Blue Moon rising: FourFourTwo meets Mancini in summer 2010

Despite missing out on Champions League qualification to Tottenham the previous May, all the signs in summer 2010 pointed to a Premier League title challenge from Manchester City in the coming season. Steve Anglesey met City boss Roberto Mancini to see what made him tick... Portraits: Jill Jennings

Below the scarf, beneath the Armani, Roberto Mancini has a pipe-smoking sailor inked into the skin of his right leg. Now the debonair ex-altar boy is pondering a return to the tattoo parlour. “This one is the club badge of Sampdoria,” he says, pointing. “If I win the Premier League with Manchester City? I have another leg…”

The manager’s broad grin is intended to play down expectation at the start of this, Manchester City’s most keenly anticipated season in over 40 years. Yet on a pre-season lunchtime in west Manchester, as space is cleared in their training ground car park for whatever this summer’s new signings might choose to drive, he can’t disguise a palpable buzz in the air. You have to wonder whether it will grow louder over the next 10 months, ending with the buzz of the tattooist’s needle.

It’s been a while since anyone in the higher echelons of Manchester City dared to mention the title. Since November 15 1990, in fact, when then-chairman Peter Swales welcomed Peter Reid as manager and told the press: “We were the last Manchester team to win it and we’ll be the next.”

Well, not quite. Yet 10 managers, four chairman, three relegations and 11 Manchester United titles later, here City are again – this time for real. When Swales made that promise 20 years ago, Reid’s reaction was to laugh nervously and look heavenwards. Now Mancini is looking at the stars. “It is an incredible challenge,” he says. “We must change the history of Manchester City.”

Adds his goalkeeper Shay Given: “We want the silverware. When you talk to fans you can sense the excitement, but there’s also a bit of desperation to win something. I can’t sit here and say, if we finish fourth we’ve had a good season. We do want to set our sights higher than that and win something. Worst-case scenario has got to be finishing in the top four.” He laughs. “The four trophies would be nice.n”

And what of City’s notoriously and justifiably fatalistic fans? The ones who used to sing what was once described to me by a former City manager as “the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard”? The chant went: “We never win at home and we never win away. We lost last week and we’re going to lose today. We don’t give a f**k, ‘cause we’re all pissed up. MCFC, OK.”

Rock photographer Kevin Cummins, whose book on the club’s final season at Maine Road is a classic, is among those pinching himself. “I’ve just seen the new Sky billboards. There’s Terry, Gerrard, Rooney and then there’s Adebayor. You do think to yourself, ‘What are we doing up there?’”

No doubt all this will be dismissed at Old Trafford as typical Blue giddiness, a fervid affliction which has descended infrequently over the past two decades and always with similar results. Signs of a blue moon rising – Forward With Franny, Thaksin Shinawatra, FA Cup runs in 1993 and 2007, a UEFA Cup charge in 2009, last season’s Carling Cup semi-final gut-punch – have consistently proved to be false dawns. United had the last laugh last season, days after City chief executive Gary Cook told American fans that the team would overcome their local rivals and reach Wembley. No doubt they will giggle again when they hear Mancini’s new jacket, featured on these pages, is modelled on a design worn by manager Joe Mercer when City last captured the top-flight championship.

Yet while they ridicule the club’s lofty ambitions and write off as mercenaries the latest big names, United fans cannot as easily dismiss the biggest name of all, that of His Highness Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. While the Glazer family struggles to manage their debt – City fans have long mooted an Eastlands banner ticking up the overdraft, to match the infamous Old Trafford flag which tallies City’s trophyless years – the trillionaire from Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth continues to gush in and the noisy neighbours are turning up the volume.

In less than two years at City, Given says he has seen momentous changes. “There’s twice as many at the press conferences; photographers hiding in the trees with long lenses. People are jealous of Manchester City now. There are managers up and down the country and supporters who wish they had the Sheikh at their club. He puts his money where their mouth is.

“I was told before I’d signed about the huge ambitions for the club. I didn’t come down in the last shower of rain, so I had a pretty good idea, but the scope is incredible. Not just the playing staff, but the training ground – things at the stadium that people don’t see. The whole infrastructure of the club; the medical set-up; the facilities. The Sheikh wants to challenge with the really big boys.” 

The 39-year-old Mansour was born seven months after one of the cases of endearing misfortune which have defined the phrase ‘typical City’. Having won the title and the FA Cup in successive years, the swashbuckling team assembled by Mercer and Malcolm Allison then claimed the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Yet thanks to Chelsea’s momentous FA Cup final replay win against Leeds on the same night, the victory went untelevised and virtually unnoticed outside Manchester. The 1976 League Cup aside, it was City’s last major trophy.

In the intervening 38 years, as poets as diverse as Robert Lowell and Half Man Half Biscuit’s Nigel Blackwell have observed in the past, the light at the end of the tunnel invariably proved to be that of an oncoming train. Having forced Mercer out, Allison blew a four-point title lead in 1972 by bringing in the gifted but divisive Rodney Marsh. John Bond took City to the 1981 FA Cup Final and bought Trevor Francis, but departed swiftly afterwards after being told to sell the brilliant striker to balance the books.

Howard Kendall took City into the top six in 1990, then declared his spell at Maine Road to have been “an affair” and went back to his “marriage” at Everton. Paul Lake, the club’s most promising player in a generation and a probable future England captain, was forced into retirement in 1996 after an ankle ligament injury was mistreated. City missed out on Europe under Stuart Pearce in 2005 when Robbie Fowler missed a last-kick penalty in the final game of the season.

So it came as little surprise when Shinawatra – hailed as a billionaire saviour when he arrived in June 2007 with Sven-Goran Eriksson in tow, briefly taking the team to the top of the Premier League – proved to be a human rights abuser unable to return home to claim his frozen funds thanks to a pending prison sentence for corruption. Less than 12 months after treating fans to a pre-match Thai buffet outside the stadium, the disgraced Prime Minister instructed his advisors to get him out. By early August 2008, Shinawatra was negotiating with three separate Middle East consortiums and attempting to sell Stephen Ireland to Sunderland without the consent of new manager Mark Hughes. Says journalist David McDonnell, who covers the club for the Daily Mirror, “They were scouting around for bargains. He didn’t have a pot to p**s in.”

Now, finally, Manchester City caught a break. Sheikh Mansour’s investors caught wind of the negotiations and concluded the deal within three weeks, stopping to sign Robinho for a British record £32.5million before finally assuming full control in mid-September. Without factoring in wages, this summer’s early moves for Yaya Toure, David Silva and Jerome Boateng took his total investment in the club to over £460million in less than 24 months, easily eclipsing the £300m spent at Chelsea by Roman Abramovich in his first two years.

City are naturally defensive on the issue of their wealth, and the unspoken notion that Premier League success is merely a commodity – a rich man’s plaything. “Who are the richest club?” Mancini asks. “There are a lot of clubs who are very rich. The difference is that Manchester City, when Sheikh Mansour and [chairman] Khaldoon Al Mubarak arrived, must work very, very hard because they had to reduce the gap from the other teams. For this they had to invest money to buy new players.

“Look, it is normal. We have to spend money. The teams we want to challenge now – United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Inter, Milan, Real Madrid – all spent in the past and will spend now.”

Asked whether a more level financial playing field might benefit the entire Premier League, Mancini concedes that it “might it be fair, but this is football. It’s right to make sure all the clubs must be OK financially. But there must be a situation where, if there’s an owner with a lot of money, he’s allowed to spend it to win. We cannot close that gap if we do not do this.”

And City need to close it quickly – not just because of the weight of expectation the Mansour millions have brought, but because of UEFA’s stated ambition to limit clubs to spending only 75 per cent of their turnover on wages, to be enforced within the next two years. With a vast payroll reportedly swollen to the tune of over £200,000 a week by Yaya Toure alone, McDonnell believes it is “going to be very interesting to see how they can alter their finances to comply”.

City have benefitted from improved season-ticket sales, at increased prices, and larger sponsorship deals. They are mulling ambitious plans to increase the City Of Manchester Stadium’s capacity to over 60,000 and build a new training ground, casino, shopping centre, hotel and even 
a theme park on the post-industrial wasteland they own around Eastlands. But a City source says that is “two or three years away, minimum”. Only recently, an absence of planning and licensing permission forced them to scale back a modest development of pop-up matchday bars and restaurants on the roads leading to the ground.

The focus now is firmly on a Champions League berth which would return at least £30 million, and upwards of £45m should City get past the group stages. Last December, in a messily-handled divorce, it was decided that Hughes was no longer the man to deliver. 
Still highly regarded by players and staff, the Welshman was blamed for a cavalier playing style undermined by a defence which leaked like a sieve despite big-money hires Joleon Lescott (who, to be fair, had injuries) and Wayne Bridge (who, to be fair, had other distractions).

“We conceded too many goals, threw away too many leads, had too many draws,” says Given, still a huge Hughes fan. “It was very disappointing. We bought a few defenders last year and it does take time for them to settle, getting to sort your relationships on the pitch.

“We beat Chelsea home and away but slipped up against lesser teams. So we’ve got to approach every game like we’re playing Chelsea or United. We’ve got to treat every team like it’s the best team in the league. Teams really turn it up when they play us now. We’ve got to combat that. We’re a scalp now.”

Enter three-time Serie A winning manager Mancini, who belied his image of urbane chic by toughening up City on the field and on the Carrington training pitches. “Behind the scarf he is quite a fiery character,” says McDonnell. “You can see that in the feud he had with Fabio Capello in Italy and the row he had on the touchline with David Moyes last year. The players all loved Mark Hughes, and they don’t like Mancini’s double training. But they do have a lot of respect for him.”

Adds Cummins: “What he needs to do now is prove he’s a winner. The perception is that last year he was intimidated by the stature of some clubs, even when they were awful.” That caution, typically Italian in the eyes of some fans, saw City surrender a healthy advantage in the Champions League race with stolid draws against weak Liverpool and Arsenal teams. Meanwhile Tottenham abandoned caution and seized the initiative with stirring wins against Arsenal, Chelsea and ultimately at City.

While stating flatly that the upside of missing out on the Champions League is “nothing”, Mancini has no regrets. “Spurs had been building a team for many years,” he says. “Their squad are strong, fantastic players. They’ve been in the Europa League. They were more experienced than us. But every time we played against them, and against Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, we played at the same level as them. This is important. We played at the same level and we became a team. Congratulations to Spurs, but this year it will be different.

“Was I too cautious at the end of last season? I don’t think so. When you win, you are a fantastic manager. When you lose you are Italian and too conservative.”

There is, of course, little conservative about City’s spending. Three buys of the highest quality – Toure, Hamburg’s Jerome Boateng and Valencia’s David Silva – have arrived for a combined £60m and more seem certain to follow as Mancini seeks to create a fluid, deep, interchangeable squad.

“It’s a very exciting time,” says Given. “They are real coups. Boateng looks pretty assured: he can play in the middle and on both flanks. Toure just looks immense. He’ll bring a real presence to the team. Silva is in the mould of a Modric. He can drift into little gaps and holes, he can see through balls and that killer pass. We missed that last season. Stephen Ireland can do it too but he had injury problems last season and it hurt us down the stretch.”

Says Mancini: “The new signings have this in common – they all can pay in different positions. Boateng can play in every position in the defensive line, Yaya can play behind the defence, can play right midfield or left midfield, can play behind the striker. And Silva can play every position in the midfield and behind the striker. If we buy more players like this it gives me more chance to move positions when players get injured or tired. Or change what happens on the field, from 4-4-2 to 4-3-1-2.

“I try to buy players who are an investment; who are young; who can play for the club for many years. And, when Manchester City decides to sell them, they will have a good resale value. It’s important to have individual leaders. It’s not just that we have a good player with a good personality off the pitch, but a big personality on the pitch is important now.”

Mancini is quick to dispel the idea that players are identified by Abu Dhabi, as occurred during the club’s pursuits of Robinho and Kaka. “It is me,” he says. “This is my job. I know the European players very well and I identify who we should buy. Clearly I speak with Brian Marwood, who I work very closely with, and the owner. But it’s important that I’m the one who identifies the players and explains why he will be important.”

Mancini knows that for all his good fortune, he has a fight on his hands. Though he speaks in the highest possible terms of “fantastic man” Gareth Barry, Carlos Tevez and kung-fu enthusiast Nigel De Jong, City may still lack a real leader – hence their doomed pursuit of John Terry last summer – and what Given calls a “Terry Butcher, Tony Adams type”.

The manager worries that late arrivals from the World Cup will hamper a tough Premier League opening. He knows the Europa League, in which City will play 17 games if they are to win it, will take a heavy toll, though the increased playing opportunities may bring increased harmony to the dressing room.

But he also knows this is the season when Manchester City could rewrite history. “We have the investment to make a fantastic club,” he says. “I think the fans will have a very happy season.”

For years, Manchester City have been the loser hero in a Judd Apatow comedy. If Steve Carrell was The 40-Year-Old Virgin, they are The 34-Year-Old Trophy Virgins. But in the final reel, the loveable schlub gets the girl. As Mancini says, “After many years, this is the time.”

Roberto Mancini: Quick QsWhat’s with the new hair?First time in 10 years I’ve cut it. It’s a lot colder.

They said you were going to be fired if you didn’t reach the Champions League. Will you get fired if you don’t do it this season?I didn’t get fired. I’m still here. I have a three-year contract and I will stay for three years. So I must win this year or next year. I can win the Europa League or the FA Cup. We hope to win the league or get in the Champions League.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a coach?You must always work 100 per cent, but it’s most important to work harder when you win. When you lose, it’s easy to go back and correct your mistakes. When you win, you think ‘everything’s OK’. When you do that, you lose.

In recent years, City have had a great record of bringing players through from the academy – the likes of Shaun Wright-Phillips, Stephen Ireland, Micah Richards, Nedum Onouha. With big-name players arriving, how will the kids break through now?I played in Serie A when I was 16 so I know it’s very important to have players coming in from the academy. In five months here I brought five young players into the first team, so they will get a chance. We will have a squad of 24, 25 and then the young players, so they can play too.

Did you know anything at all about Manchester City when you got here?Yes, at first because Trevor Francis talked about them at Sampdoria. But in Italy, they know Manchester City’s history. There’s always talk of Manchester United, because they’ve won everything, but we knew City too.

You worked under future City manager Sven-Goran Eriksson at Sampdoria and you were his assistant coach at Lazio too…I must say thank you to Sven, and to Vujadin Boskov, because I was a player who always wanted to ask, ‘Why are we doing this work?’ and they would explain I was born with 
a football at my feet and football in my brain. 
I had a vision of how I wanted a team to play football and they helped me to develop this.

Now you’ve brought in another Sampdoria connection, David Platt, as first-team coach...We played together for two years and talked many, many times after that. He is a friend of mine. David is an important man in England: he was England captain, Arsenal captain. He managed the under-21s. It means something.

Is David as thin as he was at Sampdoria?Yes! Yes! [Look of resignation] No. I think he must try and get into good shape!

Interview: Steve Anglesey. Portraits: Jill Jennings.This feature was originally published in the September 2010 edition of FourFourTwo.