James Lawton: City's flawed ambition can only drive the game mad


Nigel De Jong, Manchester City's Dutch midfielder, has let it be known that he is "frustrated," in his negotiations with his club over the terms of his future employment.

This may not rank highly on any chart of human suffering but some may see his point partly because, in almost the same breath as giving his new team-mate Sergio Aguero a guarantee of more than £50m wages over the next five years, City say the best they can do for him is a mere £80,000 a week, which of course is barely £4m a year.

The main reason, though, is that football has become, essentially and at times, almost exquisitely mad.

So separated has it become from the experience of most normal people, it has almost lost the power to outrage or astound. Most people just juggle the figures and shake their heads.

It has become a place where players even as resolutely functional as De Jong, who, for all his professional qualities, could no more light up a football stadium than double as lead violinist for the Hallé Orchestra, seem to spend much of their time agonising over quite how well they are keeping up with football inflation.

Now that City have become such a byword for the phenomenon, manager Roberto Mancini can only groan at the news that not only De Jong is upset but also Vincent Kompany, who is also being offered a slave-rate £80,000-a-week, and Micah Richards, for whom there is only the scrapings of £65,000, out of which, when you think about it, he could buy no more than four bog-standard Porsches a month.

These rumblings do not fit so easily into the image of mature, upward mobility that City had some cause to be projecting at the end of the season. Winners of their first significant trophy in 35 years when the FA Cup was gathered in at the expense of Manchester United, higher placed than Arsenal in the final roll-call for Europe, City had finally started to play some fully integrated, grown-up football.

However, right on the cue of a new season we have the rumblings of the disaffected, the ritual promises of the latest expensive hero and the increasingly plaintive cries of Carlos Tevez over the family tragedy of his not being able to share with his daughters a perfectly agreeable existence in somewhere like Madrid or Milan.

It is necessary to remind ourselves all over again about the essentially flawed ambition of Manchester City. They have created in their dressing room something that increasingly resembles a culture of ever-rising envy. De Jong, no doubt, is a forceful and effective professional but his own estimation of his worth is unlikely to be shared by most of those who remember him mostly by what appeared to be an attempt to decapitate Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final.

Kompany is a fine, consistent defender and Richards is still young enough to be regarded as promising, but for the moment such virtues are once again overshadowed by one of the older truths of football.

It is that you cannot buy success simply at any price. You cannot throw masses of money at players of disparate skill and personality and expect some smooth and seamlessly competitive result.

In the Manchester City executive suite, the belief, clearly, is that Sergio Aguero is worth at least twice as much as any of De Jong or Kompany or Richards. This is an entirely reasonable calculation, but at the moment it seems to offer only one guarantee. It is that City, for all their recent progress, will for some time continue to define the difference between building success and buying insanity.