That’s super, Mario… but…

It’s probably unwise to view Mario as some sort of symbol. After all, this may only lead to what John Lacey so brilliantly termed a ‘new breed of cliche’. One with a Mohican. But so ripe is the rather magnificent (actually) Italian that if I fall headlong into anything on the saccharoidal or sloppy side of all-consuming here I can live with that. He’s great symbol material. He deals in (or seems to deal in) either comic or provocative gestures;  ‘Why always me?’; a firework up the arse (or somewhere); as Robin Hood for Moss Side; via that hair-cut. He’s – on one level, surely? – bloody good value.

It seems the latest peak – or pique, or peek – in the Mario fable concerns his jolting to a halt at the precipice of outright rebellion earlier this week. When his people called off the Premiership quality, division-amplifying case lodged in some degree of fury against his employers, Manchester City. (For those in the dark about this stuff, basically they had fined him for being prodigiously haughty, naughty and individualist… and Mario objected – spicily and via his lawyers.)

So now, we’re into a kind of rumbling peace. A peace where we can only imagine swear words of the most vile Italian nature are being slid like poison letters under hotel bedroom doors. From the Mancini Family to the Balotelli. Meaning that although the lines of mutual contempt are openly drawn, positions are being re-negotiated, in a suitably febrile atmosphere, where the chamber maid gets frisked and the bellboy practically water-boarded. Because they’re both – they’re all! – working for somebody, right?  Arbitration of the most hopelessly hopeless kind has been going on.  And, for now, it’s worked.

After an opening ten minutes which augured well for the silvered bulk of City’s galacticos, Mario played like a total pussy against United. He may not have been alone in that, but this is the key and the catalyst. Worse – he looked like he wasn’t trying. His sulk condemned him – the feeling being that anyone so insensitive as to openly prioritise his own frustrations, for whatever reasons, over the need to beat The Enemy must surely be the worst and most arrogant kind of traitor. This was how his performance – or his withdrawal of labour? – was widely judged. Mancini, to no-one’s surprise, hoiked him early in the second half and Balotelli stomped defiantly but rather pathetically off down the tunnel. You would be hard pushed to find anyone sympathetic.

There are, of course, issues around this Mariocentric Polarisation Thingy. The Love/Hate boogaboog of his Go Home/Out There/Over My Dead Bodyness. Him drawing that attention or deserving it or not. Him bristling against our prejudices as well as our love of the one-off, the natural. Balotelli pushes all kinds of buttons, and like a miscreant child in a lift, he can’t stop. The result is some dizzying but not typically pleasant lurch from bargain basement through Lingerie to a glorious, metro-cosmopolitan summit, whilst his fellow passengers either indulge him or twitch pre-violently. But who, exactly, in this clumpingly predictable and reductive journey is making it ‘all about him?’ Not just us.

Mourinho famously described Mario as ungovernable and I have no doubt part of the texture of his current relationship (with Mancini) is because of the latter’s need to be seen to deal with him. Roberto is a proud and evidently stubborn man too. Crucially perhaps, he still lacks the seal of approval of the wider Brit Footie Public, who view him as a fortunate inheritor rather than a kosher elite-level manager. Thus whilst on the one hand it may be that Roberto wants shot of Mario immediately if not sooner, some genuine attempt to Be The One Who Tamed That Beast may be part of the equation here. That and some real or heavily prompted desire to facilitate the expression of the Balotelli talent. Which is real.

There is resentment in the air. From City fans as well as those who bawl from the sidelines of the affair. Many do not react well to anyone who struts – whether that be a non-hostile, almost non-contact Berbatovian version or the slightly spikier in-a-coiffured-kindofaway favoured by Ronaldo. It smacks quite simply of arrogance. Balotelli, even when so deliciously-brilliantly demonstrating the art of penalty-taking under extreme pressure, fails to avoid the negativity around this particular charge. His nerveless dinks or doinks or passes into the net and subsequent joyless posing tending to evoke roars of animosity outweighing even the Sky Blue cheer. (Speaking personally mind you, they’ve made me laugh.) More seriously, the generality of footiefolks read his loafing about when things ‘just aren’t happening’ as unforgivable. As stuff he can’t get away with in the Prem, anyway. And sadly, a racial angle on all this anti-Mario hoo-haa cannot be ruled out.

Plus money lurks. Because of the news story, we all know now that two weeks wages for this particular City employee constitutes around £340,000. Three hundred and forty thousand pounds! Which he will now pay in fines to City, following his poor disciplinary record. (Incidentally, a swift reckoning up suggests it would take me 28.3 years, on current earnings, to accumulate this amount. Go on, have some fun! Work out your figures!! And then go barf.) Frankly rather weird that Mario’s initial directive to fight the case was surely barely connected to the amount of money – more the amount of slight against his name, his nature, his talent. These things, understandably, he holds precious. But the manner in which he displays this… pride(?) this self-worth(?) undermines him, does it not?

Perceptions around this Balotelli fellah are so loaded up with tribal cares and personal envies and moralistic tosh that no wonder things blur into symbol. Mario as lone warrior; Mario as renegade, inevitably misunderstood genius. Is this, I wonder, how he sees himself?  Standing there alone, in front of that full-length mirror? In his figure hugging designer undies, his arms spread wide, aloft, his face quizzical?

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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.


Beware; the following is unashamedly personal…

My Grandfather – The Mighty Vic to me as I entered the adult phase – played pro football. At Doncaster Rovers, Grimsby Town and Manchester United. I believe (having been told by a source who was typically not the man himself) that he was

a) the Tommy Hutchinson of his time – although throwing one-handed, in the late 20’s onwards – and

b) he may have been for one day the most expensive player in British football before being superceded by one Alex James Esquire. (In his baggy shorts, right?)

I am openly happy to say I don’t know how true either of these stories are – to me it’s never mattered.

Vic died many years ago – sadly too many – as I was then still too immature to have those precious, allegedly and quite probably truly adult conversations about what it was all really like; that time.

My father was born and raised in Macclesfield, south of Manchester in an area now conflicted with absurdly rich young men wearing absurdly ostentatious clobbah, sweeping valleys and abrasive moors full-stopped with atmospheric and therefore memory-encrusted outcrops I do know bear the name Tors.

Don’t get me wrong with this rural pastiche thing; our lot were working class folks from within Macc itself rather than dung-clad clog-wearers from the leafy or stony or now rolex-heavy environs; they lived in streets. Now, myself, I have only a rather shamefully inadequate awareness of Man Tor being perennially present in the family consciousness – in my own consciousness in fact – and I could not confidently expect to locate it for you without a map.

Dad was a good sportsman too. Crucially for me now as a halfbreedspeaker of both Grimbarian and leeky-Welsh and long-time resident of West Wales, when apparently confronted with the choice of either signing schoolboy forms for Man City or playing full-back for Sale RFC, he chose the latter. Meaning I, his son, could later bask in the glory of his quasi-puritanical hwyl whenever a conversation in a hostelry or club bar in the province offered an opportunity for sporting/spiritual passport-production. He/we/I am authentic and have tended to be let in.

My father was in fact a really good sportsman in every sense; multi-talented; fair to the point of upright. He also did love both rugby and football – as I do – and would have shared, I know, some of my concerns about Evra/Young/Balotelli/Tevezgates and the many etceteras that unfortunately spring to mind. His club, his football club, was always City; City ’til the cruel day he died, at the (surely-this-should-have-gone-to-appeal-ref?) age of 44.

I recall him writing to Tony Book to complain (I think) about a drop in sportsmanship in the game – possibly even from City players. I picture him driving the football right-footed, with that exaggerated toe-pointed/head-descended pose he had when on those few occasions we played in the same Healing Royal British Legion Sunday Football Club side; him defending stoutly – slightly pigeon-chestedly – me twinkling up front. (I used the word pose, by the way, only in the sense of body shape; neither this bloke My Dad nor The Mighty Vic ever posed at anything in their quietly magnificent lives.)

Vic was of course United. He’d played through pain in an era when real, barely-treated pain existed for pro footballers. Pain they could feel, we could see and everyone could believe in. At twenty-six, his career was over because of it. He lived a longish and maybe predictable post-footie life; policeman/driving instructor/grandpa becoming more known and loved for his Northern trueness – his absolute lack of side – than for his sporting ‘fame’. At the age of about 70 he could head a football like… well substantially more powerfully and authoritatively than a certain Liverpool centre-forward I might mention.  He never lived to see the new gods of the Premier League and in a way I’m glad for that.

I know we’re into some generational thing here and I know its pitfalls. But look in an extraordinary week for football, for Manchester, it may even be healthy to let some sentiment, some ghosts, some history infiltrate the modern analysis. Football people exist; still. Perhaps in some crude or abstract way I wish to represent them or ingratiate myself into some imagined brotherhood that may then fight heroically against the flash and the brash and the alien. Or at least point out that the Emperor Mario is starkers with a firework up ‘is ‘arris. It feels appropriate to plant a flag for the real spirit of the game, which fortunately we will still hear and feel from the terraces of (even?) the Etihad.

United City is suddenly a mega-derby. Likely to decide the Premiership, or at least hugely important in that Manciniquest. I’ve written previously on the Psycho-joust between the two clubs and between Ole Rednose and the Gaye Gesticulator – both of whom, it strikes me, would have been recognised as proper football blokes, in their different ways, by my forefathers. For surely there is much about Ferguson and Mancini that is reassuringly toggeresque; the anger, the passion for starters; the genuineness of that twisted emotion.

What’s different is of course the inflated stuff; the hopeless arrogance around; the money. It has me turning in my own grave many years (I hope) in advance of my actual death and from the rattling down our street I sense I’m not alone in this. Boom boom.

I don’t want to be this way; it’s just… those diamond ear-thingies; an’ those jaunty caps and hats and… all that designer attitude; getting in the way of the football. To the point where actual kicking and heading cannot be understood as clean sport, independent of depressingly ego-polluted dross. Rarely does the gaining of a profile seem to come at such a cost – so many players simply seeming heartless in their privately estated unlove for the game.

There are times when many of us just simply can’t get in or get past that modern cynicism, that duff play-acting; or no longer want to. Because we just don’t get that in any game the objective appears to be to pretend something diabolical just happened… or get some other bloke sent off… or con the ref… or actually (unbelievably) as a forward player be far more interested in penalties than in scoring? (That one really does my head in.)

I know not all players are eating up the soul of the game all the time but few are entirely blameless or immune to the pervasive mind-blowing insensitivity regarding their own luck, their good fortune… and therefore their responsibility. That as much as anything sets them apart from us.

So I can think of coupla fellahs who would be offended by this latterday, allegedly Premiership stuff. But they had a particular kind of genius carrying them through; one not perhaps kicking around quite so freely on the scuffed streets of Prestbury, or coached at Lilleshall, or espoused convincingly enough elsewhere. Something to do with natural honesty being expressed through sport; which we know can happen; which can actually be – in the hackneyed vernacular? – a great joy.

So let’s take a deep breath come kick-off and throw our caps gleefully in the air. And listen for that unquenched spirit and watch for that moment of brilliance and try not to get diverted by anything. Because this could be a really brilliant derby. Couldn’t it?

Footie-family-note; just spoke to a touchingly proud and stirred mother. Wanted to add that one of many extraordinary footietales the Mighty Vic played some role in goes as follows. After retiring hurt from the game, he skippered Grimsby Police in the hugely competitive National Police Cup. They won it, at home (Blundell Park) in front of 23,000 supporters!

Wonder how the burglary figures were in Fishtown that day?