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  • Umir

Dear Bernardo Silva

In 2019 there stood one beautiful day amongst many. Manchester smiled as it basked in an unfamiliar sun. The league had been won. On points, the two greatest Premier League sides ever, battling head to head, were separated by one single point.

To say its conclusion felt as a weight had been lifted from the shoulders doesn’t comprehensively illustrate just how taxing the last 14 games had been. With Klopp’s reds finishing one point behind Pep’s inevitable blues, any result that wasn’t a win would’ve gifted Liverpool their first Premier League title. A daunting, impossible task on paper but 14 consecutive league wins later and the title of ‘best team in England’ officially belonged to Manchester City.

Going back to this particular sunny Manchester day it resides vividly in my memory for a confluence of reasons. I walked along Oxford Road in the direction of town a little after midday towards a sports hall, erratically scrolling through flashcards on my phone. I had my final university exams of the year. However, the visceral experience of nervousness would soon transform into one of excitement and awe as after exiting the hall I, alongside many, made my way through the streets of Manchester surrounded by an ever-growing family of City fans. It was parade day. The sea of blue shirts was punctuated with the white of waving flags and the vibrant yellow inflatable bananas. I didn’t get that either.

Photo courtesy of Action Plus/Conor Molloy/Imago

Manchester was packed, here to show appreciation and celebrate the squad that had achieved unprecedented and historic success in the form of the domestic treble, winning the Premier League, FA Cup and the Carabao Cup – a task infamously deemed impossible by Sir Alex Ferguson. The two protagonists on this day of celebration were cast by two quite opposite figures. The statuesque leader and pillar Vincent Kompany and the diminutive wizard, Bernardo Silva.

Chants of ‘here’s to you Vincent Kompany, City loves you more than you will know’ reverberated through the city attempting to convey even a modicum of the gratitude the City fans harboured towards their departing captain. Yet another chant, fond to many during the 18/19 season, shared centre stage.

As Bernardo was rewarded his City’s Player of the Year trophy in recognition for his role as the most capped outfielder and undoubtedly the best player in the most successful English domestic season ever, the crowds sang:

‘Bernardooo (Silva!) Running down the wing, Silva! Makes the blue boys sing…(Silva!)’ before Bernardo himself finished the lyrics with ‘…we’re not going to Madrid’ in this cheeky, self-deprecating, endearing manner, referencing the fact that City had been knocked out of the Champions League. The crowd laughed.

Photo courtesy of James Gill/Imago

These human moments are the ones that the City fans know and love Bernardo for. Of course, it helps that he’s one of the finest midfielders on the planet but there are top players of the game who don’t seem to capture the heart of a fan base despite long and dedicated tenures at one club.

The facetious #JusticeforBernardo campaign continues to be memorable. Silva who, in this role as the entire team’s brother, would be pranked, thrown around and generally teased on a regular basis in a way both Ederson and Bernardo had maintained since their days at the Benfica youth academy.

This radiant positivity isn’t only felt by the fans but is, too, acknowledged by players. We come back to City’s forever-captain Vincent Kompany. In his book, Treble Triumph, Kompany succinctly captures the essence of Silva.

"What makes him a special player, and not just a gifted player, is he's such a positive guy. It's very natural to him. I also call him a leader. I've told him that and he laughs at me when I say it. There are so many different types of leadership. His natural ability to be positive all the time, and to influence the group by being like that, makes such a difference."

In Bernardo’s role as this glowing, warm, hard-working, playful busybody, he captures the essence of what it meant to play football as a child. Riyad Mahrez spoke to an opposing yet common idea of his ‘footballer friends who have good careers [but] do not like football,’ instead doing it out of necessity because it is where the money is. That character is to be expected in any occupation but it exists as the antithesis to Bernardo. The presentation of this childlike creativity, purity and honesty (thank you Kanye West) is infectious.

Vincent Kompany on Bernardo:

"He's like a kid. He plays more football than anyone I know. He plays football in the dressing room."

Bernardo’s temperament is an ideal that almost seems like it is too good to be true when you consider his personal stance during the 20/21 season. Unhappy and wanting a move away from the Etihad following the 2019/20 season, Bernardo shone regardless, without a sulk or complaint. City broke the all-time English top-flight record of consecutive wins (21) – a record that began with Bernardo’s reintroduction into the starting XI and ended when Bernardo was rested for a game against Manchester United. If there was ever a stat to underscore Bernardo’s importance and quality, it would be a challenge to pick one better than this.

Reflecting upon his temperament and quality here reminds me of this song that dates back over 70 years ago titled ‘The Old Lamp-Lighter’. In eulogising Bernardo Silva, it is appropriate to use this song as a descriptor, for his selfless, reliable and necessary performances across the duration of his City career so far.

The lamplighters walked the streets of the city turning on the street lamps at dusk and as the sun rose, they turned them off again to the benefit of the city, a necessary task done for the sake of achieving its ends; Bernardo, in the same way, is appreciated for his ever-reliable lighting up of the dark night streets.

'He made the night a little brighter wherever he would go.

The old lamplighter Of long, long ago...

Now if you look up at the sky, you'll understand the reason why

The little stars at night are all aglow,

He turns them on when night is here. He turns them off when dawn is near .

The little man we loved of long ago’

As we begin the 21/22 season, the world has started to crawl back to a normal we’re more familiar with - with football’s landscape reflecting this. After a year or so off in an isolation persisting of numerous lockdowns and the overcast norm of the North-West, City’s fans continued just where they left off. Following a masterful (but expected) display vs Arsenal, Bernardo Silva was substituted to a universal standing ovation and the loudest applause of the day. If the Silva chant of 18/19 wasn’t vastly out of date, I am sure it would’ve bounced around all walls of the Etihad but alas, the final isn’t a Madrid affair this year and ‘Bernardo running down the wing, Silva’ fails to adequately describe his newer, balancing role post 2018/19. Unfortunately, ‘Bernardo running through the middle, or as a false 9, or to protect the transition, or to play the double pivot if necessary’ are lyrics that would not work in a football chant (at all).

Photo courtesy of Nick Potts/Imago

In this newer role, Bernardo buzzes across the field maintaining the team's structure, fixing issues before most people recognise there were any problems at all. 2021’s talisman, Gundogan was afforded the license to explore the final third and not to the detriment of the team defensively because Silva selflessly would drop deeper, to protect City in the central areas. When Cancelo pushed forward in this box to box role, again, Silva would occupy the perfect positions to maintain the team’s structure, whether that be in pivot or fullback positions, as if an AI had programmed him to find himself in the areas that benefitted the team most. These Newton’s Cradle relationships were the linchpin to City’s success last season when one sphere has license to swing, the others remain until it returns before they go and venture forth themselves. Balance.

These actions allow City to tick and it means that players that play the flashier on-the-ball roles, enabled by Bernardo’s footballing intelligence and athleticism, receive more vocal praise. Regardless, I stay firm in my belief that Bernardo was one of the two best midfielders in the league last season alongside Ilkay Gundogan.

Photo courtesy of Simon Stacpoole Offside/Imago

There may be a reluctance to recognise his quality in the wider public but the fans of City and those close to the club recognise how vital he is, as the blood of the team. Pep Guardiola could not have put it more bluntly in 2018/19 when he said Bernardo was ‘the best, not just in our team.’

"He’d get in any team in the world?"
"By far."

On this topic, Kompany asks himself if ‘[Bernardo] could one day win the Ballon d'Or’ before replying emphatically, ‘of course’.

"He could achieve anything but the problem for Bernardo is that he's so humble. He'll always drop a couple of places in the contenders' list just because…there will always be guys that are better at self-promotion and have better PR machines around them."

And maybe this dichotomy between being this altruistic player whilst also being ridiculously talented explains how Bernardo is viewed by different people. In this social media era of superficial narratives and the out of context stats, a player like Bernardo Silva, like his namesake David Silva before him, reside as players underrated by the casual fan. Those that do appreciate Bernardo however do so in an unadulterated manner.

The biggest compliment would come in the departing words of Captain Marvel. As Kompany vacated his role as captain in person (not spirit) he highlighted Bernardo as a future captain, saying “[Bernardo is] 50 per cent clown, 50 per cent leader. When he becomes 25 per cent clown, 75 per cent leader he will become the captain of this team,” which is amusing but if you wanted a two-sentence summary of this piece, on how Bernardo is viewed, and what he brings, Kompany provides the right words as he always did. Quality, leadership, positivity, playfulness; Bernardo Silva.

Photo courtesy of Imago

This piece began focusing on Bernardo Silva but ended up praising him through this lens of Vincent Kompany and as the embodiment of Manchester City, it would be difficult to find someone who represents the sentiment of Manchester City as a whole more than Vinny.

‘When you look at Bernardo, you can recognise all the signs of a future City legend, depending on whether he decides to stay for that long or not. It's all in his hands.’ These were the enticing words he left for Silva before leaving for Anderlecht. The path towards legend status at Manchester or to have another city experience the greatness of a midfielder with unparalleled completeness.

It’s ultimately up to Bernardo Silva but there is this optimistic hope amongst fans that with the worst of the uncomfortable COVID period over, with fans back in person, and with Etihad at full capacity, Bernardo recaptures a joy that sees him play at City for years to come, accompanied (not a pun) by the captain’s armband.

‘Here’s to you, Bernardo Silva, City loves you more than you will know’

Sincerely, Manchester City.

Photo courtesy of Peter Powell

Written by: Umir / @umirf1

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