Manchester City are firmly established as one of Europe’s elite these days, but the all-conquering team that won a domestic treble in 2018-19 is a very different beast to the one Nedum Onuoha remembers.
Onuoha came through the youth ranks at City, and the slick machine managed by Pep Guardiola is a world away from the ramshackle facilities and hard-earned reputation for failure and disappointment he was used to growing up.
And though Onuoha was around for the start of the Sheikh Mansour era, he still can’t quite believe just how far the club has come.
“To see the club now, compared to where it was 15 or 20 years previously, is crazy,” Onuoha says.
“I remember in the academy they’d tell you whether you were going to get the next deal. You’d go to a shared training facility with the public and then you had to walk up to the Portakabins at the top, where the manager would be waiting to tell you whether you were going to make it or not.
“That’s where they were then, and now they’re in a situation where they’re organising everything, everyone’s training in the same place with top-quality conditions. Every last detail has been worked on and they know their preparation is as good as anyone else in the world.”
Onuoha did not leave City permanently until January 2012, just a few months before they won their first Premier League title. But having made just one appearance for the Blues in the first half of that season, fate ensured he was still on the pitch for that memorable afternoon in May.
Unsurprisingly, Onuoha has a vivid recollection of a surreal afternoon that featured five goals, a red card and perhaps the most dramatic finish to a title race there has ever been. And for QPR, the club Onuoha had recently joined, survival despite the loss.
“We were going into the City game with our destiny in our own hands, but they were trying to win the league at home for the first time,” the defender says.
“I spent the week overthinking the game completely, thinking about every possible scenario. What if this happens? What if that happens. Positive, negative, everything.
“It was probably the first time I’d been nervous going into a game since the second week of my career. I was so, so nervous, just because of the implications. Am I really going to be relegated in the stadium I called home? Is this actually going to happen? Am I going to be the laughing stock of the whole stadium? I was thinking ‘It’s going to hurt my pride. It’s going to kill me.’”
Mancini ‘lost the plot’
Trailing 1-0 at the break, the QPR players regrouped in the dressing room ahead of an unexpectedly thrilling second half. Despite the stress and uncertainty, they went ahead, Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie scoring either side of Joey Barton’s red card.
The pressure mounted, but Onouha and his team-mates stood firm until deep into injury time.
“Just before they scored their second goal, I’ll never forget Mancini was on the sideline and he’d completely lost the plot,” Onuoha says.
“He was cursing his players, he was insulting them, he was doing everything. The place was wild. The pressure in the stadium was as high as I’ve seen anywhere, in any game. It was chaotic.
“After they scored the third, I thought we were down. I realised we weren’t down when, five seconds after I had my hands on my head, I looked up at our fans and they were celebrating in the far stand.
“I took a breath in, I looked around and saw every single person in the stadium celebrating. I thought, ‘This is a moment which I don’t think will ever be replicated.’”