Wonderwall and flat-caps: remembering Alan Ball at Manchester City

In the entire lexicon of terrace chants you’d be hard pushed to find many that are outright sarcastic.

The songbook from which we all sing is half full of the celebratory and boastful (‘We’re by far the greatest team…’) and otherwise crammed with confrontational odes that range from insisting your nearest rivals are really rubbish to urging an unpopular manager to fall on his sword. Chants are little more than messages and unambiguity is key.

Around the start of 1996 Manchester City supporters bucked that trend by insisting Alan Ball was a football genius.

It speaks volumes about Ball’s struggles at Maine Road that such a song took flight without any need for clarification or a Wayne’s World ‘Not!’ that was still doing the rounds at the time.

The previous summer the flat-capped coach had taken charge of a club that had successfully re-established itself in the top flight with some impressive top six finishes to boot. Off the pitch there was a further cause for optimism with club legend (and self-made millionaire courtesy of bulk-selling bog rolls) Francis Lee now installed as chairman after finally ousting the highly unpopular Peter Swales.

“This will be the happiest club in the land,” Lee exclaimed as he took the reins. “The players will be the best paid and we’ll drink plenty of champagne, celebrate, and sing until we’re hoarse”.

With a forward line consisting of Paul Walsh, Niall Quinn and Uwe Rosler such bravado wasn’t entirely fanciful despite a underwhelming season just gone and all told City were in relatively fine fettle.

As any Blue from that era will tell you there was no more dangerous time back then than when their club was in fine fettle. That was when the self-destruct button was usually pressed.

Having dispensed with Brian Horton and his somewhat listless pragmatism Lee turned to his old mucka Bally who had just enjoyed his best ever season at Southampton, and the squeaky-voiced genius immediately set about restructuring his new side by including fan favourite Walsh in a part-exchange deal for Portsmouth’s Gerry Creaney.

Selling the beautifully blonde striker for a player who is now a reliable fixture on any ‘worst ever signings for City’ list would be bad enough. City chucked an extra half a million in, too. He also stumped up half a million for Exeter winger Martin ‘Buster’ Phillips before famously claiming the teenager would become Britain’s first ten million pound player. In the event Ball was only a nought out: after 27 lacklustre games Buster moved back down south for a hundred grand.

At least that summer City got something right – or very right if you were privileged enough to see him in the flesh – with the signing of the extraordinarily gifted Georgi Kinkladze, who Lee reportedly swooped for after seeing a video package sent by his agent. It was immediately apparent that here was a very special talent and Ball, using the same strategy he’d employed at Southampton with Matthew le Tissier, wasted no time in building his team around the Georgian wizard.

Placing such emphasis on mercuriality has its risks and though there were undeniably moments of bewitching wonderment that year – principally Kinky’s slalomed magic against the Saints that remains one of the best individual goals ever witnessed on English soil – it was a risk that horribly failed. It wasn’t until early November that City grabbed their first three points of a desperate campaign and though that win prompted a brief resurgence it only got worse from there on in.

Which leads us to the final day draw at home to Liverpool and a misunderstanding that could only happen to a club long afflicted with what Joe Royle later termed ‘Cityitis’.

Believing that a point was sufficient to keep them up the Blues played out the final minutes in the corners, wasting time. Alas the results elsewhere were duff information and realising this, the substituted Niall Quinn, now in his civvies, raced down from the stands to urge Steve Lomas to stop messing about. Sadly it was all in vain. City were down.

Two further defeats later that August as City struggled to acclimatise to Division One resulted in Alan Ball handing in his resignation and though this piece has been nothing but critical of the man, that ends here. For three significant reasons.

Firstly, time is a great healer and with the incredible transformation that has occurred post-takeover it is now possible to look back on those days with an affectionate smile, like a successful man reminiscing on his student days eating cold soup from a can with a plastic fork.

Secondly, Alan Ball sadly passed in 2007 and he died a World Cup winner. He was by no means the only member of that immortalised team who experienced the lows management brings and he is forever deserving of our respect.

Lastly, that sarcastic ditty sung by Blues wasn’t the only one hollered from the Kippax in the mid-nineties. There was another, arguably one of the finest created in modern times.

In October 1995 a song was released that is still caterwauled now in every pub karaoke. It was performed by two brothers who until recently had been one of us on the terraces. They still were, judging by the City shirts they proudly wore on NME covers. All the song needed was a tweak here and there.

And all the runs that Kinky makes are winding

And all the goals that City score are blinding

There are many times where we would like to score again

But we don’t know how

‘Cos maybe

You’re gonna be the one that saves me

And after all

You’re my Alan Ball

Granted it was laced with sarcasm. Of course it was. But there was fondness in there too.