Mancini: City lined up move two weeks ago

Manager vows to win Premier League next season and finish in top four this campaign / Cook's version of events contradicted to show Hughes was doomed a fortnight ago
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The Independent Football

Roberto Mancini's unveiling as Manchester City manager degenerated into major embarrassment for the club last night as the Italian blew apart his chief executive's claims of transparency by unwittingly exposing the way he had been courted during the last two weeks of Mark Hughes' reign.

The City chief executive, Garry Cook, who was sitting to Mancini's left as he introduced the new manager, insisted that the club had been "nothing but transparent" with Hughes over the past three weeks – though he neglected to mention while reading out a three-page typed statement about the Welshman's departure that the club's owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, had met the Italian for lunch in London around the time that Hughes was busy guiding City to a Carling Cup quarter-final triumph over Arsenal.

The truth rapidly surfaced when Mancini began taking questions at a press conference dominated by the spectre of his predecessor: that he met the two Arabs in London on or around 2 December. The revelation forced Cook to abandon his plans to take no questions. "It seems to me there's an overwhelming theory that there is a conspiracy. We're not going to commit to that," he spluttered. And he just kept digging.

Mancini tried to posit the suggestion that the sheikh had asked for a meeting to discuss general footballing issues. "In Italy this kind of thing is normal. It's normal for people in football to do this," he said. Cook tried a similar line, saying "the managerial position was discussed in general terms" at the meeting. "There are no conspiracy theories," he repeated. But the revelation destroys in an instant all those assertions the club has made about its Arab owners having a different, more honourable and pragmatic way of doing business to others in the football world. It is also a major setback for Cook's reputation which, after a gaffe-prone start to his City career, had been starting to pick up.

The embarrassment contributed to a press conference in which Mancini demonstrated plenty of charm, but also provided hints that the targets set him by City are on a vertiginous scale. The 45-year-old – whose second day in the job was dominated by the threat of the striker Craig Bellamy, incandescent about the dismissal of Hughes, considering a transfer request – said his targets were a top four finish this year and the Premier League title in the 2010-11 campaign. "My target is the top four. Next season I want to win the Premier League," he said.

The Italian's faltering English – which he insisted on using despite a translator's presence – also left a degree of uncertainty about his contract. Mancini's assertion that he has signed up to "six months and three years" at City seemed to bear out rumours that City have reserved the right to decide this summer whether to keep him. His translator later insisted that he was describing the £10m, three-and-a-half-year deal on which City have said he has joined them.

It remains unclear how many new players Mancini feels he will need to reach his stiff targets, which Mancini insisted were his own. He might bring in defensive reinforcements such as his former Internazionale players Ivan Cordoba, out of favour with Jose Mourinho, and Maicon, though some observers in Italy believe that he might have concluded that immediately bringing in too many of his compatriots will only inflame the indignation about Hughes that has accompanied his appointment.

However, Cook may reflect today that his chairman, Mubarak, has done him no favours by sacking Hughes on Saturday and leaving him to answer yesterday's questions. His club's account of their actions in the past few weeks was riddled with holes. Cook confirmed that Hughes's sixth-place target, set last season, had been increased to a 70-point target following the summer's spending – "accelerated player acquisition activity" as he described it. If City win against Stoke City on Boxing Day and at Wolverhampton Wanderers a few days later they will have reached 35 points by the halfway point – but Cook declared that Hughes was not heading for 70. "The trajectory of recent results was below this requirement and the board felt there was no evidence that the situation would fundamentally change," he said.

Mubarak did not sack Hughes until Saturday evening because he wanted to do it man to man. "A decision was made on Thursday, but the chairman had to jump on a plane. He was adamant not to do it by telephone, call, fax, email."

Cook seemed to have got away with all this until someone asked Mancini if he had ever met his new owners. "Yes, two weeks ago in London," he said. "We met only to speak in general, on football matters – to discuss this situation. To speak on football. He wanted to know what I felt about Manchester City. In Italy it is normal. Khaldoon is a man of sport."

Mancini's hole was getting bigger: to suggestions that Italians would not bat an eyelid if he, as Internazionale manager, had met Milan's owner Silvio Berlusconi, he replied: "No, no, in Italy it is normal." Then Cook was forced to jump back in. First he tried levity. "Listen fellas, I'm just going to try to make a couple of points here," he said. But he face became more ashen as the situation span beyond him. City, a club many others love to revile for their riches, have a very long way to go as they seek to build some credibility from here.

Who's in – and who's out

There is a feeling in Italy that Mancini may tread carefully in the transfer market as he tries to stem the controversy surrounding his takeover. His former Internazionale players Ivan Cordoba, out of favour with Jose Mourinho, and Maicon, appear to be prospects.

Italian clubs are generally reluctant to release players in January. Mancini faces a battle to keep Craig Bellamy, the most loyal of Hughes' players.

He clearly wants to keep Robinho at City and to motivate him more than Hughes did, making a point of saying last night that he feels he can inspire the player. It is hard to believe that Mancini will want to keep Kolo Touré, Joleon Lescott and Wayne Bridge if their form does not pick up. His problem is that the players are on such high wages that it will take a lot to move them on and the uncertainty surrounding the new regime may make them keen to bide their time. These are the most likely players to go, though.

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