Jim White

The end of Balotelli? Don’t make me laugh

Outside Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, stretching across a vast tract of empty brownfield land all the way across to the Manchester velodrome, is the site of the club’s new training complex.

At a cost of some £250 million, the 80-acre Etihad Campus encompasses all sorts of superlatives, from state of the art medical facilities to the most advanced of all-weather pitches. Construction began last September, using a local workforce and locally sourced materials, suggesting this will not only be a magnificent facility, but one rooted in its community.

But, among its dazzling array of eye-catching components there is one thing the place won’t have. Unlike the club’s current training base in Carrington, there will not be a public footpath running past the first-team training pitch, allowing any passing paparazzo the chance to snap the club’s leading stars in their preparations. Which may be the main reason Roberto Mancini and his staff can’t wait to relocate there.

The latest set of snaps to emerge from the ever-giving location that is City’s training ground centre around – who else – Mario Balotelli. They appear to show the Italian being physically restrained by his manager after he tackled Scott Sinclair a mite too heavily for the boss’s liking.

Balotelli, seemingly, refused the instruction to return immediately to the dressing room and got Mancini’s hand in his throat as a response. There is a stand-off, then Super Mario is seen being led from the pitch. Mancini, meanwhile, completes the scene by being photographed with his head in his hands apparently in exasperation.

Reading the papers this morning, this bunch of pictures is portrayed as the final straw, the end in the fractious relationship between manager and the wayward star he has indulged for so long. He will now surely be on his bike this transfer window. Milan are interested, so he will be let go. There is no way he will play for City again.

Which is a nice theory. Except on this occasion – although usually a sucker for a conspiracy theory – I am inclined to accept City and Mancini's official explanation that the incident was just one of those things that happens on a training pitch. It is a consequence of the intensity Mancini demands of his players in practice. Proof, in fact, that this is a squad up for it.

For sure, this is not the first time we have seen the blue mooners behaving badly in their place of work. Push-me-pull-you handbags have been several times recorded by telephoto lens from the safe distance of the public footpath. And every time they are used as evidence of a squad riven by internal dispute and dislike. Or one just fed up with Mario. Yet, oddly enough, the team seem to be doing all right despite these images of endless dissent.

The truth may be, as it often is in such circumstances, a rather different one from that assumed by those images.

City’s problem with the easy public access to their private preparations is that they are the only club we see in this manner. Across the hedge at United’s training ground, it would require the intruding skills of Ethan Hunt to smuggle a camera anywhere near where Rooney, Van Persie and Hernandez train. And then the chances of emerging with your equipment intact if the boss saw you are minimal.

At Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool it is similarly impossible to take intimate shots of preparation. So we have no idea whether players there occasionally lose their temper on the training pitch. But the chances are they do. All logic would suggest that highly competitive individuals can get a bit shirty even in the five-a-side at the end of a session. If they are Craig Bellamy, particularly in the five-a-side at the end of a session.

Read any autobiography of those who made up Liverpool’s dominant team of the seventies and eighties and they are full of tales about how often training descended into a scrap: such incidents are recalled as an admirable indication of the team’s desire.

Indeed, did Sir Alex Ferguson recently not reveal to Harvard academics that he has in his squad a nasty little player who routinely aims sly kicks in training? And that he would be loath to stop him because this was merely an expression of his will to win. We can all guess to whom he was referring.

Indeed, whatever the pictures may suggest, my suspicion is, reflecting on what happened, Mancini will have been secretly rather pleased at Mario’s little flourish. If nothing else it showed, after he had been obliged to criticise the player’s lacklustre approach to training, that he may well have been listening.

As for the idea that this represented the last straw and that Balotelli will now be on the first plane to Milan, those inclined to make a wager should put their money on him being selected for this weekend’s FA Cup tie with Watford. Every picture may tell a story. But on this occasion, most appear to have missed the point.