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17 March 2021

From cheerful suffering to purring, polished artistry: Man City’s strange path to glory

Under Pep Guardiola's watch, the club has been transformed from the butt of the joke into a footballing giant. 

By Hunter Davies

Let us now praise famous teams. Which this year means Man City. This time last year we were all drooling over Liverpool. Who will it be this time next year?

I first saw Man City play in 1958 when I arrived in Manchester in my first job, as a trainee reporter on the Manchester Evening Chronicle. I went to a couple of games, paying through the turnstiles; then one day the news editor sent me to Old Trafford to cover the derby: United vs City. Oh rapture.

It turned out I had to stand outside the ground and do a colour piece on the crowds. And send it over before the last edition. Boring, boring. The real football reporters were inside, of course. What stars, what marvellous lives they seemed to lead. On the Chron, Keith Dewhurst, in his white raincoat, covered Man Utd, while Ray Wergan covered City. As far as I remember they were Cambridge graduates. Despite that, hadn’t they done well? Keith went on to become a well known playwright.

Oh God, I envied them so much.

A few months before I joined, the Munich air disaster had taken 23 lives. It is often forgotten that eight were football journalists, including Alf Clarke from the Chron.

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[See also: The Prem has achieved the impossible. It turns out there is such a thing as too much football]

I was in Manchester only nine months before I came to London, but I followed both clubs from afar. Man Utd became so glamorous, with fans world-wide. Man City became a joke, falling into the third tier in 1998. Their real fans still roared and cheered, making self-deprecating remarks about their plight, compared with the success of their deadly rivals, as if taking pleasure in the suffering.

Man City humour is often hard to follow. I was at a game in City’s wonderful new stadium in 2015, when James Milner still played for them. When his pass went straight into touch, home fans got to their feet and started singing, “James Milner, there’s only James Milner.” But he’s just made a mistake, I said to one. That’s the point, he replied, they think he’s a pretty boring player, but they love him.

It was, of course, the arrival of the Abu Dhabi money-bags in 2008 that transformed the club financially, and Pep Guardiola who made them into football giants.

I always loved how Pep, after his enormous success managing Barcelona, had a year off, living in New York with his family. So unusual, yet so mature, so sensible, so wise. He returned to Europe to manage Bayern Munich, before moving to City in 2016.

[See also: How, after Frank Lampard’s sacking, English managers can get back to the top of the Premiership]

His team is now a polished, purring piece of art, and tactics and endeavour, a pleasure to behold. They will probably break records for most trophies, most consecutive wins, but they are fallible. Against Wolves a few weeks ago they were being held 1-1 with ten minutes to go. I thought this is it, they will drop points at last, but they summoned up the blood and swept forward, winning 4-1. Then they were well beaten by Man Utd.

I like the way Pep has revived the career of John Stones, when he seemed a lost soul. That is almost the prime function of any football manager – to make players better. If only Mourinho could do it.

Pep’s handling of Raheem Sterling, probably England’s most talented player, has also been exemplary, helping him improve his game and his life.

Pep also never seems to get carried away by his own success, never shows off, never blames others, does not slag off his players in public. He knows that every day, in every way, something can still go wrong.

I also like that on the field Kevin De Bruyne never smiles, looks miserable, and off the field doesn’t strut about or live and dress like a superstar.

[See also: Penning an ode to Scott Parker, a manager from another age, and other distractions]

This time last year who would have thought Liverpool would deflate so quickly? They seemed destined to be at the top for a decade. Klopp appeared a magician.

Can Pep and Man City keep it up? Win everything this season and next? I am sure they will drop more points this year, and I still think Bayern Munich will triumph in Europe.

But the future will take care of itself. For now, we should enjoy a marvellous team while we can… 

This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold