City and the City
What does Sheikh Mansour's investment mean for the city of Manchester?
There are very many ways to contemplate the extraordinary story of Manchester City, from the tragic-comic slumped giant slogging round the grounds of the third division as recently as 1998-99, to Premier League victors just 13 years later, thanks to the £38m Sergio Agüero. In that journey the major tributaries of English football's modern transformation can be mapped: the money lapping into the Premier League, the failed stock market floats and cock-ups of English owners looking to cash in for themselves, more recently, of course, the mega-rich buyers from overseas. Through the 1990s, City were cast as the lovable, authentic Manchester alternative to corporate, plc United, who won the treble in the same season City just scrambled up from the third following their play-off final heroics against Gillingham. So even five years after Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi bought the club, it still feels improbable that he really is here, that he did pick City for his Premier League venture and has poured £1bn in.
The story features home-grown players supplanted by overseas stars — in City's case only Micah Richards, signed from Oldham Athletic aged 14, is clinging on from the club's youth academy (Joe Hart was signed at 19), pushed to the edges by injury and Pablo Zabaleta's professional excellence. The supporters are crucial too, even as Abu Dhabi brands City into a global advertisement and projection of a glamorous image for the dynastic state of which Mansour is one of the inheriting princes. The loyalty the City fans showed down in that third division season, the immovable presence of 30,000 when there was nothing more cheerful to sing than "City Till I Die", was a key component when Mansour decided it was the club for him.
Then there is the new stadium, built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and converted at the public's expense for City afterwards, the centrepiece of the local council's vision for regenerating post-industrial east Manchester. This was great good fortune for the club and the most concrete reason why City were bought by the sheikh, while Everton, needing a fortune spending on grand, sagging Goodison Park, cannot attract a buyer. The council hit the jackpot with Sheikh Mansour, and now, the stadium renamed Etihad after the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, the club is building a training 'campus' on 80 acres of exhausted land. Jobs are meant to flow in from this, and east Manchester, the former engine room of the industrial revolution, is to be reinvented for the modern era, into a sports and leisure "destination".
I grew up in Manchester and supported City from the age of six; the club, its 1970s cohort of stars, and football itself, bestowed sky blue blessings on my boyhood. As an adult and a journalist, I came to understand the professional game, how it works, the great clubs' volunteer origins and the culture-changing greed and exploitation of the Premier League era partly through investigating the efforts of various new City owners to make money for themselves. This culminated in 2007 with Thaksin Shinawatra, who had just been ousted as prime minister of Thailand in a military coup, arriving to buy out the club.
Thaksin was pursued by Human Rights Watch, which wrote to the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, to argue that following two murderous episodes in Thailand under Thaksin's rule for which nobody was ever held accountable, Thaksin was "a human rights abuser of the worst kind". He was also formally charged with corruption offences in Thailand before he took over the Manchester "people's club" and the stadium the council built with public money. But none of it was a bar to the owners wholeheartedly recommending that all City shareholder-supporters sell to Thaksin, nor to Scudamore's Premier League approving the man as an owner of one of its major clubs.
Thaksin was in charge of City for just one chaotic year, beginning with the hiring of Sven-Göran Eriksson and the signing of Brazilian midfielder Elano, and ending the following summer with Thaksin on the run and the former chairman, John Wardle, forking out from his own pocket to pay the office staff's wages. That was why Thaksin's lieutenant was hawking the Manchester club around the Arabian gulf. Mansour, who had been wanting to buy a Premier League club for a while, saw in City the enduring big-club potential, with the loyal cadre of fans, and a new stadium already built. His people told me he paid £150m for the club, which always seemed very much more than he needed to, as Thaksin was a fugitive, his assets frozen in Thailand, and City were sliding towards administration. Thaksin had paid £21.6m to Wardle, David Makin and the other previous owners, and had borrowed £40m. So less that outlay, Thaksin Shinawatra, arguably the least appropriate person ever to be involved in a great English football club, made £90m for himself, from just one year.
In following all of these changes to Manchester City, examining them, visiting Abu Dhabi and talking to Mansour's executives, trying to understand what it all meant to us, one of the most significant documents was research itemising the poverty of the people, in Manchester, living right around the stadium. The official English Indices of Deprivation, 2010 ranked every small neighbourhood of 2,000 homes in England, according to accepted measures of social misery. Poverty, worklessness, low life expectancy, "income deprivation affecting children", "health deprivation and disability"; all combined to give a ranking, area by area.
Manchester, despite the two top Premier League football clubs, owned by overseas billionaires, broadcast to 200 countries, its hosting of the Commonwealth Games, the new stadium, velodrome, arena, conference centres, concert hall, metrolink tram system and the makeover of the city centre, was the fourth most poverty stricken local authority area in England. The other three were in London: Newham, Tower Hamlets, and Hackney. Of the northern cities which had grown into metropolises on cotton, coal, steel, docks, shipbuilding, and engineering, Manchester's modern day decline was the worst.
Almost half of Manchester's neighbourhoods, 45.6%, were in the most deprived 10% in England, now suffering another crash, this one of the economy supposed to replace heavy industry: banking, services, consumption. Of those areas, 19 of Manchester's were among the most deprived 1% in the country. The seven worst, the most deprived, for lack of work, desperation, child poverty, physical and mental illness, were in east Manchester, after all those millions spent and made in the regeneration business, greatly to the benefit of the Premier League club, its billionaire owners and millionaire players.
Collyhurst, a football district famous for having incubated United's and England's Nobby Stiles, Brian Kidd and other hardy lads, was second worst in the whole country, for "income deprivation affecting children." Right around the stadium, built almost a decade earlier specifically to revive the fortunes of the area and local population, were still the most deprived Manchester neighbourhoods: Bradford, Miles Platting and Newton Heath, Harpurhey, Gorton South, Charlestown, Ardwick and Gorton North.
I talked before the final, title-winning match of the 2011-12 season to Barbara Taylor, in her neat home on one of the newer estates by the stadium, behind the two pubs City fans were anxiously drinking in. She is a community activist and optimist, who maintains the changes have hugely improved the area and given it a chance of a future, that the Commonwealth Games, stadium and City at least has brought people and some investment to the area, which for 20 years had felt abandoned. But she also said that when she moved here as a girl everybody worked, in the factories or engineering works, leaving home in their overalls — they could go from one job to another the same day. Now, not one person on the estate leaves home in the morning and goes to a regular job, she said.
It is a cliché to compare poverty to footballers' galactic earnings, but the facts are relevant here. Just across the road and over the wall of the stadium bowl, there were Yaya Touré and Carlos Tévez, paid £10m a year.
So with all its dizzying themes, I came to see this modern chapter in the history of Manchester City, in its broadest terms, as a stark, simple, but deeply challenging spectacle. Over the old football club, formed originally in the muck and smog of east Manchester, the poverty and collapse of our industry and economy, is meeting a country that has just found itself one of the richest on earth.
The football clubs used to nestle within the grimy bustle of the cities. They sprang up as outlets in the late 19th century, for lads and men seeking an escape, a breath of air, excitement and sporting benefit, from the toughness of Victorian urban streets and the grind of work. Many of the grounds were thrown up around the scraps of land the players first found to kick a ball on, or later they moved, as City did to the then open space at Moss Side, and built the vast expression of faith in the future of football, Maine Road. The clubs were a part of the great cities, and changed their names from one of the neighbourhoods, Ardwick, or Newton Heath, to represent the name of the city itself. The City badge I fell for as a boy had the Manchester symbols, the red rose and the ship, after the mighty innovation of the canal which made a port of the inland city — but by the time I grew up in the 1970s the shipping was over and the cranes on the docks were rusting relics.
Now the football club, moved to the stadium the council built, a little marooned in acres of car park, prompts a frightening thought. Is this all that remains of real value, that the world actually wants of us?
After Sheikh Mansour first arrived and Manchester had rubbed its eyes and seen the takeover was truly, unbelievably real, a spread appeared in the Manchester Evening News, projecting an impression of how Abu Dhabi would transform the area. The artists' impression showed bars, restaurants, hotels, new apartments, the destination east Manchester of the council's dreams. Mansour's men were not slow to make it clear they had no interest in doing any of that. There had been no market or demand for bars and restaurants in an area blighted by economic catastrophe and population-flight for 30 years. They have more money than they know what to do with, literally, with funds devoted to how to spend it, and they have the whole credit-crunched world to invest in. In east Manchester, they were interested in the football club alone, because Premier League football, with its £3.1bn TV deal, £1.4bn and counting from overseas, is a flourishing industry like the ones used to be which collapsed around the clubs. As Mansour put it in his initial open letter to City fans. "In cold business terms, Premiership football is one of the best entertainment products in the world and we see this as a sound business investment."
In the other sections of the letter, Mansour promised to value the club's history and the loyalty of the fans, its contribution in local community projects. His executives, led by the chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, have been true to that, nurturing the fans' local feeling of belonging in smart ways, while building the club into one capable of winning the Premier League and projecting the glamorous international image they want for Abu Dhabi.
They have been in Manchester five years now and do not appear to have found much else they consider a sound business investment. There is talk of Etihad bringing its European headquarters to Manchester, which would be a coup for the city and the airport, and create jobs, but that does not amount to investing in something Manchester-bred.
When City unveiled plans for the campus, with its 7,000-seat stadium for the reserves — which seems like over-ambition even for Abu Dhabi — the rooms for young recruits from all over the world (ringed by unobtrusive but very reliable security, I was told), it was hailed as a football marvel, and, again, for its regeneration benefits. This is true again; it is a large development on land which has lain derelict since the last factory, US-owned by then, packed up, and it will add hugely to the rehabilitation of east Manchester. When built it will provide 90 jobs, City said.
Of the 80 acre site, 5.5 acres, around one sixteenth, will be given over to community use, decontaminated at City's expense. The council is hoping it will build a sixth-form college there, because there is no sixth form in the whole of east Manchester. There is also talk of a sports centre and swimming pool being built for community use. While Abu Dhabi plough on with the £140m it will take to build the training campus they hope will rival Barcelona and Manchester United for the best boy footballers, the council must patch together a funding package for the school and sports centre. In an environment in which the council had to cut 2,000 jobs and services, to save £170m over two years cut by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, the money for the community benefits will not be easy to find.
What the council has done faced with the apocalypse of industry visited on Manchester from the late 1970s has been admirable, entrepreneurial; the envy of Liverpool, Leeds and other cities. While Liverpool was vainly fighting Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government's assault on local government finances after her re-election in 1987, the former council leader Graham Stringer told me, Manchester made a strategic decision to play as well as they could by her rules. Forced to bid for funding of specific projects competitively with other cities, Manchester became expert at it. They built their arena, metrolink and G-Mex conference centre while the other cities were still paralysed by their economic disasters. Manchester secured the Commonwealth Games after cheekily bidding twice to bring the Olympics to east Manchester. With public money being squeezed for schools, libraries, social care and parks, that brought the money in: to run the games and build the facilities, including £78m from the lottery to build the stadium which would afterwards re-home a Premier League club. The other £49m the council put in itself, council tax payers' money. Many City fans are under the illusion that after the Games, the club paid to remove the track, lower the pitch and build the new north stand, but that is simply not true. Public money paid for the conversion for football because that was the deal the council agreed with City. In a very Premier League-era arrangement, City had only to pay for the bars, restaurants and corporate facilities they wanted — £20m for that fit-out.
You can argue about the terms City agreed: they had to pay nothing towards the stadium's construction and no rent whatsoever up to the Maine Road 32,500 capacity. Above that, on seats up to the new stadium's 48,000 capacity, City paid a share of income, which the council has said amounts to £2m a year when the stadium is full. I have always taken the view that this was a very generous deal indeed to City, who could never have afforded to build such a stadium themselves, as Everton, a similar club in many ways, cannot. But the council wanted the stadium and games to happen, to be a catalyst for regeneration, and the chief executive, Sir Howard Bernstein, argues it is a good deal, ensuring the stadium was not a white elephant, the rent keeping the other sports facilities around it in good order. The council also controlled any naming rights over the stadium, so when City were concluding their deal with Etihad, the council had to agree. It did so, for a further £2m a year, while Etihad are paying City £35m for the airline's name on the shirt, stadium and campus.
You can argue that the council has been generous, or accept that £2m is decent money for the fourth most deprived local authority in England. Independent auditors have approved both deals. You could argue the council should have squeezed out a little more, or you can applaud it for getting a deal done and securing the campus and its projected economic benefits.
But one central aspect of the stadium deal I could never understand was that it was given to City with no money to return to the council should the club's owners sell at a profit. When the deal was being mooted in the late 1990s, I had travelled my path from wide-eyed sky blue fan to adult understanding that my club was a company. Its shareholders were Wardle, Makin, the kitchen-making Boler family, the former player Francis Lee and even Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, who had bought a 9.9% share. Lee, Wardle and Makin, with David Bernstein, the future Football Association chairman, an early investor, had wanted to float the club on the stock exchange, which would enable them to make a gain on their shares, if the club was doing well. The council was giving this company, owned by these shareholders, a huge gift of public money, which should have greatly increased the value of their investment. In the event, City overspent during Kevin Keegan's time as manager and arrived at the stadium making losses and in debt. Wardle and Makin, recommending all shareholders sell to Thaksin Shinawatra, wanted out by then, and sold at a loss. Thaksin made his £90m a year later selling the club to Mansour, which would never have been possible without the new stadium built for £127m of lottery and public money, but there was no return for the public.
The Olympic stadium was originally not designed to be converted for football afterwards because the mayor of London's office under Ken Livingstone could not countenance a handover to a Premier League football corporation. When, under Boris Johnson, London changed its mind and decided they would convert the stadium at vast expense for West Ham, they negotiated a claw back of money should the owners of West Ham, David Gold and David Sullivan, sell the club at a profit.
But besides the specifics of the deals they have done, I worry, as a Manchester man, that there is a risk of making too much of the east Manchester regeneration projects. Part of the strategy is to talk up the place and to keep encouraging investment, but I worry that at times the hype can take the place of reality. I found in a regeneration document about east Manchester the following proclamation: "Into the 21st century Manchester has [undergone] and still is undergoing a remarkable economic transformation, moving inexorably towards become the UK's first post-industrial city, where the new economic base will be geared almost exclusively around a service and knowledge-based economy."
That phrase, the "knowledge-based economy", is a difficult one anyway to accept — as if there was no "knowledge" in creating a ship canal and docks, cotton, trains, and engineering. As if all of that was just muscles and brute force. The image of reinvention, conjuring up some kind of Google-land, can also, while understandably wanting to attract businesses, veer into overstating the case. If this had happened so successfully, this "remarkable economic transformation"; including the outlay of public money to create "sport city", then hitting the jackpot with Abu Dhabi, why are the areas right around the stadium still mired in England's worst deprivation?
I worry that some of this, propounding the potential of a football club, its stadium and training ground to revive an economy, can get in the way of a wider proper recognition of where we really are. A more recent study of official statistics by the End Child Poverty campaign found in February 2013 that Manchester is the second worst local authority for child poverty. In Manchester, 38% of children live in households earning less than 60% of median income, the official measure of poverty. Manchester Central ward — right there amid all the costly improvements, a breath away from Deansgate's new, outsized Giorgio Armani store — is the very worst in the whole country. Neighbouring Tévez, Touré, £35m naming rights deals, the football club which beams the international invitation for tourists to visit Abu Dhabi, 47% of Manchester Central's children live in poverty.
Understanding the scale of these social problems which endure in Manchester leads you to the reality of the collapse which caused it, and to question if we have really found a convincing way to economic improvement. Manchester in the 1800s became the world's first industrial city and visitors came from France, Japan and other countries to marvel at its wonders, and grimace at its harshness. Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's patron, chronicled the city's startling inequality in his classic 1844 work The Condition of the Working Class in England. Manchester City football club descends from an initiative by Anna Connell, the vicar's daughter of St Mark's church in west Gorton, in November 1880, forming a football team to promote the benefits of sport, and the church itself, in one of the toughest neighbourhoods.
You can read the 20th century in a city like Manchester as a difficult effort to maintain and modernise the industrial economy in the face of international competition, while the post-1945 welfare state and local authority civilised conditions. The football clubs grew remarkably in popularity from the off, homes of belonging for urban generations, the Football League in effect organising the clubs into an industry themselves, from 1888.
Then, during Thatcher's time, with high interest rates, lack of government intervention, an almost religious belief in the redemptive qualities of "market forces", one factory after another, whole industries, closed down. The records say that 150,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in Manchester between 1979 and 1984, many of them in the districts of the east. Tens of thousands of people left the areas and have never returned. "Firm by firm, there were savage cut backs," wrote Professor Alan Kidd, in his book Manchester, A History. "The 1970s and 1980s were decades of national industrial decline in which the Manchester region more than played its part."
Now, the economy which was supposed to replace industry — banking, the stock market, some very vague notions of entrepreneurship and aspiration, "knowledge" — has been exposed as a debt bubble and collapsed. Since then, the crash coinciding with the Manchester City purchase by Abu Dhabi, who have oil, and therefore real, not bubble money, our industrial collapse is slowly being recognised more for the disaster it was. How did we let so many jobs, industries, traditions and skills developed over generations, simply close down? How did we think we could reinvent an economy on "market forces"? What on earth are we going to do about it now? How do we "rebalance" the economy?
These are questions beginning to be asked with more urgency, 30 years on. The answers will surely be that we have to do more than build with lottery money some grand projects, like a football stadium. Even if it enables a club to be bought by a member of the global super rich, who wins the Premier League by paying footballers more than they could earn elsewhere, £10m each, or so. Even if he then builds a mighty training complex, which will create 90 jobs.
For the 45,000 City fans who danced and wept ecstatically when Agüero scored his 94th-minute title winner last season, the club is the same one they followed to the Gillingham play-off final, only rebuilt. Its remarkable recent history tells us football's story, about how the game has been unleashed by pay TV. And as football always has, the game reflects the world we are living in. Born as a professional sport when workers began to enjoy a half day off on Saturdays, the football clubs in the northern cities are in danger of being a large part of all we have left to celebrate. The meeting of new, rich, lucky Abu Dhabi with post-collapse Manchester speaks of football's irresistible global attraction, the reinvented modern flourish of our traditional clubs. But rather than see in the City story a passport to a better future, the circumstances of its acquisition by Sheikh Mansour should jolt us into facing up, a touch more realistically, to the post-industrial mess we are in.
David Conn's book Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up, is now out in paperback, priced £8.99
This article appeared on Episode Thirty Seven of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.