x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A bigger picture to address

Roberto Mancini is boss, but Mario Balotelli has power. Mancini admitted the club can't get rid of him because he's an asset commercially to the City brand.

Manchester City's Mario Balotelli leaves after a training session held behind a covered fence at the Carrington facility in Manchester on Friday. Despite photographs of Roberto Mancini's latest clash with Balotelli, the Manchester City manager does not believe the relationship between the two Italians is at breaking point.
Manchester City's Mario Balotelli leaves after a training session held behind a covered fence at the Carrington facility in Manchester on Friday. Despite photographs of Roberto Mancini's latest clash with Balotelli, the Manchester City manager does not believe the relationship between the two Italians is at breaking point.

I can understand why Roberto Mancini is playing down the training-ground dispute with Mario Balotelli. The photographs of the incident look damning, but I've seen similar images many times in my career. Disputes between a player and his manager don't happen daily, but they occur far more than people imagine.

They're a product of an ultra-competitive environment fuelled by ego and testosterone. There are 25 players trying to get in a team where there's space for 11. Of the players selected, some might feel like they've not been doing themselves justice and choose to up the tempo in training. They take their frustrations out, tackles fly and disputes occur with other players and the manager, sometimes with fists raised.

It doesn't mean that grudges need to be held, and a manager will often encourage the situation. He'll see it as passion and football is nothing without passion.

Had Manchester United's training ground been as open to photographers to City's (where public right of way runs alongside the training ground), they would have witnessed flare-ups all the time, most involving my own captain, Roy Keane. I've witnessed most big-name Manchester United players lose their temper at one time or another and square up to someone.

Is it a big deal? No.

There can be issues when a manager decides to train with his players. Sir Alex Ferguson limited himself to playing boxes with us. That's where one player tries to get the ball from six or so players passing it around him in a circle. When it was his turn to go in the middle and chase the ball, he'd complain that he had a bad hip and couldn't do it. Anyone can play boxes; not everyone can take part in a full training session like Graeme Souness used to do when managing at Blackburn.

He'd been a very good player 20 years earlier, but managers in their 40s or 50s are not physically fit enough to play with athletes half their age. They can't reach balls delivered for a 23-year-old professional. If your manager chooses to play, it's an indulgence and you're a man down already.

Souness made a bad tackle on Dwight Yorke one day. Yorke, like the wily pro that he was, bided his time before exacting revenge. Souness went crazy, called a halt to training, squared up to Yorke and asked why he'd done it and why he wasn't tackling so much in matches. No cameras were around to witness it. With two high-profile personalities, they would have made headline news.

Cameras are everywhere these days because everyone has one on their phone. I've been retired for five years and get asked for more photos now than when I played. It happens all the time – a trip Christmas shopping with my wife recently saw me asked for 40-50 photos.

I'm fine if someone asks, but I do mind if they take pictures on the sly without asking.

Mancini would prefer that cameras were not at training, but there's little he can do until City move to their new training ground.

It's a relatively new phenomena. There were no cameras when I had a big bust-up with Kevin Keegan while a player at Newcastle. That led to me walking out of training. Had there been cameras, I'm sure it would have been headline news.

And there were no cameras when I squared up to Pat Rice while a 17 year old at Arsenal. I left training early of my own accord on that occasion, too.

The situation at City is intriguing. Mancini is boss, but Balotelli has significant power. Players do now, Balotelli especially so, and Mancini admitted the club can't get rid of him because he's an asset commercially to the City brand.

The commercial side of football is booming. I travel the world with Manchester United to witness it, and a player like Balotelli is valuable for City – and not just because he's so talented. He proved it at the highest level for Italy in Euro 2012. They key is getting the best out of him consistently.

Balotelli is different; he's box office. People think he's arrogant but they don't know him. Few do, but that adds intrigue to him. He'll bring money to City, add value to their brand.

Mancini usually has the measure of him, too, and views himself as a father figure. Dealing with Balotelli brings more pressure to the multiple challenges Mancini faces – the seven-point deficit in the league, the rumours of his imminent dismissal - but he wouldn't be a top manager if he couldn't deal with them.

And, having been a player himself, he knows all about training-ground disputes. They don't matter in the greater scheme of things.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

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