The perceptual limitation of the eye-brain processor makes us perceive a hummingbird’s wings as an infinity-shaped blur of motion, a bit like the average opposition fan’s view of Manchester City churning their way through all the trophies on offer each season.
But, if you radically slow down the film, not only can you see the individual wing beats, but you will also notice that City’s 2021-22 vintage, pretty good though it is, only managed to win one pot.
Far from ruining football, they have merely been decorating it with their heightened taste for the ridiculous, the slapstick, the vertiginous drama.
Taking the two Champions League semi-finals with Real Madrid as Exhibit A, the question begs to be asked: was that the holy grail being smashed asunder on the great rock cliffs of the Bernabeu or does the Premier League still offer some form of sweet 11th-hour redemption? And if so, why did it prove so damned difficult to seal the thing off? And was it really necessary to seal it off from a two-nil deficit with 14 minutes to go, by scoring three goals in five minutes?
Bill Shankly once called the league Liverpool’s “bread and butter”, his solemn Ayrshire accent coating the words with unmistakable gravitas. You just don’t get people saying bread and butter like this in top-flight football anymore. What Pep Guardiola might call “so, so important” or his predecessor’s predecessor Roberto Mancini may well have claimed as “thees ees football”. The influx of foreign managers has brought us many things, including a rich new football language delivered in exotic accents.
To misquote the great Italian, everything is football. Winning and losing, elation and disappointment. We stood together on the cusp of both or either. City, a club now used to scooping up a fair number of the game’s glittering prizes in the manner of Shankly’s Liverpool of the 70s, promised us a miracle then almost fell foul of one in Real’s own never-ending European stories.
Forced back to domestic realities and without the usual succour of the Carabao Cup, somehow offloaded after four years of loving possession, City’s weary attention came to focus on the one thing left at the top table, the greatest prize of all, the Premier League.
But can winning the Premier League be seen as success, they all chirruped at the same time.
While the Champions League crowns the great, the fortunate and, every other season, Real Madrid, the Premier League confirms the year’s best in breed. For all Liverpool’s heavy-breathing in City’s slipstream, it is the sky blues that have devoured three of the last four league titles with levels of consistency and sangfroid under pressure that go way beyond normal requirements.
If only City’s bedraggled fans could match the philosophy of Pep’s indefatigable athletes.
As the great Roman philosopher Seneca wrote sometime before even the FA Cup had been invented (he sadly passed away in AD65 just before The Wanderers met the Royal Engineers): “There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
For City’s players, trailing disastrously to Villa, preparing, we all thought, to hand over the crown to Liverpool with the most pathetic whimper, fear apparently meant nothing. Turn on the taps, fire up the turbos, feed the ball to little Zinchenko and watch things fly.
The fear has always been heightened at City by the fact that the Last Chance Saloon is a space full of thick smoke and spilled spirits. It’s easy to choke. It’s easy to slip over. Just ask Aymeric Laporte. But it is City’s chosen habitat. It is the cluttered place where City do their best work. The smell of charred chaos trains their minds while all around them are falling apart.
This is why failure on the continent, however painful Madrid might have been, will never match the emptiness of missing out in a league title race as close as this season’s has been. The veins standing up on Ilkay Gundogan’s neck as he ran away from the shredded bodies in the penalty box in the 81st minute at the Etihad stand testament to this.
Shankly’s bread and butter is also Guardiola’s pan con mantequilla and that will do very nicely for me too, thank you very much.