The legendary Bill Shankly is accredited as saying: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it’s much more serious than that.”
Whether his words were ironic or sincere, it’s still a great quote from the ex-Liverpool manager but, either way, they don’t stack up in reality.
When Anthony Martial put Manchester United 2-0 up against Manchester City at 17.59hrs on Saturday, it was a bit of a shocker. Actually it was bloody horrible, it was grim, not only for me, but for every City fan on the planet. It was bad enough trailing by two goals to 'them', but it also saw the last flickers of life extinguished on City’s hopes of winning a third consecutive title.
Four minutes later I received a text which put an imminent Manchester derby defeat into perspective. It was a simple message: ‘Sue passed away peacefully this evening xx.’
It was from our dog sitter, a lovely lady called Sue, who cares for Miss Mollie Zaba – our gorgeous Cockapoo – when Mrs Read But Never Red and I attend City games together. Sue’s partner – also called Sue – had died after an incredibly courageous battle with cancer.
My wife, Debi, wasn’t with me at the Etihad. She was at home looking after Mollie Zaba, because Sue’s obvious priority was to be at her partner’s bedside, as that bastard of a disease finally did its worst.
Reading the text was a sombre and sobering moment. Six words had conveyed that life had become death, half-a-dozen elements of information that made ‘Manchester City 0 Manchester United 2’, pale by comparison.
Don’t get me wrong, I was still desperate for City to somehow conjure up three goals to go on and win, but in the greater scheme of things I was watching a game, a sporting encounter – nobody was going to die.
Of course, you can’t gauge each and every experience by such an extreme parameter as somebody losing their life, but it just happened to be that way on Saturday night.
As for City, the dream of three successive Premier League crowns is now over. For the City of old – invariably knocked out of the League Cup before Christmas, the FA Cup in early January and no European involvement – it used to be a case of, ‘Now we can concentrate on the league.’
The rest of 2019/20 is more like, ‘Now we can concentrate on the Cups' – retaining the League and FA Cups and, dare we even think it, go for that tw@t of a Champions League, the one UEFA are desperate for us never to win.
Obviously, we need a swift return to winning ways in the Premier League and a top three finish, but any silverware lies beyond the highly dubious vagaries of VAR, and the orchestrated efforts of finally making 2020, ‘Liverpool’s Year’.
That said, City simply aren’t up to the task this season. If you want to win the League you simply cannot lose to Norwich, Wolves and Manchester United – three defeats where City pretty much got what they deserved – nothing. The 3-1 defeat at Anfield is a completely different story, but it is what it is and there’s sweet FA to be done about it.
As is so often the case, City had all the statistics in their favour: possession, attempts on goal, pass completion, corners – yadda, yadda, yadda – but they all count for nothing if your defence is as steady as a bloke who’s downed 20 pints on a curry night out, and your attack is as spicy as an extra mild chicken korma.
City have been sizzling under Pep Guardiola – 198 points in two glorious seasons, two titles, two League Cups an FA Cup, plus a couple of Community Shields (if the latter count as trophies) – but things have cooled this season.
You don’t have to look far as to why. Injuries – yes, that old chestnut – the ligament damage, the torn tendons, the mystery ‘muscular problems’, the catalogue of catastrophes that has dogged City for the past three seasons.
Amazingly City became The Centurions and The Fourmidables despite key players being injured or absent for prolonged periods; Vincent Kompany, Benjamin Mendy, Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, David Silva, John Stones, Fernandinho, the list is extensive. No other team in England could have achieved what City did in the face of such overwhelming adversity.
It’s been different this time. The loss of Kompany back to his native Belgium, was always going to have profound consequences. The moment Aymeric Laporte was injured, they were compounded 100 times over. Mendy is no longer the swashbuckling, potentially world class left back, recruited from Monaco in 2017. Injuries have seen him lose his place to make shift full back Zinchenko and, more recently Angelino – a specialist left back – who sadly, doesn’t have the pace to perform to Pep’s exacting standards.
City’s attacking armoury was stifled the moment Leroy Sane twisted awkwardly on the Wembley turf last August, signalling the start of an eight month lay-off. The inability to supplement the two-man strike contingent of the sublime Sergio Aguero, and the industrious and up and coming Gabriel Jesus, leaves Pep short of options when injuries hit hard.
With the acceptance of Guardiola’s assessment that it is ‘unrealistic’ to bridge the 14 point gap at the top of the Premier League, the focus switches to a Cup Treble.
Laporte should be back in January. Sane might be ready for the Champions League knockout stages – certainly the quarter and semi final stages – if Pep can edge City closer to Sheikh Mansour’s Holy Grail (that’s one screwed up religious analogy), and ultimate victory in the last game of the season in Istanbul.
As the City Football Group stack up huge investment numbers, rising profits and enhanced revenue streams, a summer transfer splurge seems inevitable. Some players have served City with great distinction over the years, but a well structured, and subtle changing of the guard, is on the way.
Youngsters Phil Foden and Eric Garcia will get the game time they deserve, as the promotion of youth brings vibrancy and added energy to the world class talents of Ederson, Laporte, Sterling, De Bruyne, Bernardo and Aguero.
The biggest signing, should it happen, will be that of a certain Josep Guardiola Sala. With a contract tying him to City until the end of next season, Sheikh Mansour and Khaldoon Al Mubarak are right to want him to extend his stay at the Etihad, but worrying noises are emerging from Pep.
In the aftermath of the derby defeat, he has been quoted as saying City, 'might not be able to compete with the best teams in Europe...' adding that City may have to, '...accept that reality.'
It begs the question, are they Pep's sincere sentiments, do they reflect a frustration at the season so far? Is there more than a hint of overall disenchantment as to how he, his team and his club, are under constant negative scrutiny by many sections of the media in this country?
For a man who works at such an incredible intensity, it must be a draining experience to have wave upon wave of negativity directed your way, week after week. Pep's achievements over the past two seasons are virtually peerless, and yet, as soon as City hit a bump in the road, he is once again questioned in so many quarters. The detractors claim 'Pep's been found out', 'He has no Plan B', 'He's Fraudiola'.
What utter and contemptible bollocks!
Alternatively, is Pep making a public declaration that City need to be very active at the top end of the global transfer market once again? Is it a dig at, or a nudge to, Khaldoon & Co to release the purse strings? Are relationships and internal affairs at City as cosy as Khaldoon, Ferran Soriano, Txiki Begiristain and Pep would always have us believe?
He has achieved, in his vernacular, ‘so, so much’ but there is ‘so, so much more’ that can be done by a football genius who could create a dynasty at City. Guardiola is not there yet, but he has it within his grasp to do so between now and 2025. The flip side of the equation could be that he walks away this summer, without even fulfilling the final year on his existing deal at City.
Pep once said: "I strive to live with passion and not to be desensitised to life. Things matter to me. You've got to live like that, otherwise what's the point?"
Life is for living and Pep lives for football. Let’s hope it’s a life still to be lived at M11 3FF.
By David Walker
Dedicated to Sue Lowe – a lovely lady going through the darkest of times. Find the strength to carry on and squeeze every ounce out of every moment in life.