Where cobwebs clung to the walls there were cameras. Where a tired, dismissive croak once irritatingly back-handed the questions we wanted answering, a cleaner, more open and honest one began to answer them. Where a coach many believed to be overrated departed Manchester City Football Club two months ago, perhaps the best one in the world announced his arrival. Welcome, Pep Guardiola. Fasten your seatbelts.
It’s been a couple of weeks and I’m still sat here thinking this is all a bit surreal. But just take a moment to consider how flummoxed Guardiola must be feeling. His arrival was handled in a way I’d imagine a stranded wanderer would receive a man carrying water in the desert. Here, a man used to the sophisticated professionalism of Barcelona and Bayern Munich was thrown in front of a congregation of adoring City fans like a world-record signing. You can understand the giddiness, though. Guardiola won’t be putting his boots on for the club next season, but few would argue against the fact that City won the January 2016 transfer window.
To kick things off there was the party at the CFA training complex – a fantastically corny gesture by the club to celebrate Pep’s first day. “A’ weh signin’ Messeh?” boomed a voice from the crowd as the new manager answered questions on stage. “I am sorry, Messi has to stay in Barcelona for the rest of his career,” Pep replied, but behind those smirking eyes he was definitely asking what on earth was going on. Then there was the interview with famous Mancunian – but not necessarily so famous elsewhere – Noel Gallagher. Trust me, Oasis is the first thing to come out of your mouth when a foreigner asks you what Manchester is famous for and the customary reply is “yeah, we have that drink too!” And when he congratulated Noel on writing the famous Blue Moon anthem that consumes the Etihad on match day, Pep confirmed to us all that he had absolutely no idea who this fella was. Once again, welcome to Manchester City, Pep – it’s weird here.
There is a fine line between giving your new manager a warm welcome and attributing to him a God-like status that can come across as a little bit creepy. A week in and calls are already being made for Guardiola to extend his three-year contract at the club and he’s not even selected a starting eleven for us yet. While there is room for excitement, we must follow the lead of our new manager in approaching the new season with a little caution. There was no Jose Mourinho-like gloating from Guardiola in his first press conference on Friday afternoon as he spoke of the difficulty of the Premier League and his desire to learn.
“I have come here to learn, learn the way the people live here, for my family, for my kids. That is why I was curious to move in Europe,” he said, before revealing his plans to ‘hug’ his new players and then ‘kick their arses’.
And as Guardiola knows, there is a lot to learn from England. This is a land where the favourites for the drop can surge to win the title, where last season’s convincing title winners can plummet into the relegation zone, where winter breaks involve only the Metrolink and where Sunderland 2-0 Arsenal isn’t the most surprising scoreline in the world. Don’t underestimate the tremendous work he did at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but take into consideration the fact that turning Manchester City into serial winners will probably be Guardiola’s most difficult task to date.
However, there have already been notable improvements at the club since the Spaniard took over. Courtesy of the magnificent team at City TV, we’ve glimpsed the enthusiastic finger-wagging, heard the orders from the sidelines and have felt warmed by the reassuring arm round the shoulder that Pep brings to his training sessions. I had the pleasure of bumping into Gaël Clichy, albeit briefly, the other day and when asked how the new manager was settling in, he told me that “he’s probably the best coach I’ve ever had.” Coming from the mouth of a man who played under Arsène Wenger for eight years, that’s a hell of a statement, especially after a week.
And there’s just something so much more likable about Pep than Pellegrini. He’s humble – “I’m here to learn”. He’s ambitious – “I proved myself in Barcelona and after I proved myself in Germany and I wanted to prove myself in England”. And perhaps most importantly of all, he’s not a bullshitter – “the people don’t come here to remember what we did. We are here to try again.” Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Joe Hart may be part of the core at Manchester City, but if they don’t impress the new manager in training, they won’t play. And it’s possible that their places may be filled by a product of the academy should they show the passion that Guardiola demands from his staff: “If a young player has the ability and they show me the passion to succeed in the world of football, they will be in my hands. It all depends on their quality and passion.” I like that. I like the fact that there’s a level playing field for everyone, regardless of their wage or age.
And so begins a new era. Hopefully one that’s progressive and fun. Pep’s ability to facilitate the development of players is possibly the best of all his talents and that’s something Pellegrini failed to do in his three years at the club. Whether or not Guardiola is the best manager in the world may well be decided in three years time when his contract expires and he sets off on another educational adventure to another of Europe’s top football leagues. But for now, it’s clear that the club have got their hands on someone very, very special.