Architect Sven the key to City revival
First half good, second half not so good. The parody of Sven-Goran Eriksson's explanations of England matches suffices as a neat summary of the Swede's first season at Manchester City.
For the vast majority at the City of Manchester Stadium, that represents a welcome improvement after the unrelenting misery of the final few months of Stuart Pearce's tenure. For Thaksin Shinawatra, however, it may constitute grounds for dismissal. And if he does dispense with the services of Eriksson, the former Thailand Prime Minister will expose his ignorance of football in general and Manchester City in particular.
If the characteristically laid-back Eriksson has appeared more relaxed than most, it is perhaps in the knowledge that he has the popular vote. Besides an innate confidence in his own ability, Eriksson's typically calm approach is aided by the likelihood he would make a rapid return to work.
At a time when major managerial changes are expected across Europe, he has rehabilitated his reputation - in the eyes of most - after the underwhelming end to his time with England. By revealing an understated sense of humour and with his quiet charm, he has won over observers in Manchester, especially now his private life is no longer an issue. While his renewal of a long-term lease at a costly city centre hotel indicates a preference to stay, right now City need him more than he needs them.
Yet while Shinawatra may be too blinkered to realise that, the City supporters are not. Any manager who wins at Old Trafford for the first time since 1974 and does a first double over Manchester United in almost four decades can expect to be idolised by the blue half of Manchester. Anyone acquainted with the city, and indeed City itself, would recognise that.
If their season was effectively over when the final whistle blew at Old Trafford, that is not altogether surprising. Victory over United has traditionally provided compensation for any number of dispiriting defeats, and it is rare that the culture of a club is changed within a few months. With Eriksson, in any case, City's supporters finally have a manager they believe merits comparison with Sir Alex Ferguson.
Moreover, in their desperation for improvement, they have turned a blind eye to other embarrassments in Shinawatra's reign. The man Human Rights Watch has called 'a human rights abuser of the worst kind,' has used City in some blatant and unseemly attempts to court popularity. The king of Thailand, for example, was wished a happy birthday on the big screen (possibly not sentiments the majority present shared).
Kasper Schmeichel and Kelvin Etuhu were whisked to Thailand mid-season for no real purpose other than Shinawatra's and an attempt was made to foist three Thai players on Eriksson, though none were of the required standard. Such self-indulgence has been tolerated, but the use of a major club as a rich man's plaything may not be without a popular manager.
Still, supporters, equipped with downbeat realism and long-honed depressive tendencies, recognised that spending half the season in the Champions League places represented over-achievement. To judge from his comments in Dubai last week, Shinawatra presumably regarded it as the norm. Supporters can understand the absence of key players from a hastily-assembled side as a reason for a subsequent slump; maybe the owner cannot.
To put it into perspective, consider Eriksson's meagre inheritance: City only boasted four reliable performers in the season before his accession and two - Joey Barton and Sylvain Distin - had departed before the Swede arrived. The remaining pair, Richard Dunne and Micah Richards, became the central figures as Eriksson moulded one of the division's better defences. If Jim Cassell's Academy products are essential in a long-term transformation of City, the manager merits credit for promoting Michael Johnson and Joe Hart to the status of pivotal figures.
While Shinawatra evidently believes £50 million could have been invested better in the transfer market, and Eriksson's record is not flawless, his signings have had a significance. Only in attack, where Rolando Bianchi made an undistinguished exit back to Italy (and it is too early to form a conclusive judgment on Benjani, Felipe Caicedo and the injured Valeri Bojinov) is there any evidence Eriksson could have done better.
But Elano, his ill-timed complaints about his recent deployment notwithstanding, was a dominant influence in the first two months of the campaign and Martin Petrov ranks among the best left wingers in England. There are some at City, too, who will insist that Vedran Corluka is the best of the bunch. While Eriksson's fondness for a solitary striker has been the subject of debate, that has usually been a product of Elano's role.
In any case, both manager and owner have targeted Brazilian fantasistas, presumably to be used in the same system. But whereas Eriksson's courting of Werder Bremen's Diego represented an attempt to introduce one of the most gifted emerging attacking midfielders, Shinawatra contrived to make a fool of himself with the move for Ronaldinho.
Eriksson, more cautious in his comments about the Barcelona man, clearly realised that the former World Player of the Year was destined for Milan and not Manchester. His preferred target showed the appropriate blend of ambition and realism required to progress City; Shinawatra's suggested he wanted the reflected glamour from owning one of the most famous players in the world, but hardly suggested he shares Eriksson's extensive knowledge of football.
Maybe Shinawatra thinks that players such as Ronaldinho are desperate to join City; perhaps he believes that it is simple to propel them into the top four. And possibly he imagines that their improvement is despite, and not because of, Sven-Goran Eriksson. But while the second half of City's season has been, to cite the earlier phrase, 'not so good'; Eriksson remains the architect of their revival. And the paradox is that just when the rest of the footballing world has been reminded of his managerial qualities, his employer may have forgotten them.