Sometimes, goodbye is the hardest thing to say. City’s final home game of the season was over, and the tradition for a club that has not reached expected heights is familiar around the country – a reluctant squad troops out to give their thanks to the 2000 or so strays that have remained in the stadium. Not this time though – people still left, got to get home after all, early starts and all that, but the majority remained because there was unfinished business. It was the first of what will be a series of painful goodbyes.
We watched as Pablo opened up and welled up, as I pretended not to, he gave his thanks and we gave ours. As Pablo said, it was the right time to move on, but he loves the club so much. The feeling is mutual. It was a perfect send off for a player that embraced everything to do with Manchester City football club.
Days like this have been creeping up on us City fans for a while now – the golden spine of our team that gave us more success than we could have once imagined have grown old together, as not even David Silva can defeat time itself, though he’s giving it a good go. Kompany, Toure, Silva, Zabaleta, players all into their 30s, their futures often questioned, their position at the club perilous in recent times. In the end it was Zabaleta that cut the ties first, his legs finally giving in to the demands of a 60-game season, and the day we knew was coming but still hoped never would, had finally arrived.
Zabaleta said in his farewell speech that he did not know if he would stay for long when he arrived, and as few of us knew much about him, we probably felt the same. The day before the takeover of 2008, the day before everything changed forever, a certain Pablo Zabaleta arrived for a modest £6.5m fee from Espanyol. Neither he nor the fans could have envisaged what would follow.
There was little focus on his debut, as all eyes followed Robinho round the pitch as City fell to Chelsea, a certain Frank Lampard running the show. And it must not be forgotten that he was never initially one of the first names on the team sheet either. Signed the day before the 2008 takeover that changed the course of the club, in those heady days when he still had hair, he has thus become one of the longest-serving players at the club, Vincent Kompany arriving just before him, Joe Hart before that.
Despite his long tenure at the club, there is still a slight over-egging of his dominance of that right-back position. He may have joined in 2008, but it was a good four years until Pablo really came into his own, developing along with the team. In that crazy 2011/12 title-winning season, Micah Richards was often preferred for the right-back slot, Zabaleta only starting in just over half of the league games. He still contributed of course, but it was after that season, as Richards’ performances tailed off, that Zabaleta truly shone. Very quickly he was our clear 1st choice at right back, and more than that, one of the best right backs in the Premier League, maybe in Europe too. It wouldn’t last forever, but for a couple of years he was the sort of full back we’d sell family members to have in the team right now.
So consistently good were his performances in the 2012/13 season that he even made the PFA team of the Year, an accomplishment by a Manchester City player akin to me being bombarded with racy texts from a love-struck Natalie Imbruglia. That was the peak for him as a player, though the following season was far greater for the club and him in general. Sadly, in recent times, the legs have gone, the hair too, and the body cannot keep up with the brain. Having almost left last summer, it is no surprise he did not last until next season. At 32, he still has football in him, so it was the right decision for all.
But why was Zabaleta different, why was he special? He wasn’t our greatest player, though his peaks were up in the clouds. He wasn’t our longest-serving player, though his time at the club was substantial. Nor will he be our most decorated, the feeling being, whilst he has accumulated a good few trophies, he and others such as Kompany, Silva and Toure have somewhat wasted the last two or three years, trophy-wise.
It was something else. Something he and our club captain share.
You see, the thing that defines a legend can be for numerous reasons, such as a special goal at a crucial time that saves the club from ignominy or wins a club a trophy.
Nope. That wasn’t Zabaleta’s legacy – he scored a few goals, slowly creeping into double figures, scoring a big goal in Rome and an even bigger one on THAT day. Maybe he should have scored more, but that’s by the by.
No, it is for another reason Pablo became a club legend – because he absorbed himself into the club, he cherished being here, he adapted to his new country, his new city, his new club. He became, quite simply, one of us, but with the added responsibility of shaping our history. He was the antithesis of the stereotype of the modern footballer – living in (relatively) modest accommodation, living a normal life, eating normal things, by which I of course mean fish and chips. No back or front-page headlines, no lurid rumours, no forgetting where he had come from and what his responsibilities were at the club. I’ve no idea what he earns, I’ve no idea who his agent is, if he has one. He said the right things to endear himself to City fans, but unlike others he meant what he said. From the day he arrived, he has been a model professional, even when he no longer became one of the first names on the team sheet. An exception to the rule, to the feeling, even if it is exaggerated, that most players are just passing through, doing their job and earning the big bucks before moving on to pastures new. The antithesis to the (false) perception of City’s players as mercenaries, he came to play football, not for the money. He connected with the fans when so few do, and he’s the player we dream we’d be if we ever got the chance to pull on that shirt for real – as a certain banner once commented, god chose him to play on our behalf. I paraphrase and I’m an atheist, but I stand by the sentiment.
When a player kisses the club badge, the shirt, it can seem an empty gesture, almost an embarrassment in the heat of the moment. When Pablo did it, it was real, it was true, it came from the heart.
But there’s more to him than that. A warrior on the pitch, but never dirty with it, he was committed, respected, hard-working and professional throughout, the sort of footballer who perfectly suited the bloodied head bandage and torn shirt image. Heart on sleeve, unquestioned commitment, a player who would never ease up, never back off, never fail to admit to failure, would play until he dropped.
333 appearances for the man with little of the devil in him. His style fit the league perfectly too – everything you want from a full-back in one handy package.
At his peak, the best right-back I have seen in a blue shirt, and forever my favourite.
He has, quite simply, been a hero at a time when we were desperate for them. Living in the shadows for so long, we all had our favourites, but were they heroes, were they legends? Was their ability enough to earn these titles? A couple were, yes, but we needed more, we needed players that took us to new levels that changed the image of the club. And Pablo Zabaleta helped do that.
I hope he stays in the Premier League as I’d like to see him continue to play football, as long as it is not for a direct rival – West Ham would make sense, though he’ll struggle to find a decent chippy near the Olympic Stadium. I also hope we see him again, I hope he can return and play some part in the club’s future history and help shape more magical memories. If not, keep using that life-long season ticket at least. And the West Brom game was special because it is rare that we not only have witnessed such a long-standing servant of the game leave us, but that we got the chance to say goodbye.
I would find it hard to truly cry for a departing footballer – it is sad but life moves on, new heroes emerge, the world keeps revolving. I’ll save the tears for soppy films and the day I learn Line of Duty is gone forever. But this is one of those few departures that leaves an indelible mark on me.
Just remember this. Always be yourself. But if you can’t, well – you know the rest.
He is, quite simply, the fucking man.
All the best, Pablo. In a cold, cynical world, I will truly miss you.