ROBERTO Mancini’s first press conference as Manchester City manager ended with a pledge to watch Coronation Street and Eastenders to improve his English. But no soap opera could have produced as much drama as the extraordinary events at the City of Manchester Stadium this evening.
It’s been a crazy week at City. The club decided to sack manager Mark Hughes before Saturday’s 4-3 win over Sunderland, but did not intend to tell him until after the match. Rumours spread fast, though, with the result that the game was completely overshadowed by Hughes’ impending departure.
The first rumblings surfaced on Friday morning, when the Daily Telegraph reported that Cook had contacted Guus Hiddink’s agent, Cees van Nieuwenhuizen, to ask about the Russia coach’s availability.
It set the tone for the madness that was to follow. On Saturday night, one Italian journalist told me that Mancini had first been approached three weeks before Hughes’ sacking. Sky Sports News reported that Mancini had agreed to join City on December 2. Cook needed to respond to these reports.
If Saturday’s match was a sideshow to Hughes’ departure – and it seemed that way, even during the game – then this evening’s Mancini press conference was a sideshow to the Cook story.
Cook has come in for intense criticism over his handling of Hughes’ dismissal. And he was the man most of the journalists wanted to question this evening. I’ve never before been to a press conference where a club’s chief executive was considered more newsworthy than a new manager. But Cook was the centre of attention tonight, even though he didn’t want to be.
The press conference room at the City of Manchester Stadium was packed. There must have been close to 30 television cameras, as many photographers and around 100 journalists there.
The whole 50-minute press conference was shown live on Sky Sports News, but that alone doesn’t give you an idea as to how big a deal it was. I’ll tell you how big a deal it was – even S4C were there. That means that someone, somewhere, has spent this evening translating the thoughts of Mancini and Cook into Welsh.
Cook looked, to my eyes, a mixture of nervous and angry – nervous at facing the press conference, angry at the press he has received in recent days. Mancini, sitting to his right, was relaxed, throwing in references about his time playing alongside Robbie Savage at Leicester and the threat posed by Rory Delap’s long throws (his first game is against Stoke on Boxing Day).
Even though Cook’s intention was to read a statement outlining the reasons for Hughes’ sacking, and then say nothing else, he must have feared that he would face a barrage of questions anyway. And he did.
Why didn’t you sack Mark Hughes on Saturday morning?
Why did you make him stand in front of 40,000 people knowing he was leaving?
Are you embarrassed at how you treated the manager?
Is your position untenable?
The questions bounced off his head, as he said he would add nothing further to his statement. But he would.
Cook’s statement made it plain that Mancini had not been offered the City job until after last Wednesday’s 3-0 defeat at Tottenham. The intention had been to tell Mark Hughes of his sacking after the Sunderland game, and the reason for the delay was so that chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak could fly in from Abu Dhabi and explain the decision in person.
But then Mancini appeared to contradict Cook by stating that he had first met City’s chairman in London two weeks ago. “We only spoke about football in general,” he added by way of qualification.
Cook offered to explain. In the process of explaining, he stated that the manager’s job had been discussed two weeks ago “in general terms”. Then came another question.
Was the contact with Guus Hiddink’s agent just general as well?
Cook could not rein himself in any longer. On live television, he decided to say what he felt. If you watch the video of his statement, you can hear him banging the desk as he speaks.
He said: “You know, I’m going to say something here, fellas. I hope you don’t mind.
“But it seems to me there’s an overwhelming theory that there is a conspiracy, and I’m just going to make a couple of points here.
“We’re not going to commit to that. That’s not what was happening. The owner, the board, the management team made a decision. We moved quickly, as was expected. Like any business, we had a plan, and we moved to work on that plan. As we did, we are where we are today.
“And I really think that we need to know that everybody is committed to making this football club one of the greatest in the world.
“There are no conspiracy theories. We are working hard every day to make this a successful football club. We need to draw a line and we need to move on to the future, and that’s all I’ll say on that subject. Thank you.”
But that wasn’t the end. Back came another question.
To approach a manager behind another manager’s back – I accept you’re not the only football club to do that. But do you not accept that what happened on Friday and particularly on Saturday to put Mark Hughes through what he had to go through, when you knew he was about to be put out of work, was unacceptable? Do you not regret that now? Why didn’t you sack him on Friday or Saturday morning? Why did you put him through that on Saturday? Can you not see that’s what’s upset people?
Cook looked uncomfortable, but tried to respond.
“If I can refer back to the statement, I think I can answer that,” he said. “The decision was made on Thursday.
“The chairman had to jump on an aeroplane because he was adamant that he wouldn’t make a telephone call, send a fax or a text or an e-mail. He wanted to do it in person. He arrived at 10am on Saturday, and he had to leave at 6.30pm.”
Another attempt at a question followed. Cook said he didn’t want to answer any more. The focus of the press conference was, with great effort, shifted back to Mancini, who looked utterly unruffled.
It’s been a tough press conference. The British journalists can get stuck in like the Italian ones. Was that what you expected?
“I think this kind of press conference is fairly normal,” Mancini said. “I’m used to it, having been in Italy.
“I can only apologise that my English isn’t better at the moment, but I intend to improve that by watching Coronation Street every evening and Eastenders as well on occasions.”
If that’s normal, Roberto, I can’t imagine what it will be like when things get feisty.