So here’s to you

Since arriving in 2008, Vincent Kompany hasn't just become a staple for Manchester City FC, but for the "citeh" of Manchester itself

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WARRINGTON, England – If you ask fans of Manchester City, they will tell you that despite their captain hailing from Brussels, Belgium, Vincent Kompany is a true Mancunian.

An imposing figure, Kompany, 29, is one of the best central defenders in the world and has been the skipper powering City to new levels of success over the last few years. Kompany arrived at the club 10 days before Sheikh Mansour took over as owner in the summer of 2008, and City and Kompany haven’t looked back since. As a bonus for City fans, not only has he inspired the team to glory but he also, every now and then, has a Mancunian twang when he talks, specifically when he says City — or “Citeh” as the locals say.

At this point, it’s safe to say that the Belgian has endeared himself to the blue half of Manchester and vice versa.

Sat back, relaxed in a leather sofa at New Balance’s European headquarters in Warrington, England, Kompany spoke with NBC SportsWorld less than 24 hours after celebrating Belgium’s qualification for the 2016 European Championships in France.

Returning from a calf injury, the big Belgian hopes to be on the pitch against bitter rivals Manchester United on Sunday at Old Trafford (Watch live, 10:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra). Kompany made a late appearance against Sevilla in City’s 2-1 Champions League win on Wednesday, and while his status for Sunday isn’t entirely certain, he remains upbeat about his level of play overall.

“Every game I have played so far this season has been really good so I wanted to keep that going, so an injury is never a nice thing to happen at that moment,” Kompany said. “But, having said that, I came back against Israel [on October 13] and it was fine and I felt good and was able to produce the same level of performance again. It just has to carry on.”

Given his connection with the City faithful, Kompany knows better than most how these Manchester derbies are. After arriving from Hamburg at the age of 22, he has grown into a cult figure for City’s fans and is the man who helped lead the club to their first league title in 44 years when City won the Premier League in 2012. He also lifted the FA Cup in 2011, the League Cup in 2014 and another Premier League title in 2014. Suffice it to say that Kompany has been at the forefront of the most glorious period in City’s history.

That fact, plus having married a lifelong City fan and being adored by the masses, means his connection with Manchester City runs true and deep. And it’s been like that since the start.

“When I signed for Hamburg [in 2006] it was a place where everyone minded their own business. You didn’t get a lot of interaction and a lot of help from randomers,” Kompany laughed. “When I signed for City, it was before the City of today, obviously. I was getting help from all sorts of people who wanted to chat, who wanted to be there without even knowing, sometimes, that I was playing for Man City. It was just a nice place to come into and people were just naturally positive. There was always this thing at Man City, where people always found it funny when bad stuff happened because they were just so used to it. To be able to give those guys the moments we’ve experienced in the last five years, for me, that has been incredible to give it to them. From that moment on, we have kind of been on the same journey, really. We see things in the same way so it is easy for me to relate.”

What does being a Mancunian mean? Well, as one can guess, it is naturally someone who hails from Manchester, but a “True Mancunian” has a certain swagger in their step. Think of Noel or Liam Gallagher from Oasis, who are lifelong City fans, or Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, who can cut you down with a razor-sharp phrase or a look. It is a way of life and an attitude that exonerates what being from Northern England is all about, as music, fashion and soccer mold into local pride. The latter especially.

City’s fans are proud of their team and more so than their rivals United, most City fans emanate not far from Mancunian Way, the main freeway which leads you four miles across town from United’s Old Trafford home towards City’s Etihad Stadium. Those loyal City fans have a song about Kompany which can be heard loud and proud every weekend. Sung to the tune of the classic “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel, City fans have tweaked the lyrics to reveal their love for “Big Vinny” at the heart of their defense:

So here’s to you Vincent Kompany

City loves you more than you will know

Woah, Woah, Woah

His unassuming, laidback personality makes Kompany the perfect man to lead City, a club whose fans often revel in self-depreciation, as years of heartache have been sandwiched in-between present-day success and the glory of the late 1960s.

* * *

This Sunday marks the 170th edition of the Manchester derby. Ahead of it, Kompany believes Manchester United have strengthened considerably over the past 12 months and expects them to challenge for the title, along with the “usual suspects” and says a rejuvenated Liverpool will come good again.

“United have obviously gone into the transfer market big and they have built a squad to be ambitious and built a squad to win trophies,” Kompany said. “That obviously stands in our way of us achieving our goals but the thing is, I look at all the squads and who is not building squads to win titles in this country? It is crazy. They are not the only ones to watch out for, unfortunately!”

The start to the 2015-16 season has been a little unfortunate for Kompany. Up and down would probably describe it best. He scored in each of his opening games of the season as City trounced West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea 3-0, but then injured his calf in the 2-1 UEFA Champions League defeat to Juventus on September 15 (the pressure he put on Giorgio Chiellini in that match forced the Italian to put the ball into his own net and put City in the lead) and hasn’t started for City since.

With seven wins from their opening nine games of the season, City have recovered well without their skipper and he’s eager to contribute and help arguably the most talented team in the PL stay focused.

“It has been a good start but it has kind of been unpredictable in many ways. I thought the first five games we won very convincingly. We did well,” Kompany said. “Then we lost the first game in the Champions League against Juventus; we played well but they kind of ‘did us’ in a very Italian way. From then on we had a difficult spell with the West Ham game, the Monchengladbach game where we didn’t play as well as we could. We got the result against Monchengladbach, then a good performance against Newcastle, especially in the second half. But all of this summed up, just shows that it is a tough league to be performing in. The Premier League and the Champions League. When we are at our best and are focused we are a really good team. Whenever we drop our guards a little bit we come into trouble like any other team.”

In terms of this current team, with Raheem Sterling, Nicolas Otamendi and Kevin de Bruyne arriving for roughly $200 million this summer in transfer fees alone, Kompany believes this is the best squad he has ever been a part of, from a talent-level perspective, at the Etihad.

“It is the best squad. Definitely,” Kompany said without hesitation. “I think our first title win, we had something in the squad. Our personalities were massive in that squad and I think that was the way we managed to come back from that far and win it. I think the talent this year is bigger than it has ever been but the personality the first year was probably the biggest it has ever been.”

Looking back to last season, there were plenty of questions regarding Kompany and several of City’s other veteran players such as Joe Hart and Yaya Toure. City failed to defend the title they won in 2014, but still ended up finishing second after a tumultuous campaign. Kompany pointed to Chelsea’s struggles so far this season as to how difficult it is to win back-to-back titles in the PL.

“I don’t think any of us doubted ourselves but like Chelsea is experiencing at the moment, the season after being champions somehow just becomes so much more difficult,” Kompany revealed. “We managed to finish second, which was disappointing in many ways for us, but we didn’t just throw everything away. On one side it wasn’t a great season but I wouldn’t say we threw everything away that season we finished second. This year obviously needs to be better than second and we all know that.”

Would lifting the Premier League trophy as City’s skipper be more rewarding than, say, winning the UEFA Champions League or finally making it past the Round of 16 and into the semifinal or final?

Kompany isn’t too fussed either way, but ultimately just doesn’t want “the neighbors” at Manchester United, or any other PL team, to be crowned Champions of Europe.

“Right, so if I am being diplomatic then I have to say, obviously, that they are equally important,” Kompany said, with a serious look on his face. “There is just one thing. You don’t want to see anybody else winning it in your backyard. It is not a case of you want to win the Champions League instead of the Premier League, it’s more the case, for example, [that] it hurts less to see Barcelona lifting the title than it would hurt if ‘the neighbors’ did it. There is huge rivalry in England and I think that is a big part of the story. You are always thinking ‘OK, we want to win the Champions League,’ but you cannot afford to drop your guard because before you even know it it’s not just the title that is gone but that Champions League qualification is gone as well, in a sense where you can’t finish in the top four in the league. There is never really a moment where you can be at ease in England. The difference between being champion and being top four is so little. Then again, the Champions League is a huge priority for the club.”

Kompany was in Warrington promoting the new Baltic/Serene Green New Balance Football Visaro boot (Photo Courtesy of New Balance)

 

So, reading between the lines, it’s a case of: If we don’t win it, fine, but PLEASE don’t let it be United. That sentiment will be echoed by City’s fans across the globe, but particularly in Manchester.

In the lead-up to City’s first-ever PL title, they were neck and neck with United heading into the final weeks of the season. City played United at home three weeks from the end of the season and Kompany scored a towering header to secure a 1-0 win that would prove pivotal as City won the title in the final minute of the season thanks to Sergio Aguero’s heroics.

Kompany remembers that match fondly, and in the week leading up to the current derby, it will still likely be on the minds of many Mancunians.

“It is a special time but none will be more meaningful than the [derby] leading up to our first title,” Kompany said. “It was in a clear week and it was the only game on a Monday that week. It was three games before the end. Every derby since has been pretty heated because the teams have got better and the winning team is playing against each other now. I would say the best moment to experience the derby is if you come towards the end of the season and that is the only thing people have got to focus on. Now, unfortunately, there are Champions League games in the way and other league games. So it will be a bit different.”

Having won at home and lost away to United last season, Kompany has been part of some memorable City wins in the past on derby day. He has also been around for City clawing back a vast amount of ground on their illustrious crosstown rivals who lead the all-time series 70-50-49 (wins, draws, losses for United).

“There are two which stand out. The 6-1 win away and obviously the 1-0 win at home before the end of the season we won the title. Actually, I would add as well the victory at Wembley, the semifinal of the 2011 FA Cup. You know why?” Kompany asked, nodding his head for emphasis. “It was because for us, in those days, they were defining victories. We have had many great moments and we’ve also had many bad moments against United. That is the nature of it and what it will be in the future as well. There is so little between the teams now but when we started winning those games, things were massively to the advantage of Manchester United and we only started turning it around a little bit then. Those first victories, they were massive for defining the club, for the future of the club.”

What about Kompany’s future? He is in the final stages of completing a Masters Degree in Business Administration – “It is coming towards the end… but I don’t want to jinx it,” Kompany laughed – from the Manchester Business School, something he says he did because “weirdly, it helps me relax” and because it will leave his options open for the future after soccer so he can “do whatever he wants” when he’s kicked his final ball.

There is still a lot of time left for Kompany on the pitch but he admitted that when his City deal is up – he is currently signed on at the Etihad until July 2018 – Major League Soccer and moving to the United States of America is a serious option.

“It has been crazy since they [Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard] have moved over because MLS is always on. You get to see so much of MLS now, so it’s actually becoming quite a relevant league to people over here,” Kompany said. “Obviously, we follow quite closely what New York City FC does. For us, it is quite important to be supportive towards that club as well. The level is increasing every single year. You see new franchises coming in, you see so many people going to the stadiums and they are also good stadiums now. I think it is just a fun league to be in so I wouldn’t be surprised to go over there when my contract comes to an end at City.”

When Kompany’s time at City is finally up, he will never be forgotten. He led them to the promised land, lifted two Premier League titles in three seasons and his presence in City’s team gels everything together. His importance to City in the past and the present is undeniable but his vision for the future of the club, and how it can showcase itself to the world, is perhaps even more impressive.

“It is one of the most important things for Man City in the future. One of the biggest challenges is that we have all these great players from great places but there’s something fundamentally different to Manchester as to other cities,” Kompany said, smiling. “I think for Man City to become one of the biggest clubs in the world it will have to go back to being more Mancunian than ever and to expose that as a brand and a way of being. I think that is a big challenge for City in the future. You know, I’ve bought into it a lot and a lot of players have bought into it. There is just something special about that industrial past of Manchester that somehow needs to filter through the youth teams and filter through the first team. This factor is something that people will support Manchester City for.”

A true Mancunian couldn’t have said it any better. But then again, that’s exactly what Kompany has become.