SAFC v Man City has produced some highly readable material at Salut! Sunderland: do yourself a favour and read, if you haven’t already, Dan Wild’s blue-tinted thoughts and Pete Sixsmith’s charming slice of nostalia. On the eve of the match,
Colin Randallremembers the weekend life changed for ever for City …
The last time we played Man City at home was the day after I marked an unwelcome milestone with a party at the Stadium of Light, whose staff – I should say – made it an evening to remember.
My footballing birthday present was one I’d rather forget: a terrible 3-0 defeat, followed by a severe drenching as I made my way back to the station.
I was due next day on a flight back to the job I then had in Abu Dhabi. By then, I knew of the megabucks Abu Dhabi takeover of City. I was returning to an extension of the Blues’ catchment area.
Working for The National, the UAE capital’s new daily paper, I had the occasional inside steer on what was going on.
The emphasis was always on the long game, the prudence that would be shown in the transfer market and the – then – security of Mark Hughes’s position. Well, we know what happened to Hughes – coinciding with City 4 SAFC 3 at Eastlands, including a red card for Michael Turner that even Andre Marriner’s mum thought harsh – and we can make up our own minds on whether City have been prudent or spendthrift.
As for the long game, City are on track. There is ample competition for fourth place, but they could easily snatch it. And as for tomorrow, I’d settle for a draw provided we can grab three points against Birmingham City, again at home, a week later.
That would give us eight points from the four home games in succession, not great but an improvement on my minimum wishlist of seven and actually quite good for a team in our position, emerging from our recent run of defeats and draws.
But back to City and Abu Dhabi. Did I go back to the Gulf resenting this artificial re-ordering of the English elite? Not really. I realised that what was happening was not so much more than what Sunderland had experienced on a smaller scale: for our Irish millions, read their Emirati billions.
And in case anyone is interested, this is how I put it in a piece written for The National soon after my return to Abu Dhabi. Nothing that has happened since, which must include our own transition from Irish to Irish-American millions, has changed my view:
Among the birthday gifts handed to me a few evenings ago, at a party in the stadium of the English Premier League football club I support, was a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Against Modern Football”.
The “e” in modern had been replaced by the pound sterling symbol. I instinctively warmed to the theme, smug in the knowledge that my club – Sunderland – stood on the uppermost terrace of sport’s moral ground, clinging high-mindedly to “real club, real supporter” principles in defiance of the market forces turning association football clubs into multinational brands.
But I was also aware of the spectacular hypocrisy of my stance. In common with virtually all my fellow supporters, I would dearly love to see Sunderland rejoin football’s elite after 70 years of exclusion.
A day after the party, I watched dejectedly as the moderately expensive side assembled in the red and white stripes of my team was brushed aside with embarrassing ease by costlier opponents in sky blue.
Those opponents were Manchester City. And the huge injection of funds likely to flow from City’s subsequently announced takeover by the privately owned Abu Dhabi United Group for Development (ADUG) means that the gulf between the two teams will probably be wider still when next they meet, in March.
On my train after Sunday’s game, a Man City fan was holding court in the buffet carriage, humouring disconsolate Sunderland supporters with thoughts on how similar our two clubs were. Both, he said, had once been mighty; both had been condemned by decades of mismanagement and lack of resources to perpetual underachievement. Beyond their own armies of loyal support, both were perceived to be living in the shadows of grander neighbours (Man Utd and, painful as this is to write, Newcastle). Sunderland had last won a major trophy – the FA Cup – in 1973, while Man City had seen no silverware of significance since collecting the lesser League Cup in 1976.
Suddenly, with the arrival of ADUG and promises of hefty financial clout, Man City fans are no longer wondering whether they can reasonably hope for a place in next season’s European Champions League (the highest target of most Premier League clubs at the start of each new season). They are now encouraged to believe that winning the competition is a viable short-term goal.
In a Man City internet chatroom, a supporter posed the question: “Will we now become as hated as Chelsea?” The answer, of course, is that yes, they will indeed be heartily detested by some. For the fans of clubs not profiting from similar largesse, the temptation to cry foul will be irresistible. But such is the universal appeal of sporting excellence that if the football at Eastlands quickly becomes as successful as that played at Old Trafford, City will also win legions of new admirers.
The days when a boy did not so much choose which club to support as have it dictated to him (by birthplace, family attachment or where his father first took him to see a game) are long gone. Boys and, rather more than in the past, girls now pledge allegiance to teams from cities – Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Munich, as well as London and Manchester – they may never even visit.
Wherever they live, these fans know that in most major football leagues, no more than two or three clubs have realistic prospects of winning titles that matter. And in this respect, ADUG’s purchase of Man City can be seen as a healthy development, since it offers the possibility of glory to an unfamiliar new contender.
Clearly, there is no more justification for challenging this deal than there was for protesting when the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich acquired Chelsea, or the American billionaires, the Glazer family, got their hands on Man Utd, or the Egyptian owner of Harrods, Mohamed al Fayed, took over Fulham.
Manchester City should not be deprived of investment any more than those clubs and the source of that investment has as much right to be the UAE as anywhere else. Was the period of success bought by Jack Walker for the deeply unfashionable Blackburn Rovers really any more noble because he was born in the town and made his money as a steel industrialist there? Is it not the plain truth that all football clubs, and their fans, long for men or institutions of substance to appear as saviours and guide them towards a higher level?
None of this will silence complaints about the Man City take-over, or overcome the inverted snobbery of those supporting the teams left behind in the money-fuelled quest for greatness. If plenty of people have long wondered whether football has brains, more will now express certainty that it has finally lost its soul.
But commerce does not have to drive all romance, or element of chance, out of the Beautiful Game. From the history books, I can even introduce a note of caution for supporters of Manchester City now contemplating a future dominated by the finest players money can buy, and the trophies and titles their brilliance will ensure.
Between the late 1940s and the late 1950s, Sunderland were known as the Bank of England Club because the men then in control were able to splash out large sums on the best footballers around.
A glance at the records offers no sign of resulting championships, cup final victories or European triumphs. The period began with a humiliating early exit from the FA Cup on the sloping pitch of the non-League Yeovil Town; it ended, in the spring of 1958, with the first relegation in the club’s 79-year history.