On Sunday 12 May, Manchester United fans obediently waved their red flags in honour of the departing Sir Alex Ferguson. While Old Trafford staged its homage to Soviet crowd choreography, I and my fellow Manchester City supporters were digesting the news that ourmanager, Roberto Mancini, was about to be sacked.
The previous day, as City surrendered meekly to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup final, the fans had roared their support for Mancini. Football supporters are sentimental and will forgive a successful manager almost anything. And by pretty much any measure you care to choose, Mancini has been a success in his three and a half years at City, leading them to their first trophy in 35 years in 2011 and then, in a thrilling denouement, to their first League title in 44 years last May.
City’s defence of their title this season has been a damp squib, however. And, by a grim irony, Mancini was formally “relieved of his duties” on 13 May, the first anniversary of Sergio Agüero’s dramatic, Premier League-winning goal against QPR.
Many fans have complained that by sacking a man who’d delivered an FA Cup, one Premier League and one Community Shield in the space of 13 months, the City board has “turned us into Chelsea”, the only difference being that Mancini was fired not by imperial fiat, as happens in the court of Roman Abramovich, but by bureaucratic audit. The statement announcing the manager’s departure referred to “stated targets” going unmet and “an identified need to develop a holistic approach to all aspects of football at the club”.
The prose might be turgid, but, as a former City employee told me, it’s a dangerous misconception to think that it’s no more than a smokescreen for the whim of the club’s oil-rich owner, Sheikh Mansour. “There’s no kneejerking in Abu Dhabi,” he said. “Everything is done for a strategic reason.”
What about that awful word, “holistic”? Some fans reacted cynically to reports that Mancini had paid for his “poor communication and relationships with players and officials”. Why was his apparently confrontational style deemed a problem when Ferguson, the most successful manager of them all, had got away with behaving in a similar way for years?
The question betrays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of Ferguson’s success. In 2011, the Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper examined the way the Manchester United manager “add[ed] exceptional value to his teams”. Ferguson’s notorious temper was genuine Kuper wrote, but he “learnt how to use it”. He was also an assiduous cultivator of internal interest groups, something that outsiders who saw only the graceless bullying of referees and journalists couldn’t grasp. Ferguson worked hard, Kuper noted, “to keep his club’s board, players, fans and sponsors onside”.
Mancini did no such thing. “He had no allies,” the former City staffer recalled. “He wouldn’t even look the kitman in the eye.” I was reminded of a visit I made to the Etihad Stadium nearly three years ago, the morning after City had scraped an unconvincing one-all draw with Blackburn. I was taken into the home dressing room, where a couple of members of staff were sweeping up. One of them was grumbling about the manager. “He’s mugging this club off,” the man chuntered. I dismissed this at the time as the rambling of an embittered relic of an earlier regime. Now, I’m not so sure.