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Ben Pugsley is a former Manchester City season ticket holder who now lives and works in Barcelona. A football pundit on Catalan television, he produces Premier League analysis on his Objective Football blog, as well as being a regular contributor to both a Manchester City and an FC Barcelona fansite. So he seemed like the perfect person to discuss the upcoming Champions League fixture. www.fcbarcelona.com tracked him down…
Tell us something about the history of Manchester City...
They were formed in 1880 in an area of old mills, factories and canals. The local St Mark’s Church set the club up as something for the unruly workers to have that could take their minds off other vices and stop them from causing mischief. And it morphed from there. They didn’t become Manchester City until sometime in the 1890s.
We have a lot of history that people forget. Around Europe, people see us as a nothing club that got lucky because a rich Sheikh injected millions into the club. They forget that back in the 60s and 70s we were winning leagues and we’d go around Europe hammering teams. Then in the 90s, we disappeared into the lower leagues…
And how did that happen?
If we go back to the first year of the Premier League, City had quite a good team. We finished fifth under Peter Reid. And they fired him! From that point on, it was a talent drain. We went through six different managers in four years. And the finances slumped too. We just ran out of money. And then in 96, we got relegated into the second division, and from there down to the league below.
We were out of the Premier League for four seasons. John Wardle saved us by putting his own money in and it got us back into the Premier League. But we went straight back down again. Then Kevin Keegan took us back up in 2002 and we’ve been there ever since.
How would you compare their rivalry with Man United to Barça’s own rivalries?
It’s obviously more of a geographical one, not political like here. And it’s changed down the years. In the Second World War, Old Trafford was bombed and Man United played for the next few years at Maine Road. They shared the same ground. It was all very friendly. Even in the hooligan years of the 70s and 80s, it was never a violent rivalry. Then in in the 90s, Man United were suddenly winning the league almost every year and that coincided with Man City’s descent, and we were made to feel inferior. That’s why United fans call us the ‘bitters’. It was jealousy, basically.
For many years it was probably more like the rivalry here with Espanyol. You had a super-successful global club, like Barcelona. And you had a neighbour that was struggling just to stay in the league and maintain financial stability. And the way Man City got out of it was the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. The city built a stadium for the Games and afterwards City turned it into a football ground. They would never have been able to afford to build it on their own. And then in 2008, Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi was looking to buy a club and the reason he chose Man City was the infrastructure. They had the new stadium.
The new stadium holds how many?
It’s 48,000 now, but they’re starting work on expanding it with a new tier that will hold 60,000. But it is outside of the city and quite difficult to get to. And City fans are very different to United fans. You don’t get as many tourists going to games. They’re making a big push now to allow the under 15s in, because they know they are going to grow into the 30 year olds who will take their kids as well. The club is very child-focused.
So now that Man City have risen like a Phoenix from the ashes, do you think they are now back for good?
With the infrastructure that has been created, it would take an absolute disaster for Manchester City to drop back down. This club’s greatest achievement of the last ten years is not winning leagues. It’s that a decade ago we were just a little club playing in front of small crowds in a run-down stadium and they’ve turned that into a top ten global football giant. The club is more professionally run and has been globalised through marketing.
There has been a huge emphasis on the academy structure. Two months ago we opened a 200 million pound campus, with pitches, gyms, sleeping quarters, places to study... Everything is incredibly hollistic under one roof, very similar to La Masia at Barça. And we’ve got teams in New York and Sydney. They know that you can’t just buy players for ever and ever. They want Man City to be like Barça and to have five or six products of the academy teams playing for the first team. Even if the owners walked away, Manchester City would still be self-sustaining. And this is still the start of the journey. People all around the world are going to be hearing a lot more about Manchester City.
There’s an old cliché that Man City is the team that people from Manchester support and United are for outsiders. How far is that really true?
I remember going to school in the 90s and there weren’t that many City fans. Kids wanted to support United because they were more successful. When they say 75% of people in Manchester are City fans, I just don’t think it’s true. I think it’s a lot more evenly balanced than City fans like to suggest.
Who would you name as the three biggest Man City legends of all time?
The older generation would probably say Frank Swift or Bert Trautmann, but I think Colin Bell is universally renowned as THE iconic Manchester City player. A free-flowing midfielder in the seventies, he played for England, but had his career cut short at the age of 27 by a knee injury.
In my generation we like to cling to the underdogs, like Georgi Kinkladze. He was around in the 90s and the way he ran with ball was amazing. We had a horrible team back then, a bunch of journeymen and cloggers, and in the middle of it there was this guy who was an only slightly worse version of Leo Messi.
And then there are the players from the modern era. You could make a very strong argument that four or five of the players in the team now, Kompany, Touré. Agüero or Silva for example, are among the top six or seven that have ever played for Man City.
Turning to the Barça game, how do you think this year’s game might be different to the ones last season?
Against Barça last year, Kompany was half-injured. Agüero was just back from being out for two months and was just not ready for the Camp Nou. But everyone is fit this time. Touré is suspended for the first leg but he’ll be back for the second. I think Barça fans will be surprised at how different Touré is now to the player he was at Barça. He’s the cog that holds together the midfield. His job here was to watch the backs of Xavi or Iniesta, but at City he’s literally the quarterback. Everything goes through him.
After the first game last year, Pellegrini was criticised for being too cautious. They gave Barça too much respect and in the first half they were really cagey and sat back. But as the game went on they grew in confidence. Perhaps Pellegrini will remember that. I think Man City’s pace could cause significant problems for Barça’s defence. We won 3-2 at Bayern Munich with all those great defenders and Neuer in goal, and Agüero scored a hat-trick like it was nothing.
But I still think he’ll set it up for damage control. In the Champions League, you want to have something to play for in the second leg. In the Premier League, Pellegrini will play the same attacking way whether it’s Chelsea or it’s Hull. But in the Champions League he tends to be more pragmatic. Against Roma, we just sat back in our own half and killed them on the counter attack, and Pellegrini would never do that in the Premier League.
There was a bit of slump in Man City’s form after Christmas. How can you explain that?
Back in December we’d just won something like eleven games in a row and Barça were nervous when the draw was made. The front page of Sport said it was the worst draw they could have possibly got. And then we got injuries. Dzeko, Agüero, Jovatic. All the forwards. We had James Milner, a midfielder, playing at centre forward! Then Silva, Kompany and Nasri. And then Touré went to the African Nations... Meanwhile, Barça were winning every week and people were saying Man City would have no chance of stopping them. But they should be careful not to get lulled into a false sense of security. Man City didn’t suddenly turn into a bad team. We were missing important players, and they're all back now.
So what’s your prediction?
Looking at things objectively, Barça are still the better team on paper. I’d say 1-1 on Tuesday, with Barça to go through over two legs.
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