THERE’S a feeling among Manchester City players past and present that the club are getting there. Colin Bell thinks so. Micah Richards thinks so.
Speak to anyone within the corridors at Eastlands and the message is the same: Champions League qualification is the target this season, and anything achieved on top of that would be a welcome bonus.
“I think the club are moving in the right direction,” Richards said when I spoke to him at the opening of the club’s new CityStore, on Market Street in central Manchester.
“The league position is improving year on year, but you can’t really judge us now. Judge us at the end of the season.
“We hope that by then, we’ll have a Champions League spot to look forward to.
“That’s the target. We’re aiming for the Champions League and there’s no reason why we can’t get there.”
Richards has been one of the few constants during a period of unprecedented change at Eastlands, and proof that there is still space for the homegrown lads at a club which has spent something like £350million on players in two-and-a-bit years under the Sheikh Mansour regime.
That’s not to say Richards’ City future has always been considered secure. Last summer he was linked with Tottenham, this week it’s Barcelona, come January it will probably be someone else. But while other graduates of the club’s youth set-up have moved on, Richards remains.
His debut season in the first team, 2005/06, saw City finish 15th in the Premier League. For all the hard work and generosity of then chairman John Wardle, there wasn’t much to spend on players. When Stuart Pearce spent £6million on bringing in Georgios Samaras from Heerenveen in January that year, he was effectively gambling with the whole mid-season transfer budget.
“It’s incredible how much has changed, really,” Richards said. “When I first broke into the team, we were a top-15 side. Now we’re going not just for the Champions League but the Premier League as well. It’s amazing. I’m just happy to be a part of it. These are exciting times.”
City have spent a lot of late, but they’ve had a long way to travel. The last time they finished in England’s top four was 1978, when Bell was starting to come to terms with the possibility of retirement. The last trophy… well, surely no City fan needs reminding how long ago that was.
Bell, who works as a club ambassador, meeting and greeting the fans on match days, knows the agony of waiting as well as anyone.
“I keep speaking to City fans who are in their late 30s, and they tell me they’ve never seen the club win anything,” he said. “And I feel sorry for them.
“They’ll say to me that their dad or granddad saw City win a trophy, and it brings it home to you just how long it’s been.
“We all have that hope that City are going to win something soon. I’m a supporter now, and at the start of every season, I always hope this will be the year.
“I thought we might have a chance in the Carling Cup, because quite a few Premier League clubs put out reserve sides in it.
“Then we lost to West Brom and I thought: There goes my dream. But City fans will keep on hoping, and they’ll keep on supporting. That’s what’s so great about them.”
Even without the trophies, there’s never been a shortage of drama at Eastlands. Recent goalless draws against United and Birmingham prompted suggestions that Roberto Mancini might be under pressure.
Sunday’s 4-1 win at Fulham put that talk to bed – at least until the next defeat. Richards has seen it all before, and would love a bit of continuity.
“I’ve played under four managers in the first team, and they’ve all been great for me,” he said.
“But it is hard as a player when there’s chopping and changing of managers all the time.
“It would be nice if we could keep one for a while, and give him a really good chance to see what he can do.”
The Eastlands jungle drums suggest that those in charge at City are satisfied with Mancini’s progress this season, and would only rethink the manager’s position if they failed to qualify for the Champions League.
City need the income that would come with reaching the competition’s group stages (which is where the real money is) in order to comply with UEFA’s imminent introduction of financial fair play rules.
Those rules won’t be implemented until 2014, but will limit a club to aggregate losses of £39m over the three years from 2011/12. Any side falling short could be barred from European competition from the start of the 2014/15 season. City, who lost £121m in the 12 months up to May 31, have acknowledged the need to reduce spending.
In the meantime, success on the pitch is the target. It’s something of a statistical quirk that City have collected exactly the same number of points from their first 14 league games – 25 – as they did last season.
Twelve months ago, that tally left City in sixth place, 11 points adrift of leaders Chelsea, albeit with a game in hand. This year, they are in fourth, only three points off the top – a sign that none of the Champions League probables and possibles have managed to put a consistent run together.
If it’s a pivotal season in the history of City and the career of Mancini, which it is, then circumstances elsewhere have given them the opportunity to succeed. No one can yet claim this season’s Premier League is a closed shop.
Even so, City fans have had to wait so long for success, that the optimism among supporters is still tinged with caution. They hope for glory, but they’ll only truly believe it when they see it.
“With City, every fan – including me – just wants to win something,” Bell said.
“Once we do that, it lays the foundations for the future, and we can go on to win more.
“I hope that happens this season. But if it doesn’t, then I’ll be hoping it happens next season. As a fan, you always hope.”