by Stephen Tudor (Daisy Cutter)
Goodbyes are rarely easy and especially so when they are protracted and clouded by maybes.
In the weeks to come Manchester City are expected to bid farewell to two integral figures from their post-takeover era, architects who did more than most to transform the club’s landscape and make the unimaginable a reality, and though their departures have been marked for some time it’s still hard not to get teary-eyed as we wait in the terminal.
According to the persistent swirl of rumours surrounding the pair the likely destination for Yaya Toure will be Milan – to be reunited with his former capo Roberto Mancini at Inter – while Pablo Zabaleta has today agreed terms with Serie A rivals Roma. City fans knew there would be collateral damage among the Pep euphoria but that still doesn’t make these departures any easier to bear and while there is much excitement at what is presumably to come at this present juncture in time it’s all about preparing to embrace the duo and thank them for their outstanding service before turning away stoically, trying your damndest not to think back to the good times because strangers are watching your unsteady walk to the car.
Zaba and Yaya have been at City for eight and six years respectively yet it’s difficult to imagine them not always being here such has been their momentous impact throughout a quite incredible period in the club’s history. Indeed it is almost impossible to do their contribution justice in print or words beyond penning a weighty book or boring your girlfriend senseless with a ten minute monologue that is drowned out halfway through as she pointedly turns up the volume on Tattoo Fixers.
There have been songs dedicated to each, one so joyously silly and catchy it’s been belted out on European terraces, in Newcastle streets, and at the darts while the other gets right to the bones of why a balding Argentinean has become one of the most beloved players to ever don the blue jersey. He is a fucking man and he’s harder than Jaap Stam.
There have been trophies too, and moments, moments City fans would fantasize about during the shite days then feel a bit daft for allowing their daydreams to become so far-fetched. A last gasp league winner to snatch the title from the clutches of United? Haha pull yourself together man, there is work to do to pay for Wycombe away next Saturday.
What a strange quirk of football it is that we are indebted for our greatest memories to players who do not know us.
Now though the end is near. As the Byrds once sang to everything there is a season and once Pep officially takes up the reins next month an upheaval of personnel is scheduled as a new chapter in this remarkable tale begins. And Yaya and Zaba’s stories have been written.
For Yaya – you feel at least – his leaving would have occurred regardless of the forthcoming revolution. Age has reduced his languid stride to a stroll and at 33 perhaps a fresh challenge is needed to revitalise a sturdy frame that was once beastly and unstoppable. With Zabaleta it is the same but very different: He donated everything he had to six incredible seasons; every last reserve of blood and sweat and passion to the point where there was nothing left to give. Admittedly hampered by injury last season was like watching a punch-drunk boxer lift himself off the stool and fight on instincts alone.
Which is not how we will remember him. When the 31 year old from Buenos Aires returns to wave to the Etihad in years to come and the ground shakes in reverential gratitude back we will think of nothing but his indispensable service down the right flank that brought City two league titles, three domestic cups and a level of pride that made you broaden your shoulders when talking about your football club. We will think of the relentless overlaps, dovetailed interplay with Silva and others, ferocious challenges, and warrior spirit. We will think of the head wounds and full-throttled professionalism and the unique merging of modernity and traditional values that resulted in an entire strip of pitch being his and his alone week in, week out. No matter the quality of the opposition that flank – from goal-line to goal-line – was entirely owned by Zaba: any other player was merely renting space there.
In nearly forty years of watching football Pablo Zabaleta is the finest right-back I have ever seen and I am not confining that judgement to Manchester City nor England.
His performances however are only the half of it.
I am reluctant to compare the emotional impact of each player’s leaving – and do not wish to belittle the genuine love and affection Blues will have for Yaya Toure until our dying days –but one is a good friend relocating for work, the other an emigrating sibling.
Zaba was one of us. He immersed himself and his family into the culture of the club and became an adopted Manc with an accent to match. His respect for the supporters flowed through every minute on the pitch and every interaction off it. It helps too that he is as genuine a person you could ever hope to meet.
Ask any fan of any club who they feel most kinship with and understandably they tend to go local, affiliating themselves most closely with a home-grown kid who comes through the ranks, reps the paying public in spirit, and ‘gets’ the identity and virtues of the area. Blues are no different in this regard only we can now add a man born and raised over seven thousand miles away.
Zaba was signed for the bargain fee of £6.5m in 2008 precisely twenty four hours before ADUG took control and vowed to create an exciting new roadmap for Manchester City. The timing of his transfer was perfect for the player, the club and symbolism itself because what he represented – as the newly invested millions brought in the likes of Robinho and Crocky Santa Cruz – was not only a serious upgrade in talent but a continuation of the club’s working class bloodline and everything that alludes to.
“Your team is full of mercenaries,” opposing fans would crow.
“What about Zabaleta?” we’d reply.
The argument would swiftly change tack.
Goodbyes are rarely easy but I am reminded here of a corny quote I once grimaced at seeing on a friend’s Facebook page. It said farewells are never forever and they are not the end. They simply mean we’ll miss you until we meet again. So to the warrior king of the Etihad and the only footballing hero I’ve had since my teens I say a sad and reluctant adios. But only for now.