Written by Ayushnav Sarker
In the complex and often murky world of financial markets, there are what is called ‘Black Swan’ events every few years. Events that change the relationship of the market with its participants, and drag the rest of the economy with them too. Right from the time of the Tulip Bubble to the South Sea Crisis, the Crash in ‘29, Black Monday, the Asian Crisis – each incidence has left a striking impact on the subsequent generations that had to deal with their fallout.
In football, like in the markets, we see these events every few years. It is fair to say not all of them are for the worse. A lot of them change our beautiful game for the better, be it Leicester’s meteoric triumph in 2016, Iceland’s unexpected journey to the Euro quarters the same year, Blatter’s resignation in 2015 and so on. There are those that leave fans divided, like the Brazilian rout at home in 2014 and Fergie’s resignation in 2013, where your reaction depends a lot on which side you are on. But the ones that you tell your grandchildren about, decades later, are simply granular moments that just stuck in your head and remained stuck for perpetuity. Not necessarily because it was your team or your country that was involved, but perhaps because deep in your heart you are just like any other romantic, a sucker for the game, a lover of such moments that are bigger than you, bigger than weekly club banter, rivalry and hatred. Today, the granularity I am talking about is a goal. It’s a short event really. Given that the game goes on for a little more than ninety minutes, the time that is taken to put the ball in the net is probably less than a second. Yet, that is precisely everything. And that is precisely why we must memorialize ‘that’ goal. But first, context.
City were a miserable club for most of the latter half of the twentieth century. Having won their last league title under Joe Mercer in 1967, the club went on to win the European Cup Winners Cup in 1970 before steadily sliding down the ranks over the next three decades. As recently as 1999, they were playing in the English Second Division (League One in today’s parlance) having suffered the ignominy of being only the second European Trophy winning club to be relegated to the third tier of its national football league (three years earlier in 1996). Down the road in Salford, a certain Manchester United Football Club were scripting history on demand. Over the decades, under the stewardship of Sir Alex, the neighbors had become a powerhouse in English football and for City fans, might have been in an altogether different universe. There was no comparing the two. Some may say it is no coincidence that United’s historic treble-winning honor at the Camp Nou and City’s Second Division playoff victory against lowly Gillingham were separated by just four early summer days in May of 1999. Even when they did see a small victory, United’s exploits nearly always overshadowed them. An entire generation of City fans had no bragging rights at work on the Monday after the game.
Beginning of a new era
The turn of the century, however, brought with it hope and a move away from Maine Road. The club became the permanent tenants of the City of Manchester Stadium, post the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took over in the summer of 2007 and appointed erstwhile England boss, Sven-Goran Erikson as manager (City’s first non-British coach in their history, a sign of things to come). A raft of signings followed suit but league success remained elusive and City ambled to an uninspiring 9th place finish in the table. The process of change ramped up the following summer when Middle-Eastern oil money entered the world of football for the first time. The Sheikhs moved in at Manchester and announced their arrival by stealing the mercurial Robinho under the noses of Chelsea on deadline day.
City were finally going places. For United, the neighbors were getting noisier by the day and struck closer to home than they would have liked with the signing of Carlos Tevez in 2009. The Argentinian had earlier refused a new contract offered to him by United and decided to leave on a free. The fact that Old Trafford is in Salford and City are in Manchester proper, was not lost on them. Tevez was greeted by ‘Welcome to Manchester’ billboards placed all over the city, and there was a general air of excitement among fans – now that the cross-city rivalry had officially sprung back to life.
City continued to make strides, first under Mark Hughes then under Roberto Mancini. The limitless purses of Abu Dhabi allowed them to sign world-class proven players from both the Premier League and the continent. The list includes but is not limited to Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Mario Balotelli, Gareth Barry and James Milner. The club narrowly missed out on Champions League Qualification in 2009-10 but made up for it by lifting the FA Cup a year later (in 2011).
With the FA Cup win, they had crossed their first hurdle. The first trophy of ‘City 2.0’ was safely in the cabinet. Now they needed to make the leap, to go head to head with the likes of United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool over an entire season. To win a league title is far different from winning a cup. Cups are one-off encounters, often unpredictable, a weaker side on their day may outperform, a stronger team may capitulate after conceding an early goal, there is a considerable factor of luck involved. The league, however, tests the strength of an entire squad over 38 games. One never hears a title-winning team labeled ‘lucky’ or ‘fortuitous’. For City to complete their transition from old to new, they needed to deliver on the biggest stage, a stage that Sir Alex had made his own over the years, a stage that is worthy of their fans who held on through their dark ages.
No longer Noisy neighbours
In the 2011-12 season, City started strong and remained unbeaten till December. On the way, there were a few blistering ‘champion-esque’ away performances – a 5-1 demolition of Spurs in August, and a momentous 6-1 humbling of United, a scoreline so shocking you may be forgiven for not believing it at first glance. They were on course for their first title in 45 years, and the wait it seemed would finally come to an end. And then it started to go awry. The away form, that was so crucial in building momentum at the start of the season, abandoned them. A first loss of the season at Stamford Bridge in December was followed by two further away defeats in January – at Sunderland and Everton.
City were slipping but they still had the lead over United, meaning it was ‘all in their own hands’. In a month though, that wouldn’t be the case. Swansea, fighting for survival at the time, tripped up City again and the alarms were finally starting to go. Television channels, the next day, replayed the image of a City fan crying in despair at the loss. It was symbolic of a larger malaise that had set in the club during the period when they were struggling in the lower echelons of the football league. It was a ‘Typical City’ thing to do. Being in the driver’s seat for most of the season they had relinquished their lead and handed the initiative back to United. They were only a point behind at the time but for most fans it was already over. Gloom is contagious, and in fandom, gloom spreads quickly.
The squad though held its nerve and continued to fight for the title. A few uncanny slip-ups across town cut the United’s lead at the top down to three, with three games to go. After matchday 35 City were left to play United, Newcastle, and QPR. Win all and take the title. Straightforward. Captain Magnificent Vincent Kompany headed in against United and brought them level on points. A vintage and majestic performance by Yaya Toure at Newcastle meant that they had reached two-thirds of their three-game target.
13th May, 2012
Its 13 May 2012, City’s last game at home against sloppy QPR (the unofficial ‘basket case’ of the season). Everyone expected it to be a procession. The confetti had already been ordered. The open-top bus was booked. The parade was being held up only by the formality of the game.
City started well but were unable to open the scoring early on. It took some clever play between David Silva and Yaya Toure to release Pablo Zabaleta in the box, who took a shot that was only half saved by QPR stopper Paddy Kenny. The ball looped over his head and hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity before landing back within the confines of the net. The collective sigh in the stadium could be heard even in the borderlands of the universe. It was relief first. And then there was celebration. Nothing could stop them now.
The second half had a script in store for them that was beyond their dreams, beyond anyone’s for that matter. Early in the half, Djibril Cisse (of 2002 Senegal fame) latched on to a miscalculated Joleon Lescott header and equalized for the hoops. It was panic stations all over again. A few minutes later, QPR went a man down after Joey Barton (yes him again, even here, even when it is not about him, he just had to, couldn’t resist) felled Aguero off the ball and the home fans anticipated that their team would eventually breakthrough. What followed next was ‘Typical City’. Armand Traore ran free on the left and crossed a delicious ball for Craig Mackie to head past Joe Hart. Even on television, it was unbearable to watch. City had shot themselves again. There it was – the title within an arm’s length, and they had ‘blown’ it. Blown the chance to mix it with the big guys, to stand up to big brother across town, to prove that they were the real thing and not just the fad of the month.
The game became tense and the City players became increasingly nervous. Mancini threw both Eden Dzeko and Mario Balotelli in place of Tevez and Gareth Barry, hoping the added attacking impetus would be decisive.
The game crossed the stipulated 90 minutes and moved into stoppage time. United had already won their game against Sunderland and were anxiously waiting for the result on the pitch (at the Stadium of Light). It seemed over to almost everyone, those at the stadium, those at home, those at the pub (especially those at the pub!). Minute 90+2’. David Silva crosses in the ball from the corner and finds the head of an unmarked Dzeko to slot in from three-four yards. Hope. But it couldn’t be. This had to be how it was going to end. Close but not close enough. One goal away but one goal too many. With two minutes of stoppage time left, ‘Cityitis’ was setting in among some fans already. They were prepared for the worst. Fortunately for them, they had experience in the matter.
Watch the dramatic last 5 minutes of City’s title run in.
93:20 – Sergio Aguero, The rest, as they say, is history
Minute 90+3’. QPR kick-off and send the ball out of play (deep in the city half) and concede the throw-in. To this day, no one has been able to give me a half-decent explanation of why they did so. They might have wanted to just camp in their own half and ride out the remaining two minutes. But they could have as easily played it amongst themselves for thirty more seconds before sending the ball downfield. Either way, City restart from the thrown in. Clichy gallops sixty yards with the ball before passing it to Samir Nasri on the left. Nasri cuts in and tries the reverse pass to Clichy who is now further down on the left. Doesn’t work. The ball lands back at the feet of Nasri again. This time he tries a punt into the box. It doesn’t work either. Its cleared and the diminutive Shawn Right Phillips runs away with the ball before ‘Mr. Dependable’ Pablo Zabaleta clatters him at the halfway line and concedes a throw-in. QPR go upfield again with the throw, and its cleared by Lescott. The fans at the stadium are right at the edge of their sanity. The camera pans to one who has taken off his scarf and started banging it wildly against his seat. Its blockbuster stuff. One for the ages. Pure drama.
In the meantime, De Jong runs ahead with the ball and plays it that force of nature called ‘Kun’ Aguero, who receives the ball centrally, halfway between the center circle and the edge of the box. He finds the right pass, to who else but Mario Balotelli (with his back to goal). On another day, he might have swiveled around and taken a shot but the script was probably too demanding, even for him. It needed a calmer head. Balotelli traps the ball but nearly loses control and as he is falling over pokes it (to his left, his back is still towards the goal) to an empty area five yards inside the box. Aguero has seen it. If he finds the ball in the mayhem, it will be the world’s ugliest one-two but he will take that for now. No time to complain. He rushes forward and sees room for a shot. Kun readies himself for the goal that will cement his name in City folklore, opens up his body, the left arm goes up, right arm goes down, this is it, he will pull the trigger, surely, he must.
And then he feints. Oh, what a delight! A thing of sheer beauty. Drops his shoulders, decides the defender is too close and will in most likelihood block the shot. So, he feints, takes a soft touch that pushes the ball ahead, skips over the tackle to get a clear sight of goal. The feint was not clearly visible from the standard broadcast angle, so at first sight, most viewers might have missed it. But on the replay, from the camera angle behind the goal, you realize what he just did. It was almost as special the scenes after the goal. Genius.
That simple feint tells you everything you need to know about the virtues of waiting, about patience and most importantly, about having faith in your ability. They say you must strike the nail when it is hot. On that early summer day in May, much like the day they were playing Gillingham in the playoff final thirteen years back, those two added seconds of heat made the difference. He could have and probably, should have released the shot at the first opportunity but he chose to wait, he chose to do it right, to make this moment perfect and for that, City fans are indebted to him, forever. Indebted because he took a decision on behalf of them, that after coming this far and having waited for forty-five years in search of glory they could wait a few seconds more.
Once he was through on goal there could be but one outcome. Aguero drove his shot past the keeper into the net and finally, City knew catharsis. This moment, this tiny granular moment is something that would have stuck with anyone who watched the game that day, and Martin Tyler made sure of that. He didn’t sully it by reacting immediately. Just a prolonged “Aguerooooo” followed by ten seconds of silence. Best commentary ever.
Moral of the story?
For all the financial muscle and the big-money signings and the fancy team buses and airplanes and the millions of dollars spent on training, conditioning, rehabilitation, and recuperation – when it comes to covering the last mile of a difficult task, it takes a steady head on a beautiful little Argentinian (no, not that one) to get the job done.
The goal itself is the Black Swan moment because, with a single swing of Aguero’s right foot, City had grown up. For every subsequent season after 2012 the world expected them to contest the title because now it had living proof that it could go the distance. The world also woke up to a new reality. That the big bucks were here to stay. Across the channel, the Qatari owners of PSG were also celebrating a league victory of their own. This was the dawn of a new era where sums of money in football, whether it be player fees, agent fees, ticket prices, broadcasting rights – would go off the charts and ‘Super Clubs’ would rule the landscape. Living on the fringes of the footballing conscience less than two decades ago, the City of today is one such giant with its own network of affiliate clubs across four continents. But it wasn’t so evident back in 2012. If Aguero hadn’t netted that day, perhaps City would still be searching for ‘that’ goal, their destiny as always, eluding them.
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