The words of Roberto Mancini. Not about Manchester City mischief-maker and unreliable eccentric Mario Balotelli but about the club’s star player and figurehead of the Sheikh Mansour revolution: Carlos Tevez.
“I don’t decide this.” Four words that would never have come out of the mouth of Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, and four words that provide reason enough for why it is the red half of Manchester who will be lifting the Premier League title this season.
Mancini’s comments were, of course, made in relation to Tevez’s refusal to warm up at Bayern Munich back in September. It was a show of disrespect not only to the manager but the club, and Mancini had none of it. Like any potentially debilitating disease, the City boss wanted the problem cut off at the source, and that meant getting rid of Tevez.
It was a stance to which Mancini should have kept. Or, perhaps more pertinently, one to which he should have been allowed to keep by the City board.
By lording it over Tevez and ruling with an iron fist, Mancini provided City with a leader strong enough to challenge the king of the pile: Ferguson. The subsequent decision to take Tevez back, accepted by Mancini but more probably forced upon him from above, showed City’s players and rivals alike that the boss was on far more fragile ground than he would have liked – and Balotelli has since become a symbol of the chaos.
Ferguson, of course, has been the master at accepting the proverbial brown stuff from almost nobody – Eric Cantona is one notable exception – during his time at Old Trafford. Jaap Stam, Paul Ince and David Beckham were all released while still key members of the United set-up, decisions that let the existing players at Old Trafford know that only one man is boss. How, for instance, could somebody like Wayne Rooney ever make the mistake of thinking he is bigger than the club (or exempt from getting a boot kicked at his head) when Beckham – the most marketable commodity in the world – was disposable?
Mancini’s hardline stance led to Tevez becoming nothing more than the world’s highest-paid amateur golfer as the player fled to Argentina. That was, however, until Mancini found out that the only thing more damaging to a leader than a lack of authority is when that leader has such power swept from beneath him by members higher up the food chain.
Five months after Mancini said he wanted Tevez out of the club, the Argentinian was allowed to pull on a City jersey for the reserves, almost certainly on the wishes of the club’s money-men – reacting to the rapidly decreasing price tag. Since then, City, Balotelli and Mancini have not stopped sliding.
Prior to Tevez’s February 28 reserve outing, Balotelli had been involved in plenty of off-field hijinks, including mock sword fights in curry houses and firework displays in bathrooms, but his impact on the City team had been significantly more positive than negative. The Italian had netted ten league goals in 16 outings – 13 in 22 in all competitions – and, other than a perceivably harsh sending-off at Liverpool, his only major transgression was the stamp on Tottenham’s Scott Parker.
Such was the goodwill growing behind Balotelli that, three days before Tevez’s first sighting back in Manchester City blue, coach David Platt even hailed the maturity of the youngster’s display at home to Blackburn, which took City five points clear at the top. “I thought he was very disciplined in his performance and his work rate was exceptional both on and off the ball,” Platt gushed.
Of the eight games City have played since that Tevez appearance against Preston’s second string, Balotelli has created the wrong type of headlines in seven of them. Results-wise, City have won only three, and even one of those was as they exited the Europa League on away goals.
Where once stood a manager who seemingly called all the shots at the club, now stands a man who constantly berates Balotelli in public but who knows his employers would be unlikely to back him if push came to shove. Mancini “didn’t like how Balotelli played” against Chelsea, and “didn’t trust” the €22 million man ahead of the 3-3 draw with Sunderland. “I thought [about subbing him] after five minutes,” he confessed.
But by now Balotelli has seen the workings of Mancini’s bosses. Known to be in danger of losing his job if he fails to deliver the Premier League, Mancini also has to deal with the fact that, even if he wanted a player out of the club, he “doesn’t decide this”.
Why, if Tevez can refuse to warm up, threaten legal action, demand to leave the club and then go AWOL for three months, should Balotelli even think twice about the odd late night out or argument with his team-mates?
Mancini can talk of “punching” Balotelli all he likes, but the Tevez affair has shown that the City board would not allow the manager to land a knockout blow. Tevez, like Balotelli, was too valuable an asset to leave to rot – and Tevez’s return highlighted it in a way Ferguson would never have accepted at United. After another mindless red card for Balotelli at Arsenal, which was coming all afternoon, a beaten Mancini declared: “I am finished.” Asked whether he would be sold in the summer, he added: “Probably.”
This time, given the club’s U-turn over Tevez, Mancini’s promise to sell Balotelli carries far less authority. And that is the problem. Had Mancini been allowed to stick to his guns over the Tevez quote at the top of this article, it is likely he would never have had to utter the one at the bottom. Having been the top club in England during February, City have shown with Tevez that they are prepared to give players limitless tolerance when they act out of line. And in Balotelli, they have a man who is quite prepared to push it, regardless of Mancini’s wishes.