So, where did all of this silliness begin?
Was it Peter Swales’s fault?
It always used to be, back in the old days when City were a solid laughing stock and almost everyone loved them for it. "You did what?! You sold Asa Hartford, Brian Kidd, Dennis Tueart, Peter Barnes, Dave Watson and Gary Owen and replaced them with Dave Wiffill and Paul Sugrue. Michael Robinson and Bobby Shinton. Have you gone out of your tiny mind?"
We still had Lee, of course, but it was Stuart not Francis and in any case the noise from everyone laughing wouldn’t let you appreciate his quietly ineffective outings up the right flank anyway..
And so it came to pass that Swales, in his ever-more desperate urge to catch Manchester United, who would each summer scoop up the close season’s most expensive purchase (be it Bryan Robson for nearly two million, Paul Ince in a controversial move from West Ham, where he had the red shirt on so quickly he was officially still a Hammers player when he fronted the press photographers, Gary Pallister for today’s equivalent of £50m or the expensive crab-like movements of Ray Wilkins), kept on upping the ante.
Just as in the world of politics, people have developed short memories. Either that or they weren’t born in those heady days of parkas and black and white tellies. Or maybe they wisely choose not to do the research. Liverpool in the 70s and United in the 80s and 90s, dominated the transfer market completely, cherry picking whoever they wanted. The fees paid pushed the market ever upwards and produced in the likes of Swales, Freddy Shepherd at Newcastle and Doug Ellis at Villa a paranoid need to try and tag along.
City were a busted flush, broke and laughable, going through the motions one last time with Trevor Francis, nicked from the grasp of – you guessed it – United in a last bid to wrest control in 1981. As any finance expert or inhabitant of the Emirates forecourt will tell you, however, false economies and overstretched budgets don’t work unless you have a solid Plan B.
When Francis’s well-publicised proneness to injury resurfaced, City were sunk. Gary Buckley and Aage Hariede were hardly like-for-like replacement. Without Francis, City looked utterly threadbare and were banished to the second division with a team shorn of its great stars and manned instead by the likes of Ian Davies, Chris Jones and a 39-year old John Ryan. They had been 2nd in November after a 2-0 win over Southampton at Maine Road and now here they were, descending into the relegation places for the first time that season on the very last day of the campaign, dumped there by Raddy Antic’s 84th minute winner for Luton Town.
Even that had been done adhering to the great Manchester City Book of Comedy. Eddie Large on the bench, David Pleat in his fawn suit and slip-ons, Luton Town singing on Match of the Day while wearing straw hats, we had the lot. Those trying to overturn the nº 41 on Clarement Road afterwards, however, had not stayed for the punchline.
Our chips and gravy had gone sour.
The following years brought meagre signings with new boss Billy McNeil’s hands tied behind his back. Miraculously, City resurfaced in the top flight within two years with Jim Tolmie, Derek Parlane, Neil McNab, Gordon Dalziel, Graeme Sinclair and Duncan Davidson the next-to-nothing signings that carried the ship forward, unsteady step by unsteady step.
City returned south two seasons later and began an even bigger descent in the mid-90s that took the club to the edge of oblivion, otherwise known as the Moss Rose, Macclesfield. League games against Bury, Stockport, Lincoln, York and Wrexham represented the coldest of showers for the great unwashed of the old Kippax terraces.
Broke and disheartened, we could only watch from afar as United and Liverpool continued their decades-long splurges, joined by a new moneyed elite of Arsenal (organic) Chelsea, buoyed first by Mathew Harding’s largesse then the windfall of Roman Abramovic’s surprise oil and steel windfall. Even Leeds were up there with the big hitters, spending money their erudite chairman Peter Ridsdale didn’t even know they had (they didn’t have it, as it turned out).
The Premier League’s dawn had occurred with City present at the 1992 curtain raisers, but soon the bandwagon laden with money was heading off over the horizon like a cartoon charabanc with City tied to a tree in dead man’s gulch.
David Bernstein, the first man at Maine Road, who could do O level arithmetic, steadied the ship in the third tier. Still City’s signings (Danny Allsopp, Danny Tiatto) were distinctly Argos to United’s Rue St Honoré purchases of Matt Stam, Jesper Blomquist and – just to show they still held onto a vague sense of humour – Karel Poborsky.
|Standing room only at Macclesfield|
City crawled back, carried by a wave of gritty enthusiasm from the terraces. Those “invisible” fans that turned up in ever-increasing numbers the worse things got carried the club forward. Astute buys and growing momentum sent the club back in the right direction. By the time City found themselves consolidating under the arclights of the Premier League again, foreign investors were beginning to hover, rightly seeing the club as one of English football's great investment opportunities.
Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed dictator of Thailand with an ill-gotten penny or two to stash away, took over from John Wardle and David Makin, whose financial backing in the lean years had been crucial to City’s survival. Still loved by many fans for their authentic otherworldlyness, City had ramped up their devil-may-care image with Kevin Keegan, bringing all out attack and a return to boom and bust transfers to the club. Robbie Fowler’s switch in particular nearly brought the house down again, Keegan insisting on “one more sweetie before dinner”. The irony of taking on a rotund Fowler from Leeds, at this point imploding under the pressure of Ridsdale’s unusual accounting (he had the most expensive goldfish in English football, which - unlike Leeds - could swim), was eye-watering. Shinawatra’s entrance bolstered coffers about to pop open once again, but all was not well.
An 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough topped a previous last day of the season game with the same opponents, when UEFA Cup football was missed by the width of a post, red faced Fowler missing the injury time penalty that would have put City into Europe. With manager Stuart Pearce employing David James up front, City were once again everyone’s favourite laughing stock: harmless, feather-light on the brain and unerringly impotent, they were present day Newcastle and Leeds rolled into one, fluffy, desperate ball of lightly powdered intrigue.
In the 90s, as the club ricocheted from one disaster to another, the idea of the 5th Column surfaced. There had always been boardroom insiders, members of the press, moles and snipers, all trying to disable the club’s attempts at walking in a straight line. For the most part, City hadn’t required any help, but they were there, dark and shadowy figures lurking in the corridors if push came to shove.
As Shinawatra’s wobbly morals came under the spotlight, the club once again reached a turning point. Premier League mobility required great amounts of money and the Thai was spending more and more of his to keep himself out of jail. Then suddenly a seismic shift that is still wobbling the league like a jelly nearly a decade later.
September 1st 2008.
Never look back. Lightning had struck in Manchester and we were all a little singed.
Transfer deadline day was hijacked by City, as they were first bought outright by the hitherto unheard of Sheikh Mansour from Abu Dhabi, then joined the fun and games of the last four hours of deadline day to turn it into a soap opera of the highest calibre. Pushing United beyond £30 million for Dimitar Berbatov was the first bit of jiggery pokery. City then hijacked Robinho’s move to Chelsea from Real Madrid, morphing from high end slapstick to shoot-to-kill in the space needed for a gentle period of tiffin.
Welcomed at first at the top table, City’s attempts to buy impressively had involved The Jo Experiment and other trips into surreal places with Emanuel Adebayor and unofficial club mascot Glauber Berti. City were in the club but they were on the outside still, with their wonky cheque book and their over-polished shoes.
The public reaction was mainly glee that a proper club could make it rich, that a daft club could maybe try to upset the applecart, that the Champions League cartel of United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, the perennial qualifiers, might just have a fly dropped in their ointment at some stage in the future.
The problems really started when City started to beat United. With Alex “not in my lifetime” Ferguson still in charge, these so-called noisy neighbours and classless oiks started to get the better of his megalith United. Gently at first, then cataclysmically with an FA Cup semi final win, then a 6-1 win at Old Trafford that nearly reduced him to retirement on the spot and the crushing 1-0 win to turn the title race into a two-horse race. That United had come to the Etihad to defend said it all. The lame ponies had turned into galloping stallions and United were getting trampled underfoot. Up front, City's riches had enabled the purchase of Carlos Tevez from United too, a painful reminder despite the Argentinean's obvious penchant for trouble, that the tables had been turned.
Which is where the 5th column re-emerges. The mainstream press, brought up on the need to satiate United’s millions of followers with anodine puff pieces about their heroes, had a major issue on their hands. City were grabbing all the back page space for themselves and it was not because they were bankrupt, relegated or knocked out of the cup by a soothsayer. Now it was serious.At some point between City’s earth shattering first Premier League win, at United’s expense of course, and their second two years later under the less voluble Manuel Pellegrini, something changed. Good will towards the new elite ebbed away to be replaced by a casual hatred for their vulgar spending sprees. The press looked for any angle that could paint a negative picture.
< 2002: Rio Ferdinand is unveiled at United for a record fee of £28m (rising to £33m), breaking the British record transfer fee for the third time in 13 months after the arrivals of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron. The press reported it calmly and objectively.
And they're right. It is all a little nauseous. It is a little vulgar. It is a little astonishing. But it has always been a little like this. As the Premier League cash cow has gradually grown its great swinging, vein-flecked udders, we have all been splashed with milk. However hard we try to make City's ventures worse than anyone else's, however, Everton spraying £25m all over Burnley for Michael Keane, Chelsea leaking £40m for Bakayoko and Manchester United testing the boundaries of decency with £31m for Lindelöf and a king's ransom for Lukaku are all just as "bad", if it is indeed possible or useful to try and compare these things. Certainly it is City that are stirring the emotions right now and stirring them vigorously. That Lukaku's monster fee produced mainly glee and excitement from the press was predicable. That City's desperate swoop for a full back needs Mirror stalwarts David Anderson AND David O'Donnell to co-write a piece humping the price up to over double its actual worth just serves to underline how far City's star has fallen. Infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy, as Frankie Howerd might have said.
From those timid days of Paul Sugrue, of the virgin Bobby Shinton and Peter Swales purchasing Kazimierz Deyna from Legia Warsaw with a trailer full of fridge freezers from Altrincham, from Romark tipping Big Mal’s City out of the FA Cup ona quagmire in Halifax, from Nick Fenton belting the ball onto the roof v Notts County and Jamie Pollock morphing into Ronaldinho just to score the best own goal in history, City have emerged into the dazzling white light at the top of the football mountain.
But even here they have found darkness.