A quick handshake, with no eye contact, and then Manuel Pellegrini was gone.
Away from the curious eyes of the television cameras, away from the rapidly emptying stands, away from the jubilation of the away end. Back in the bowels of the Etihad stadium, Pellegrini quickened his stride and left his staff behind. He wanted to get back to the dressing room first. He wanted to look his players in the eye when they skulked back.
He took a left turn, fuming to himself. Demichelis, he thought. Martin Demichelis. You take a chance on a player. You bring him to England, telling him that you think he can still contribute. You encourage him to get a decent haircut. You take him to silverware. And this is what happens. This is how he repays you. A grown man. A proper center-back. Humiliated by a child. Embarrassed by … hang on.
He was stopped in his anger by an unexpected fire exit. A security guard stood nearby with a puzzled, faintly pitying expression on his face. Pellegrini realized that he’d taken the first left, not the second, and was about to walk into the television production room. He stomped back the way came.
And Navas! He was seething. A winger who hates crossing! An attacker who can’t shoot! And what about Bony. Poor lad. You ask for a striker, and you kind of hope that you might get one who makes some kind of sense with the rest of the squad. Sure he used to able to stand up, mind. At one point he was definitely able to kick a ball. And Fernando. Fernando! Wait, where am I?
He slammed open the dressing room door, face set to thunder, only to find something entirely unexpected. Where he had been anticipating the smell of Deep Heat and sweat, his nose reported bleach. Where he had been expecting to hear the muted chatter of defeated footballers, his ears only picked up clatters and clangs. And where he had anticipated seeing his defenders, heads bowed, he saw a tangle of mops, marigolds, and “Caution – Slippery!” signs.
He was in a broom closet.
A bucket landed on his toe.
Retracing his steps, limping slightly, he cursed his luck. He cursed Vincent Kompany’s quivering calf muscles and Yaya Toure’s slow surrender to the ravages of age. He took a left, then cursed Nicolas Otamendi’s sprained beard and Gael Clichy’s diffidence. He turned right, then right again, cursing the solidity of David de Gea’s posts, Michael Oliver’s reluctance to get his yellow card out, that thug, Juan Mata, who had kicked Raheem out of the game.
Finally, he took the last turn and headed toward the right door. His anger surged, yet he managed to drag his thoughts away from trivial matters and focus on the real culprit. “Guardiola,” he whispered to himself. “Guardiola.” And the rest of them, he thought. Everyone above me. Everyone around me. Most of the time, when you get sacked, he thought, they have the good manners to let you go straight away. They don’t drag you through the back end of a poor season, make you suffer through game after empty game. Make you stand up in front of a room of your own players who all know that you’re not good enough, that you’re being moved on, that there’s no faith in your ability. “Guardiola,” he whispered, again.
They’ve stolen my team, he thought. I loved this team. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t the greatest. But it was mine, you know? We played some good football and we won some trophies and no, we didn’t win the Champions League, and no, we weren’t always that convincing, and no, nobody could really work out why Alvaro went so rubbish so quickly. But we were pretty damn good. And now I look at their faces and I see nothing behind their eyes. They’ve let go. They’ve moved on. Joe’s worrying about whether he can play like Neuer. Raheem’s wondering if he’ll be going to fullback. It’s over. They’re thinking about him. “Guardiola.” They don’t even hear me.
If I asked them to run through a brick wall for me now, they’d laugh at me. Except Pablo. Bless you, Pablo.
“Right, you pricks …” A cold breeze slapped him in the face; the door slammed shut behind him. Two startled faces looked back at him. He recognized them as members of catering staff, out for a quick cigarette, slightly taken aback by the appearance of an angry Chilean. He looked at the trash dumpsters, and at the car park, and he sighed. The sun disappeared behind a cloud.
“Excuse me,” he asked. “Do you … can you point me toward the dressing room?”