City at their best are magnificent... but are they too perfect to love?
Riath Al-Samarrai firstname.lastname@example.org SPORTS WRITER OF THE YEAR
IF the walls feel like they are closing in on Manchester City momentarily, then the champions of all they survey might spare a thought for the team against whom they are playing today. was at Luton a few weeks ago for the Liverpool game and the creaky old place was rocking. So much so that Kenilworth Road couldn’t hack it — I went to the gents under the main stand and a good chunk of the ceiling had collapsed.
There was plaster and debris on the floor and a hole overhead. I told a steward on my way out and he gave the sigh of a man who wasn’t overcome with shock. But they’ll be on their way soon enough to new digs — shinier, more modern, more comfortable, maybe a little less soul. And it will cost them roughly £100million, so almost the price of Jack Grealish.
But that’s the relativity of football. Estimates vary but you’ll no doubt be reminded this weekend how Luton’s squad cost around £20m to build — that’s less than half of one Kalvin Phillips, and he didn’t get a minute for Pep Guardiola (right) in the defeat by Aston Villa on Wednesday. He hasn’t had a start since they were beaten by Newcastle in September, but that’s what City can do.
Luton do what they can with less, but that’s the old story about food chains. Carlton Morris’s road to their front line took in Hamilton Academical, York, Shrewsbury and Rotherham. He cost them a fortune, £1.3m, so there will be an awful lot of relief that the gamble paid off — he’s jointly their top scorer with three. Same goes for Elijah Adebayo. He wore shirts for Slough Town and Bognor Regis before arriving for an undisclosed sum, which probably wouldn’t have disclosed too much anyway.
I’ve enjoyed Luton this season. They have a go, as we say in that manner that sounds patronising but comes from a good place. They prove that those climbs through the divisions can happen when enough stars align. And they might even serve as City’s Ghost of Christmas Future — remember when Luton were bombed back to the stone age by the FA and Football League for financial irregularities?
That was 15 years ago. They had broken rules in their dealings with agents, costing them 10 points, and then a further 20 were tacked on in a record-breaking sanction because of a failure to satisfy HMRC. It sent them into non-League, but Luton couldn’t afford the silkiest lawyers in the cupboard — the kind that are reported to be earning £5,000 an hour as City challenge those 115 rule breaches. Those options were no more in their reach then than Erling Haaland is now.
Are there any two clubs more different in the Premier League than City and Luton? Has there ever been? I’m not so sure, but there’s a beauty in such vast
JON RAHM is a seismic loss for the PGA Tour and those who enjoy watching the best play the best. But how much will LIV gain? They already had Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Cameron Smith and no one was watching. Greg Norman bought the idea that if you build it, they will come. The latter simply hasn’t happened.
opposites finding common ground on a field. That beauty mostly comes from Luton in what they have achieved. City? Not so much. Not for me.
Their football is not in question. It’s magnificent, or rather it is at their best, which isn’t being seen currently. For them, this four-game winless streak is a minor drama that might evolve into a first-world problem, but with Luton, Crystal Palace and Everton on City’s immediate agenda, it echoes far more closely to a momentary jog before the inevitable sprint.
They’ll snap out of it because that is what history tells us they will do. That is what quality players, a great manager, a great infrastructure and a great budget can offer.
The way they play is truly admirable and a joy of many dimensions. Haaland is a wrecking ball, Kevin De Bruyne, when fit, is a chisel. Rodri is magnificent, the pale blue line between winning and not winning. Phil Foden can bend minds and games. Rico Lewis is that burst of promise we can all get excited about. As a team, they are the embodiment of the theoretical exercise into what you might create in a footballing world of no limits. And who doesn’t enjoy the outcome when you get close to sporting perfection?
But do we love City? I have written previously about the Novak Djokovic paradox. He has won every trophy a tennis player can win and many times over, but how many of us love him? Not as many as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, that’s for sure.
Maybe the point there is about the unlovable qualities of certainty in sport. We don’t always like those senses of a foregone conclusion and City have shaped into that across the Abu Dhabi era. Too good to love? Too much Djokovic in their demeanour? Possibly.
But it’s also about what they represent, which is to say state ownership and the unanswered, awkward questions about how they wielded their financial strength. It’s about the disparities that mean even a division as competitive as the Premier League can be won three times in a row. The disparities that mean a team like Luton can visit the party but with the knowledge their carriage will become a pumpkin again at midnight.
WE SHOULD not hold all of that against City, because football has always lent itself to long-reigning monarchs and will surely have another when Newcastle realise their potential. But for now City are the gold standard. They are the club that make an uneven landscape feel that bit wonkier, that bit more unfair. They are the nation state that goes up against a town this weekend. Did they cheat the rules in getting even more out of a system that favours the strong? That is unproven, but it is not easy to love a suspect.
Perhaps this current blip will make it easier, just as it did when Djokovic lost to Carlos Alcaraz at Wimbledon. It might give a human edge to a machine. A little of that uncertainty we discussed. Or not.
But it will always feel more natural to love an underdog and City haven’t been one of those for an awfully long time. Good on them — it is the acceptable price of great achievements and they couldn’t do much more with what they have.
But then you look at Luton and their broken bogs and it is a reminder that less can feel like more. That success can be bought but love is a far stranger business.
dmg media (UK)