Sunday 22 April 2018

Dignified Pellegrini ensuring easiest of transitions to Guardiola

'Lame duck' City boss handling awkward situation with new class

Manuel Pellegrini Photo: AFP/Getty
Manuel Pellegrini Photo: AFP/Getty

Jonathan Liew

There is a video on YouTube of Manuel Pellegrini's arrival as Manchester City manager, back in July 2013.

We see him at Manchester Airport, wearily wheeling a suitcase through the arrivals lounge. We see him getting fitted for his club suit. We see him getting a tour of the club's training facilities at Carrington, meeting the kit men and the canteen staff, meticulously inspecting the length of the grass on the practice pitches, surveying his new office.

As he enters the gym, the club's young striker, John Guidetti, takes the opportunity to wander over and casually mention that he will be back to full fitness soon. Pellegrini listens and nods, with the sagacity of a man who would send Guidetti on loan to Stoke six months later.

There is one interesting thing you notice about Pellegrini during all this: how little he speaks.

Virtually everyone he meets tries to engage him in jolly dialogue - this is Manchester, after all. But from Pellegrini there is none of the social overcompensation you normally get in these situations - no nervous chuckling, no awkward chit-chat, virtually nothing beyond the cursory "Pleased to meet you".

Indeed, everything he does that day is restrained, controlled, slightly detached: the demeanour of a man who in a sense has done this many times before.

It is worth remembering all this as Pellegrini nears the end of his time at City. There is a dignity and reserve to him that is rare in this most extroverted of professions, and rarer still when you consider his unique situation.


"A lame duck," as Jurgen Klopp put it this week; a dead man walking; a bench-warmer for Pep Guardiola.

Yet if Pellegrini's departure was not quite a resignation, then it was not really a sacking either; for the first time in the history of football, the phrase "left by mutual consent" may actually have some truth in it.

Easy come, easy go: when you are on your 13th managerial job, it becomes less a mantra and more a statement of fact.

And the Chilean's relaxed comportment throughout the Guardiola episode has turned what could have been an ugly defenestration into a seamless transition.

Even his manner of breaking the news of his departure - a casual, throwaway comment at the end of a poorly-attended press conference on Monday - was in keeping.

Reporters based in the area had long since given up on coaxing Pellegrini into saying anything remotely newsworthy.

"Like getting blood from a stone," says one. "A waste of an hour of your life," says another.

And, having announced his exit, Pellegrini yesterday insisted that he would be saying no more on the subject.

"That is the last time I will talk about that," he said firmly. "Ask me about the team and the game."

"As a man Pellegrini has nothing but respect from the vast majority of City fans," says Howard Hockin, a contributor to the famous Blue Moon podcast.

"He understood from day one that he was being given a wonderful opportunity, but he was a go-between - horrible as that sounds - between the argumentative Roberto Mancini and the ultimate goal of Guardiola. Pellegrini has always 'got it'."

In an age when management is both more stressful and powerless than ever before, how Pellegrini manages to show such indifference is one of the Premier League's more enduring mysteries.

Perhaps it is because Pellegrini is not the sort of man who has ever lived for his job. He is a trained engineer, the eighth child in a family of academics and lawyers.

In his spare moments he consumes not football but books, music and art. He generally has three or four books on the go.

His upbringing and attachments (his brother has run for parliament in Chile and his mother was a supporter of the Pinochet regime) hint at a political hinterland behind those inscrutable red eyes.

Whereas Mancini tried his damnedest to recreate Campania in Cheshire, frequenting the same Italian restaurants and maintaining the same social circle, Pellegrini has tried to embrace his new locale, visiting York, hanging maps of the local area on his wall.

"What do they know of football who only know football?" he once said.

And so what outside observers might identify as "class" or "professionalism" might more accurately be described as detachment.

Despite the best efforts of Jose Mourinho, Alan Pardew and Swedish referees, Pellegrini has largely kept his counsel during the past three seasons.

This has helped to protect him against the slings and arrows of outrageous headlines, but it has also created a distance between himself and the club that has probably made the parting easier for everyone. This is business, not personal.

Here, then, is the big question: is this all just a job for him? A way of paying the bills?

Or is there a genuine emotional connection there? Does he truly love the club? Does he truly love the fans who sang his name so heartily at Sunderland on Tuesday night?

"Because he is such a closed shop, it's hard to know," says Hockin. "I wouldn't say there's been some special bond between us.

"Much of his legacy will depend on what happens between now and the end of the season. I hope most will appreciate what he did for this club. I doubt, however, he'll have the lyrics to 'Blue Moon' tattooed onto his buttocks any time soon."

Yesterday, Pellegrini clarified. "I have worked here for two years and have tried to play attractive football," he said.

"I think the fans enjoy that, and I am very happy they are happy with me. But this is a job. I have to think about other things also."

Meanwhile, the club he leaves behind have been quietly remaking the English footballing order.

Whisper it, but City are the new establishment: enlightened, forward-thinking and so successful that even their second-places feel like failures.

Pellegrini has been a huge part of that. In one of the most turbulent periods world football has seen, he has offered control - not the authoritarianism of Alex Ferguson, but the serene assurance that can surf the choppy waves of football like an old boat.

Pablo Zabaleta relates a tale from the dressing room after a crucial 3-2 defeat at Anfield in 2014.

Pellegrini calmly walked in, congratulated his team on their performance, and told them to keep it up. City won the league by two points.

To a large extent, Pellegrini's legacy will be determined by his last few months, and how many of the four competitions they are in they actually win. But even before this week, there has been a sense that City are reaching the end of a cycle. Fewer than half of the first-team squad who were there when Pellegrini was getting fitted for his new club suit in 2013 remain. A new era beckons.

And as the separation nears, the words of another great Chilean mind, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, seem strangely appropriate: "If suddenly you forget me, do not look for me, for I shall already have forgotten you." (© Independent News Service)

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