I DOUBT if there are many people who had a more frantic Saturday than Ali Benarbia. (If there are, I’d like to hear about them.)
On Saturday afternoon, Benarbia touched down in Manchester after a seven-hour flight from Qatar. He then played for a Manchester City legends side in the North West heat of the Football Masters tournament at the M.E.N. Arena on Saturday night. Just before 7am on Sunday, he took off on a seven-hour flight back home to Qatar.
Benarbia is revered by City fans. He was the playmaker of the glorious first season under Kevin Keegan, when the Blues scored 108 league goals en route to winning the First Division championship in 2002. For those who follow City, Benarbia is synonymous with skilful attacking football.
I wanted to grab an interview with him during his short stop in Manchester, and his breakneck itinerary didn’t leave me much time – especially given that he had to find space during his 15 or so hours in England for a three-hour football tournament and a half-decent night’s sleep.
I spent Saturday evening at the M.E.N. Arena, watching Benarbia show a few decent touches, but looking a little short of match fitness. Not that it mattered, as his City team-mates had enough about them to win the event.
Mike Sheron showed why three clubs paid seven-figure transfer fees for him in the mid-1990s, scoring four goals – including the winner in the final against Oldham, who seemed to have brought half of the town’s population down to Manchester to cheer them on.
Fitzroy Simpson, a former City midfielder turned football agent (“I call myself a football consultant,” he told me), was the player of the tournament, helped by a spectacular goal in a 4-1 victory over Leeds in the group stages.
Benarbia, so often the man on whom City relied in Keegan’s first season, was happy to be carried for once.
Just before midnight, I got my chance to chat to him.
He was on good form, speaking with intelligence about City’s prospects for the coming season. Benarbia is very much a City fan, but he’s not an uncritical fan. He believes that the club need to put an end to all the chopping and changing that has taken place over the last 18 months – a period which has seen two managers leave and the make-up of both boardroom and first-team squad altered almost beyond recognition.
The full interview will appear in Tuesday’s Manchester Evening News, but to give you a flavour, here’s a bit of Benarbia that I didn’t have space for in that article.
Looking at City’s prospects for the next nine months, Benarbia said: “I’m always excited about a new season.
“I want to see how the team are going to play, how the new manager will lead this team and who decides whether they bring in more money for players they may need.
“It will be interesting to see whether they want to be in the top six or seven, or they think: OK, we can do the same as last season.
“It will be very difficult to do the same season as last year, because City had a good manager and team. Now, it has been changed.
“At any club, when you change, you need maybe three or four months. Four months of a season is too much.”
Interview over, Benarbia finally had a bit of time to get some rest. Not long, though; not long.