This time last year it was all going so well for Roberto Mancini and Manchester City. Two goals deep into injury time during the last match of the season against QPR meant the Italian had delivered City’s first title in 44 years in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable. The long wait was over. City, who for decades had been a laughing-stock, found themselves at the summit of the English game. The days of winning ‘Cups for Cock Ups’ had gone; the Premier League trophy now had pride of place. Mancini’s position in City’s history books was secure.
Twelve months later and the landscape has altered considerably. Mancini has been sacked, with the club preparing to bring in Malaga’s Manuel Pellegrini as manager. The Chilean yesterday denied reports that he is set to be installed at the Etihad, but that’s standard practice in these situations: he doesn’t want to upset his current employers, and needed to be seen as respectful to Mancini, who was still officially in charge when the denial was made. It’s become an ugly yet familiar managerial transition at City, after Mark Hughes and Sven Goran-Eriksson suffered similar fates. With the fans so emotionally attached to Mancini, this is an important appointment for the club. If it goes wrong, the relationship between the board and the fans – which has so far been serene – may be damaged somewhat.
City fans are quite rightly angry at the way it’s been handled. A not-so-private meeting with Pellegrini’s agent gave rise to intense speculation about Mancini’s future back in February, with Guillem Balague getting hold of information that a contract between City and Pellegrini’s representatives had been agreed. The Spanish journalist then proceeded to leak the information on Friday evening, just hours before City were set to play their second FA Cup final in three seasons. The rumours became so intense that the board were forced to sack him on the anniversary of that glorious day last May, denying him the opportunity of a proper send off in our final home match against Norwich. Typical City is alive and well.
Struggles in this season’s Champions League meant Mancini’s European record, and his suitability to make City the force they crave to be, came under intense scrutiny last Christmas. Pep Guardiola was the name initially touted as a replacement; a logical assumption given his links with Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain whom he worked with at Barcelona. However, Guardiola soon agreed a deal to take over at Bayern Munich, leaving Pellegrini as the man most likely to become Mancini’s replacement. The club have done very little to quash those rumours and take the pressure off Mancini, something which he rightly feels aggrieved about.
Of course, it’s difficult to feel totally sorry for the outgoing manager. He was appointed in similar circumstances when he joined City, and also held talks with Monaco last season when his future was uncertain. Most people accept that secret talks are part and parcel of football, however, the timing of all this, coupled with the fact that Mancini is so well liked, means the City fans are upset. Once again, our club’s reputation has taken a hit.
Despite the undoubted success he brought us, Mancini’s management is certainly not to everyone’s taste. Public criticism of his players, best exemplified by his admission that he wants to ‘punch’ Samir Nasri for not fulfilling his potential, has led to suggestions that Mancini’s propensity for confrontation has had an adverse effect on team morale; dividing a squad that was buoyant after a title win. City’s two Champions League campaigns under the Italian saw two early exits, with City this season becoming the first English side to finish without a win in the group stage. Our defence of the Premier League title has been dreadful, effectively over in March after yet another defeat to Everton, scoring 26 fewer goals than last season, and playing without the verve and vigour that saw us tear sides apart with ease. It’s been a trophyless and disappointing campaign, unacceptable given the level of investment since Mancini took over.
However, the idea that Mancini’s reign has been a failure (perpetrated by many opposition fans), is deeply flawed. He inherited an imbalanced squad that was leaking goals at an incredible rate, and spent his first months in the job making City competitive. By the season’s end, he’d took the side up only place, finishing fifth and missing out on Champions League qualification, but the difference in professionalism and organisation was clear. It was those first seven months which laid the foundations for what was to come. The following season he delivered the FA Cup, City’s first major trophy in 34 years, and then in 2012 the title, playing the kind of football City fans had only ever dreamed of. This season was the first season in which Mancini’s City didn’t progress.
It’s probably fair to say that Mancini deserved another season to try to put City back on the upward trajectory he himself kick started, but it’s also clear that his influence was waning, and if the board feel a change was needed to really satisfy their thirst for success it should be viewed as the kind of ambition we need. This season, the squad has been disjointed and lacking in focus, with no Plan B if our narrow 4-2-3-1 formation failed. Mancini experimented with three at the back with little success, and there was a dire lack of width in the side. His last-minute trolley dash around Europe saddled the club with a string of players who now need to be sold, and the direction and momentum built up over the first two-and-a-half years in the job was lost. Brian Marwood has, quite rightly, taken much of the blame for this summer’s poor procurement process, and should be sacked during the current clear out, but Mancini still rubber-stamped those rushed transfers.
Although Hughes’ sacking was handled in much the same way, the backlash from the City fans will be much fiercer this time. Hughes’ arrogance, poor results, and inability to take responsibility for anything that went wrong under his stewardship made him a repulsive character, whereas Mancini, pretty much to man, is not just respected but loved by the City fans. His behaviour has largely been exemplary, and when he said he would win trophies at City, he delivered. His time in charge wasn’t perfect, but he will always be remembered at Manchester City as a manager who implemented free-flowing attacking football, and ended our wait for a trophy. He’s the first manager in my time watching City (Peter Reid onwards) that lived for being City boss. It wasn’t just a job, or a stepping stone, or an easy payday, this was Mancini’s life. For three-and-a-half mostly glorious years he gave everything to our club, and for that reason he leaves with the respect of every City fan.