Well, that’s that, then. Thirty five years of no success over in the blink of an eye. Actually, it’s been twenty three for me, but then I suppose I’m just one of the lucky ones. As lucky as one can be, being a Manchester City fan, obviously… some would say that being a blue is rather a life sentence. I must have done something pretty awful in a past life to have to put up with everything I have done, so I dread to think what those who have suffered for longer did. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that the FA Cup win from Saturday still feels quite unreal, all told.
In truth, City were the better team throughout most of the final, aside from the fifteen minute spell where Stoke got themselves secured in the City half. And to be fair to Stoke, they hung in the game well with some good tackles on the edge of their box, some great saves from Sorensen and could (perhaps should) have taken the lead with their best chance of the game through Jones. But a great save from Hart denied that and then a great finish from Yaya Touré was the decider in the end.
And while Yaya Touré will get the plaudits for the two goals he scored at Wembley this season (rightly so, since they were two good finishes and he has picked his time to start putting the ball in the net on a more regular basis), there are some players who should get some credit for City’s first trophy win in over three decades who have, perhaps, been overlooked.
Joe Hart’s role in the cup run had been pretty minimal until we reached the semi-final stage. In fact, it was his error in the first FA Cup game at Leicester that resulted in an unwanted third round replay, though he held his hands up for the mistake and put it behind him almost immediately. After that, however, he didn’t really have much to do in rounds four through six but keep his concentration and collect some crosses, knock downs and simple saves.
And, as big as the decision to pick Hart over Given had been at the start of the season for Roberto Mancini, it turns out that the decision was vindicated. In three of City’s most important matches in the last few weeks – Manchester United (FA Cup semi-final), Tottenham (Premier League) and Stoke (FA Cup final) – he has made crucial saves at crucial points in the game. He was off his line quickly to deny Berbatov, he reacted instantly to flick away a Pienaar header, and he was big and spread himself to block from Jones. And had the opposition scored from any of those chances at those points in those games, I doubt City would have gone on to win those matches.
As City fans, we know how good Nigel de Jong has been for the season. In fact, when de Jong isn’t playing, City have looked vulnerable and, while he doesn’t do scoring (except for that freak goal against West Ham, naturally), he adds a lot more in an attacking sense than many people think. He moves the ball quickly and is always an option when there is nothing on further forward, meaning he can switch the play and catch the opposition defence out.
This was just half the job he did in the FA Cup final, along with his general break-up play and defensive solidity. In fact, while Stoke are known for having tough and strong players, you would have thought it the other way round with how it was the Dutchman who dominated the midfield, taking the pressure off the blues’ back four. With the injured Etherington unable to influence the game and de Jong always hassling the rest of the midfield, Stoke just couldn’t get enough possession of the ball.
Kompany and Lescott were both on top of their game and Stoke’s well renowned long-throw in and set piece strength was negated by the centre-half pairing’s winning of headers. Constantly. And we’ve seen in the past how badly City have coped with Stoke’s aerial threat, so their performance shouldn’t be understated. There should also be honourable mentions for Balotelli, who had perhaps his best game in a City shirt, David Silva, who created so much and should have scored, and Gareth Barry, who used the ball well when in possession.
Oh, and to Yaya Touré, who did something or other to win the game.
City’s first FA Cup victory since what feels like ever was very much a team achievement. Not just on the day (I think from what I’ve written about each of the players that started the final, it’s obvious that that one game was a team display), but throughout the tournament itself. Edin Dzeko scored his first City goal away at Notts County; in a game where City didn’t look like scoring and could have crashed out of the competition to the underdogs. James Milner put in a shift at Leicester, scoring one and making another. There was Mario Balotelli’s potential goal of the season against Aston Villa. Micah Richard’s winner against Reading didn’t look like coming either, this time because City looked like they were going to keep missing chances for fun that day.
It’s a whole world away from the cup exit in 2007, just four seasons ago, under Stuart Pearce. City had stumbled past Sheffield Wednesday (thanks to a Samaras penalty at Hillsbrough to earn a replay), then played pretty well to beat Southampton and Preston North End, and had been drawn against Blackburn at Ewood Park. City fans were confident that this could have been the year when the baron spell ended.
Goals from Aaron Mokoena and Matt Derbyshire ended City’s cup run and the spineless display from the visitors against ten men was hard to swallow for a lot of the visiting fans. The Sunday evening finished in chants of “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” and fans fighting with fans. It seems such a long way away from the victory of Saturday afternoon. And this, according to those from the outside, was a team with spirit and with a soul… one that hadn’t been sold to billionaires.
The in-fighting in the dressing room and the general sense of disappointment hanging over the club was conveniently ignored, just as has happened with the team spirit and optimism of fans towards the current squad. The dressing room video on City’s website shows just how much the squad have gelled and what the spirit in the camp is like.
With Champions League football and the FA Cup secured, you could be forgiven for thinking that the season was over. But, with Arsenal’s insistence on handing out points as the season comes to a close, there’s a real possibility of third place in the league and the avoidance of that tricky qualifier at the start of next season. It needs another victory over Stoke, this evening.
For the first time in a very long time, it’s good to be a City fan.
Very, very good.