James Lawton: If Mancini fails to keep the money men onside, he will soon be a dead man walking


Click to follow

In conveying menace and a certain shortfall in compassion, Robert De Niro never did it better than in the scene in Goodfellas when he announced, wordlessly, the death sentence that he had just passed on an erstwhile confederate.

No doubt it would be wrong, even mad, to attach quite such sinister implications to the glance Manchester City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak flashed at Roberto Mancini in the wake of Sunday's Community Shield defeat by Manchester United. Yet in that vivid moment we perhaps had the most graphic picture thus far of the pressure under which the Italian is required to operate.

Whatever you think of Mancini's handling of the challenge set him in the wake of Mark Hughes' firing, whether you believe him to be bang on course in his requirement to produce the first copper-bottomed evidence that ultimate success can indeed be bought from scratch or that he is still flailing in search of priorities, one reality cannot be questioned. It is that few football men ever inherited such a dubiously filled chalice.

Yes, he has resources to make him the envy of all his rivals, including the man who was able to crank up the pressure at Wembley, Sir Alex Ferguson, but he also has an obligation to make a team that is not just seriously competitive but successful at the highest level – ie in Europe – in much less time than his local rival had to get his feet under the boardroom table at Old Trafford. This may be a faulty interpretation but if Mubarak's expression didn't say, precisely, "Roberto, it is time for siesta with the fishes", it did seem to be asking what he had done for him today. It is the eternal question of the money men, of course; we only have to check with all those Chelsea casualties from Claudio Ranieri to Carlo Ancelotti.

Going into Sunday's game, Mancini acknowledged that City still lagged some way behind United's development – and that at least three major signings were still required before the gap might be closed truly. There were some indications at Wembley that by itself another £100m might not necessarily do the trick.

Naturally, Ferguson was not slow to slip in the dirk, if not the stiletto, when he said: "This just confirms what I thought about the squad. People said it was not the best United squad but you have to remember a lot of young players will improve." He cited Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck and Mame Diouf, back from the football hinterland beyond the restored capital of the English game and looking better and hungrier for it.

Ferguson may be leaping some of his fences a little prematurely – it seems something of a no-brainer that his team still needs more authority in midfield with the passing of Paul Scholes and the inevitable ebbing of Ryan Giggs – but much harder to argue with is the impression that United are indeed in the familiar process of effective reseeding.

What separated United and City most profoundly at Wembley was not a division of talent – any team that can field such as Yaya Touré, David Silva and Adam Johnson, and have Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez, however tenuously, in the wings is never going to suffer too much in that department – but a dynamic that Ferguson has been working on at Old Trafford for more than a quarter of a century. It is a train of thought and tradition of winning, elements which feed upon themselves quite seamlessly if they run deeply enough.

When Ferguson arrived in Manchester, with a proven track record in pushing back the horizons of a club like Aberdeen to the point of beating Bayern Munich and Real Madrid on the way to winning the Cup-Winners' Cup, he identified two priorities. One was to reinvest in a youth system which produced soon enough the generation of Scholes, Giggs, Beckham and the Neville Boys. He also had to underpin his work with players of supreme influence and, as the purest bonus, a natural-born talisman. He got both in Roy Keane and Eric Cantona.

Such organic progress does take a little time and Mancini's supporters are eager to tell you that much ground has been covered at a dramatic pace. It is true enough, as far as it goes, but then you consider the mewling of Mario Balotelli and Tevez and the tensions that erupt so quickly on the City touchline, and then you compare it with the most recent certainties of Manchester United, a team who, rightly or wrongly, still plainly believe that destiny remains on their side.

When Cantona was at the peak of his powers at Old Trafford he delivered one of his less mysterious digressions. He talked not of the mechanics of the team for whom he had become so vital but its spirit. He said: "Whenever I go out on the field I am aware of the old United players, the ghosts of the past. They are with me all the time. It doesn't matter whether you are playing for a team like United or a village or pub team, you have to believe what you are doing. You have to be proud of your shirt."

That, of course, is one of the prizes money can't buy, even if your resources run as deeply as those commanded by someone like Khaldoon al-Mubarak.

Maybe the City chairman understands this well enough. Maybe Sunday's picture didn't say more than a thousand words. For Roberto Mancini's sake, you can at least hope it is so.

Genuinely great Wilkinson puts boot into his many critics

Down the years there has been a certain reservation in declaring the universal benefit of Jonny Wilkinson's astonishing commitment to the cause of English rugby union.

Indeed, shortly before the great moment of his career and the nation's rugby history, there was a serious debate – at least in some corners – about whether his myriad virtues fully compensated for a certain deficit in creative instincts. It reached its climax, of course, at half-time in the World Cup quarter-final of 2003 against Wales in Brisbane, when Sir Clive Woodward felt obliged to move Mike Catt into the more pivotal role, a master-stroke which carried England – and Wilko – to ultimate triumph in Sydney two weeks later.

Gerald Davies, the great Welsh wing, left the stadium muttering: "That was the best decision Woodward will ever make."

Yet eight years on – and at the age of 32 – Wilkinson remains one of the better reasons to believe that England may yet avoid a humiliating meltdown when the big tournament starts in New Zealand next month.

We may charge Wilkinson with operating too often along tactical tramlines. But were any ever laid on such a foundation of enduring competitive values? When he hangs up his boots, finally, England will lose more than its greatest player. More than a little moral grounding will go too.

Allardyce can still have last laugh if he takes leaf out of 'Big Mal' book

If it is possible that Big Sam Allardyce ever allows himself moments of self-doubt, he may draw some solace from the old memory of a previous occasion when a coach of formidable reputation had a less than encouraging start to a crusade to renovate the hopes of a London club that had slipped out of the top flight.

It was when Malcolm Allison, after even greater fanfare than Allardyce has received at Upton Park, relaunched Crystal Palace in the old Second Division. The first game ended in defeat by Notts County. Naturally, the big man was utterly crestfallen. But as a long, angst-filled night drew to its close, he managed to produce a rueful smile when he reported the reaction of club owner, Raymond Bloye.

"He put his arm around my shoulder," Allison recalled, "and said: 'Don't worry, Mal, I know how much hard work and imagination went into losing 4-1'."

For Big Sam, maybe the Gold-Sullivan axis can for a little while at least operate at the same level of philosophical humour.