw apprentice a few days ago in Rome.
City wanted the Brazilian, who now appears to be heading to Real Madrid as the deposed masters of the Spanish game lunge towards another galacticos phase under the loony-tune command of returning president Florentino Perez, as a world-record-priced short cut to glamour status and, presumably, serious competition.
They know better now. They know the Kaka affair, and its excruciatingly embarrassing denouement, was nothing so much as an extension of the equally madcap belief of previous owner Thaksin Shinawatra that you could throw £40-odd million at someone like Sven Goran Eriksson, have him make a few phone calls and flick through a video or two, and come up with instant contenders.
To be fair to Eriksson, he did a lot better than was anticipated in many quarters, and certainly this one, but by the end of his one and only season last year the verdict was in. Eriksson, while sharply improving entertainment levels, hadn't been making a team but an illusion of one.
For City fans for whom that was just another cycle of the failure, if not outright despair, since the days Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison galvanised the club in the mid-Sixties, and built a team piece by piece, it has to be a major reassurance that the current owner appears finally to be listening to his manager, Mark Hughes.
The word is that Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan was anxious to establish City's ranking as the world's richest football club, a fact that apparently needed more immediate and unanswerable underpinning than merely beating Chelsea to the luxury signing of Robinho.
Kaka didn't happen and, whatever his public statements, the old pro Hughes cannot have been too mortified. Of course he could have used Kaka – who couldn't with half a football wit? – but he didn't need the distorting focus of such a huge leap beyond the club's stage of progress. A Kaka is a crowning move, a celebration of a point of development when a club – and a dressing room – can handle the natural evolution of a team which comes with real progress.
It happened, of course, when Allison supplied Mercer with his shopping list all those years ago; the priceless veteran Tony Book had been brought in, and resident players like Mike Doyle, Glynn Pardoe and Alan Oakes – a marvellous force in the new City who in the old one was so insecure he would break into a sweat before going out on the field – had grown dramatically in confidence, when the big coach made his moves.
Allison then signalled it was time to increase his resources and the signings of Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee and Colin Bell – at a cost of slightly more than £100,000 – provided the cornerstones of a relatively brief but brilliant empire.
Hughes clearly believes he has reached the same point of take-off, and if his priority shopping bill, which already includes the £12m cost of Gareth Barry, will be stretching towards £60m if he also lands Carlos Tevez and Samuel Eto'o, no one can accuse him of impulse buying.
Kaka surely came into that category. You might say it was a thrilling initiative, but the pressures it would have imposed on the manager in trying to integrate such a refined talent into an ill-formed team was hauntingly predictable.
Now we can see the clearest pattern. If Eto'o can be prised away from Barcelona by a pot of gold from the sheikh, City answer the most pressing question that has faced them in recent years. When, with the departure of Nicolas Anelka in 2005, were they ever going to find the firepower consistent with serious ambition?
Tevez, too, is an investment of self-evident soundness. His contribution at West Ham was the difference between that club's survival in the top flight and the possibility of some vertiginous descent into the football wilderness. Tevez, above all, is a worker, a strong and always visible heart – a most vital ingredient of any team moving upwards.
And already there is Barry. He belongs in another universe to that of Kaka, of course, but as the practised eye of Fabio Capello has seen, he is the kind of player who gives a reforming team the precious qualities of discipline and substance.
When Hughes was charged with producing football of sometimes rough physicality at Blackburn, he snapped at his accuser, "Well, it's tough playing great football with limited resources – give me £30m or £40m and I'll see what I can do."
He has been given all of that and more now – plus the time properly to identify his most pressing needs. He has gone for a solid presence at the back of midfield and the possibility of striking potential of the highest quality. Just as importantly, it seems, he has been given the time to make his own team at his own pace.
It means that in the blizzard of transfer speculation, and so many proposed moves that seem as random as the purchase of a lottery ticket, there looks to be at least one club marked by a degree of certainty. Nothing is guaranteed in football, of course, but then there are a few laws which are broken only at grave peril. One is that you always give a manager – a real manager at least – the time to decide where his team needs to be going. You give him the required resources. Then, nobody needs to tell Mark Hughes, the options come down to just two – the glory or the sack.
The £100m spending spree: Hughes' signings so far
* Pablo Zabaleta £6.45m, Espanyol, August 2008. Struggled at right-back, but the Argentine has found form as a holding midfielder.
* Robinho £32.5m, Real Madrid, September 2008. Signed from under the noses of Chelsea on deadline day last summer, the Brazilian has been mercurial at home but anonymous away.
* Craig Bellamy £14m, West Ham, January 2009. Admired by Mark Hughes from their time at Blackburn, the volatile striker has once again struggled with injuries, scoring only twice in the Premier League.
* Nigel de Jong £17m, Hamburg, January. Caught the eye with his performances for the Netherlands in Euro 2008, and the defensive midfielder seems at home in the Premier League.
* Shay Given £8m, Newcastle, February. One of the league's most consistent keepers has picked up where he left off with Newcastle. Looks to be very good value for money.
* Wayne Bridge £12m, Chelsea, February. Always behind Ashley Cole at Chelsea, the England left-back has been solid without being spectacular. Should get better next season.
* Gareth Barry £12m, Aston Villa, June. With most people expecting another Anfield saga this summer, the Villa captain earned a shock move to Eastlands. Hughes will have been delighted with the signing and hope it will herald the arrival of others with a similar calibre.
Total spent: £101.95m
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