Horton mocks City critics

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The Independent Online
Ian Ridley reports from Manchester where the other football half live in renewed hope PETER SWALES would certainly have been bemused by the atmosphere at Manchester City's annual general meeting last week. On the morning after United had restored some credibility with their 4-0 win over Galatasaray, even if they had gone out of the European Champions' Cup, here was the city's other club announcing a record loss of more than £6m yet being congratulated on their professionalism by dividend-denied shareholder after shareholder.

The reason was largely that Swales was not there and that Francis Lee was. Revivalism, in the club's centenary year, was in the air from the outset when the present chairman, who bought out the previous one last February, explained that the meeting was being held at Manchester Airport for the first time "so that everyone could get used to Terminal One because this is where the flights to Europe will go from".

Lee handled such tough questions as there were with something beyond aplomb. The loss, after a profit of £615,000 under Swales - though the new City did inherit a large transfer deficit - was down to keeping the club in the Premiership. That was all right then; end justified means.

Why, someone wondered, had the club committed itself to some £4m in signing-on fees and loyalty bonuses to its 42 professionals over the next four years? The inflated numbers with inflated opinions of themselves were being addressed, Lee said. "But the problem is some players have got Frank Sinatra's tastes and Frank Ifield's voice." Mostly - and here is where shareholders of football clubs differ from those of proper businesses - the inquisitors wanted to know how soon the two "star" players the club n eeded could be bought. Or when they were going to beat Manchester United.

Only a fortnight ago, shortly after beating City 5-0 in what T-shirts outside Old Trafford describe as the "Demolition Derby", United announced a record profit of £11.45m. Last week, seeking to improve on an income of £14m from merchandising last year, the United megastore was opened. It emerged at the City AGM, when total debts of almost £9m were listed as illustration of the reason for a forthcoming floating of the company, that the souvenir shop is run by a franchise.

Yet there was justification for the mood. To fans, balance sheets hardly compare with league tables and City, after beating Ipswich 2-1 last week, crept almost unnoticed up to sixth; certainly not now "The National Mockery" of another T-shirt.

As much as Lee, the reason behind City's improvement on the field has been the unsung Brian Horton, the only manager ever to have outlasted Swales, who fired 11. The man who, it has seemed for the last 15 months, would be out of a job any day now - Ron Atkinson was the latest successor mentioned a fortnight ago - is the ninth longest serving in the Premiership.

And safe as George Graham may be, despite all Arsenal's tribulations this season, he will bring his side warily to Maine Road tomorrow night. That City win at Ipswich hastened John Lyall's resignation; the 5-2 success over Tottenham was the beginning of the end for Ossie Ardiles, who was also sacked by Newcastle after a similar result at Oxford when Horton was manager there.

"It's crazy, ain't it?"says Horton, who says he has learnt lessons from the derby defeat and Ardiles's fate. "Mainly that we can't be so adventurous away from home." In that has been the disparity between unbeaten home record and five defeats on the road.

Those who saw him as Brian Who? when he took over from Peter Reid had an exaggerated sense of City's place in English football's scheme and an ignorance of the game. He was a mixture of graft and craft as a midfield player for the best Luton team of a decade ago under David Pleat and a producer of a bright team on a shoestring at Oxford. "My biggest asset was my leadership," he says.

Along Pleat principles, he has City playing pass and move again in place of the offside-obsessed team of Reid. He has even had the Maine Road pitch widened to accommodate wingers. "David loved all the interchanging and crossovers and we do it here. With the youth team, I insist the ball is thrown out from the back so that they learn early to play through the team. You may be getting it out of the danger area with the long, straight ball but I don't enjoy watching it. I want them playing it wide, gettingit from angles."

Horton's purchases, notably Paul Walsh and Peter Beagrie, looked like gambles on journeymen at the time when relegation threatened last season but their flourishing is testament to the coaching of the manager and his assistant David Moss, like Horton a member of the Luton side that sent City down in May 1983. "I used to get on to Paul when he was a kid at Luton only to make him better, and he should have done better with the ability he has. Peter? Well, he used to drive people mad when he checked and checked and strikers waited for the cross. Now we've got him to get the ball in quicker and he's playing the best of his career."

It is a side with a spine from Tony Coton, when fit, through Keith Curle, rehabilitated after being Graham Taylored, Garry Flitcroft, rehabilitated after injury, and Niall Quinn, whose touch on the ground is often underestimated. Meanwhile, that other German striker Uwe Rosler is becoming a cult, Steve Lomas develops apace and Nicky Summerbee wide on the right is beginning to resemble his father Mike, Lee's old City and England friend.

Horton says: "Francis said to me when I told him I wanted Nicky: `you know what people will say?' But he was my signing. They say I'm just a puppet but I'm not. What chance would I have with the players if I were? If I've got something to say I will say it and so will the chairman. He was a great player and he has his opinions but he never discusses team selection. There's a good chance that he'll sack me one day but I can't think about that."

The charmed shareholders also seem to be enjoying it while they can. "We are not the finished articles by any means. I am always looking for players," Horton says. "We've got to aim for the standards United have set."And while one eye is on the balance sheet, the other is on the planes outside the window that have been taking the more celebrated city club into Europe.