Assistant Coach, England Under-21, 2021–
I remember Yaya Touré calling it the day before we went to Newcastle.
“I’m going to score,” he said as he looked me dead in the eye, totally calm. “And we’ll win.”
We were preparing to play at St James’ Park in our penultimate game of the 2011/12 season. We’d overturned an eight-point deficit to Manchester United, and were two games from Manchester City’s first ever Premier League title.
“Trust me,” Yaya told me.
Newcastle were a good side, though. It’s never an easy place to go, and with two games left they were one point off third and still in the hunt for a Champions League place. It was definitely the game we were most nervous about in the run-in, but Yaya was the calmest man in the country.
It was like he’d been there and done it, and then travelled back in time to tell me about it.
I think most people wanted City to do it, just because United had been so dominant over the years.
But everyone also knew we could slip up at Newcastle. And the players felt that, too.
But not Yaya.
"there was a suggestion that we had all gone to City for the money. Roberto made it clear we were there to win trophies"
The game was still goalless after an hour, and our manager, Roberto Mancini, brought on Nigel de Jong for Samir Nasri. Yaya became the number 10 and had more attacking licence.
It’s in moments like that when big players step up. Within 10 minutes, he had put us one up; then he scored another to secure the three points (above).
Yaya did as he said he would. Just like that, we were one game from the title.
But getting into that position had been a long time coming. A lot of hard work had gone into it.
It all started when Roberto came in as manager in December 2009.
He made us more difficult to beat. We’d been winning games, but we were winning too many games while being entertaining. That isn’t enough to win titles.
He made us more rigid out of possession. We became harder to score against.
His 4-4-2 didn’t have out-and-out wingers – we had Samir and David Silva out wide – but we were set up to create overloads involving both of them, and we scored a lot of goals.
Out of possession, we became solid. We all knew our jobs and it worked.
"there was an almost unspoken expectation from the players – at least there was on my part – that we’d be right up there"
There was a lot of scrutiny on us as a group. Just as it might be the case with the current Newcastle team until they start winning things, there was a suggestion that we had all gone to City for the money.
When Roberto came in, he gave us more focus on winning things. He made it clear we were there to win trophies.
And, after he led us to FA Cup glory in 2010/11, I truly believed we were contenders for the league.
Then we signed Sergio Agüero, who I was really excited about – although I was actually more excited about Samir and Gaël Clichy. They had Premier League experience, so I thought they wouldn’t need any time to settle. And we already had Carlos Tevez up front, so we weren’t going to struggle in that position.
We also signed Stefan Savic, who was going to provide competition for me at centre-back, but I was content that I’d be given opportunities. I had played a big part in the FA Cup success the year before, and I always believed that if I was given an opportunity, I would take it – and prove I deserved to start. I wasn’t worried about my place in the team.
Stefan added depth to the squad, though. It was a long season, and we all had to contribute at different times.
There were also lots of players who played their part as leaders. Vincent Kompany, Carlos Tevez, Kolo Touré, who had been part of the Arsenal Invincibles; Gareth Barry, who had been a Premier League captain for 10 years; Gaël Clichy. There were so many leaders in that group; so many big influences.
"when we lost to United in the Community Shield, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. It was a wake-up call"
There wasn’t one individual who took charge, or who you’d always go to if you needed something. All of those leaders played their part and shared the responsibility.
You could tell we were a really good group, but there was no expectation from Roberto that we would win the league. There was no conversation where we said: “This year, we’re going to win City’s first title since 1968.”
But there was an almost unspoken expectation from the players – at least there was on my part – that we’d be right up there.
I think beating Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the FA Cup semi final in the previous season was massive. He almost always won semi finals, and we beat his title-winning United side. That felt like a really big moment for us. I think it changed our mindset.
Then, when we lost to United in the Community Shield, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. It gave us a wake-up call.
Even though we were starting to think we could do something special, we clearly needed to raise our game. That defeat showed us as much.
We made an incredible start to the league season, winning 11 of our first 12 games. We were brushing good teams aside: 5-1 at Tottenham. The 6-1 at Old Trafford.
"the way we celebrated winning 6-1 at Old Trafford spoke volumes. We weren’t really surprised by what we'd done"
I think that win at United was actually as comfortable as it looked on TV.
Our full-backs – Gaël and Micah Richards – were just unreal. Nani had had a really good start to the season, but he was having so little joy that he got subbed after 65 minutes.
In a 6-1 win, you’d expect a forward to be awarded the man of the match. But Micah (below) won it, and rightly so.
The impact that those two had on the team – and on that game – was amazing.
I think the way we celebrated spoke volumes. We weren’t really surprised by what we had done. We celebrated the derby win – obviously, it was great to beat United – but then just got on the coach and went home. It was straight on to the next game.
We stayed unbeaten for five more games after the United win, but we didn’t expect to go the whole season unbeaten. So, when we lost at Chelsea in December, we didn’t panic.
We knew there would be periods that weren’t as good – or as easy – as the start of the season.
"with six games to go we were eight points behind, But we just focused on winning our games"
We had a bit of a wobble in the middle of the season, when we were without some key players like Yaya and Carlos. We lost at Sunderland and Everton, and drew with West Brom.
Roberto wasn’t happy at all. You’ve seen how animated he gets on the touchline? Well, he was very animated in the changing room after those results.
He called us out for not being good enough without Yaya and Carlos. That rubbed the players up the wrong way. We didn’t like it. Not just the midfielders. Everyone. We all took responsibility; we all felt that what was said was aimed at all of us. We knew we had to be better as a collective.
I still don’t know if Roberto did it to get a reaction from us, or if he genuinely felt that way and was just angry. Whatever his reasons, it worked.
We all came together, and we kept on believing. Even when we fell way behind United.
We lost at Arsenal, so with six games to go we were eight points behind them. We had the Manchester derby at the Etihad, but we were still relying on them slipping up.
But we were just focused on winning our games.
"It was one of the biggest Premier League games ever. Diego Maradona was there!"
The Wolves game was the first time I was going to play at Molineux since I’d left six years earlier. Terry Connor was the manager – someone I had a huge amount of respect for, loved as a coach and who played a huge part in making me the player I was.
And on top of that, if we won, we’d send Wolves down. It was set up to be a very emotional day for me.
But then the United result focused my mind. The cheer on the bus when we heard the result was absolutely massive. The title race was back in our hands.
Seconds later, the focus was on the Wolves game. We could have got off the bus and played the game that instant. We won 2-0, and we were three games from the title.
But we still had to beat United. It was one of the biggest games the Premier League has ever seen. Diego Maradona was there to watch it!
"It was only when QPR got their second that I started to worry"
Then the chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, came to say a few words to us at the hotel. It wasn’t the first time he had done that, but there was a different intensity to what he had to say this time. He made it clear how big this game was all over the world – way beyond Manchester.
But the nerves weren’t there like they were in the Newcastle game. We were calm and, when Vinny scored just before half-time (above), it felt like we would hold on. And we did.
Then came the win at Newcastle, which actually felt bigger than the United game. The day that Yaya saved us.
And then, in the last game of the season, we had QPR at home. They were 17th and fighting for their lives, but we were sure we’d win.
We knew what we had to do, and there just weren’t any nerves. We went out to enjoy the occasion; we knew we were the better side.
The first half played out exactly as we’d expected. We had 80 per cent possession, went 1-0 up through Pablo Zabaleta, and QPR had one shot – a free-kick from about 30 yards.
"Everything went through my head. I hated the thought of doing normal things – of facing the world – if we didn’t win"
We expected that the second half would be much the same, but obviously things weren’t quite so simple.
A few minutes after the restart, I made a mistake under a high ball to allow Djibril Cissé in to score. I still felt like we’d do it, though. I knew we only had to score one goal, and I knew we would do that.
It was when QPR got their second that I started to worry. It wasn’t my mistake that I was worried about; it was that we actually might not win.
Everything went through my head. I hated the thought of doing normal things – of facing the world – if we didn’t win this game.
I thought about picking the kids up from school, going on holiday, playing at the Euros that summer! At that moment, I didn’t want to do any of it. I wanted to hide away.
The end of the match was so stressful. Looking back, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up thinking about it, but I actually wouldn’t want to win that way again. I couldn’t take it. I’d much rather win the title with 10 games to go.
"As players and friends, that squad has an unbreakable bond"
It took me another six years to watch the highlights back, it was that painful. Even when I watch it back now, I don’t enjoy it. I still can’t believe how close we came to messing it up.
But the feeling when Sergio scored the winner was something else. You’ve all seen what happened at the Etihad. It’s all a bit of blur.
To be able to say I was part of such a special team is an incredible feeling. When we see each other now, we just smile, knowing the shared memory we have.
That period was the start of where the club has got to now, and we know how important a role we played in Manchester City’s history.
Ten years on, look where they are now.
As players and friends, that squad has an unbreakable bond.
A fair few of those leaders I mentioned have gone into coaching. If we ever get to work together again, you can’t guarantee success. But you can be sure we’d have fun.
Author: Ali Tweedale