Thursday 21 September 2017

Numbers game has changed but the dream stays the same

Dion Fanning

Manchester City should be an antidote to nostalgia. They have everything and they have it now. Nostalgia has been called the hypochondria of the soul and it endures because the past is a place we have survived or to where we can retreat.

The present is always a struggle, even with instant gratification. City were prepared to pay Wayne Rooney a million pounds a month (£12m a year doesn't seem unreasonable for what he is capable of) and they are seen as part of the problem.

Footballers are out of touch. Yaya Toure may or may not be paid 200 grand a week but the idea that it is possible alienates supporters.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with Stefan Szymanski, the economist and co-author of Why England Lose, a book that is essential reading for those trying to wade through the cant.

Football, he said, wasn't going back. Footballers would become more cartoonish in their behaviour and the public would be appalled but addicted. The clubs understand this and understand, too, that words don't mean anything except what they retrospectively decide what they mean. The mob, even ones in balaclavas outside a player's house, will always be persuaded. That's why they're the mob.

Football's cynicism is now in the open but that doesn't mean the game has changed or that things were better once.

Malcolm Allison would probably have swapped Peter Swales for Sheikh Mansour. City might be generous now but when Allison agreed a deal with Wolves for Steve Daley, Swales then became involved and ended up negotiating a higher price of £1.4m. Daley could never live up to the fee.

Allison died ten days ago and has been remembered by everyone at City, most touchingly by Roberto Mancini. Allison's time under Swales might have been disappointing but his earlier spell as Joe Mercer's assistant when they won the league, FA Cup and European Cup Winners' Cup brought the success today's City crave. City have Swales to thank for much of the tragi-comedy in their past but Mercer and Allison provided them with much of what was glorious.

Things might have been better in Allison's time but only because men like Allison decided to think differently. He was part of a group of radicals but he was a renegade. Like many people who have suffered ill-health at an early age (he had part of a lung removed when he contracted TB in his early 30s), Allison was prepared to seize the moment. Some of these moments, like inviting Fiona Richmond into the communal bath at Crystal Palace, might have been, er, ill-advised, but as he worked with Mercer in bringing City from the second division to champions of England, his vision was clear.

Allison was even more successful in Europe, winning the Portuguese league and cup with Sporting Lisbon. If there was something different to today, it is not sepia-tinted but the story of a man not cowed by the idea of working abroad. Of course City are crude and crass with Sheikh Mansour's money and have developed a section of support that is shrill and defensive, but things aren't any worse, they are just bigger.

City's pursuit of United won't be derailed by Rooney's decision not to defect. They are shaping a team with personality and ego, things that are essential. Malcolm Allison would have fitted right in.

Stan Bowles was at City at the same time as Allison and had a fist fight with him before he left and ended up at QPR.

Bowles was once said to "symbolise nearly everything that mature spectators regard as wrong with today's game". I interviewed Bowles a few years ago in a pub in Brentford. Bowles was late for our 11.0am appointment and while I was briefed, as journalists like to say now, by a man from Wexford who was in there having a settler, a few others pointed out that it was very unlike Bowles to be late. As a gambler, Bowles knew that tardiness could be costly. Unfortunately, being punctual was even more expensive.

Shepherd's Bush has always been the Irishman's stomping ground, with Goldhawk Road, a tattered boulevard for crazy dreamers and crazies who had run out of dreams.

Loftus Road has accommodated them all and in recent times the crazy dreamers are in the boardroom with men like Flavio Briatore. QPR are top of the championship and have appointed an unlikely manager in Neil Warnock. When you have had nine managers in three years (two of whom have been there twice), then you're bound to have had one or two who were unlikely.

Last week, QPR posted a statement on its website that said: "Following speculation in today's press, we would like to confirm that stories linking Marcello Lippi with Queens Park Rangers Football Club are completely unfounded."

In an interview to an Italian magazine, Briatore said he had a dream. In it he saw QPR in the Premier League where they would be managed by Marcello Lippi. The "unfounded stories" had come from the co-owner but the club denied them just the same.

Football is used to treating words as an inconvenience or as part of a negotiating position. They have never taken them seriously.

Things weren't any better in the past, some just survived it. But football was always about destroying the weak. There was no pastoral care in the golden age.

When Allison died, some said there were no personalities left in the game anymore. What was last week about but gripping, complex personalities? Their flaws are apparent to everyone and the mature spectator might think they are all that's wrong with today's game. But even the mature spectator is never bored.

dfanning@independent.ie

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