Roberto Mancini's dismissal for missing targets shows the ruthless nature in the business of holistic ideals
In Roberto Mancini's Guardian interview with Daniel Taylor in February, the Manchester City manager was comfortable enough to wave away speculation he would be replaced, to criticise his players and emphasise his direct line to the club's owner in Abu Dhabi. "Txiki and Ferran? They are not above me," he said of Begiristain and Soriano, City's director of football and chief executive respectively. "Above me there is only Khaldoon [al-Mubarak, the chairman] and Sheikh Mansour." That was true, on a strict reading of where the power lies at the new Manchester City.
Three months later, it was Al Mubarak who returned from an underwhelming Wembley performance to the Arabian gulf and agreed with Mansour that they should sack the Italian. The Abu Dhabi sheikh, who has invested £1bn into City and been to watch them once, does hold ultimate power at the club.
The worldwide passion for football means that City are the most visible, watched, pored-over projection of Abu Dhabi's image, but the regime have organised the club in accordance with their approach to all major business projects. Mansour, of the Al Nahyan family, dynastic rulers of the emirate for centuries, has provided the money from his share of the oil fortunes which gushed into Abu Dhabi from the 1960s. The rulers set the task to be achieved – broadly, to modernise the country from desert land to sustainable developed state, and in this case, take a mid-table Premier League football club and build it into a winner, up with the best in Europe.
Among Al Mubarak's senior business and political roles, he is the chairman of Abu Dhabi's executive affairs authority, which advises on the country's strategy and "brand", reporting to the crown prince, Mansour's older brother, Sheikh Mohammed. They have always emphasised that City was Mansour's own private equity purchase. It was only after the emirate's rulers experienced the tidal wave of publicity football generates, that Al Mubarak was brought in to shape the project.
So City, for so long written up as the authentic Manchester alternative to corporate United, became a vehicle for the promotion of Abu Dhabi; broadcasting the name of Etihad, the country's tourist authority, ("Travellers Welcome") to a global audience on the hoardings round the pitch. Al Mubarak, US-university educated, is tasked with a 10-year plan, to make the investment worth more than the £1bn Mansour has already spent. The chairman has other duties, including running the multi-billion pound Mubadala Development Company, which looks for businesses to generate returns for Abu Dhabi's great sovereign wealth.
Beneath Mansour and Al Mubarak is a senior board of six. The board meets on flying visits; in Manchester, or in Abu Dhabi, or, as before the FA Cup final, in London, and receive progress reports from the senior management team appointed to oversee day-to-day the transformation of City from the creaking infrastructure they bought in 2008.
They quickly implemented a director of football structure, having observed that the modern Premier League football operation is too multi-faceted for the manager alone to oversee. The role ensures smooth running and improvement, from recruiting children to the academy, through the medical staff, performance analysis, player care, to negotiating Yaya Touré's £10m salary. They consider that Brian Marwood, criticised by Mancini for not buying him the A-list players he wanted, did a good job, and that he is making progress in his new role of academy director.
Mancini's demanding approach, his criticism of players and of Marwood, essentially because City did not sign Robin van Persie, were all tolerated while the team made progress. It is not true that Malaga's Manuel Pellegrini was being lined up as soon as Begiristain arrived in October, but as the season stalled, the review awaiting Mancini looked more ominous. In lining up Mancini to replace Mark Hughes in December 2009, they showed they were not prepared to be without a manager, so Begiristain had to be ready with an alternative. His error was to meet Pellegrini's agent in public, starting all the rumours that reached a painful pitch the morning Mancini led his team out in the Wembley drizzle. A rousing Cup final performance may have persuaded Al Mubarak that Mancini could keep the team progressing, but the listlessness from last season's stalwarts such as Touré, sealed Mancini's fate.
No final decision was made until Al Mubarak returned to Abu Dhabi on Monday and met Mansour. With Mancini waiting at a London hotel, Al Mubarak called to tell him his stint in Manchester was over. The announcement came, at 10:25pm UK time, while United, Van Persie, and Sir Alex Ferguson after his 27 years of longevity, were winding down after their victory parade.
There was widespread guffawing at City's use of the word "holistic," although interestingly, not so much scoffing at the statement that "targets" had not been met, which prompted outrage when Hughes was sacked. Holistic is not just new age waffle; it does mean something: individual parts interconnected to make a functioning whole. The word also appears to have stood in obliquely for any criticism of Mancini, of his management style. Instead, he was thanked extensively for his contribution to the new Manchester City – thanks seen as empty when delivered in a public notice that he was peremptorily sacked.
Pellegrini is expected to sign up as soon as the Spanish season is over. Begiristain will work with him straight away on plans for the squad, although the principal job will be to ensure the current stars play better, together. Plans were revealed to build another 6,000 seats at the Etihad Stadium, potentially to include some cheaper tickets, an onward-and-upward message to the fans. There is a tour to the US, where Mansour also fancies buying an MLS team. By Thursday, Mancini's friend and assistant David Platt had left, and his five Italian coaching staff were gone. Patrick Vieira, who has worked for two years at City, was elevated to head of the under-21 team and youth development.
City fans are still coming to terms with the sacking of this most successful manager in generations. They admired Mancini's style and existential need to win, and loved him for delivering – just – that first league championship in 44 years. So many feel his treatment was too harsh and unnecessarily humiliating. For Abu Dhabi, and the new City culture, Mancini, who was not holistic enough, is gone, and they are all moving on.
David Conn's book, Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up, is now out in paperback.