Mancini seeks to turn the clock back and launch new era for City
Club desperate to end wait for a major honour but Stoke have own trophy quest
Saturday, 14 May 2011
A new line of T-shirts has been prepared for this evening. They carry an image of the huge Old Trafford banner, which has ticked up their 35 years without a trophy, set to a big, fat zero.
That is just a minor insight into the emotional capital the club carry into this afternoon's FA Cup final against Stoke City, stalked to what might be the end of their barren era by a swaggering Manchester United, who fancy they will be celebrating a record 19th championship on the Ewood Park pitch even as Roberto Mancini walks his team out.
History is not the only burden City bear against a club who have not lost in four Wembley appearances. Carlos Tevez – the one commodity they have managed to wrestle from Old Trafford – remains a haunting presence and it is starting to weigh the club down. Tevez was in Mancini's provisional starting XI last night, subject to a final decision this morning, but the manager prepared for the final with an icy declaration that he does not want players whose hearts lie elsewhere. "When you start your job you should be happy, because the season is long and there could be a thousand problems," the Italian said. "I always say that, in my opinion, a player should stay here because he believes in the project and he's happy to stay at the club. If I'm not happy to stay at Manchester City I will leave this club. It's the same for the players."
By ominous coincidence, the Stoke manager Tony Pulis was discussing the way that his own recalcitrant playmaker had been coaxed into the fold: "Initially he couldn't buy into it here. He found it difficult. But the last three months he's recognised and realised what we're all about." Pulis was talking about Jermaine Pennant, whose footballing renaissance in the Potteries reached its zenith in a semi-final performance against Bolton Wanderers which revealed that Stoke really can play the ball on the ground.
But though the parallels between the sides seem so minimal as Potters prepare to face petrodollar men – the £50m City will demand for Tevez's services is roughly the entire sum Peter Coates has invested since he reassumed control of Stoke in 2006 – a yearning for a trophy binds together two sides whose histories have been curiously interdependent over the years.
Stoke and City were relegated to the third tier together on the last day of 1997-98, when City won 5-2 at the Britannia Stadium, and though City's top-four place assures Pulis's team of Europa League football next season, an indignation burns that they are the only surviving founder member of the Football League not to have won the FA Cup. You also sense that claiming it with the spine of the side which took Stoke back up into the top flight three years ago would enable Pulis – who is likely to favour Dean Whitehead on the left, despite Matthew Etherington facing a late fitness test – to demonstrate beyond all doubt that the supporters who so vehemently opposed Coates's decision to bring him back to the club, were wrong. "I think you will always have that small percentage that will be on my back and always be niggling away," he said. "They'll be quiet at the moment 'till you lose a couple of games and then they'll come out again, have a moan and a groan."
Mancini has exuded mildly less hunger this week, with his assertions that a top-four place in the Premier League was the most important goal. But City will take generations of their former players to Wembley. Mike Summerbee, a member of their last great side (although not the 1976 League Cup winners) and Tony Book, of course, but also Nora Mercer, the legendary former manager Joe's widow and Carmen Young, the widow of Neil, who scored the winner in the 1969 FA Cup final. All members of the 1956 Cup winning side have been invited too, through the club's former players' association. Full-back Bill Leivers has accepted, though not goalkeeper Bert Trautman, who to the club's bemusement expected a more formal invitation and declined.
The road ahead, fighting campaigns on domestic and European fronts, will be tough for Mancini, which is why a trophy would also buy him professional credit, though he feels the occasion is bigger for his opponents. "For Stoke it's a massive game, one of the biggest for the last 10 or 20 years and I'm sure they will play at 200 per cent," said the City manager, who has alluded more than once to Arsenal's Carling Cup final defeat against Birmingham City. "It's impossible to go into a final saying 'It's okay, because we're Manchester City,' because Arsenal against Birmingham is a perfect example of what can happen," he added. "And we've had a problem in every game against them. Every game. They're not easy to play against."
Mancini's record against the side who put City out of the competition last season is one win in five. Stoke, he agreed, are the last team he would want to face. "Because they're different from any other team. In my opinion football should be played with the foot. I think we can win, but I know it will be difficult."
Yesterday's preparations at Carrington included lengthy discussions with the full-backs, with Aleksandar Kolarov and Micah Richards favourites to start, but Pablo Zabaleta pressing for the right-back berth. Whoever plays will be asked not to concede throw-ins and Mancini promised he would remind his players, not least Mario Balotelli, to resist any Stoke attempts to rattle them. That is the theory. Mancini received a four-game ban after his protestations to the referee in his last Wembley appearance – Sampdoria's 1992 European Cup final defeat to Barcelona – and struggled with the pressure. "Plainly speaking and in all honesty, he was of no use to Sampdoria," La Repubblica reported the next day. That was in a Genoese side rich from winning four cups in the three preceding years. City are a side rich but with no cups in the lifetime of many fans. The petrodollars will fade to inconsequence come 3pm. Mancini will just have a set of players more desperate to wear shirts which read "zero" than any who have gone before them.