Since his arrival in the winter of 2009, Roberto Mancini has made quite an impression.
Maybe it was the cute Italian accent or the gradual improvement in City’s defense. Something about Inter’s handsome former boss appealed to a set of fans still acclimating to their club’s financial and footballing altitude.
Or maybe it was the scarf. Perhaps Mancini’s initial wardrobe choice had nothing to do with the weather. During a period of tumult, the simple yet luxurious attire of Mark Hughes’ successor provided a blast from the past in sharp contrast with City’s constant talk of the future. City needed that. More than any of their million-pound playing assets they needed an acceptance of what used to be as they embraced bullish expectations of what had yet to arrive.
Mancini’s first press conference was a hostile affair. A friend of the media, Mark Hughes had allies aplenty among the masses baying for City’s blood. A ruthless administrative decision had overshadowed City’s ebullient 4-3 win over Sunderland. Hughes had steered his side to victory already knowing that the match would be his last.
“I think that, if we do a good job in these five, six months and arrive in the top four, I think next year we can arrive on top of the Premier League,” Mancini said in his opening address. Clearly, he subscribed to the owner’s day-one policy: plan ahead, and the present will sort itself out.
In Italy, forethought is a term rarely associated with Roberto Mancini. Petulance and temerity defined his capricious yet fascinating footballing career. Benched for the entire 1990 World Cup, Mancini complained vociferously, and then fell out with Arrigo Sacchi just months before the 1994 edition. His tantrums were legendary. The man now renowned for his pragmatism was once exuberant and immature, one of the Italian game’s true “bad boys”.
At Manchester City Mancini cultivated a more positive reputation. His dealings with the press were stylish and efficient, while his cosmopolitan attitude impressed the fans. Slowly, the media’s attitude edged towards toleration. The scarf helped.
But the pressure from above was incessant. The Mark Hughes-era City was mercurial at best, mutinous at worst. Mancini had to meld that incoherent group into a reasonably stable, championship caliber team. Within two seasons. Or else.
Coaxing out results was only half the battle, though. Early in 2010/11, Henry Winter accused Mancini of “throwing the cantenaccio amongst the pigeons,” after a period of games that lacked the excitement requisite for national acceptance. Some said the scarf was getting tighter.
Although the aspirations of tentative, even jaded fans remained grounded, City’s powerful observers exuded impatience. Those initial statements of intent didn’t help…
The specter of Hughes, summoned time and time again by the fickle press, cast an ominous shadow. Mancini’s supposed penchant for caution grew into an unavoidable cliche. Typically parochial stereotypes exacerbated a largely artificial issue.
City’s admirable defense ensured stability, though. Mancini’s steady grip on results perpetuated his managerial lifespan and, for periods, shielded him from whispers of dissatisfaction. City supporters took to chanting “Boring, Boring, City!” every time their team scored more than twice. Mancini’s name often turned up in those chants.
In 2011, a season’s steady improvement culminated in victory over Manchester United in an FA Cup semi-final, qualification for the Champions League and, eventually, triumph in the FA Cup final. The club was slowly exorcising its demons.
By then, of course, the scarf had been tucked away, safe for the coming of winter. Whatever the weather, Mancini didn’t need it anymore. The retro garment had heralded initial success, but by the end of his third season, his achievements had transcended fashion.
Mancini managed to unite an uncertain support during a time of upheaval, easing a transition that could have degenerated into an identity crisis. While players moved in and out, Mancini remained, an eminently honest figure against a chaotic background.
His decisions seemed to echo the fans’ desires. Mancini stayed patient with crowd favorite Mario Balotelli, tolerating his enigmatic personality and controversial off-field exploits. Carlos Tevez, however, was never likely to be forgiven by anyone.
By wearing the scarf, Mancini deliberately connected himself with the culture of his team’s supporters. Throughout his managerial career, Mancini has worn the colors of his club. In England, though, the scarf means so much more; it is a throwback, a symbol of a bygone – and therefore greater – era.
Around a foreigners neck, the evocative knit is particularly striking. For too long, European football minds have applied nasty, outdated generalizations to all English fans. Mancini refused to subscribe to those Heysel-born stereotypes. He embraced what it means to be a football fan in England.
The Italian Mancini is the only Premier League manager whose name is sung routinely at every home game. Even at Old Trafford, where the manager and his eponymous stand attract unceasing adulation, United fans rarely chant Ferguson’s name. Indeed, they rarely chant anything.
In his pursuit of glory, Mancini has never forgotten those who endured City’s ignominious past. He understands what it means to support Manchester City: the suffering, the cynicism, the paranoia. “I think City fans are more grateful for the success because of where they’ve been,” Dennis Tueart said in a recent ESPN interview. No man appreciates that more than Roberto Mancini.
This season Mancini has been especially perceptive. He didn’t panic after Champions League elimination; he wasn’t carried away by City’s stupendous 6-1 win at Old Trafford. He is always measured, always aware. He has grown beyond seasonal targets and the owners’ silly long-term plans. After three years at the helm Roberto Mancini knows how to combat the surreal nature of City’s evolution. In victory and in defeat, Mancini is stubbornly realistic.
He will take nothing for granted.
The Sky Blues currently sit atop the standings, but their lead stands at a precarious two points. Still, put in the appropriate context, City’s season so far remains one of great progression. Progression facilitated by an urbane Italian import. And his scarf.