It’s a story of fine margins so familiar to Manchester City. If he’d placed the ball a foot further back, he wouldn’t have scored.
City’s entire place in the footballing world rests on such small details. Paul Dickov’s strike against Gillingham at Wembley in 1999 is the most obvious moment to lend itself to such counterfactuals, but the move into the City of Manchester Stadium four years later was far from certain either, granted to the club only after some scepticism from the local authorities. Without both incidents, City would not have been the attractive investment proposition they became by 2008, when Abu Dhabi’s search for western influence led Sheik Mansour to east Manchester.
Would City have even suffered relegation to the third tier of English football if, instead of time-wasting against Liverpool in 1996, they’d gone in search of a winner they needed to keep them in the division? Or what if Sergio Aguero had been brought down instead of scoring in 2013? A rare Mario Balotelli assist was the outcome, but would the pressure of a last-gasp penalty to win a Premier League title have led to a rare Balotelli penalty miss instead?
It’s impossible to pinpoint when the journey from Typical City to a different team entirely started, with so many different factors putting the club in a position to attract foreign investment before actually being bought over, but whatever has happened since 2008, this is still the club for fine-margin dramatics.
In 2007, it was a very different club, though. Sven-Goran Eriksson had been appointed manager by new owner Thaksin Shinawatra, and the Swede had proceeded to change the squad, with the additions of glamorous sounding players from all over the world. One such player was Elano Blumer, a Brazilian signed from Shakhtar Donetsk for £8m, arriving on the same day as Javier Garrido and Vedran Corluka.
Those were heady days for a club whose fans were used to bargain basement signings and – more – near misses: in the winter transfer window which preceded Elano’s signing, City missed out on a deal for Tottenham Hotspur striker Mido as the deal fell through just minutes before the deadline.
Progress was in the air, but it would be a year before it finally took hold.
By then, though, Elano was already a cult hero. The Brazilian was undoubtedly City’s best player in a season where they started well, losing only four times before Christmas, but won only five times after it. And although an unforgettable 8-1 defeat away to Middlesbrough on the last day of the season sealed Eriksson’s fate, the sacking was deemed harsh by many: City had clearly made progress.
Whatever gains were made, though, Elano stole the show. The first game of the season was a promising 2-0 victory over West Ham United in which two new signings, Rolando Bianchi and Geovanni, scored the goals, but the Brazilian ran the game, setting up Bianchi’s opener. It was clear that the blue half of Manchester had their first real hero for quite some time.
It didn’t take long for that feeling to solidify. At the end of September, Newcastle United were the visitors to the City of Manchester Stadium, and Elano’s ‘class feet’ were on show.
Two goals either side of half time gave City a lead over Sam Allardyce’s side, but the game will be remembered for what happened in the final minutes, when Elano placed the ball for a free kick, just slightly right of centre and fully 35 yards from goal.
“The third goal from Elano was fantastic. You have to have class feet to score a goal like that from such long range.”
Sven-Goran Eriksson in the post-match press conference
It was obvious straight away that he was going to shoot, and yet the best the crowd could hope for was to indulge some overzealous Brazilian flair in the final three minutes of a home win against good opposition. Some of those looking on would have been forgiven for thinking Typical City thoughts – why shoot when it’s clear the only logical outcome could possibly be a counter-attack equaliser at the other end? But what the contented crowd couldn’t have expected was what came next.
Hands on hips, Elano trotted up to the ball and with the perfect mix of care and aggression rifled it into the top corner of the goal, past a contorted Shay Given who couldn’t get close to it. It wouldn’t be long before the beaten Given – and James Milner, who was in the wall – joined the City revolution, both playing major parts, but that was in a different time.
It’s perhaps the defining goal of the short Thaksin Shinawatra era, and a truly underrated goal. It’s not often you see a strike which is still rising as it crashes into the net and thuds into the ground again. It’s rarer still when the ball seems to hit the netting at the top of the goal behind the bar, perfectly showcasing its upward trajectory. And it is simply a thing of beauty when all of those things come together from a free kick.
But the thing about perfection is that it lives on the brink. Success and failure are separated by degrees, but perfection is the very last bulwark against failure. The upward motion of the ball, still rising, would have taken it over the bar if Elano had placed it just a foot or so further back. Football has a habit of creating situations which can be described in ways which, upon reflection, really make very little sense. If anything, Clive, he hit the ball too well, because a couple of inches lower and it would still have been a goal, but the margin for error would have been reduced.
But why settle for anything less than absolute perfection? If you hit it too well and smash the bar instead of the netting behind it, the answer isn’t to disgrace the shot but the aim.
Perfect, though, isn’t a word you associate with pre-2008 Manchester City. And the tragedy is that Mark Hughes, the first manager of the Sheik Mansour era, couldn’t find a role to get the best out of Elano, a player who may well have had the quality to play in City’s trophy-winning teams, even if Given and Milner from the opposite side – along with Joe Hart and Micah Richards from his own – won silverware in sky blue.
The takeover, less than a year later, changed the club almost immeasurably, but a decade on from Elano’s goal, there are very few from the current era which surpass it in terms of pure pleasure. Few were as spectacular, and none produced such unexpected quality, simply because few in the stands were used to it.
The Brazilian was the man who missed out, but his special season under Eriksson was the precursor to the quality to come. Elano was the hipster playmaker, putting Manchester City and greatness in the same sentence in the mid-noughties, long before it was cool to do so. And for that, he’ll always be a cult hero.