Gary Neville: There’s an inevitability that one day either Guardiola or Mourinho will be at City
Steve Bates: United fans say the team hasn’t been right for two or three seasons
Andy Dunn: Chelsea are a club without soul
Neil Custis: Chelsea live on the edge…it was like Tiger Woods, when he was a naughty boy he was winning every Major going, now he’s calmed down he can’t hit a golf ball
Ian Ladyman: City have not won a big game against big opposition since April
Peter Reid: The Manchester United players aren’t as good as 10 years ago
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
MANCHESTER is used to staging football events that combine craft and controversy and the second FWA L’ive event, sponsored by Barclays, maintained this tradition.
A packed audience at the Ministry for Science and Industry joined in as the good and the great from the Football Writers’ Association and two of Manchester’s legends locked horns about the major issues in the not always beautiful game.
Paul McCarthy, executive general secretary of the FWA, was the question master as Andy Dunn (Sunday Mirror and FWA chairman), Steve Bates (Sunday People), Neil Custis (The Sun), Ian Ladyman (Daily Mail) plus former Manchester United full-back Gary Neville, now a respected Sky Sports analyser and co-commentator, and Peter Reid, who played for and managed Manchester City, got stuck into the Manchester derby, Chelsea, Arsenal and much more.
Paul McCarthy: Manchester United and Manchester City lead the Barclays Premier League but there are still question marks about both teams…
Andy Dunn: What makes it more important for City is that the game [at the Etihad] comes on the back of the Champions League. We all know now Roberto Mancini has to win the Barclays Premier League to stay in his job. Psychologically for them …they have an appalling record in the Champions League and they have to win this game which has become all the more important.
Neil Custis: I find this criticism of Mancini absolutely ridiculous. People are suggesting his job is in danger…this bloke is the best thing to happen to Manchester City since Sheikh Mansour [took over]. You have to remember what this guy’s done. People say ‘because he’s had all that money I could do that job.’ I don’t believe they could. He’s had to manage huge expectations, huge egos, he has given them their first trophy in 35 years, their first title in 50 years, they’re unbeaten in 21 games, unbeaten at home in two years, they’re the only unbeaten club in Britain…I don’t think that’s bad.
Peter Reid: If he’d managed City under Peter Swales he’d have been under more pressure.
Neil Custis: He’s under pressure because of the expectation and he’s handled that pressure brilliantly. Every time he loses…well, he hasn’t lost a game in the Barclays Premier League for so long…every time there’s a slight slip up…Gary will tell you to get it right in the Champions League takes time. You play a different kind of football from the Barclays Premier League. I think you have to learn to play in it to be successful. This year obviously hasn’t been great but United didn’t qualify from a much weaker group last season. The criticism of Mancini is unfair.
Peter Reid: To be fair, United would have struggled in City’s group [Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax]. When you talk about pressure and looking after players it’s highlighted at City because of who they have. When you have a player who’s messing around on the bench and says he’s never going to play for the club again the pressure builds up on you and you have to be careful how you handle that.
Neil Custis: Do you think that Roberto Mancini should lose his job if City finish second in the Barclays Premier League?
Ian Ladyman: In football you set your own standards. Whatever level you play at, you have to be seen to improve and evolve. City haven’t improved because in the summer he didn’t seem to have the same control over players or the same direction. They are still unbeaten but they aren’t as good as last season. The Champions League was a bit of a disaster, it was a difficult group but to make such a mess of it… I think if City find themselves adrift by February or March then rightly or wrongly he might then find himself in a bit of bother.
Gary Neville: After winning the FA Cup and then the league, you can’t think a manager would be under pressure. However, there was a manager at Chelsea who won the FA Cup and Champions League six months ago… In fairness to Sheikh Mansour he has been quite relaxed about Mancini and has given him time. I think he deserves this but there is a suggestion that because of the appointment of Txiki Begiristain [as sporting director] from Barcelona it’s not ridiculous to think that if he doesn’t win the league that he wouldn’t come under pressure but I’m not saying that would be the right thing.
Steve Bates: Part of the problem Mancini has is, he no longer seems to have the ultimate backing of the people above him. You can see that by the transfer business they did in the summer, there were two lists, the one Mancini wanted and the list that he got.
Neil Custis: The people who blocked him from doing that have now been moved aside [Brian Marwood was moved from his role as football administrator to managing director of the academy]. Mancini will now work with Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano. I think if City had moved quicker they’d have had a better chance of getting Robin van Persie.
Gary Neville: There a lot I like about City. They aren’t playing as they did last season but there is an ability within the squad to dig out results. If I was in the United dressing room, what would concern me is that City aren’t at their best but they’re still only three points behind.
Ian Ladyman: What would concern me if I were a City fan is that they have not won a big game against big opposition since April when they beat United at home and went on to win the league. United still manage to do that, they’ve defeated Chelsea, Arsenal…
Steve Bates: I’m not sure if Mancini has the same faith in his players this season. He’s chopped and changed the team, systems have changed, he’s played three at the back, five at the back…
Neil Custis: He changed to three at the back a number of times last season, it’s not like he’s invented it. He’s also perceived as being negative. City played Newcastle in a key game towards the end of last season, he brought off Nasri, put on de Jong and people said he was being negative. He did that to put YaYa Toure nearer the front and he scored the goal. I think he knows what he’s doing tactically. I’d like to ask Gary, no matter how good the team is [domestically] does it take time to get used to Champions League football?
Gary Neville: United had two group defeats in the Nineties. I’ve watched every City game in the Champions League and you can’t deny they’ve under-performed. Ajax was a strange game, I thought they were comfortable and suddenly there’s a mad half an hour. I think if United had been in this season’s [City] group they would have struggled. United were knocked out [at the group stage] last season and no one suggested the manager was in trouble.
Neil Custis: I don’t think City want to be perceived as another Chelsea. I think they fear that. They had a lot of stick when they got rid of Mark Hughes who was on course for what they were trying to achieve but it turned out the change was right. If they start chopping and changing they will be seen as another Chelsea but they have long-term plans on and off the park which are very good…if you start chopping the man and the top, they next guy is under immediate pressure because players think ‘he won a title and he’s gone, what has this bloke got to do?’
Steve Bates: How do you equate the fact that last season Mancini was talking to other clubs?
Peter Reid: On the continent it’s a matter of fact that it’s more of a merry-go-round. The British mentality is different.
Ian Ladyman: When people say you ought to go, you’re on a sticky wicket. He probably thought ‘I may be out of work.’ You can say it’s immoral but I don’t see anything wrong with it.
Andy Dunn: Mancini wouldn’t see it as a big deal but it’d be a big deal if players did it.
Paul McCarthy: Robin van Persie spoke to City, why wouldn’t he not want to go to the champions of England?
Neil Custis: He chose United for football reasons, the history of the club. United are a bigger club.
Gary Neville: I think he wanted to play for Manchester United. Samir Nasri chose City not United, whether that was for football reasons I don’t know. Gareth Barry chose City over Liverpool.
Ian Ladyman: The way it was described to me was that City didn’t show van Persie enough love.
Andy Dunn: This isn’t being disrespectful to City but maybe they had to offer him more than United…
Neil Custis: United are always going to have the bigger pull because they are the biggest club in the world. The new signings don’t realise this until they experience it. For that reason United will always have the edge.
Paul McCarthy: United are far from firing on all cylinders…
Steve Bates: United fans would agree and this is not the United side people have been used to. They are leaking goals, not playing with any real conviction especially at the start of matches…they can do it because they have such a massive armoury of players who can dig them out of trouble. I think if they start as they have been on Sunday they’ll be in a tricky situation…you can do this against some of the lesser teams but certainly not against Manchester City. Gary will know more than anyone how highly Sir Alex Ferguson rates a strong defence. This season they are so flaky at the back but they are still top of the league. I speak to United fans and they say the team hasn’t been right for two or three seasons.
Neil Custis: Yet they have as many points as last year. I think there is something in their DNA…no matter what team they put out there, they have a determination and drive to win football matches that other clubs don’t. City are getting there…
Peter Reid: By the way, we’re talking about the problems of United and City but they are first and second in the Barclays Premier League. And the league is massive now. Previoulys Manchester United v Liverpool were bigger games, no disrespect to City…
Gary Neville [smiling]: Basically what you’re saying is City were crap for 15 or 20 years…
Neil Custis: I’ve worked in Manchester for 14 years and the intensity…everything is bigger than ever. I think both sets of fans should grasp this and really drink it in. It’s wonderful time to be here with these two football clubs where they are.
Ian Ladyman: Over the last two years the derby games have been absolutely incredible. Every match is the biggest derby ever.
Andy Dunn: You have a club with virtually unlimited finance and a club that is the biggest commercial powerhouse in world football. That is why, and given the gap between Manchester and the rest of the Barclays Premier League it is more than a derby, it’s a defining game in the league.
Paul McCarthy: Let’s put you all on the spot: who will win and who will be the player of the day:
Ian Ladyman: A draw and Joe Hart.
Gary Neville: I’ll go with United [sounds of mock surprise from audience] and Robin van Persie.
Andy Dunn: For me it’s United and Rooney. Fergie has been needling him a bit to gee him up, he played him him against Cluj when everyone else was rested…Fergie has been nudging him along and I think Sunday is the type of game for him.
Steve Bates: I have serious concerns about the way United are defending, I don’t think you can just turn it off and turn it on. City are a big powerful team physically and they have overpowered United at times recently. If they get a goal ahead United will find it very difficult, I’ll go 2-1 City and Vincent Kompany.
Peter Reid: I think City will win, especially if he plays Tevez and Aguero. I don’t understand rotation, are players better these days? Why rest them?
Neil Custis: I agree, Dzeko has to be left out, playing him from the start just doesn’t work for City. I think City will win 2-0 and the key player will be Vincent Kompany who is currently the best centre-back in the league. How he handles van Persie will be key, not only that, Kompany’s so good from set-pieces, where United are vulnerable, he is so dangerous.
That wrapped up the first-half but plenty more was to come, starting with Chelsea…a topic that brought plenty of reaction from the panel and the audience.
Paul McCarthy: Andy, when you were at the News Of The World you wrote ‘you can buy everything but class…’
Andy Dunn: It’s knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. I think it’s come to the point where [Chelsea] fans need more than 10 trophies in nine years. At United the fans believe in Ferguson and his philosophy. Chelsea had someone in Roberto di Matteo who they idolised as a player…he then won the Champions League as a manager…he had something that was more than just winning trophies. He connected players, manager and fans together. Without being too romantic about it, Chelsea supporters want a club that has soul…they had that with di Matteo because he loved Chelsea and everyone loved him…now, Roman Abramovich has appointed a guy [Rafa Benitez] who the fans don’t like.
Paul McCarthy: Peter, would you like to be the Chelsea manager, other than the fact you get a massive pay-off?
Peter Reid: I think the ethos and soul of the club has been lost. Mr Abramovich owns the club, he does things his way but there has to be class, there has to be tradition and a human element. When you have people in professional positions, let them get on with it. When Jose Mourinho was in charge he [Abramovich] brought in the Ukrainian [Andrey Shevchenko] which is undermining the manager.
Ian Ladyman: I think Chelsea have underperformed by winning only three titles [under Abramovich] given the money they’ve spent.
Neil Custis: People say the fans will be there when Abramovich has gone…I’m not sure when Abramovich goes and the glory goes Stamford Bridge will be full. People have jumped on the bandwagon at Chelsea. They are a club who live on the edge though getting rid of di Matteo was a step too far. It was like Tiger Woods, when he was a naughty boy he was winning every Major going…now he’s calmed down he can’t hit a golf ball. No disrespect to marriage…
Paul McCarthy: So you think he needs a cocktail waitress…?
Neil Custis: Some individuals, some clubs just live on the edge…
Steve Bates: Chelsea are a laughing stock. Clubs generally care about how they are perceived. They have a duty of care to run the club in the right way. Abramovich just doesn’t care. If you have that kind of attitude at the top it’s little wonder there’s no soul at the club.
Paul McCarthy: Gary, is the soul of a club set by the man at the top?
Gary Neville: Chelsea are a departure from what i know and what I’ve been used to. Are we glad that they are there? Do we want the Chelsea of 15 years ago back? In some ways they raise the level of interest but do they make the Barclays Premier League better? Have the players they’ve brought in made the league more competitive? Do we want a more competitive league? I think we do but I still can’t get my head around a club spending £100 million a year on players.
Peter Reid: The fit and proper person comes to mind…
Gary Neville: You look at Stoke or West Bromwich who are really well run and you think ‘that’s how it should be done.’ For me, I just don’t know where it’s going. A lot of Italian clubs spent huge but almost fell over the edge of the cliff…I just hope there isn’t a cliff moment for us.
Neil Custis: But why shouldn’t City fans dream that a Sheikh Mansour can come in and, even if it takes two or three years, they’ve caught up and joined the party? United fans are bitter but if you listen to them you’d think every player came through the academy. For about 10 years United out-bought every club in the league…they broke the British transfer record three years running. They have bought to stay at the top, it isn’t a new thing. Blackburn did it.
Paul McCarthy: Rafa Benitez is being abused at the moment but are fans booing the wrong person?
Ian Ladyman: They are to a degree. Sacking di Matteo was a ridiculous decision but Rafa is a convenient fall guy. They are booing the wrong guy but unless they’d replaced di Matteo with Mourinho, Pep Guardiola or Guus Hiddink it was always going to be hard.
Steve Bates: Any manager knows his cv isn’t going to be severely damaged by managing Chelsea.
Peter Reid: Do you think Guardiola will go there?
Steve Bates: I’m not sure he will. Maybe there are some managers who have a higher moral gauge than others…maybe Guardiola would see that working for Abramovich is not the way he likes.
Gary Neville: It’d take a pretty strong character to turn the job down. There’s an open cheque book to sign the players you want…Guardiola may not take it but he’d be one of very few people who wouldn’t. You could argue United might be better for him or at City there’s a more patient structure…
Neil Custis: He packed it in at Barcelona in the fourth season because the pressure was too much for him. I would look, if I were the chairman of Manchester United, and ask: ‘Do I want someone like that?’ I think there’s a bit of a myth status.
Paul McCarthy: You have Mourinho who seems to be on his way out of Real Madrid and Guardiola in his penthouse in New York…where do you see them ending up?
Gary Neville: There’s an inevitability that one day, either in the near future or in two of three years, one will end up at City. Begiristain has been given a high level role, he has the ear of the owner…at some point he’ll want to stamp his mark on the club. I would suggest one of those managers would be pretty high on the list to go to City at some point.
Bob Cass [Mail on Sunday]: Every major decision at Chelsea is either instigated or ratified by Abramovich, I’d like to ask the panel their thoughts about the timing to award John Obi Mikel a new five-year contract on the eve of the announcement from the FA that he would be banned for three games for the near assault on Mark Clattenburg? And by the way, the FA treated Mikel with cotton wool. [applause]
Peter Reid: I’ve had so many rucks with referees over the years but they are the guardians of the game…to make accusations under those circumstances and then leak it to the press is an outrage. To give him a contract at this time…I’d have let everything die down.
Neil Custis: You have to be bang on if someone is accused of racism. Once again Chelsea’s behaviour and PR has been appalling. I feel sorry for referees with the heightened television analysis and scrutiny of their decisions…you won’t find a commentator who, with a penalty decision, says ‘that’s a penalty’ straight away. They’ll see the replay and make a decision. The referee does not have that chance. [applause]
Gary Neville: Players have an incredible amount of power [at Chelsea]. You are just not given a voice in that way in the dressing room I was part of. I can’t comprehend that from the structure I experienced. A player certainly couldn’t knock on the chief executive’s door to discuss tactics or selection. If the owner has given players that power, why wouldn’t they take it? You can’t blame the players, it’s the way the club is run.
Peter Reid: I’m from a different generation and if the chairman invited me on his yacht, no chance. The team, yes, a player, no. I respected my managers. And by the way, I don’t think they’re bad principles. [applause]
Gary Neville: They are a truly unique football club and the owner doesn’t mind that sort of thing. In Italy they have some owners who are dictators and they are quite used to it but in this country we can’t comprehend.
Peter Reid: I still think it’s immoral doing that.
Paul McCarthy: A question from the floor…who will be the two clubs to join City and United in the Champions League [top four]?
Ian Ladyman: It will probably be Chelsea and Arsenal. I’m not sure if Tottenham have kicked on under Andre Villas-Boas, Everton are doing well but may run out of gas.
Neil Custis: I would put my house on Tottenham being in the top four. We’re now seeing a coach who was under pressure from the start at Chelsea, who was undermined by the players, who was told to change things but was up against a dressing-room that didn’t want change and it didn’t work for him. We are now seeing a young coach who is thriving. If the players allow him to continue, and he needs the backing of [chairman] Daniel Levy, I can see Tottenham finishing in the top four.
Steve Bates: Everton would be thinking this is their best chance for a few seasons to get fourth spot because of turmoil surrounding clubs you’d expect to be in there. If they can keep that group of 14 players fit they have a great chance.
Paul McCarthy: A question from the floor about Arsene Wenger…
Neil Custis: People talk about playing the right way…I would argue that football the right way is getting results.
Peter Reid: Mr Wenger has not won trophies for a long time but he’s built a new stadium and the club are in a great situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if he buys a lot of players in January.
Andy Dunn: Is Gervinho good enough? Is Podolski good enough? Is Giroud good enough?
Peter Reid: The Manchester United players aren’t as good as 10 years ago.
Paul McCarthy: The question is, how much longer can Arsenal go on not winning anything?
Neil Custis: It’s not a great business model for a club of their size to not win anything for seven years, whether they’ve built a new stadium or not. The yardstick for any club is being successful and Arsenal aren’t.
Simon Mullock (Sunday Mirror): Do you think with Guardiola on the market, Fergie would step aside and not let United miss the opportunity?
Gary Neville: When he decides he doesn’t want to do it any longer he may assist in the transition of a new manager. I think he believes in his own ability to continue to run the football club. It’s the question I am asked most and I don’t have a clue. I don’t think he [Ferguson] knows, I don’t think [chief executive] David Gill knows…unless it’s the best kept secret in the world but it would get out. Going back to Arsene Wenger, it’s not acceptable to not win a trophy for seven years. It wasn’t acceptable for United to win a Championship for 26 years. It’s not acceptable now for Liverpool not to have won the title for 22 years…
United fan in audience: Can you say that again!
Gary Neville: Big football clubs have always gone through periods where they are only successful to a degree. In cycles Arsenal will be OK, they will come back and start winning leagues again.
Neil Custis: I remember having a conversation with Frank Clark when he was at Nottingham Forest. I said the game the previous night was rubbish…it’s an entertainment industry. He said: ‘It isn’t, it’s something fans go to in order to see their team win. If that happens, they are happy.’
Paul McCarthy: Right, to finish…what will the top four be at the end of the season?
Ian Ladyman: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal.
Gary Neville: The same.
Andy Dunn: United, City, Chelsea, Spurs.
Peter Reid: Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea.
Neil Custis: City, United, Tottenham, Everton.
Steve Bates: I agree with Neil.
NEXT WEEK: The FWA panel reveal what it is like working with Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini.