By the time Sven-Goran Eriksson arrived at the City of Manchester Stadium in July, he had long since been cast as one of English football's pantomime villains. Forget the fact that, as the country's first foreign coach, the Swede had tasted defeat just five times in a five-and-a-half year reign that encompassed three major tournaments, leaving even the FA to rate him as second only to Sir Alf Ramsey. To the public, and particularly to the press, Eriksson had been an unmitigated disaster; a coach whose passive touchline demeanour had failed to inspire a group of England players widely considered a 'golden generation'.
"The supporters are 70-30 against Eriksson," was how the head of the Manchester City Supporters' Trust reacted to the news that the club's new Thai owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, intended recruiting a manager who had won domestic and European titles in Italy, Portugal and his native Sweden. "You cannot ignore all his mistakes with England. You would also have to ask whether he still has what it takes at club level because it has been several years since he last worked as a club manager. The whole situation smacks of desperation."
'A very good manager'
Against a backdrop of such scepticism, Eriksson knew only too well that his every move would be closely scrutinised by an eager English press waiting, hoping, for an opportunity to tell Shinawatra 'We told you so'. As it is, the Swede has barely put a foot wrong. With nine Premier League games played, a City team that flirted with relegation last season are sandwiched in between Manchester United and Liverpool in third place, with leaders Arsenal a mere three points in front.
This early success even led a smiling Eriksson to claim recently that he "would be very happy if the league was finished now", although there are few in the blue half of Manchester who would agree with him on that. Not since the City of Manchester Stadium opened in 2003, after all, have the club's fans been able to take such pride in a team whose currently free-flowing philosophy stands completely at odds with the staid, unimaginative image of Eriksson's England.
Already, the Blues have scored more goals at home than in their entire 2006/07 campaign, yet it is the style and swagger with which they have played that has most impressed observers. "It does feel like a new club," said captain Richard Dunne. "He (Eriksson) gives off the feeling he's successful and that he's on his way to making this a successful club. We now believe we can attack teams rather than holding on and trying to nick the odd goal."
Typically, Eriksson - publicly at least - dismisses the suggestion that he has taken any additional pleasure in forcing his critics to eat humble pie, but his peers have suggested otherwise. Arsene Wenger, for example, recently told the assembled press: "Maybe he wants to show you how good he is. He is a very good manager."
Eriksson has certainly proved himself particularly astute in the transfer market, underpinning his City revolution with a group of players erstwhile unknown to the average English supporter. And the undisputed jewel in his crown has been Elano.
The Brazilian midfielder had been hailed by Dunga as the symbol of his new Brazil, but the star of the Seleção's Copa America triumph earlier this year had been in danger of finding himself in the football wilderness as he struggled to adapt to a new life in Ukraine after moving to the industrial city of Donetsk . "I first became aware of Elano some years ago," Eriksson explained. "So I spoke to Dunga about him and it was all very, very positive. Then I was lucky enough to know the manager of Shakhtar Donetsk, Mircea Lucescu."
The rest, as they say, is history, with Eriksson left to watch and admire as the £8 million signing continues to light up England's top flight with sparkling play and a series of spectacular goals. "He can do a little bit of everything," said Eriksson. "I have worked with other top-class creative players in the past - people like Baggio and Mancini - but he is right up there with them. I don't think I had a player like Elano with England. We are playing a different way with Manchester City. It is a big club and the aim is to make it much better."
Elano himself, meanwhile, is just as grateful to be in Manchester as the Blues fans are to have him. ''Manchester City was the answer to my prayers," he said. "And Mr Eriksson is even better than I thought."
The Brazilian is far from alone in reaching that conclusion.