Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Manchester City's ills suggest they are destined for mediocrity

You don't have to have a soft spot for the best of Manchester City – it was always a charming, if edgy, stoicism in the worst of days – to worry about quite what is happening to them now.

No, all you need is the concern that while getting used to the heady idea that they have become the richest club in football, they are helping to define quite how crass and self-destructive the English game has become.

Of course we are constantly urged to show caution in our reaction to the new City. If they think it's fine, indeed even claim it to be club policy, to allow their best-paid player Yaya Touré to do half a shift in a rather desultory manner and then rush off in order to beat the traffic, then hey, remember these are the richest boys on the block. One way or another, all of the game is sooner or later destined to bend the knee.

You say perhaps not? Well, you could just be right but be careful where you say it. Some intellectual heavyweight might just level the charge that a green-eyed monster has taken possession of your marbles.

Back in the real world, however, Sheikh Mansour's advisers may just think the time is right for a passing review of his spending on City, which is now close to £600m.

They might wonder not least if they have in Garry Cook, the former sports kit promoter, quite the chief executive to lay down the foundations of a dazzling, secured football empire.

He did, after all, pronounce the former owner Thaksin Shinawatra a most agreeable golf companion, whatever that tiresome Amnesty International had to say, and accused the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had only recently rewritten his nation's constitution to ward off the possibility of prosecution and impeachment, of a loss of nerve in negotiations over the possible transfer of Kaka from Milan to Eastlands.

These do not constitute the acme of fine character assessment.

Nor, it has to be said, has the recruitment under first Mark Hughes and now Roberto Mancini. In the last week or so City's squad has begun to look like a parody of all you might expect from a gathering of hand-picked crack professionals.

Inevitably, Mancini claims to be involved in a work in progress but right now the whole process could hardly look more hazardous. Yesterday Kolo Touré said that it was time for the players to take more responsibility, including, presumably even the ace in City's distinctly crumpled pack, the apparently homesick Carlos Tevez.

The list of problems can hardly make for comfortable reading back in the Middle East: drinking episodes; at least one scuffle in the tunnel between Yaya and James Milner, team-mates costing a combined total of £50m; badly concealed disaffection with the training and disciplinary regime of Mancini, who is from a football culture where professionals are given the fancy idea at an early age that they are among the more privileged members of society; and, finally, the open contempt for team-mates currently being displayed by the talented but incorrigibly egocentric and ill-disciplined Emmanuel Adebayor and Mario Balotelli.

This, for the moment at least, is not a check list for a team going any place beyond grotesquely inflated mediocrity.

City, it is true, might just ride the squalls. Mancini, a serial winner with Internazionale, may hack into place the rudiments of team unity and a coherent set of tactics more in keeping with the richest club in the world than those centred around the seek-and-destroy methods of Nigel de Jong. But who can be confident that City, for all the oil largesse, have the fundamental ingredients that have always accompanied football success?

It's an old debate, of course, but then some principles cannot be bent to suit the particular circumstances of an inherently unpromising situation.

Those who assert that you cannot just walk into the street and buy a winning football team, that the project has not got an earthly feel if it isn't underpinned by the experience of men who have acquired a proper insight into what truly separates the winners and the losers, have always been arguing from the strongest of positions – those that are made by an understanding that if you don't grasp what happened yesterday you are unlikely to have much of a clue about the possibilities of tomorrow.

Even if you have loadsamoney, what you do is build a team piece by piece and put the job in the hands of a manager – in the English system it will always be the most important person – who has displayed the leadership potential of a Mourinho or a Ferguson or a Wenger.

Then, you have a sense of where you are going. You do not make a big splash for someone like Kaka while still struggling to form the basis of a winning team, and if you do, don't leave yourself wide open to an embarrassing rejection.

At least events have spared City the possibility of signing Wayne Rooney and injecting all of his broiling uncertainties of fitness and psychology into a dressing room to which you can only imagine he would have brought a degree of self-interest guaranteed to dwarf even that of Adebayor and Tevez and Yaya Touré.

Most depressing is not so much that City's windfall seems to be gathering something resembling a crop of bad apples but that they are also at the moment most dramatically mirroring the rot so manifest at almost every level of the football food chain.

It doesn't help that the majority of their problems were so easy to anticipate. City, if you remember, were supposed to be the team primed to define the future. Unfortunately, these last few days have provided something rather different. They have told us what happens when there is too much money, too little common sense. You get some hateful swilling in the trough.

Belfast Telegraph


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