Manchester City...still fixated by United?
With the title won, the blue side of Manchester may claim to be able to forget the old obsession – but the Reds are still the ones to beat, writes Ian Herbert
As they prepare to join battle with their arch foes once again, we learn this weekend that Manchester City's roller-coaster ride of the past few years has been even dippier than previously realised. The evidence emerges in the story, told in a new history of the club on sale from today, of how, four years ago, City tried to sign Lionel Messi from Barcelona by mistake.
Garry Cook – the chief executive who was integral to the club's extraordinary new ascent – has related to the book's author, Gary James, how, in the febrile period in 2008 when Abu Dhabi was scrambling to pull in a big, keynote signing to mark its takeover, someone said: "It's all getting messy…" Yes, you've guessed it. Someone really did interpret this as "Get Messi," prompting a £30m offer to Barcelona which was summarily rejected.
Yet it is a different kind of madness which provides the most significant theme to James's exhaustive and timely study of the club: that obsessive and ultimately destructive desire to drive Manchester United into the dust, which has possessed City for so long. James believes last May's stunning title denouement has put that fixation to bed and that the club he has chronicled so meticulously wants to beat the best now, whoever that may be.
The two were back at it again yesterday, though – Sir Alex Ferguson tanned and beaming as he took his first Premier League press conference seat of the season, with Robin van Persie settled into the one to his right at Old Trafford.
As ripostes to a title dethroning go, this was a ceremony Danny Boyle could not have fixed. It left Roberto Mancini, a frustrated soul this summer until £15m Jack Rodwell arrived, stuck with the same one-liner that he trotted out precisely a year ago: that United with Van Persie are "five yards ahead" of City. The Italian managed not to grit his teeth when declaring that Ferguson is now in possession of the best strike force in the world. Ferguson, invoking the memory of Eric Cantona and clearly seeing Van Persie as a player who will help more junior players to grow, was the one with all the zip.
The evidence of a summer of fine writing on City – James's exhaustive history Manchester –the City Years was preceded by David Conn's part-study/part-memoir Richer than God – is that City are the ones who have been driven down by their obsession with United. The one season of purgatory Denis Law inflicted on his old club with the back-heel which helped relegate them in 1974 was nothing compared with what Peter Swales, chairman and comb-over king, caused by lavishing a fortune on his hopeless desire to destroy the neighbours.
The calamity was compounded by the fact that City were reigning European Cup Winners' Cup holders, no less, when the fateful takeover led by a double glazing tycoon from Oldham and a soap manufacturing magnate in November 1970 paved the way for Swales acquiring power. "Premature End" is James's chapter heading for this period.
"I dimly remember Scales promising that Maine Road would become as grand an arena as Old Trafford… and City would be the top club in Manchester," writes Conn. "For 30 years fans have cursed what he did next to achieve that destiny."
Cook features substantially in James's narrative, which reveals how City's attempts to keep his appointment below the radar meant that he actually watched United before witnessing the side he had arrived in Britain to work for. Ferguson's title-winning victory at Wigan Athletic in May 2008 provided his initiation, rather than City's 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough under Sven Goran Eriksson on the same day. "I said, 'I guess it can't get any worse than this'," Cook told James. Well it did, actually.
When Cook walked into his new club with Mark Hughes, the newly appointed manager, the two were greeted with a "Save Sven" petition, pinned to the wall. "Mark Hughes said: 'This is what we've got! What a welcome!'" Cook related to James.
Cook, the former Nike Brand Jordan president, who left the club last September, became synonymous with the old Swalesian manic desire to surpass United. But James correctly jettisons that assumption in a book which is full of the madness of recent years – Thaksin Shinawatra being jetted in to buy the club in a Harrods helicopter, which everyone seemed to miss; Hughes and academy head Jim Cassell blithely playing golf at the Worsley Marriott while the Abu Dhabis tried to gazump Ferguson for Dimitar Berbatov – yet which also charts Cook's pivotal role in persuading the Abu Dhabis to buy the club and change the course of its history.
Cook's presentation to the Arabs before a home game with West Ham United was significant. "The final thing we talked about is where we could go," Cook related. "Nobody had taken their football club and turned it into a brand, other than Man United, but that's a bit different…" United. It's always about United.
It is a story about the two of them once again, today, as we embark on another of these crazy nine-month journeys – even though Chelsea, with Eden Hazard and Oscar, have invested vastly to shatter the duopoly and equip Roberto Di Matteo to make a better fight of it.
There is more uncertainty about the season ahead than there has been for years because no fewer than six new managers – seven if you count Di Matteo's elevation from caretaker coach to the hotseat – are scattered among the 20 Premier League clubs. Andre Villas-Boas, trying to manage change in north London in a way which alienates fewer players than he did at Chelsea, represents a substantive gamble on Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy's part that will require time to pay a dividend. It is hard to move beyond the realms of a predictably pessimistic assessment of how Arsenal, with Jack Wilshere sidelined and Alex Song probably moving on, will advance, despite the new talents of Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud.
Liverpool offer the most fascinating and unpredictable story of all, based on whether Brendan Rodgers, incredibly impressive to observe, really can rebuild a new club based on its old principals – though even he has acknowledged this summer that it may be a three-year job. It will perhaps be a long game. Beyond that, there is a more positive feel about Aston Villa at long last, under Paul Lambert, and Sunderland may be the season's story waiting to explode with Martin O'Neill.
But it all really comes back to Manchester, a city entranced yesterday by Van Persie, whose arrival suggests that Ferguson is now an old man in a hurry, knowing he cannot wait for his prophecies about youth to win back Mancunian supremacy. Since Henning Berg and Teddy Sheringham's arrival in 1997, United have counted only Dimitar Berbatov among outfield players over the age of 27 for whom they had paid more than £3m. Though Rodwell, presented by City three hours before United paraded Van Persie, provides the creativity from the centre of midfield that was especially missing in a poor Champions League campaign – and which United lack – Ferguson has Nemanja Vidic back from injury, Tom Cleverley ready to fulfil his promise and Shinji Kagawa, a player with the range to set the league alight if he can make the transition from the Bundesliga that others have struggled with.
"I feel that by achieving what City achieved last season, this season starts with more of a level playing field than for years," James said. "City had never quite delivered until the title was claimed. Now the obsessions about United can be forgotten." But no one will be forgetting Ferguson. Before a ball has been kicked he, the new noisy neighbour, is making sure of that.
The Manchester City Years, by Gary James. James Ward £25Richer than God - Manchester City, modern football and growing up, by David Conn. Quercus £12.99
Roll of honour: Last 10 champions
2002-03 Manchester United
2006-07 Manchester United
2007-08 Manchester United
2008-09 Manchester United
2010-11 Manchester United
2011-12 Manchester City
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