(notes after reading David Conn’s, Richer than God)
‘it is typical City’ […] ‘In goes Dzeko…hope rekindles here. […] ‘Ag-uuueer-ooooooohhhhh. I swear you’ll never see anything like this again. So watch it. Drink it in. They’ve just heard the news at the Stadium of Light. … Premier League dreams have come true in blue.’
And so United had beaten Sunderland 0-1 at the Stadium of Light. Footage showed Rooney shaking hands with Sunderland players, seemingly convinced that they would be winning the Premiership by such a narrow margin over their rivals: City. Manchester City Football Club: long-time sufferers of Cityitis, so long suffering from playing a distant second fiddle to their gloriously successful neighbours. Manchester United: a club supremely coached and managed; trophy-winners as a matter of routine. City: a shambles in management, nervousness and incompetance, defining elements of their identity. A kind of morose defeatism in their lack of success evident through their chant, ‘we’re not really here’. Ferguson, woollen-jacket tightly buttoned up to his chest, chewing rapidly, still with his game-face on, eyes darting, shaking hands too; pacing the field getting ready to celebrate another Premiership. And then the news filters: Ferguson’s face turns ashen for a moment before composing himself to huddle the players together, to applaud them and their fans. City had done the as-good-as-impossible: scoring two goals in added time, when they needed to. Dzeko’s few deft steps to put away the header for the first; and Aguero’s 5-step scrambling, rampaging run inside the box after Balotelli’s assist as he leant back on a defender. Aguero ripped off his shirt and ran along the boundary line in the manner of Aloisi putting Australia into the World Cup. A heavy body and a heaving mass of light-blue jersey wearing fans testing the strength of of the Etihad Stadium. A sublime footballing moment no doubt. Perhaps Ferguson and Man-U felt they too had played a role in City’s victory: as a club they had capitalised on the wealth creating opportunities of the EPL and had strengthened global markets. Maybe a sheikh, somewhere in distant Abu Dhabi, was finding it difficult to spend his money, grew enchanted by the hapless City so-long in the shadow of their noisy United neighbours. The super-rich stars of the new City, so removed from City’s history, didn’t suffer from cityitis but instead earned their pounds for a few minutes doing the unthinkable.
I admit to never having been enchanted by Manchester United. I admit my distaste for them is probably not well-founded. My prejudice against the Club is founded more in my sense that many of their fans are fans of winning, rather than fans of a particular club, style of play. ‘Glory hunters’ is the disparaging term. Something irks me in seeing so many United fans being United fans only while sitting in comfortable bars, cafes watching their team play thousands of kilometers away. But this is typical of fandom these days. The overwhelming majority of fans of clubs such as Manchester United have never been to a game, never been to Old Trafford – The Theatre of Dreams (indeed) – let alone become a paid-up member, or ever having done volunteer work for the club. Investment and loyalty through the club is through buying a shirt (perhaps an original), following official and unofficial Twitter accounts, participating in Facebook forums and arguing, defending on behalf of one’s club as if one is indeed a part of the club. But this is hardly unique to United fans. Man-U has simply been the most successful club in the EPL over the past 20 years and have well-levereged this into massive financial success. It’s a corporation that works (not plays) football. I can’t hide though, my enjoyment in the work of two of United’s iconic figures: Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs. The former: an artist, antagonist and provocateur; the latter, an extraordinary athlete and aesthete, a loyal and incredibly consistent footballer. My cautious open-ness to the narrative of City is founded on my distaste for the idea that United is the pinnacle of professional football.
Paul Town, whose painting is featured above, was recently commission to paint Maine Road. City had moved into ‘The City of Manchester Stadium’ after the Commonwealth Games of 2002. Town visited Maine Road while watching his team, Bradford City, play against City. He remembers:
‘the stadium had been recently modernised to as a result of the Taylor Report. It still, however, had the shape and glimpses of its glorious past.The approach to the stadium led me with a tinge of the excitement I used to feel as a child when approaching a new stadium for the very first time. Maine Road had huge floodlight pylons, identical to those at Hull City’s Boothferry Park. It was only through these huge skeleton-like structures that you could navigate your way to the stadium, as it was hemmed in on all four sides by row upon town of red brick terraced houses. Once inside the stadium the most striking thing for me personally was the size of the playing area. Maine Road’s playing surface was always one of the largest within the UK, with space a plenty beyond the touchlines. The stadium these days took on a more modern twist with its sky and dark blue fascia structures. ‘
Conn’s book is highly personal, Richer than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up (South Block: Quercus, 2012): he brings his family into the narrative and interweaves his own experiences as an amateur footballer. The book is expansive and broad, but not rambling or without a sense of direction. Part of his point is that much has been lost over the last twenty years – in a footballing sense: a time which has seen the enormous growth of the English Premier League. The discrepancy between the dreams politicians, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs invest in grand footballing projects and stadiums is shown up in the growth of the EPL versus the decline in the number of amateur football clubs throughout England. He points out that (I paraphrase) ‘we like to think of ourselves as a sports mad nation, but for most of us, that means we spend our time watching it, rather than doing it’. The euphoria of London’s 2012 Olympic Games did not lead to an increase in participation in sport. Instead, Conn points to evidence which shows that watching elite athletes perform has a detrimental effect on an individual’s interest in doing sport. Perhaps watchers of sport feel all the more inadequate in comparison to such athletic, aesthetic and skillful perfection. Conn plays football once more and through his team’s trying games he not only can point to the poor quality of amateur football fields. Investment in Manchester’s Commonwealth Games infrastructure saw a bright and shiny (and huge) stadium, but at the grassroots level little has changed for decades. The pleasure he finds in playing the game provides a clear moment to state a truism of one of his interviewees he simply told him, ‘playing is more important than watching’. For all that the Sheikh has invested in Man City little has flowed into the surrounding community’s sports facilities. Indeed, they’re businessmen, Conn asserts, not philanthropists.
City’s fans, Conn occasionally points out, have not risen up in anger and protest in the manner of United’s fans, who waged a militant campaign against the Glazers and their takeover of the ‘club’. The founding of FC United of Manchester was an outcome of United’s fans anger at seeing their club being turned into little more than a financial move by distant owners. For some of United fans, the Glazers’ takeover was the tipping point that saw them leave, to vote with their feet, and to establish their own club and build it, from the ground up. The amazingly complex idea of ‘one member, one vote’ of the Club providing a stark contrast to the seeming powerlessness of Man United’s fans. A club owned club need not mean that the club is messing about in the lowly professional or amateur leagues: Conn states that if Sheikh Mansour had wanted to get involved in Barcelona, he could have bought himself a membership and had his vote – no glorious and sudden takeover being possible. By empathising with the protest spirit, anarchy and ‘punk football’ of FCUM, Conn finds himself in a shared space with those fans he would formerly have been his adversaries. While celebrating a dramatic FCUM win, he realises that he is jumping around madly with the hardcore of United, the fans who from earlier days would have been at the Stretford End.
I’m taken with Conn’s book. It’s grounded tale of contemporary football life and is told honestly, based on thorough research and much remembering. Conn points that the selling out of Man City didn’t start with Sheikh Mansour, but with one of the Club’s icons – Francis Lee. He points to the ownership of Thaksin Shinawatra as being corrupt and contemptible and that many fans couldn’t have cared less about Thaksin’s human rights abuses. And Conn doesn’t accept Arsenal as being an example of a virtuous football club within the EPL, pointing to their very, very high ticket prices. The book advocates skepticism while watching football: the glories on the pitch too often being used for a means to hoodwink loyal, really here, fans.