Today’s real sporting drama – or maybe simply its purest – involved the kind of dreamy, sunny naivety unfurling only I suspect during exchanges of contestation between kids. That’s contestation of the generally gleeful sort then, with huge and honest effort and, wonderfully, almost no conception of those ‘bigger pictures’.
I know this because I was there, in the brightness and the stiffish wind, as young boys focussed with instinctive but often intermittent brilliance on a cricket ball; in fact the very first hard, cherry-red cricket ball they had faced in a competitive situation. (Because they are 10.) It was in a lovely sense a beginning, the outset for increasingly understood ding-dongs or drab tactical affairs which will be the rich tapestry of their sporting lives. Lives which might actually be richer if the ‘understanding’ receded rather than tightened as the years rolled on.
As these young’uns swung or bowled with more or less co-ordinated effect – more or less freedom, even?– I had barely chance to check my timeline for news from the Etihad, where the fare was altogether more worldly. In fact, though I was an interested party in this Manc-trauma-drama, it pleases me on reflection that quite frankly I didn’t give a toss about United or City until about ten minutes from the end – of their games and ours.
So I didn’t know (until very ‘late’) that City’s driving force, the powerhouse that is Yaya Toure, whom I had forecast with some confidence would be central to a deconstruction of a mediocre QPR defence, was crocked. I didn’t know that the twit-articulate moron Barton had stropped or punched or been drawn on his way to a barely believable early bath. And I didn’t know that United consequently were seemingly cruising to another title.
Word went round the boundary, was murmured through the cheese’n pickle that Rangers were 2-1 up after somebody notched with a diving header. And… some stuff about Barton. I wandered away from base camp within bawling distance of my courageous young batsmen – by now huffing and hoiking slightly inelegantly towards a stationary target that grew with each passing, dot-ball heavy over. From then on occasional sly looks at twitter joined the conceptually unlikely dots to the allegedly fully growed-up conclusion; one which we can choose to interpret as proof of a bought enterprise or a freewheeling romance. Whichever way, it was bloody incredible. And by now – our game also being over – I cared enough to really check out the absurd facts.
Of course this Premiership wasn’t just about City/QPR and Sunderland/United; it’s not, famously, a sprint. Memory suggests City beginning more like a fuzzily recalled Juantorena – ‘opening his legs and showing his class’ whilst serenely obliterating all-comers. For early in the season they were kindof lapping the opposition rather than merely beating people, it seemed. Silva skipped artfully about, dominating games in a way that had us purists purring. And on an extraordinary day for the city, a 6-1 victory at Old Trafford, only partly explained by interventions from the ref, seemed to bring the finish line racing towards City’s achingly medal-free chest.
Such was their pre-eminence then an impression remains that the Sky Blues were and are the best side in the league this season. And therefore become worthy champions. I do however, register a recurring temptation to baulk at this ‘worthy’ – all things Tevez and/or appalling-bucketloads-of-cash-related considered. United have themselves flickered and stuttered but rarely seemed like a bona fide United side, somehow. Scampering fullbacks have been too rash; injured centre-backs have been too immobile or (perhaps crucially in the case of Vidic?) rendered unavailable. Rooney’s contribution – though often decisive – has lacked the fluency and consistency of Happy Day Rooneydom. In fact, despite his haul of goals, there have been days where he’s been awful; which worries me.
There is an argument that the return of Scholes in some way reflects cultural problems as well as inadequacies in the engine room itself. Certainly United have been surprisingly over-run in midfield – particularly and memorably in Europe – but the Ginger Genius, let’s be clear, has been good enough to play in this team, this year, again. Evra’s lack of will or ability to defend and Carrick’s lack of personality have been more significant than Scholes’s superannuation, in my view. Bottom line, United’s defence has been decidedly average for most of the season, making it almost unreal they remained title contenders until the 94th minute of the last match. Ferguson will know all this – love him or hate him, you have to credit him – it took all his nous to get them this close. He will not, however accept another season of cobbling things together.
Mancini, likewise and maybe conversely, once recovered from his public melt-down today, may gather in some credit before writing another wish-list. (Please may I have… the best fullback in the world/the best wide player etc etc.) He has done outstandingly to keep this disparate and sometimes disunited City Show on the road, if not on the rails. He has – more obviously than in the red half? -that potentially explosive mixture of arrogance and greed as well as the extraordinary but ubiquitous sensitivity-bypass in the camp to contend with… or manage. He has players taking their greed out onto the pitch – even brilliant players such as Aguerro. Not that he’s the main problem; in fact his durability as well as his skill have made him a genuine Premiership star. Elsewhere lie the difficult ones.
But critically Mancini has Kompany and Toure and Hart. If he can keep them – I imagine only Toure to be of the perenially mercenary persuasion? – the force may again be Blue. Especially if one or two non-flamboyant good sorts of an elite playing capability are parachuted in for the next campaign. It may be crass to compare ‘like for like’ across teams but a broad comparison with United equivalents to the City backbone might be instructive here – in particular, perhaps, because the spine of Ferguson’s side is not that readily identifiable. Are we talking De Gea/Ferdinand/Scholes? Or who? The flawed Vidic might have been the stopper but who he(?) the driving midfield powerhouse for the Reds? The near National Treasure-status Scholes gave United a pulse, a massing point, but City had the gear-change, the muscle and the touch when they needed it; and they had it more often.
The Premiership Finale, I now have seen, was uber-epic in terms of excitement and drama. Vitally so. It may have enthused us as well as tormenting us in its steely, silvery clasp. It was flawlessly, appropriately but in the Northern colloquial mental. It was hallucinogenic hurly-burly. Earlier, for me, was in fact more beautiful and more real.