Just as Manchester City fans thought it was safe to raise their heads above the parapet the old comedy routine rolled out again. City’s takeover by the Abu Dhabi Royal Family around a year ago should have lifted the club to a higher level. Indeed, to raise standards over and above that of crosstown rivals Manchester United.
Mark Hughes’ brutal sacking this week has place a question mark over the club’s ethics.
Hughes’ departure, confirmed after reports leaked out of the club prior to the weekend’s 4-3 win over Sunderland, comes 18 months into the former-Wales and Blackburn manager’s tenure at the club. The odds never favoured the 46-year-old coach when, just weeks into his job, Thaksin Shinawatra, the disgrace former-Thai President, was forced out of the club.
When the Abu Dhabi-based Abu Dhabi United Group Investment and Development company completed a takeover of Manchester City on 1 September 2008 it did so with a promise of higher standards than Shinawatra could offer. As the very definition of a vanity buy, City’s standing in the world of football matters to the owner Sheikh Mansour al-Mubarak. It’s a footing that has taken a hit in the past week.
In an extraordinary press conference this week City’s beleaguered Chief Executive Gary Cook first denied that the club was seeking an alternative manager behind Hughes’ back and then admitted – in the same breath – that the Eastlands outfit had done exactly that.
“I think it is important for people to know that Roberto was only offered the job after the Spurs game; we negotiated on Thursday and finalised his agreement on Friday,” the utterly hapless Cook lied in a statement at the conference, Monday.
The former-Nike executive was then contradicted by his new manager, Roberto Mancini, who admitted to having met with City Chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak to talk about the job more than a fortnight ago.
“Two weeks ago Roberto met with Khaldoon,” Cook squirmed in an increasingly bad-tempered performance, culminating in a round of table thumping.
“After the Spurs game, there were further discussions on a more serious level. The [original] discussions were general. They were about football. We were considering our managerial options at the time. It [the manager’s job] was discussed in general terms.”
Cook, remember, is the executive who said with a remarkably straight face that AC Milan had “bottled it” over a proposed £103 million transfer of Brazilian midfielder Kaká last winter. And it was Cook, whose position is now untenable, who happily allowed Hughes to take charge of City at the weekend knowing the coach was a dead man walking.
Saving face indeed.
Amid the skullduggery City at least confirmed the club’s true intentions this week. Despite earlier talk of building for the long-term, Hughes’ dismissal after the club set the former-United striker a sixth-place finish this season reeks of short-termism. Rumours abound that Mancini does not expect to stay at the club past this summer. This makes sense if, as third choice for the job behind Guus Hiddink and Jose Mourinho, he does not lead the club into the Champions League.
Despite this few tears were shed for Sparky, who has proven himself a less than amiable manager. With Blackburn and Wales Hughes drew over-achieving performances from under-talented players. With City, Hughes was not able to control the egos of superstar players such as Robinho, Elano and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Like Glenn Hoddle with England before him, Hughes the manager may have fallen into the trap of great players turned coach. The frustration of working with players that do not share Hughes’ work ethic led to dressing room conflict.
More recently Hughes fell out with Arsene Wenger, who refused to shake the Welshman’s hand. The striker, who scored 129 goals in 345 league games for United, also took great delight in the City’s “Welcome to Manchester” poster in Deansgate this summer. Sir Alex Ferguson called it a “small club mentality” – probably where Hughes fits best as a manager.
As for City, the club has rapidly become the Real Madrid of the Premier League, albeit with no history of silverware. Sheikh Mansour will sanction unlimited spending, while managers will surely come and go. They always have at City. This time expectations are set a little higher.
Just not, it seems, when it comes to the ethics of managerial employment.