It was well after midnight when Gerard Houllier walked into the Liverpool dressing room, in a corner of which was the European Cup. “Twelve out of the 14 players in Istanbul were ones I had signed or developed,” Houllier recalled. “When I came into the changing-rooms, one of the players turned to me and said: ‘Boss, it’s your team’.”
Except that it was managed by another. Long afterwards, Rafael Benitez would sit in the press room at Anfield, point at the pictures of the men who had won the European Cup and remark how ordinary some were and how difficult they had been to sell.
The squad that Manuel Pellegrini inherited was perhaps the strongest in the Premier League. They were also deeply disaffected.
Twelve months ago, they had gathered at a hotel near Watford to prepare for the FA Cup final. For Edin Dzeko, Joe Hart and Samir Nasri, this might have been their last big occasion as Manchester City players. This afternoon they are 90 minutes and one point from winning the Premier League.
Twelve months ago, the Etihad Stadium’s dressing room, with its slogans telling City’s footballers “There is a place in history waiting for you”, had become unpleasant. Hart and Nasri had been wounded by the public criticism directed at them by Roberto Mancini while Dzeko had seen his career shunted down a cul-de-sac.
Alternative Premier League Team of the Season 2013/14
Alternative Premier League Team of the Season 2013/14
1/10 David Marshall (Cardiff)
An honourable place goes to the goalkeeper, who has made nearly 150 saves in the league this season for beleaguered Cardiff. He has also conceded 71, mind…
2/10 Morgan Amalfitano (WBA)
As the old saying goes, the West Brom player is not a “great goal scorer, but a scorer of great goals”. Manchester United and Cardiff will certainly attest.
3/10 Kolo Toure (Liverpool)
As the old saying goes (II), the Liverpool defender is not a “great own-goal scorer, but a scorer of great own goals”. Fulham will certainly attest.
4/10 Dan Burn (Fulham)
The towering Fulham defender makes the team for easily dealing with a total of 81 crosses from Manchester United in the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, and then compared the champions to a lowly team from the Conference. He later said that this was not meant as an insult, but to most watching the game it looked like he was giving an accurate description.
5/10 Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United)
The curious case of Wilfried Zaha. Signed as the "Next Big Thing" by Sir Alex Ferguson for £10m in January 2013 after winning two England caps with Crystal Palace in the Championship. After joining up at Old Trafford from last season’s loan spell at Palace, he made only two appearances under David Moyes before being shipped to Cardiff on loan. He had plenty of time on his hands, then, to fiercely deny an alleged relationship with Moyes' daughter, saying that they had "never even met".
6/10 Kevin Nolan (West Ham)
Every team needs a bit of fire in the middle…although Nolan took this to another level between 7 December and 1 January, when he was handed two reds cards in the space of four matches. The festive season does do strange things to people.
7/10 Kim Kallstrom (Arsenal)
He could have been a great loan signing to deputise in the absence of Aaron Ramsey. Then came the shock of the beach ball incident, fingers were waved and three months later he finally made an appearance for the club, 12 days before Ramsey returned, rendering the whole deal pretty much pointless, unless he scores the winner in the FA Cup final...
8/10 Stephen Ireland (Stoke City)
Now his ‘dead’ grandmother is back on the scene and allegedly talking to his national team assistant coach Roy Keane, Ireland could be back playing for Ireland soon. An integral part of Mark Hughes’ new ball-playing Stoke juggernaut.
9/10 Shane Long (WBA/ Hull City)
The striker has scored under double figures in all competitions, but he can rest assured that for 10 glorious minutes at The Hawthorns he was nothing short of world class, scoring two magnificent goals in West Brom’s 2-2 draw with local rivals Aston Villa. It all went downhill for the next 80 minutes however.
10/10 Samuel Eto'o (Chelsea)
33 or 35, veteran Samuel Eto’o continues to bang them in whatever division he is in. And who didn’t love that ‘old man’ celebration in response to manager Jose Mourinho questioning his real age.
Before setting off for Wembley, Costel Pantilimon had given an interview stating he would be leaving Manchester City. Coincidentally or not, he was promptly dropped from the starting line-up.
Pellegrini’s greatest asset is his ability to get on with people. “Criticism from him never felt personal,” said Diego Forlan, who played under him at Villarreal. “He didn’t have favourites and recognised the importance of building team spirit. How else do you think Villarreal got to the semi-finals of the Champions’ League or finished 10 points ahead of Barcelona in 2008?”
The irony is that the 2014 Premier League title became a struggle between two managers who made the best of what they had. With the exception of two Brazilians, Philippe Coutinho and Fernandinho, neither Brendan Rodgers nor City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain, made inspired summer signings.
However, Rodgers and Pellegrini drew the maximum from the players who had finished the previous season. The first time he met his squad, Pellegrini asked for three things – “respect, commitment to the project and performance”.
As a manager, Mancini was essentially the same person he had been as a player – volatile, instinctive and anxious to control everything. By his own admission, Pellegrini was a different man from the central defender who suspended his career to help in the reconstruction following the Algarrobo earthquake in 1985 that left a million Chileans homeless.
If that gave him perspective, so did the year he spent at Real Madrid managing Cristiano Ronaldo. There was the daily bile from Marca, the endless press conferences and the presence of the world’s most famous and photographed sportsman.
Real Madrid, like Manchester City, is run by deeply conservative men – the photographs of Mancini brawling with Mario Balotelli in training did as much to earn him the sack as the limp display against Wigan in the FA Cup final. At the Bernabeu, they were terrified that Ronaldo would spend most of his time in the Madrid gossip magazines. Instead, perhaps because he was new to the Spanish capital, Ronaldo rarely left his modernist mansion and scored 33 times in 26 games.
Pellegrini’s task was to ensure that the rest of his squad did not consider themselves bit-part players in Ronaldo’s grand drama.
Describing his sacking in 2010, Pellegrini said: “It was the result of me defending several players who I believed were vital for the team.”
One of the biggest decisions any manager can make is to drop his goalkeeper. When Jose Mourinho discarded Iker Casillas it developed into a messy public feud, not least because Casillas’s partner, Sara Carbonero, is a television presenter.
Though he had welcomed Mancini’s departure, by October, Hart’s form had fallen apart to the extent that after a 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge, his dropping felt like a mercy killing. Nevertheless, Hart was grateful that Pellegrini did not criticise him in public, talked to him when he was on the sidelines and was true to his word that he would be ‘rested’ rather than dropped. His fingertip save from Steven Naismith in the 3-2 win at Everton was the kind that wins championships.
Mancini had never told reporters he wanted to punch Hart in the same way he told them he had wanted to punch Nasri. Then the boy from Marseilles was a mess, so wound up by his failures with France and in the Premier League that he could not bring himself to discuss it with his agent, much less his parents.
In November, sitting in the press room at the Etihad Stadium, he compared Pellegrini’s man-management style to that of Arsène Wenger. “In the end, I decided to talk to the people I love, to smile and do what I do best – which is to play football.”
He was fortunate in that Pellegrini’s philosophy favoured playmakers and big centre forwards. Had it not, no amount of talks would have kept Dzeko in Manchester.
Pellegrini is not one for great phrases or dressing-room rhetoric. His is a different type of leadership. The late Tony Benn said: “When the best leader’s work is done, people turn round and say: ‘we did it ourselves’.” That is the story of City in 2014. They did it themselves.