For years, Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t have to think about Manchester City. While his Manchester United team generally got their own way in the 1990s and 2000s, his rivals were flapping and floundering—sometimes they were in the same division, sometimes they weren’t even on the radar as City embarked on a tour of the football league system.
After several years of just existing in the top flight, City were given the opportunity to truly revolutionise the club. Investment from Sheikh Mansour into both the team and the facilities in East Manchester meant they were back on the radar.
At the time, many thought Robinho was the marquee signing that would kick-start the club into the new era at the top table. He’d joined on the very day City were taken over, moving from Real Madrid in a £32.5 million deal—and it had the fans excited to the point of some ill-judged stereotypical dancing in tea towels behind reporters at the City of Manchester Stadium.
In the end, the move for Robinho didn’t really work. He was a one-season wonder, and only truly impressed in home matches for the 2008-09 campaign. The real transfer coup came the following summer—City snatched striker Carlos Tevez from under the noses of their rivals United.
Many of the Old Trafford fans tried to claim it wasn’t a big deal, but the months of “Fergie sign him up” chants in the build-up to his two-year loan at United expiring undermined that idea.
City knew they’d touched a nerve, and a cheeky billboard poster depicting the Argentinian with the words “Welcome to Manchester” didn’t go down well across town, either. It got under the skin of Ferguson, who snapped to the press.
“It's City isn't it? They're a small club with a small mentality. All they can talk about is Manchester United; they can't get away from it,” he said, reported by the BBC. “They think taking Carlos Tevez away from Manchester United is a triumph. It is poor stuff.”
But it was a triumph. The arrival of Tevez at City marked the start of an important change at the club, as they made the step up from mid-table mediocrity to Champions League qualifiers. In the end, they didn’t achieve a top-four finish in Tevez’s first year at the club, ending 2009-10 in fifth after losing to Tottenham Hotspur on the penultimate match of the campaign, but it was the first step toward it.
The striker was an early building block in that team’s turnaround. After missing pre-season, he took a while to settle into his new club—by the time he had, manager Mark Hughes had been replaced by Roberto Mancini and City were beginning to perform better, even if they were over-reliant on Tevez’s goals.
The Argentinian was so important to City at that time that Mancini knew he had to do something to secure his position at the club. Even with a better candidate elsewhere in the team in Vincent Kompany and even though the striker would hand in several transfer requests in his time at Eastlands, the manager gave Tevez the captaincy. It was a bold move for a fiery character, though it’s difficult to argue the forward didn’t lead by example on the pitch.
Tevez had become synonymous with a workmanlike attitude. Throughout his time at City, barely a game went by when the striker didn’t run himself into the ground, chasing down lost causes and hassling defenders into giving up possession.
He’s likened to Sergio Aguero for his low-centre of gravity and general finishing ability, but Tevez had far more energy and work rate than his compatriot. He never seemed to tire—and he’s the sort of striker the City fans had never seen before. They’ll probably never see one of his ilk again, either.
Even the popular FIFA video-game series encapsulated what he did at City through Martin Tyler’s cliched commentary of, “Carlos Tevez, with his bulldog-like approach.” That annoyed City fans for a whole year, until the developers decided it probably shouldn’t have played every time the computer game version of the forward received the ball.
In 2010-11, with the likes of David Silva and Yaya Toure behind him in the midfield, the striker became City’s talisman. He was a sure-fire pick for anybody’s fantasy football team as he was almost guaranteed to score if he played.
He was showing United fans how absurd their “never wanted him anyway” lines were, as he helped his new club to a top-three finish and an FA Cup victory, ending a 35-year major-trophy drought. His range of finishing was phenomenal—he was adept at long-range efforts, scuffs inside the box, headers, volleys...he had it all, even if he never seemed to fill onlookers with confidence that he’d strike the ball cleanly.
His injury in a 3-0 defeat at Liverpool went to prove how vital he was to the team. It came less than a week before City were contesting the FA Cup semi-final with United—and many felt it was fatal to his side’s chance of progressing. It sparked debate over whether he’d be missed more than the suspended Wayne Rooney, with many believing Ferguson’s team had the wherewithal to cope without their main striker and City didn’t.
However, Toure stepped up and did the business, as Mancini beat his rivals 1-0 at Wembley.
It was remarkable, really, that Tevez ended up leaving City on such good terms. After a spat with his manager on the touchline in a Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich in 2011—where Mancini alleged Tevez refused to warm up, and the striker denied that’s what he’d been asked to do—the City supporters publicly backed their manager. There was a “Tevez Out” banner held up in the away end at Ewood Park in City’s next match, a 4-0 win at Blackburn Rovers.
Some never wanted to see the Argentinian in a City shirt again.
After around five months of self-imposed exile in Argentina, Tevez apologised to City and to his manager. He returned to the team in a 2-1 victory over Chelsea, laying on the winning goal for Samir Nasri, and played a major part in his side’s overhauling over United’s eight-point Premier League lead in the final six matches of 2011-12.
He even managed to joke about the situation, celebrating a hat-trick in a 6-1 success at Norwich City with a golf swing—a reference to what he’d been doing while on garden leave.
He returned as a regular for his—and Mancini’s—final year at City, in 2012-13, moving to Juventus at the end of the campaign in a transfer worth an estimated £10 million. Looking back now, the Italian side probably got a bargain.
While it’s Aguero that is making inroads into the record books at City and is the striker that will go down more favourably in the club’s history during their recent reinvention, Tevez should never be forgotten in the turnaround from also-rans to champions.
It was only really after Ferguson retired from the dugout at Old Trafford that United fell away and the power shifted in Manchester, but Tevez was one of the main players in getting City to a standard where they could regularly finish above their rivals and be the more attractive proposition.
He may have been a bad egg off the pitch and a disruptive influence at times, but City fans should look back fondly at what he achieved with their team. He was the start of the club's rebirth.