Stephen Ireland’s last minute thriller

Unlike Reading, Manchester City, for all their self-deprecation, have always believed themselves to be a big club. And now they may become precisely that, writes Steve Bierley.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, oiling the club’s commercial wheels, spent time in Shanghai recently, a city with all the trappings of western capitalism within Communist-run China. Here the poor do their best to eke out a living alongside the international conglomerates, which for most of the time is rather how the Premier League feels. Steve Coppell made his admiration for Eriksson and the quality of players he has brought to Eastlands abundantly clear but, as he emphasised, and with no rancour even after having two points stolen in the last minute, “without the finance it wouldn’t have happened.”

There is, of course, no poverty at this level, simply different strata of wealth. After the riches that Thaksin Shinawatra has poured into the club the City fans remain in a state of suspended euphoria and, as such, their critical faculties have been dulled.

In general terms this was a pretty rotten performance by the Blues, yet those supporters who had ripped into Stuart Pearce towards the end of his sorry term sat patiently with beatific smiles as passes went sideways and backwards. Third in the table and United losing at Bolton: life could scarcely be better.

It is all very odd for a club where dissatisfaction had become a way of life. Coppell, referring to his team’s performance once James Harper had equalised Martin Petrov’s early goal, talked about a “mentality to protect what you’ve got.” As yet, because they are so flabbergasted, City fans appear virtually bereft of expectation, though this will change as the truth sinks in that they really can compete with Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. For the moment there remains a deeply rooted worry that it could all go horribly wrong.

Should City and Shinawatra’s multimillions not be parted, then it will be fascinating to observe how the club develops. They are no longer playing the corner shop to United’s supermarket and this will mean change for everybody, some of which may be resented. There are former Reading fans who no longer support the club because it is “not the fun it used to be” although, unlike Reading, Manchester City, for all their self-deprecation, have always believed themselves to be a big club. And now they may become precisely that.

Stephen Ireland has had a lively few weeks, falling out with his country and then being reprimanded by the FA for dropping his shorts, but Eriksson was unstinting in his praise: “I am not sure what is his best position but he could become our second striker.” The first will doubtless arrive through the January transfer window.

The Swede was keen to emphasise that everybody at the club had feet on the ground. In Shanghai all the lights in the commercial part of the city are switched off before midnight every night. As a metaphor for the transience of success it is not one the City fans would want to ponder too closely.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007