FA Cup victory shows Manchester City are a team to love, admire and fear

Barney Ronay at Wembley


Welcome to the new order. Domestic games: played 51, won 43. Domestic trophies: three out of three. Five-goal hauls: 11. Defeats since Christmas: one.

Scan the history books, fan back to the big city clubs of Victorian times, linger on the red-shirted eras of the last 50 years. English domestic football has never seen anything quite like this single-season hit from Manchester City. It turns out we really do all live in a sky blue world now.

City were not just brilliant at Wembley; they were disorienting. They were hypnotically good; good in a way that seems to pose wider questions of a sporting-existential nature about why, and how, anyone could have assembled a team this annihilatingly fine.

At times it was thrilling. At others it was a little painful. With 50 minutes on the clock, as Watford’s players looked up from their pursuit of the sky blue shirts and contemplated, vaguely, some kind of rearguard from 2-0 down, some way of disrupting the sublime footballing machine pushing them to the edge of this game, they might just have glimpsed the Manchester City substitutes warming up.

Sergio Agüero, Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sané can-canned along the touchline, watching idly, waiting for the call. It is easy to imagine the feelings of those Watford players as they went back to chasing and harrying, the deep lactic burn in the calves, the seconds starting to crawl and above all a kind of vertigo.

This was a glorious day for Manchester City and a historic one for English football. City’s victory completed a first ever men’s domestic treble. And this astonishing team is a team to love, too, so wonderfully well-grooved, so brimful of invention and good habits.

At times its key note is relentlessness, a group of players so in love with their own processes they simply don’t want to stop. Forty minutes on from that moment with the City subs, the game had indeed changed dramatically. Instead of 2-0 the score was 6-0. How do you stop a rising tide?

The third goal was the most cruel. With De Bruyne now on the pitch, Watford basically fell apart. All that chasing: suddenly the yellow shirts were wide open on the halfway line, City on the ball with an embarrassment of green space to run into. Two passes took the ball to De Bruyne. A jink left Heurelho Gomes on the floor. It was hard to watch. Gomes is 38 now. He remains the same loose-limbed gangle of a goalkeeper, a bundle of boots and gloves whose every twitch seems to express some profound state of gloom. He turned to watch as De Bruyne clipped the ball into the back of the net and the day turned into something else.

Wembley had been a lovely, soft, basking place before kick-off, the concourses thronging with blocks of yellow and patches of sky blue. The Watford fans were there hours before kick-off, packing out Wembley Way with flags and homemade signs, something about that connection to 1984, Elton, spangles and all that, ramping up the retro-magic shtick.

As ever, the stadium itself was at its best for these occasions, split into seething, flag-decked halves, and exploding with pre-match tongues of fire from the pitch-side pyrotechnics.

At which point something happened that looked like sport, which was by any definition sport but felt more like a statement of power. There had been a great deal of talk before this game about the meeting of the alphas, Troy versus Vinnie. Deeney himself had spoken about his own sporting dualism, the need to reach down and find that other person, Angry Troy.

In the event there was barely any Troy at all – save the odd close-up of baffled Troy, exhausted Troy, Troy on the edge of someone else’s moment of history. Raheem Sterling was excellent throughout, as were Ilkay Gündoğan, De Bruyne and David Silva.

As the goals began to mount, the Watford fans stood and clapped and roared their players on. They might as well have been shouting into the storm. This City team is an irresistible force, both of sport and of political will; beautifully constructed, massively over-resourced, equipped with its own gold-plated helicopter gunship of a management structure. This has been an act of will, a regime in action. But what is its end point? Whom does it glorify? Is it a surprise that the best manager in the world, with limitless backing, and a supremely well-informed executive around him, can win like this?

By the end the Premier League’s 11th best team might as well have wandered in from a different level of professional sport altogether. Their record against City in the last three seasons reads: played seven, lost seven, combined score 30-4.

But then, a club of Watford’s scale exists, essentially, as a feeder to City’s tier of football. Their wage bill is £200m a year less than the treble-winners. Watford sell to survive and prosper: City are restricted in what they can spend only by the rules of big football finance, and perhaps not even by that.

The blue shirts danced their way to the final whistle, and then danced on after it. For now this is just a moment to glory in this team and these players. There has never been an FA Cup final quite like this. There has, it seems safe to say, never been an English team quite like this either.