This feature first appeared in the January 2020 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now and get the first five issues for £5!
Interview: Leo Moynihan
Let’s start with euphoria: that moment the goal is scored. I won’t say I knew it was in as soon as I hit it, as that sort of talk is for forwards. But it did feel good. A clean strike. However, with my success record when it comes to shooting, nothing is guaranteed – I had to wait for the ball to hit the net. And then? And then everything gets blurry. Crazy emotions, pure joy, utter relief, and before I know it I’m at the bottom of a sky-blue pile of team-mates. It’s a great moment. It’s the best moment. The Premier League title is one step closer – so close now – and that’s the most important thing. But none of those players on top of me know that this will be my last game at the Etihad Stadium.
The warmth of that May evening will never leave me. But in January, after we had tasted defeat at Newcastle on a cold, snowy night in the North East, it seemed that any hopes of Manchester City retaining the Premier League title had gone. That’s what the experts said, anyway.
Shortly after that 2-1 loss, Pep Guardiola called a meeting. ‘Do you believe we can still win the title?’ he asked us. ‘Do you believe there’s still…’
Before he could finish his sentence, I yelled, ‘Of course we can do it!’
I wasn’t saying it for effect; I wasn’t simply playing the role of the chest-beating captain. I had been part of three previous Premier League-winning teams and I understood how it worked; I understood that there was too much football to play, and too much pressure on our rivals for us to just wave the white flag.
Many of my team-mates and I were able to tell the story of how it felt when we won our first title. In 2012, what worked in our favour is that we never had the lead for too long, and I knew Liverpool would be under a lot of pressure.
A lead at the top makes the pressure build up, especially when you’re dealing with it for the first time. You’ll tell yourself and the public that you’ll behave in such a way – you’ll do this right, you’ll do that right – but the reality is so different and so difficult.
When you’ve won it once, it becomes easier the next time. But with the pressure on Liverpool to achieve what they so desperately wanted, I think there was a little bit of an advantage to the team chasing them.
The consensus after the meeting, then, was that we had been through a bad patch but we could turn it around at any point. The way we did it from there, though, was beyond even our expectations.
What followed was a competition of the highest quality. Liverpool drew a few matches to let us back in, but that run-in? For both teams to keep winning and winning was exceptional.
Much was made about the team playing second, and yes, you’d rather play and win first, then heap the pressure on your rival. Over to you...
But whenever we played second there was that added pressure, and we coped with it so well. It might even have brought the best out of us, because our experience and quality came to the fore.
I’d watched a lot of my team’s quality from the sidelines that year. I began the season with a few niggly injuries, but even when fit I was starting on the bench. That was new for me. It gave me time to think.
My thoughts had turned to my future, and as the season progressed it became clear to me that it would be my last at the club I’d fallen in love with. I was desperate to play, but as that couldn’t always happen I started thinking about different scenarios.
I was with Fabian Delph, who was also spending time on the sidelines, and I told him that, one way or another, I was going to get strong for the end of the season; I was going to have a meaningful impact on the team and the season; and I was going to lift trophies. That’s what I truly believed.
I’ve been fortunate to have always played when I’ve been fit, but this was a bit different. What’s annoyed me over the years is players who aren’t playing becoming sulky and negative. Football is difficult enough without that energy stifling a dressing room.
I tried to put my feelings and emotions aside and be extra positive, to impact the team in that way. I didn’t want to put the wrong kind of pressure on my team-mates, because that’s what negativity can do.
So, when I didn’t play, I just focused on the positives, and I think that played an important role.
A lot of the conversations on the bench were with Fabian, but also Riyad Mahrez. I could tell he was frustrated, but I told him that if he started moaning about his situation then it was never going to happen for him. I told him to visualise a moment, and that moment could define his whole season. It was hard for him, but I knew his chance would come.
In the end, I think it was the squad’s talent, depth and attitude that won us the Premier League title. Every week the talk was: can we cope without Fernandinho? Can we cope without Kevin De Bruyne? Can we cope without Kompany?
We suffered more injuries than anyone can remember, but as a collective we always answered those questions. At the heart of the defence, things would always change. One week it was John Stones and me; then it was Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, or Aymeric Laporte and Otamendi. It didn’t matter, though, and that was the strength of Manchester City.
Any team competing with us had a big problem: lose a key player in a key area and they would struggle, but City – especially last season – didn’t flinch.
We also had an intense competitive spirit, and that comes from the manager. Chasing a team down, you need that. And while we all know that Pep is a brilliant football man and an exceptional tactician, what’s just as important is that he is such a competitor.
As a group, we were so driven by him that we were able to bounce back from the blip over Christmas and defeat at Newcastle. There was no margin for error. To win every game, and to have to win every game from January, is something really special.
Liverpool were that good. They are that good. It’s not a historical rivalry like the one with United, but it’s a modern rivalry. It’s about two clubs; two sets of players. They know that, to win things, the other club must be beaten, and for that to happen you have to be at your very best.
There’s mutual respect there. I watch Liverpool and see a team near perfection. I have so much respect for them – for the club, its history and the manager – but I tell you what: I want to beat them more than anyone else.
To do that, there’s no room for errors. If you want to do well against Liverpool, only extreme measures will give you a good result. If you’re extremely well-organised defensively and choose to play with a more negative approach, then I’m sure the sheer force and determination of a side as good as that can win them the game.
That’s what we did at Anfield earlier in the season, although in the end we were unlucky not to leave with three points after Mahrez missed a late penalty. If you go down the other end and try to match them for intensity, energy and physicality in an open game, you can achieve good things again. What’s certain is that you can’t be stuck anywhere in between.
At Anfield we were extremely cautious, but at home we needed to win and so were extremely offensive. We had a plan and we worked on it. But as soon as you start playing, the plans matter less and less. It’s about desire.
For all of the talk, the meetings and the videos analysed, games like our 2-1 win against Liverpool at the Etihad come down to that desire. I will never forget Fernandinho’s challenge in the first five minutes. And then Bernardo Silva made a tackle, and the tone was set. That desire, that hunger from players – some who are used to making challenges, some less so – decided the game for us.
Desire, talent and a bit of luck – all are needed if a title is to be won.
We had some of the latter against Spurs in April, when they pushed us really hard and could have got a 1-1 draw, but our ability to overcome difficult situations was key.
Burnley away – our third-from-last game – was always going to be awkward. That game was everything we expected. They left the grass a bit longer and it felt like it was dry, not watered. We like to move the ball from side to side, and on a pitch in that condition you lose a bit of zip. You have to get on with it, though, and we had some chances, but it became very difficult. At half-time we all stayed calm. We spoke of just being better. Simple as that. Attack with more conviction. We did, and Sergio Aguero eventually got us the goal.
I think it was after that win – and I wouldn’t have made a big deal of it – that I started to feel things were going our way. But next came Leicester. At half-time, as it was against Burnley, the score was 0-0 and we had to be as calm. That’s not easy at your own ground, in front of your own supporters going through everything so emotionally with you, but you have to try.
As the second half wore on, with the big screens shining out that it was goalless, the fans were getting nervous and you could sense it on the pitch. You can hear it... feel it.
Every chance we missed, the groans would become more audible and more desperate. Impatience is in the ground with you. You can’t control the crowd, but I did start to wonder if my team-mates would get affected by it.
I encouraged them. ‘Stay calm’ was the call. I don’t know if it worked, though, and maybe I was simply shouting at myself. You have to pack away all your emotions and put them in a little box.
We were overly emotional, overly aggressive, overly attacking and not doing the things we usually do. It was desperate stuff, and that wasn’t what we wanted. But then, against an organised and defiant side like Leicester – a revamped team who had started to progress enormously under Brendan Rodgers; a team that had already beaten us earlier in the season – I began to think that it might take something different. Something special.
A year ago today, @VincentKompany did the unthinkable 🚀🔥 #MCFCpic.twitter.com/XQiNV5PCWkMay 6, 2020
This will sound daft, but that morning as I woke up and looked out of my window, I had a thought: I’m going to do something big tonight. It was just a feeling. But, as I’d made a vital block during the first half, maybe my moment had been and gone.
Twenty minutes were left. Someone had better have a moment and have it pretty soon. The problem was, in terms of space, the game had become really tight. We’d had the same scenario a few weeks earlier against Watford: like Leicester, they were marking our midfielders out of the game. They kept four against three in the backline, and always had cover there with one player spare. It was so packed that the only man free was the guy in possession.
Against Watford, I’d get near the penalty area with the ball, but every time I had Ilkay Gundogan in my ear shouting, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!’
After that game, I thought I’d been stupid for listening to Gundogan. I should have shot four or five times, because such was the space and time I had, I’m sure one would have gone in. And here we were once again: packed midfield, packed defence, and I was getting on the ball a lot.
I was able to carry it forward, so I decided that this time, despite my team-mates’ objections, I would take the shot. I cut across the ball and gave it a good bend, like fading a golf shot. Kasper Schmeichel had been in unbelievable form all night, so getting the ball right into the top corner was key.
And then the whole ground erupted. Bedlam.
I just wheeled away like a crazy person. There was a terrifying moment after that when Kelechi Iheanacho, our former team-mate, had a chance for Leicester towards the end of the game. Knowing him from training, he would always bang that in, but he pulled the ball wide and the game was won.
I never sleep after night games, but there was absolutely no chance with this one. I sat up and chatted to Carla, my wife. We talked about how special a moment it had been; how no one could have written the script better for me.
There were a lot of emotions that night. Only Carla and a few close friends knew that my career at City was coming to an end, which added to the poignancy. There was still a job to do, though. Fail to win at Brighton and my goal means nothing.
And then, at Brighton, we were 1-0 down and Liverpool were 1-0 up at home to Wolves. I didn’t panic, though. Stay calm.
Like Burnley, the pitch wasn’t ideal, but I looked at our big players like Aguero and David Silva and knew they were up for it. It’s going to happen.
We dominated, and to see Riyad score in the 4-1 win – after those conversations we’d had on the bench months before – was the icing on the cake.
Six days later, we beat Watford in the FA Cup final, and I think that’s when I was happiest. For the first time, I could be satisfied. When you know it’s the end, you can finally look back. There was only satisfaction at what we and I had achieved. My last game for City, a 6-0 win in the cup final at Wembley, a treble won, and my winner against Leicester still buzzing around my mind – it doesn’t get better than that, does it?
I’d joined this club in 2008 and couldn’t have dreamed of what we’d achieve together. Thanks to some of the best football people around, and brilliant owners who respected City’s heritage as well as building an exciting future, we’d done so much. I’ll always be proud of that.
I’d been in Manchester for 11 years and loved calling it home – it’s a special place. It’s weird: ask me whether I have an association with Britain or England, having lived here for so long, and I would say less so than I do with Manchester.
I feel Manc, and I guess I always will.
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