An empty stadium, jaded players presented before a jaded fanbase, a manager speaking to no one in a sad farewell. Not emotionally sad. Just sad. Tragic. Embarrassing. Typical City, sad.
Manuel Pellegrini’s successes, a League Cup victory and a Champions League semi final, is Manchester City’s lot this season. It has been a terrible yet trailblazing season. Breaking new ground in Europe whilst succumbing to the worst league showing since Roberto Mancini took over as manager.
The arrival of Pep Guardiola is perhaps already the catalyst for a bleak showing in east Manchester. His presence needs to have a stabilising effect at a club falling fast. If City are to finish outside of the Champions League places, then his mission will start from a lower ebb than anyone thought was even possible. In the end, a Boleyn Ground farewell may have been the only thing standing between Pep and the ignominy of the Europa League.
His task – like that of no other manager in footballing history – has always been to deliver triple success. Everywhere he has been, success has been a must, but success is measured differently for the golden Guardiola. Not just to be the best, but to prove it with silver trinkets and to continue to prove it season after season, as if no other football clubs existed.
This City side, however, are paying the price for limp performances over the past six months or so. Ever since their stunning performances in the first month of the league campaign started to fade.
The sheer glee of those reveling in the thought of Guardiola leading City in the Europa League shows the scale of the challenge he faces. It’s not just the fact that the playing squad that he is taking over is so close to dropping out of the top four, but it is also the baying hoards, drenched in shadenfreude who already call him a failure at Bayern, and will be looking for any excuse do him down. That’s the cross Pep carries, but success – given the current state of the club – would be miraculous.
But that’s just the footballing reality of the job he has taken on. The ‘real’ reality – football doesn’t usually deal in such facetiousness, it deals in hyperbole and rhetoric – is different.
Whatever sense of disappointment befell City upon hearing the final whistle in Madrid was surely put into perspective the next morning. Whatever disappointment befalls Manchester City at the end of the season will have to be put into perspective then, too – whether that’s the disappointment of finishing fourth or the disappointment of something even worse. The footballing reality of the moment is simply part of a wider ‘real’ context.
City came within inches of a Champions League final: had a Sergio Aguero thunderbolt dipped just under the bar instead of flying just over it, City would be gearing up to face Atletico Madrid in Milan in three weeks after beating Real on away goals. An undeserved place in a final for sure, given the limp performance in the Bernabeu – but do Real Madrid really deserve their place, given how poor they’ve been in the competition this season? But there’s reality and there’s narrative. Whether they deserve it or not, there they be.
But for City, the morning after the night before marked the 20 year anniversary of the day they were relegated from the Premier League in 1996. 2-0 down to Liverpool, City mounted a late comeback, but instead of searching for a winner, they started to waste time at 2-2. It turned out they needed to win, not draw: they couldn’t find a winner, and City were relegated. ‘Peak Typical City’ as one Twitter account put it. They achieved an amazing feat to stage the comeback, but they were comically bitch-slapped by fate and their own fecklessness.
It’s the perspective that counts. City’s plight was comical and that has become an identity for the club. They were relegated and relegated again, yet just 13 years after the 1998/99 season was spent in the third tier, City were claiming their third league title.
A lovable loser, inevitably failing when it was easier to succeed but slipping on an inflatable banana skin in slapstick fashion, turned nouveau riche dandy strutting with Europe’s elite.
What was probably impossible became improbably possible for little City, the Stan Laurel of English football. And the poster boy for Aristotelian theories of art.
But it’s a rags to riches story, of course. When Aristotle wrote, ‘With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible,’ he meant that fiction should be stranger than reality. The Manchester City story is one he would have written – but strictly fiction. Science fiction, perhaps. In life, it’s probably impossible. The ‘real’ reality, for once, trumps football’s hype.
The club that was once the very definition of hapless was turned into a major power through a series of fortunate events. Everything came together. The probable impossibility became an improbable possibility – a stunning reality, in fact.
The ‘real’ reality and the footballing reality came together, too. And left Manchester City swimming around in a bottomless pit of money, surfacing only for air and trophies.
They came out of the third tier thanks to two late, late goals and a penalty shoot-out win. They were gifted a new stadium, kept competitive by a beneficent Manchester City Council, and bought out by Arab billionaires. The final, defining miracle precipitated by the first few minor miracles.
So there is, understandably, a nagging sense that one day everything will crumble. An inexplicable surge of imposter syndrome, one that should pass with sustained success, but one that needs to be eradicated through the imposition of a footballing identity beyond ‘Typical City’.
That’s why Guardiola has been summoned.
City are building something, even though this season – like last – has become an exercise in dealing with indifference and frustration. A mix that could only happen at City.
They’ve won trophies, but they’ve never dominated. Even in the years they won the title, they were taken to the final day of the season. They picked up a title that Manchester United threw away, one that Liverpool threw away. In fact, City are the only Champions since Chelsea in 09/10 to have been taken to the final day. Every other team who has won the league since then has done so by more than three points.
The ‘Typical City’ identity is paradoxical. It is both victory from the jaws of defeat and defeat from the jaws of victory. It is both horrendous bad luck and shining good fortune. It is winning a title because others threw it away.
Or, if you prefer, it is winning a title because Mario Balotelli decided to pass for the only time in his career – his only assist in a City shirt came on 93:20 that day in May 2012.
It is losing an FA Cup final in last minute to a side who should have been beaten easily. It is qualifying for the Champions League because West Ham fought so ferociously to leave Upton Park on a high. It is luck, sheer and pure; and in all its guises.
Save City from City is Guardiola’s brief. The miracle will be to instil a grand sense of a victorious identity into a club whose present identity is built around failure. A club whose entire history, both positive and negative, has come down to luck and being in the right – or wrong – place at the right time.
His appointment is a cross for Guardiola to bear, but a miracle at Golgotha was something Christ himself did not perform.
And City, so often the loser from a winning situation – and winner from a losing situation – are perhaps the only club who could win the lottery time and time again and lose despite everything. Win a new stadium, untold riches and perhaps the best manager the game has ever had, and still somehow lose it all in an Aristotelian frenzy.
Either way, over the next few seasons, the probably impossible will become the impossibly probable.