THE final league table will tell you that it wasn’t quite the closest title race of all time, but it still won’t have done Manchester City football administration officer Brian Marwood’s blood pressure any good.
Marwood, more than anyone else connected with City, might just have seen yesterday’s extraordinary finish to the Premier League season coming.
In 1989, in another life, Marwood was part of an Arsenal side who were champions of England on goals scored. Now that really was close. This time? City’s goal difference was eight superior to that of second-placed Manchester United.
Not the closest then, but certainly every bit as dramatic as that Arsenal win. And in a BBC interview a couple of months ago, Marwood certainly seemed to be aware of the possibility of a repeat of ’89.
“It came down to the last of the last game on the last day of the season,” he said in March. “Certainly, for my own blood pressure and nerves, it would be nice to think that if we were to win, it would be done much earlier than that.”
No such luck. In fact, it was done later. Twenty-three years ago, Thomas scored one minute and 22 seconds into injury time. Yesterday, Sergio Aguero’s winner against Queens Park Rangers came three minutes and 20 seconds beyond the 90-minute mark. It came seconds after United’s game at Sunderland had finished. Maybe some team, somewhere in the future, will find an even more jaw-dropping manner in which to win the Premier League. But it’s hard to imagine any team will ever leave it so late again.
In 1989, as Marwood was chasing the title with Arsenal (albeit sitting out their final five games through injury), City also managed their own late success; Trevor Morley scored a promotion-clinching equaliser at Bradford with all of four minutes of the season left. It was hardly on a par with Gillingham ’99, but it was a fine sign of City’s endless capacity to put their fans through mental torture.
But they used to do it with promotions and relegations – Antic, Morley, Dickov et al. Doing it with league titles is a distinct step up in class.
For Marwood, this league title will have greater significance than the one he won as a player. As he said to the BBC: “I think that for me personally, it would probably mean more for this to happen here.
“Not that I didn’t appreciate what came my way at Arsenal as a player. But I think this is different because there are so many areas that I have to consider and make sure they are operating effectively.”
Marwood’s role in 2012 has included a significant input into player recruitment. The construction of a title-winning squad has happened largely under his watch. His role in 1989 was significant in a different way.
He scored nine of Arsenal’s 73 league goals that season, including their first, on the opening day of the season, in a 5-1 victory at Wimbledon; an intended cross towards the far post that Simon Tracey, a future Manchester City goalkeeper, fumbled over his own line.
As a moment, that first goal had none of the drama of the 73rd, scored by Michael Thomas and replayed on television thousands of times since. But given the fine margins that decided that title, perhaps it was every bit as important. Every goal counted for Marwood and Arsenal that season, just as it has counted for City this.
And maybe, just maybe, sometimes you need a little luck as well. Former county cricketer Ed Smith has just brought out a book called Luck. In it, he uses some American statistical analysis to suggest that at least half of a set of sporting results are determined as much by randomness as by skill.
Few would dispute that City were the best team in the Premier League over the season; they scored more goals than any of their rivals, and conceded fewer. But had Aguero’s 94th-minute shot gone outside the post rather than inside it, then Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United would be the champions; and this morning’s newspapers would have been filled with analysis of City’s shortcomings.
Indeed, a very honest article in today’s Manchester Evening News recounts how, at 4.50pm yesterday, the sports editor instructed his United correspondent to write a piece with the provisional headline: ‘Fergie: His Greatest Ever Achievement.’
It all changed with one kick of a ball. Forty-four years of hurt: Forgotten in a second. Roberto Mancini’s place in City folklore was assured.
Mancini arrived in England with a reputation, maybe an unfair one, for being lucky. In Italy, he was often described as “baciato dalla grazia”, or “kissed by good fortune”. While he had won the Scudetto three times in his four seasons as Inter Milan’s head coach, some chose to denigrate the achievement because it came in the wake of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal that took Juventus out of the equation for a couple of years.
He has, though, always shown a capacity for hard work and self-sacrifice; he left home at 13 to pursue a career with Bologna’s youth set-up, and he entered management in difficult circumstances at Fiorentina, where he received death threats as the club went into financial meltdown.
Mancini has, by his own admission, made mistakes this season, stating that he failed to prepare his team properly for a defeat at Everton in January. In the Champions League, he was outsmarted tactically home and away by Napoli in two fixtures that effectively decided City’s fate in Group A.
But the mistakes of Ferguson, in poor team selections for defeats at Wigan and the Etihad Stadium in the closing weeks of the season, gave Mancini a second chance in a title race that looked to be over at Easter.
There was luck elsewhere. City fans may have repeatedly complained about refereeing decisions going against them – indeed, Marwood reportedly wrote to referees’ boss Mike Riley about it in January. But Mancini’s side were fortunate to go through the season relatively free of injuries (having had plenty the previous year).
And when there were absences, sometimes they worked for City. Weirdly, the loss of Mario Balotelli to suspension in those closing weeks might have helped. Balotelli has, at times, appeared unmanageable, even to one as willing to accommodate maverick talent as Mancini. But a ban incurred for a deserved sending off at Arsenal on Easter Sunday took the decision on whether to drop the striker out of his manager’s hands. Without Mario, City found their form again.
After that defeat at Emirates Stadium left City eight points adrift of United with six games left, Marwood would probably have been glad of any sort of crack at the title on the last day. Mancini, Aguero and Co somehow got them over the line in the most dramatic way imaginable. Marwood could have been forgiven for seeing his whole life flash before him in the process.