The Maine problem

Following Alan Ball's resignation, Steve Parish looks at the problems at Man City

Dave Bassett woke up screaming in the night and we reached the end of the month with Manchester City still desperately seeking a new manager. Well, not that desperately. All sorts of rumours abound, most about whether having an ex-pro as chairman was putting people off. Cobblers: if people would come and manage for Peter Swales, I don’t believe Francis Lee is that fearsome, nor that he is merely, as Simply Red’s manager Elliot Rashman reckons, “Swales with charisma”. Lee denies “interference” in team matters, though a simple thing like having the chairman on the new team photo may suggest otherwise.

There are very few ‘successful’ managers, in terms of winning major trophies. Fewer still who’ve done it without a pile of money. City could no doubt find a manager able to run a team on a tight budget, but then he may lack the ‘clout’ to manage players who think they’re better than they are and don’t seem keen to let anyone try to make them better. Certainly they did not take kindly to being shouted at like kids by the little ginger one.

So, it was, in the end, a noble thing for Ball to fall on his sword. Few managers can really hold much store by a vote of confidence from the chairman. But Ball was Franny’s friend, and it was going to be hard for Lee to do the right thing and sack him. Losing at Stoke, where the home fans’ hatred of Ball meant they gave the Man City contingent a lead in chanting for his sacking, was fortuitous.

We shall not know – it doesn’t much matter – whether Lee asked Ball to help him out by resigning. Brian Horton had escaped much of the wrath directed at Peter Swales, but Ball could not expect the same indulgence from the fans. Just as Lee was constrained by his personal endorsement of Ball, so the supporters were constrained by our endorsement of Lee. If Ball was his man, Lee was ours.

Even now there’s no mass uprising against Lee. We got our saviour, and few people believed there would be Jack Walker-style money as well, though some promises were made. Just as no-one of significance rushed to be manager, no-one has rushed in with a chequebook. And let’s face it, the way things are going, every Premier League club will not need a Walker but someone like Linus Larrabee in the film Sabrina, who took 500 million dollars “and made it into serious money”.

What has disappointed is that while some things have plainly changed since Lee took over, and the encroaching physical seediness of Maine Road has been arrested, there is still a sense of us and them. Putting Howard Kendall in the frame for manager shows the gulf – is he only reviled as a traitor on our side of the pitch?

Getting rid of the most expensively-paid players has backfired, but frankly (Quinn excepted) last season none of them looked to have City’s future wrapped around their hearts. One of the set questions in the WSC preview of this season (WSC No 115) was what would be the first thing you would do if you were chairman. After the delay between Horton’s sacking and Ball’s appointment, I said I’d have worked out beforehand who was going to replace Alan Ball if we were not in the top five by October. To lose one manager and find that no-one wants the job may be misfortune. To lose two and not have the next one lined up does look like carelessness.

But what’s the point of getting worked up about Lee’s decisions? No one else is rushing to take over and unless they were bringing loadsamoney with them there would be no need to welcome them. If Lee did sell it would not go down well if he made a profit (though it’s hard to see why City’s share value should have risen) but Lee is not a majority shareholder. His consortium only bought about a third of the shares; pub company Greenalls hold about a sixth and effectively are the chairmakers. It is a little curious that a major leisure company seems content with such an undercapitalised investment as City, but one of the problems for any incoming financier is how to put in vast amounts of money without the other shareholders walking off with an unearned share of the eventual benefits.

Ball might of course have got things right in the end. So might Malcolm Allison second time round. So might Peter Reid. So indeed might Brian Horton. But under Ball we might have got relegated again waiting to find out. His only positive credential was that he’d got the best out of Le Tissier, and his failure at Maine Road was in not getting the best out of what we’d got.

Post-sacking “revelations” confirm suspicions about the attitude of some of last season’s squad – “senior players no longer with the club” supposedly objected to Ball keeping Kinkladze in the team (at least early in the season) but whatever the truth, the Alan Ball Book of Managerial Style will not sell well. Management by Pissing About, however, does have a certain ring.

As the board trawled again through the managers’ directory, perhaps there was a draft manuscript circulating round Maine Road.

From WSC 117 November 1996. What was happening this month