By tomorrow evening, half of Manchester – a phrase that in itself provokes so much debate that it is worth pointing out that it is being used for the purposes of simplicity alone – will be celebrating a Premier League championship victory. Either Manchester City or Manchester United will be crowned as the champions of England. That such a set of circumstances should have come about on the final day of the season is a situation that has likely caused Peter Scudamore to make some faintly obscene gurgling noises over the last couple of weeks or so, but it has also sparked a debate over the nature of Manchester City’s sudden, testosterone-fuelled rise to the summit of the game, a rise fuelled by the money of the Abu Dhabi United group. Should results go their way tomorrow afternoon – and there is little to suggest that they won’t at present, although this projection is subect to change – City will be roundly accused of having “bought” the title, but is this simplistic assessment of what would be their first championship victory in almost four and a half decades a fair one?
The amount of money spent by Manchester City over the last two or three years or so is eye-watering. Of that, we can be certain. Before we starting throwing around very modern catchphrases such as “financial doping”, though, it is worth considering the circumstances that led to a situation in which a football club that hasn’t been perpetually successful since the commercialisation of the Premier League went into something aproaching warp speed would have to spend in this manner in order to compete with those at the very top. With the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the Premier League looming it is tempting to choose August 1992 as football’s year zero but there is, of course, much more to it than this. Professionalism has been with us for almost as long as the game has been codified. From the wholesale signing of Scottish professionals in the 1880s through to still-spiralling ticket prices of the twenty-first century, the story of football has been, in many senses, the story of capitalism. The transfer of Alf Common from to Middlesbrough from Sunderland for £1,000 in 1905 caused the furrowing of as many brows as that of Sergio Aguero from Atletico Madrid to Manchester City for £35m last year did.
At every step, the march of capitalism in football has been relentless and, until relatively recently in Britain, largely unchecked. Just as the ending of the maximum wage and liberalising of freedom of movement for players in the early 1960s reflected the socially democratic values of the time, so it was that the commercialisation of the game during the 1980s reflected the Thatcherite values of those times. In that respect, 1992 was the culmination – the logical conclusion, it could be argued – of a decade which saw the balance of the game shift from the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers that had been its power-brokers for the previous century to sharp-suited entrepreneurs in search of investment opportunities. As captialism has continued to calcify, so has the power balance in football continued to change and in the twenty-first century, the people that envisioned football’s brave, new, free-market world have found that they have either been usurped, bought out or moved upstairs into the corridors of the likes of the FA and the Premier League by investors with even greater wealth from abroad.
Both Manchester United and Manchester City have followed this path, but with broadly differing outcomes. At Old Trafford, the effects of the Glazer Family buy-out have been diluted by Alex Ferguson’s continuing success on the pitch, but to suggest that Ferguson is overseeing some sort of socialist paradise within the club is fallacious. Manchester United were the first to ruthlessly exploit the commercial potential of their brand, and reaped the rewards of this accordingly. Old Trafford was expanded to a capacity of 76,000 people, which gives the club a match-day revenue which demonstrated that the argument that ticket sale amounts were no longer relevant because of the amount of television money flooding into the game wasn’t quite as black and white as it may at first have seemed, while the club’s international commercial appeal and perpetual involvement in the Champions League added extra layers of profitability. The club, however, became a victim of its own success. The Glazers’ behaviour may have been, for many, morally repugnant, but it wasn’t illegal and was possible precisely because Manchester United was a financial success story which had floated on the stock market.
A couple of miles up the road, Manchester City came to represent an extreme manifestation of “the rest”, left blinking in the vapour trails of their rivals’ commercial acumen. City, however, got “lucky.” As the twenty-first century arrived and football’s bubble continued, in some respects, to expand, clubs in England started to attract the interest of the ultra-rich, people whose mere accumulation of money would make most right-thinking people feel queasy. In the Premier League, the most conspicuous consumption came at Chelsea, where Roman Abramovich’s money took a club that had an albatross of debt hanging around its debt and transformed it to have the mot successful period in its history. Some supporters still choose to aim a song with the words, “You’ve got no history” at Chelsea supporters, but Chelsea FC is writing another chapter in its history as we speak. Their FA Cup final win last weekend against Liverpool meant that their club has now won that particular competition as many times the team that they beat at Wembley.
These foreign buyouts, of course, caused many to furrow their brows – some for reasons of good old-fashioned xenphobia, others because of more legitimate concerns over the less salubrious effects of the hyper-inflation that comes with such take-overs. Some were good, whilst others very bad indeed, but they reached their zenith with the Abu Dhabi United take-over of Manchester City. This group has poured money into their club in a way that even put Roman Abramovich’s largesse in the shade, and the results of it have been seen over the last couple of seasons. Like a jumbo jet taking off from an airport runway, Manchester City have rumbled to life since this acquisition. First came qualification for the Champions League. Then came a first FA Cup win since 1968. Tomorrow afternoon may – perhaps “should” – deliver a first Premier League win. The holy grail of football’s plutocrats, victory in the Champions League, will undoubtedly be the next target for the club.
Set against all of this are the coming UEFA Financial Fair Play (FPP) regulations. The type of success that Manchester City have enjoyed of late seems likely to be curtailed in the future, as UEFA seeks to constrain professional football clubs from spending more than they earn in the pursuit of success. The battle lines on this subject between Manchester United and Manchester City supporters are clearly and predictably drawn. For Manchester United supporters, City’s recent success is “financial doping”, no more no less – Manchester City have bought the title with an injection of cash that amounts to cheating. The Manchester City supporters, the response is to ask the question of what else their club could possibly be expected to do in order to close a gap between the wealthiest clubs and the rest that has grown exponentially over the last two decades or so and to point out that Manchester United have been as complicit as anyone else in creating the circumstances under which the only way to compete with the likes of Manchester United is to find someone with the financial wherewithal to throw a billion pounds at a football club.
There are merits to both sides of that argument, but what does seem reasonable to add to that debate is that FPP may well calcify the wealthiest clubs of today with perpetual advantages. There is action that the authorities could take to temper this – a more equal distribution of prize and television money, the return of gate receipt sharing, and so on – but the likelihood of the Premier League/FA agreeing to this sort of reform seems remote. It is a fundamental truth of football that some clubs are bigger than others, and that some clubs will win more trophies than others, and anybody that suggests otherwise should refer back to the statistical history of the game. The future growth of the game, however, may depend on its competitive element being retained. To this extent, perhaps football needs to decide – if it hasn’t already – whether it wants to follow neo-liberal economics or sacrifice some of these at the alter of maintaining competitive balance.
At three o’clock tomorrow afternoon, however, such considerations will be forgotten, for a couple of hours at least. If Manchester City do win the Premier League tomorrow afternoon, though, the allegation that they have “bought” the championship will be long and loud. Football clubs, however, have been “buying ” trophies since not long after the game first became professionalised, at the end of the century before last. The discussion that is being held now is not one of whether this should be allowed or not, but one of what forms of purchase should be allowed. Just as Manchester United weren’t the only club to commercialise football, neither are Manchester City the first to benefit from the investment of private capital in terms of winning trophies. The close geographical proximity of these two clubs polarises the debate, but at least it means that the nature of success, how it is acquired and what should and shouldn’t be deemed an acceptable balance between free market economics and sport is being considered. Whether the current measures go anywhere near far enough or whether further reform will be introduced to protect competitive balance within top level professional football, however, is a very different question altogether.
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