Sentiment provided so many reasons for hoping that Roberto Mancini would make it through the storm at Manchester City. There were parts of him that the televised news conferences never reached and part of the privilege of this job was to be privy to them; observing Mancini holding court at Manchester’s San Carlo Cicchetti restaurant, for example, at the Christmas lunch for the city’s football correspondents, as he pressed upon us the merits of the gnocchi, prawns, Neapolitan pizza and Pinot Spumante, from his native Lombardy.
He is not a gregarious individual. We both arrived early for the Christmas occasion in 2011 and it was like getting blood out of a stone until David Platt bowled up and put him at ease. But his responses to the extraordinary volume of questions about Mario Balotelli certainly became an art form and his press conferences seemed to be more than those exercises in football club propaganda which we’re so familiar with these days.
Yet you didn’t need to look very hard to discern that the debonair exterior belied a very different kind of Mancini whom the Manchester City staff had to try to get down to work with. A chance conversation with one of the staff in the Etihad car park one April night last year provided the first hint that the battles Mancini was choosing to wage with so many of those within the club were something more than “Roberto being Roberto.” Mancini will “always challenge you” said that individual. That was “a positive thing”, he quickly added, though it didn’t sound like it. The public antipathy Mancini was displaying towards others within the club wasn’t on, even though the suggestion that night was that a mere “5 to 10 per cent” of the manager’s game needed to be improved.
All of that was before the arrival last August of Ferran Soriano as City’s chief executive; an individual who is something of a management theory anorak, has written a book on the subject and who happens to have a bit of a bee in his bonnet about executives keeping stuff behind closed doors. Soriano is the man who wouldn’t hire Jose Mourinho for Barcelona because of his barbed press conference gibes about his own club. “He generated media conflict almost permanently and it was a potential source of conflict within the club,” Soriano has said of Mourinho.
He also believes in the potential of individuals to change their management styles. At Barcelona, he encouraged his director of football Txiki Begiristain to coach the coach, Frank Rijkaard, in becoming more authoritarian. It worked for a while. But Mancini was never going to be so malleable.
Platt was an important part of the club’s attempts to create a bridge to Mancini and draw him into the fold – an enterprise over which there has been no small amount of agonising in the past few years. But it was a profoundly difficult task. The club’s executives felt they were getting somewhere with their planning, a year or so back when, during Garry Cook’s tenure as chief executive, they managed to get all of the executives key to their work in the transfer market together in one room. This little “player acquisition board meeting” felt like a breakthrough, except that Mancini refused to participate. He put his head down, stared at his feet and sulked for near an hour and a half. Platt tried to smooth things over, by all accounts, but that was the essence of Mancini.
It is difficult to equate the exterior and interior individual, though one individual who worked closely with him at City draws things back to the gilded cage Mancini has lived in since he was the 16-year-old enfant prodige sold by Genoa to Paolo Mantovani’s Sampdoria for the kind of sum in lira, that justified his early nickname “Mr Five Billion”.
“He’d operated in a different world to the rest of us,” the one-time colleague says.
It is why Mancini has never much taken to the notion that others might know best. And though as a Sampdoria player he demonstrated a rich capability to inculcate a team ethos – acting as captain, tactician, kit designer and organiser of the weekly team dinners at La Piedigrotta on the Genoese quayside – fitting into a hierarchy has been more difficult. That’s how it is when you think no one comes up to your standard.
The most instructive interview I undertook on the subject of the outgoing City manager was with Platt, before the 2011 FA Cup semi-final win over Manchester United. Platt related how, down on the bench, he was the first to hear Mancini’s frustrations with those players who lacked the peripheral vision he always displayed as a player blessed with incredible gifts.
“We’ll sometimes have a [goal chance] and [Mancini] will think: ‘Why hasn’t he passed there?’ ” Platt told me. “He’ll turn around on the bench and say: ‘He only has to knock it there.’ ” Platt would put himself in the player’s position sometimes. “I know that as a goalscorer my sole focus would narrow; that I wouldn’t see anybody else around me and I would just try and score the goal. But Roberto was the player who had all the vision and I think sometimes he still sees the game from his playing perspective. He sees it peripherally. To him, what [a player has just tried] is alien.”
Perhaps this explains why Mancini had such an abiding conviction that Mario Balotelli – crazy but with a little bit of that genius quality – was worth persisting with, but why he really found it so difficult to put an arm around Edin Dzeko’s shoulder and encourage that sensitive soul. Some at City have fretted often over how Dzeko could be helped to reach his potential, with a general resignation about the fact that Mancini wouldn’t manage it.
Everyone got the sharp end of his tongue in public by the end, even his Italian masseurs, though it always seemed to be Italians who had the answers. It was remarkable that City, equipped with as lavish an infrastructure as perhaps any in world football, would need to employ an Italian physiotherapist who has always liked players to try his donkey stew when Mancini felt they lacked something during the run-in to last season’s title.
Sergio Vigano, a guru who first looked after him in his early playing days at his northern base of Montferrat where he’d serve the stew and agnolotti pasta, was called in 40 days before the match against QPR which sealed last season’s title.
Mancini is also far too smart not to have seen what was coming last night. I understand that he signed an agreement last summer which gave Monaco an option on him. Don’t be surprised if he features there very soon, because the Riviera will suit him and there’ll be a chance to exert control. It will be the turn of others to drink his Pinot Spumante, hear about the gnocci and, if they happen to be an employee of the club where he turns up, get the rough edge of his tongue.
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