As a Manchester City fan, I’ve had a rather enjoyable month. I’m still watching youtube videos and reading articles about THAT day. I’m still watching Aguero’s goal, from 24 different angles, at 3 different speeds, with the commentary from a hundred countries. But I’m still wondering: what if?
It’s almost as if I’ve had it too good recently, and the masochist 98% of me that comes from being a City fan of three decades has triggered a strange process whereby I re-watch the winning goal against QPR (on screen and in my head) and wonder what would have happened if City hadn’t got a throw-in a minute earlier; what if Joe Hart’s throw-in had been called as a foul; what if Balotelli hadn’t prodded the ball Aguero’s way; what if Aguero had been fouled and we had to face a penalty instead; what if Aguero had sliced the shot wide, or Kenny had tipped yet another shot round the post. What if?
These are the fine lines that can change history. A month before, Mancini was regarded by many as a dead man walking. He was roundly condemned as a failure. The obituaries for his City career had already been written and published. Now he is a champion. If City had failed to beat QPR, it would have been an ignominy that would have hung over them for a generation. One swing of a boot, and all was forgiven, history is made, and a new era begins for the club. The top-level league in England had been won on goal difference for the 6th time in its history.
Chelsea fans too can be thankful at how the course of their history has altered dramatically with the odd swing of a boot and the odd outstretched arm. In the final days of the reign of Andre Villas-Boas, the club was a mess. The future looked bleaker than for many a year. And yet…
The league form never recovered significantly to claim a Champions League spot, and with the ageing squad in need of a dramatic overhaul, Chelsea had put all their apples in one basket – their rebuilding process relied on conquering two of the giants of European football. Yes, they could spend big without Champions League football, but their sights would have to be set lower – money talks of course, but Champions League football does too for the top players. Also, any chance of complying with Financial Fair Play rules depended on the riches it provides.
In the end, Chelsea rode their luck, but they somehow pulled through. Fine lines between a missed and converted penalty are the difference between the club being put back years, and instead becoming a European heavyweight overnight once more, a club that can immediately go and capture one of the brightest young players in Europe, Eden Hazard.
One stumble, one sublime strike, one terrible refereeing decision. This is all it takes to define clubs, and players too. England’s national identity seems to revolve around one ball bouncing down on to a Wembley goal line.
So it seems rather hysterical to judge managers’ futures on such fine lines. The destination of Aguero’s last-minute shot should not define how good a manager Roberto Mancini is. The responsibility to win was with the players that day, as it always is to a great extent. The random events of any football match mean there is only so much a manager can do – after that, he is in the lap of the gods.
QPR will only be in the Premiership next season because Bolton couldn’t win at Stoke, where the referee helped condemn them with some atrocious decisions. Of course this is just one game, and QPR themselves will have had things go against them during the past season. But the last game of a season can show how fine the lines are. QPR have the owners behind them to invest further in the squad and become an established Premiership side. They could so easily have been facing a season in the Championship with a raft of players on huge contracts and the distinct possibility that their expenditure to escape relegation had in the end dragged them down the football leagues, as has happened to plenty of teams before them. Instead, a defeat at the Etihad was not costly, and they celebrated Aguero’s goal as is they too had won the league.
Play off games can paint the picture more than most. There is disagreement on the matter, but what would have happened if Paul Dickov had not equalized deep into injury-time for Manchester City against Gillingham in the Division 2 Play-Off Final of 1999? What if he had sliced the ball wide, or the keeper, his best man at his wedding, had tipped the ball over the bar? Would City have been set back years? After all, within 12 months, they were back in the Premiership (briefly). Their history could have been altered for decades had they not recovered that day. The fine lines of the Championship play-off final are the most vivid of all, which is not surprising when considering the financial rewards at stake.
Football will be littered with “sliding doors” moments, where one tiny event has had a huge bearing, sending two clubs off in specific directions. Carlos Tevez might have been sent off against QPR, not Joey Barton. City’s heads could have dropped. Victory could have eluded them. Mancini could have quit the following morning, eventually taking up the Italy job. City could have rashly appointed Steve Bruce after he impressed with a PowerPoint presentation at his interview. The following season, City could have been relegated, after their £40m signing Kieran Richardson failed to shine. They maybe would never recover, and just 7 years later lose the Conference North play-off final to Glossop North End.
It’s just as well Aguero scored really.