Robert Mancini's unveiling as Manchester City manager turned into major embarrassment for the club last night as the Italian unwittingly exposed how the Premier League outfit had been courting him during the last three weeks of Mark Hughes' reign.
City's chief executive, Garry Cook, reading from a typed statement at a press conference that was dominated by City's treatment of Hughes, declined to mention that the club's owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan — who never visited Manchester during Hughes' 18-month tenure — had dinner with Mancini and the City chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, in London two weeks ago.
When Mancini disclosed how he had met the sheikh and Mubarak in London around December 2, the night City beat Arsenal in the Carling Cup quarter-final, Cook was forced to intervene to admit that the meeting, which took place after City's seventh successive league draw against Hull City, had taken place.
“The managerial position was discussed in general terms. There are no conspiracy theories,” Cook said, dispensing with his plan to take no questions and quite obviously rattled.
It was highly unconvincing stuff, with Mancini rejecting the notion that the owner of one the world's wealthiest football clubs meeting an out-of-work manager was standard fare in Italy. So Italians would not consider a lunch between Silvio Berlusconi and himself as indicative of him being approached for the Milan job? “No, no. In Italy this kind of thing is normal. It's normal for people in football to do this,” he said.
Mancini's first day at City was dominated by the threat of the striker Craig Bellamy, incandescent about the dismissal of Hughes, considering putting in a transfer request.
“After today, Bellamy will be OK. This situation is normal,” the new manager said, but Bellamy is evidently one of the challenges to come.
Mancini's English was faltering and softly spoken, his voice barely audible as he spoke, but at the end of one sentence came an astonishing claim which appears to reveal the level of expectations that Sheikh Mansour and Mubarak appear to have set the Italian.
“My target is the top four. Next season I want to win the Premier League,” he said.
It remains unclear how many new players Mancini feels he will need to take City there. Though there is a feeling in Italy that he might bring in defensive reinforcements such as his former Internazionale players Ivan Cordoba, out of favour with Jose Mourinho, and Maicon, some in Italy believe that he might demur from bringing in too many of his compatriots as he attempts to stem the tide of indignation that has accompanied his appointment.
His backroom team will be Italian though. Fausto Salsano, a coach at Fiorentina well known to him and Ivan Carminato, who was a fitness coach for England under Sven Goran Eriksson, are recruits.
Nothing that occurred yesterday has helped stem the concerns about Hughes' treatment. Though there were attempts to keep Hughes (below) out of proceedings — “this is Mr Mancini's first press conference as manager and it's about him,” was the warning — he was more than the elephant in the room.
Rarely has an incoming manger spent his first 10 minutes in public at a club listening to a dissection of his predecessor's exit.
Tacitly seeking out Mancini as replacement manager is one thing, signing him before sacking Hughes is quite another and for the Welshman it meant the humiliation of standing on the touchline during Saturday's 4-3 win over Sunderland, knowing he would be sacked at the end of the afternoon.
Cook confirmed that Hughes' 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.
In all but three of the last 10 years, 70 points would have brought a top four place and this season City look set for the total. If they win against Stoke City on Boxing Day and at Wolverhampton Wanderers two days later they will have reached 35 points by the halfway stage, 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.
Claiming that conspiracy theories had taken hold he insisted that the delay in telling Hughes was attributable only to the time it took Mubarak to get to Manchester to sack Hughes face-to-face.
“The chairman (Mubarak) has been nothing but transparent with Mark throughout his tenure and had communicated regularly with him over the last several weeks,” Cook insisted.
Deviating from his pre-prepared script he suggested that Mubarak was not willing to fax, email or call Hughes, which explained why, having secured Mancini's services on Thursday, he had not simply sacked him on Friday and avoided the misery of Saturday. Mubarak “got on a plane and came to Manchester to meet Mark in person to explain the decision”, Cook said.
Mancini's version of events undermined everything Cook had said, leading him to leap back in. “Listen fellas, I'm just going to try to make a couple of points here,” he said, but the overall effect of the evening was to magnify the way that Hughes was treated.
In a room dominated by the image of Joe Mercer and the City of old, it was the most tangible demonstration yet that City's new owners have not taken them to a place where their fans want to be.