Friday, May 16, 2014

Building a bigger citadel

You never fill the ground at home (so why expand it?), look at those empty seats, you don’t take enough fans away (but the prices…), you have no history, you were only formed in 2008, you used to support Chelsea, you bought the league, it’s not your own money, the players have no fight, they’re only there for the wages, where’s all the Englishmen? At other premier league clubs, none of these things has ever happened, no way, they’re all just too pure, too organic. The conscience of fans of these top-tier clubs is clear.

Sky et al kept insisting it was their ‘best title race ever’ as if only such hype would keep us watching as Liverpool surged and Chelsea’s edge blunted. They craved a final, preferably pro-Liverpool, twist but on Sunday Manchester City won their fourth league title, the players avoiding any crucial slips and the fans having refused to indulge in any moronically premature ‘we’re gonna win the league’ chants. By late Monday the articles on their title had largely dropped off the top of the papers’ football websites. Coverage, such as it was, had been relatively scant, the bias embittered and the praise for the players’ achievements while their rivals bottled it too faint. Blues were too deep in their reverie to care.

When Abu Dhabi royalty bought out Manchester City in 2008, they did so within the clear context of the overt commercialisation of the English game that had begun when BSkyB’s coverage opened the financial floodgates in 1992. Values around the game soared in line with media coverage, clubs took in vastly inflated sums from TV and other revenues, rising ticket prices and all-seater stadia changed crowd demographics, investors poured in money to their clubs, others pretended they had money to pour in but in some cases nearly drove those clubs to ruin. In 2003, Roman Abramovich poured hundreds of million of pounds into Chelsea from the businesses he had elbowed his way into buying during Russian’s post-Soviet era of outlaw capitalism (fit and proper? Da). When Sheikh Mansour did it five years later, being wooed by ‘Frank’ Shinawatra, the divisive former ruler of Thailand who like others before him promised big investment but mostly loaned the club cash at punitive repayment rates, this was the point of no return. Enough was enough – Chelsea had snuck into the big four and Mourinho was pure spectacle so they were immovable, but City – short for Cityitis, constant winners of the cup for cock-ups – no way José. Big clubs cried wolf to UEFA and financial fair play was born; many smaller top-flight clubs, squeezed by the self-perpetuating racket that was the Champions League cartel, had seen such serious and sustainable investment (no money being taken out by bondholders, development of the academy) as welcome.

Overnight Manchester City became the exceptionalist poster boy for all the game’s ills, even though much of the more otiose stuff had clearly already happened before ‘the Arabs’ had made their investment. Where were the fans in all this? After the takeover, more activist Blues could have fucked off in despair at the obscene sums involved, some could have also taken flight when they realised the emirate’s riches are boosted by immigrant workers who have few human rights and are grossly underpaid. Such soft power and the laundering of reputation remain areas of concern that need addressing. But they didn’t go. Blues fans’ loyalty to the club over-rode every concern. We Were Here When We Were Shit (and it was this loyalty that helped to make the club an attractive ‘investment proposition’), so it was unlikely we’d go when the prospect of success reared its head. To go then would be to imply ‘you’re not City enough’ so despite everything we stayed. (And as with fans of all clubs who feel disillusion with the way the game’s gone, sometimes it felt this blind faith went beyond loyalty and was more to do with failing to shake off the habits of generations – meeting mates, going to the match, having a pint, talking players. Still addicted despite everything.)

City had long been a cult for diehards, the butt of obsessive humour from Reds and the faint, unwanted sympathy of others. Extreme loyalty in hard times (Liverpool fans, I don’t mean still turning up after finishing seventh, a European Cup fresh in the memory) met disavowal (Not Really Here) met terrace humour met gallows humour met an us-against-the-world spirit (give or take the odd bust-up over the likes of Richard Edgehill), its own skewed but resolute belief system, its own form of resistance as the premiership era lifted rivals as we foundered. And Sunday’s celebrations showed Blues doing it on their terms – on the pitch again (Ferguson would ‘never have allowed it’ at OT!), hammering out the Zabaleta songs, offering paeans to ‘charming man’ Pellegrini and, yes, cherishing the ‘all bought and paid for’ success. Here Nasri, widely loathed in the game, is family; Demichelis is lionised despite the earlier errors (see Happy Mondays and Celine Dion clips), Joleon Lescott will always be ‘top of the league’. Our icons, Kompany, Toure, Silva, Aguero – are proper players, not cheats, racists, wage whores, etc.

The state of the game at the top levels is rightly subject to many valid critiques which fans of all clubs should support, but to expect City not to enjoy their moments seems churlish and naïve, to expect them to worry too much about how it came about, as if that would act to prove others clubs’ innocence against our own unique culpability, well, it’s just not going to happen. To next season, via the Brazil World Cup. Howard Hockin on the title and the parade
Simon Curtis' updated Lest We Forget
Vice on City fans on the title-winning piss Me on City elsewhere on this site and on Without a Dream In Our Hearts (here and here)
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