City call the Toon

SOMEWHERE between climate change deniers and the Flat Earth Society, there are Manchester City fans that refuse to believe Cityitis has been eradicated.

Unlike with smallpox and polio, there is no assurance from the World Health Organization. And City being City …

In the painful defeat at Liverpool, there were those — admittedly of a certain age — who thought they'd spotted ominous symptoms. They were joined by Manchester United fantasists and neutrals who hoped against hope that a spark of life might return to the title procession.

And for an hour or so on Saturday night, the race was back on. After United had scraped past Burnley, City's lead was down from an over-the-horizon 15 points a week ago to a catchable nine.

But against Newcastle, Pep Guardiola's men disputed the diagnosis. Without looking quite like their early season selves, they played as if Anfield was no more than a blip.

There was no inquest: no one was sent into purdah and no heads rolled. They carried on where they'd left off two weeks ago — monopolising possession yet giving the opposition a sniff and even conceding a goal.

They hadn't made a big thing of the defeat. Pep had said it would happen sometime and gave the players two days off when it did. Nope, there was no need for a second opinion on whether it might be the beginning of the cock-up to end all cock-ups — they just shrugged it off.

The fixture list could not have been kinder. Even if there had been an historic relapse, Newcastle at home was the game they would have picked for their convalescence, Sergio Aguero for further feasting.

Nope, City are not the old City any more, but Newcastle are still Newcastle. Back in the cock-up days, City fans, always renowned for their gallows humour, held banners demanding, "Free the 30,000". Newcastle have 50,000 at every home game waiting to be freed. And they've been waiting an eternity.

The story of Manchester and Newcastle is a tale of two cities, alright. One divided but synonymous with unrelenting success; the other united around a single club but without a trophy for 50 years.

Comparisons are excruciating for Geordies: in 2008 City landed the lottery win of Sheikh Mansour, and the oil wealth and vision of an ambitious Gulf state; a year earlier Newcastle landed the odious, penny-pinching Mike Ashley and his Cockney Mafia. Yeah, the best of owners, the worst of owners.

While both City and United are breaking transfer records and have squads that cost circa half a billion quid apiece, Newcastle's record signing is still Michael Owen for a paltry £16 million (RM87.59 million) in 2005. They had paid a world record £15 million for Alan Shearer a decade earlier.

Shearer himself pointed out that every Premier League club has broken their own transfer record in the last two or three years — except Newcastle. With the broadcasting riches, many have done so several times. "The fans," Shearer said, "are not getting value for money."

You can understand the Toon Army's frustration. City have Pep and a cast of stars and can't fill their stadium; Newcastle fill it with journeymen and honest toilers who for the most part are out of their depth.

Nine of the side that started the City game played in the Championship last season. They need new recruits and they need them fast. Last week's takeover collapse dashed hopes for a new commander-in chief. Now there are genuine fears of a second relegation in three years.

They thought they might be even getting a Middle East operation — after all, the region's Ms Fix-it, Amanda Staveley, had been behind the City takeover. But the parties are a good £100 million apart on their valuation.

There is no guarantee that a similar miracle — the transformation of a club that had been the butt of jokes to Europe's elite — would have worked. But at least Rafa Benitez would have been able to bring in reinforcements this month.

Under Ashley, he has to go with the begging bowl and rely on his organisational nous. It may not be enough: next up are Chelsea (in the FA Cup) and Liverpool and Man United.

With 10 days left in the transfer window, he began a countdown for survival. Pointedly, Benitez said: "The team at the top are spending money. They have the best players." In contrast, Pep spoke of 10 more wins to ensure the title — a countdown to glory.

The final scoreline did not tell the story of City's superiority: 81% possession, 18 corners to none. If it were boxing, the Toon were no more than a punch bag.
It makes you wonder why Ashley bought them in the first place. He runs Sports Direct well enough to have become a billionaire but in football terms, he's a pauper.

He complains that he "can't compete against countries" but the way he runs Newcastle, he can't compete against the corner shop.
With the right owners, City have shown it is possible to change the habits of a lifetime; under Ashley, The Toon Army might beg to differ.

Bob's latest book, Living the Dream, about what happens when British football meets foreign billionaires, is on sale at Borders, Kinokuniya, Popular and MPH bookstores.