At the Etihad Stadium, there used to be a banner bearing the legend “This Charming Man”. This was not a reference to Morrissey, a Manchester United follower in his youth, or Johnny Marr, even if The Smiths guitarist is a regular in the exec boxes.
It referred to Manuel Pellegrini, for whom the description was not actually that fitting. Not that Pellegrini was particularly rude or confrontational during the three years he was Manchester City manager but he arrived in Manchester in the summer of 2013 as a stranger and pretty much left as one. And that was totally by his design and not accident.
Few in public life possess the ability to say so little when answering questions from the media while maintaining such icy detachment. He was far more stone-faced diplomat than headline-seizing raconteur. There were flashes of wryness and irritation, plus the odd catty comment, particularly in the direction of Jose Mourinho, but Pellegrini always kept a reasonable and safe distance from being passionate or controversial.
Perhaps that owed something to a realisation that his time in Manchester was always a temporary arrangement. He arrived as a second prize in the club’s seduction of Pep Guardiola and was jettisoned as soon as the Catalan was confirmed which, according to recent Football Leaks’ revelations, was as early as the October of a 2015-16 season that ended limply for City.
As Leicester streaked away with a surprise title, it took until the final day of the season for a place in the following season’s Champions League to be secured. They had reached the semi-final of that same competition, the furthest City have yet reached, but a bloodless capitulation to Real Madrid over two legs, lost only 1-0 on aggregate though City barely laid a glove on Cristiano Ronaldo et al, made that achievement rather more forgettable than it might have been.
Having spent two years at Hebei China Fortune FC, he is back in the Premier League with West Ham and Saturday at the London Stadium will reacquaint him with his old club, and many of his former players. Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Fernandinho remain key cogs who survive from the team that snatched the title from Liverpool in 2013-14, while Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, Nicolas Otamendi and Fabian Delph all served under the Chilean in his final season.
All, save for perhaps Kompany, for whom injuries have been a continuing problem, have raised their levels under Guardiola, and particularly in the last 18 months. The dazzling, dominant football City have played has cast a long shadow over just about everything in the club’s history and the Pellegrini years have rather faded in in its wake, too.
Which seems a shame considering the excellence of the football City played under him and particularly during that first, 2013-14, season when United were destroyed 4-1 in their first, post-Ferguson Manchester derby, Tottenham were pumped 6-0 and Arsenal 6-3.
In the match City lost 3-2 at Liverpool in April of 2014, the occasion of Steven Gerrard’s declaration that “this does not f***ing slip”, their second-half performance was superb, and may well have caused the doubts that eventually sunk Brendan Rodgers’ team. City were thereafter relentless, winning their last five matches, with Yaya Toure the star man.
These are memories that City fans will not have mislaid. Pellegrini liked to play football with the handbrake off, and at their best, his team were just as destructive as that of Guardiola, but his lack of image, staid and impassive compared to the expensively attired touchline performances of his successor, has counted against him. There was no high concept documentary series made during the Pellegrini years.
And his legacy was definitely tarnished by his team failing to build on their successes, with Mourinho’s Chelsea front-running to the 2014-15 title, and then that final season, where as so often happens when a manager is on his way out, there was a downing of tools that did not allow Pellegrini to sign off with silverware, though a second League Cup had been earlier collected.
“It will be a special game,” he said this week, looking ahead to Saturday. “For me the most important thing in every club that I left, people had a good relationship with me. I had three very important years at Manchester City.”
The word “important” is that he probably uses most during those stonewalling press conferences. He will be recalled by those City fans who make the trip as an important if now hugely overshadowed figure in the club’s history.