x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'Cityitis' is still alive and well at Eastlands

As fans say farewell to the great Malcolm Allison, our writer observes that his legacy is not necessarily a winning formula.

The tackle on Arsenal’s Marouane Chamakh that resulted in a red card for Manchester City’s Dedryck Boyata.
The tackle on Arsenal’s Marouane Chamakh that resulted in a red card for Manchester City’s Dedryck Boyata.

The trademark fedora adorned the back of the programme, an image that lasted longer than the man himself. The final farewell to one of football's greatest coaches was heartfelt. Malcolm Allison's status in Manchester City history is as assured as his place in the hearts of the fans.

The minute's applause was led by many of his former charges, the club's greatest team, assembled and overseen by the contrasting pair of Allison and Joe Mercer.

In the memorial garden, a shirt read "RIP Malcolm, Up In Heaven With Joe, City Legends". Together in memory, the fitting accolade would be to commemorate their partnership by renaming the Joe Mercer Stand "the Mercer and Allison Stand".

Mercer was the manager, Allison the coach, but there was something quintessentially City about "Big Mal", the charismatic Londoner. An extrovert and an idealist, a character and a controversialist, he was a natural fit with his spiritual home.

It was Allison who gave City their identity, their aspirations and their swagger. He talked of making them the first team to play on the moon; he might have meant it, too.

But it was also Allison who furnished City with their accident-prone streak.

Triumph and disaster were equally real possibilities under the man who made the undistinguished Steve Daley Britain's first million-pound (Dh5.8m) footballer and who rather ruined a title challenge by signing the flamboyant forward Rodney Marsh.

"Cityitis," to use the word coined by Joe Royle, another former manager, is part of his legacy. Roberto Mancini paid generous tribute to Allison but, with his emphasis on ruthless professionalism, he is trying to change this particular part of their make-up.

And yet when he erred, it brought reminders of his beloved predecessor.

Allison was a risk taker and the often pragmatic Mancini took a chance in selecting the unproven Dedryck Boyata ahead of Joleon Lescott or instead of starting with Jerome Boateng in a central defensive role.

It backfired; Boyata's naivety was apparent in the fifth-minute challenge that brought his dismissal. It would have been better to allow Marouane Chamakh to shoot and rely on Joe Hart's prowess in goal.

Indeed, for a defensive strategist, Mancini's rearguard was subject to frequent changes and unfortunate failings; the often reliable Vincent Kompany committed a needless foul to gift Arsenal their penalty; the half-time substitute Wayne Bridge was the inadvertent supplier of Alex Song's goal with a poor touch.

By the time City's offside trap was pierced by Nicklas Bendtner, no roadrunner, for the third goal, there was a ragged look to Mancini's men.

For the Italian, it was a salutary reminder that in management and at a club that has displayed a pronounced self-destructive streak over the years, there are days when everything that can go wrong, does.

Carlos Tevez limped off and, while a fired-up Emmanuel Adebayor replaced him, the fact that Bridge had already been introduced meant Mancini had a solitary replacement remaining. Adam Johnson, a game-changer against Newcastle, was left unused when Mario Balotelli was summoned.

Three left-backs were tried, along with four centre-backs. James Milner played in a trio of positions; he, Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry in both defence and midfield.

The best-laid plans were irrelevant before they could be implemented. Ten against 11, as Mancini noted, is no way to play Arsenal. A three-goal defeat is no way to challenge for a title.

But this is City. There can be an element of anti-climax to the big occasions.

Their farewell to Maine Road, their debut at Eastlands and their first game after Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed's takeover and Robinho's signing brought two defeats and a nondescript draw with Portsmouth.

A tradition of glorious dreams and mundane realities rather predates the current era.

Four decades ago, their golden generation exited the European Cup at the first hurdle to an unheralded Fenerbahce side. It came after their assistant manager, with typical bravado, had vowed to terrorise Europe. But then that was Malcolm Allison.

sports@thenational.ae