“It’s almost cruel,” roared Barry Davies, the BBC’s commentator as Leeds United, on the way to a 7-0 thrashing of Southampton in 1972, showboated away. Midfield general John Giles, who famously exchanged tricks with Billy Bremner in a 39-pass sequence of keep-ball that concluded the match, later said it was an expression “out of boredom” as the match was long won.
It was an exhibition of the great skills that “Dirty Leeds” possessed but it still won few friends, even though manager Don Revie had sent a message to his players that he did not want any more goals out of respect for an opponent that had only recently been on the end of an 8-0 demolition by Everton. Those sumptuous skills would soon be used as a stick to beat Leeds; if they could play like that then why the need for such skulduggery?
Fast forward 34 years to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, and a 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, with Wigan well beaten in that year’s League Cup final, had decided he would enjoy himself against a lagging Latics defence, where he was being double teamed by Gary Teale and Leighton Baines, both hapless against him.
Across came senior professional Ryan Giggs for a quiet word and a warning. This was the biggest day in these opponents’ careers so far, and they were not to be disrespected. And they would be justified in giving Ronaldo a good kicking if they could get near him. Ronaldo, recognising sage advice, dialled down his flights of fancy and settled for winning the trophy.
Respect for an opponent, an understanding of how it feels to be on the end of what broadcaster Danny Baker calls a “right hammering” has historically caused teams to slam on the brakes when a true embarrassment is at hand.
What, then, to make of Manchester City’s Wednesday night punishment of Burton Albion and that 9-0 scoreline? In the latter stages, there was little evidence of let-up as pressure was piled on for the tenth goal that a sparse home crowd were demanding. Kevin de Bruyne had left the field with some disquiet as Phil Foden came on in his stead. There were goals and assists to plunder.
City were respectful enough in their celebrations, apologetic as soon as the second goal, scored by Gabriel Jesus, was notched in the 30th minute. But they kept on going to the final whistle, with Burton manager Nigel Clough by no means defying credibility when he said his players had not actually played all that badly.
Clough’s team fell victim to an opponent determined to play itself back into form. Just four days before, Rotherham United had been pumped 7-0 in the FA Cup. Two lower division teams have been used as a punchbag for City take their frustrations out. After a huge build-up to last week’s defeat of Liverpool, in which City’s players had to dig deep, Pep Guardiola’s team have taken out the tensions of a troubled December on lesser lights.
Burton, and Rotherham, have just been unlucky to get in the way at the wrong time. That Guardiola meant business was made apparent by Foden, the teenage hopeful, being left on the bench while De Bruyne and David Silva started. Guardiola wanted to get the tie won in the first leg; Foden et al could start at Burton.
“They had seen it on television, but they could not believe it first-hand,” said Clough of his shell-shocked players. “They said some of their lads did not even seem to be running, but were gliding around the pitch.”
Here was respect for an opponent 51 places above Burton in the league pyramid, and a squad worth well over 100 times more the £6.08m value that the Transfermarkt website places against them but was that the case for City?
Guardiola spoke as if his team had come through a close-run thing against a mid-table Premier League team.
“We made good runs in behind and we took it seriously,” he said.
But then again, that was typical of the Catalan, relentless in his desire for his team to constantly hit the standards he demands. It is key to his success at times and his failures, too.
Any respect Guardiola might show to an opponent comes before and after a game is played and not during it.
Burton became little more than an unwitting bystander to what he and Abu Dhabi’s billions have brought to Manchester.