Sport

And now for Europe ...

David Conn

For Manchester City fans, it took 44 years to win a championship but there will be obstacles in their attempts to triumph away, writes David Conn.

Sergio Aguero with the Premier League trophy. (Shaun Botterill, Getty Images)

While the blue hordes of Manchester were descending on their Albert Square victory parade, still not quite believing they were really there, the men in charge of their club were packing up, checking out, and flying back to Abu Dhabi, one part of their project completed. Manchester City’s chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, was as overwhelmed as any spectator by the claiming of the Premier League in, as the fans gleefully sang, “Fergie time”, but winning the title was, ultimately, always in the brochure.

In the one major discordant note of ownership by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the December 2009 sacking of Mark Hughes, the then chief executive, Garry Cook, issued the famous statement saying Hughes was falling short of “targets” set for him. That seemed to many too clinical a way to measure and sack a football man, but the fact was that for the money spent, now up above £900-million, Abu Dhabi did set targets, which included winning the Premier League now, in year four.

There should be no doubt they now intend to push ahead to other targets; this was made clear anyway in the very first communication, when Mansour’s takeover was confirmed on September 22 2008.

In an open letter to “fellow Manchester City fans”, Mansour said: “We are ambitious for the club, like you, but not unreasonably so and we understand it takes time to build a team capable of sustaining a presence in the top four of the Premier League and winning European honours.”

For City fans, it took 44 years to win a championship since the last one; Abu Dhabi set a target of four. In the 94th minute of that extraordinary final game against Queens Park Rangers, Hughes’s replacement, Roberto Mancini, achieved that target. Now they are setting sights on European trophies.

Typical City
Mancini has already worked up a provisional list of targeted players to improve his team with Brian Marwood, the head of football administration whose work, signing the current squad, Mubarak publicly praised. The title softened from director of football, which jars in the English game, Marwood in fact performs that role, overseeing the whole football operation and signing the players requested by the manager and approved by the board.

Lille’s Eden Hazard is known to interest City, but they insist the early years have now gone, in which they paid premium prices to lure top players to a club known for Typical City hapless failures.

“Typical City has been eradicated,” Mubarak insisted this week, ambitiously.

The Abu Dhabi ownership, accustomed to their gushing oil wealth investing in and being associated with success, watched the fans’ dreams ebbing away when QPR equalised then went 2-1 up on Sunday, with a dread of City, even their City, being seen, ultimately, as chokers.

With the remarkable victory seized by Edin Dzeko’s equaliser and Sergio Aguero’s winner in that highest of sporting dramas, Mubarak was able to state that United’s years of success under Sir Alex Ferguson are now City’s “benchmark”.

Culture gap
The new Manchester City intend, firmly plan, as the captain Vincent Kompany has said, to win more Premier League titles and be a true force in Europe. They are acutely aware of the culture gap between that confident ambition and a crowd educated in glum mishaps since Malcolm Allison’s return as manager in 1979, which sings of blue moon and not really being there.

Mubarak actively wants the crowd to shed its nerves and fear of the worst always happening, and find a voice to roar the team on in adversity as if, like United, they expect to win.

Within the Etihad Stadium this week, City’s executives were referring to United’s extra-time victory over Bayern Munich to win the 1999 Champions League as a foundation of United’s winning culture since, and hoping that the injury-time triumph in the Premier League on Sunday could form an equivalent basis for City.

With a squad that has won the Premier League, City will now approach the off-season with confidence that they are happy not to add new players to it, if the price, in terms both of transfer fees and wages, is not right.

Integral to their planning now is to move towards balancing the books and reducing the wage bill, swollen as it is by waves of players signed in four frantic years. Several, most notably Emmanuel Adebayor, are out on loan to other clubs, and others, including the likes of Wayne Bridge and Roque Santa Cruz, signed on high wages in Hughes’s first year, have not figured in Mancini’s thoughts.

Triumphant end
The intention is that transfer activity will be a shuffle in which the quality of players available to Mancini will be honed, while some big earners are moved off the books.

At the triumphant end of a most dramatic season, City feel vindicated in the two most public conflicts of Mansour’s four years: the replacement of Hughes with Mancini, and the new manager’s stand-off with Carlos Tevez.
 
In refusing to sell Tevez to Milan in January for less than around £40-million, and eventually drawing the Argentinian back to playing a hard-working role in the title run-in, Mubarak believes he established a robustness.

For all their vast wealth, the Abu Dhabi ownership was determined that no player or agent would see they could cost City a fortune simply by being difficult enough.

Of the major obstacle looming for Mansour’s 10-year plan to transform Manchester City into European winners, Uefa’s financial fair play, City claim to be confident they can comply. Given that rules have been introduced to encourage clubs to rise and fall on their own financial resources, not on massive overspending even if backed by an owner as copper-bottomed as Mansour, City have always looked built to fall foul.

Financial health
For the start of the 2014-15 season, clubs qualifying for European competition, where City intend to be, must have recorded maximum €45-million losses in the current, 2012, and next financial years. As City lost €197-million last year, a record even in English football, which was bankrolled by Mansour’s own wealth, it looks impossible given further investment in players like Aguero, who cost £38-million, that City can comply.

Uefa, arguing its rules are designed to improve the financial health of top-flight European football in which clubs should be thriving, not failing, are adamant they will survive any court challenge.

A range of sanctions will be available, applied “proportionately” to the scale of the breach, with exclusion from competition the hardest penalty for the deepest loss-makers.

Mubarak and his executives have noticeably taken Uefa’s regime more seriously as it has sharpened into view.

They always intended to be financially sustainable - “We see this as a sound business investment,” that original letter from Mansour said - but argue Uefa’s rule to that effect is coming early for them.

Positive vision
However, City maintain that the lucrative earnings from winning the world’s richest league, competing in the Champions League and from commercial sponsorships including Nike bring their earnings above £200-million and that they can grapple wage costs under control.

City have shown key Uefa executives, including Andrea Traverso, head of licensing including financial fair play, the plans for their huge training “campus” costing around £140-million alongside the Etihad Stadium.

For the positive vision Uefa has, rather than the range of rules and penalties, Bayern Munich, Chelsea’s Champions League final opponents, should be studied. Owned 82% by 130000 members, fielding a team of class by virtue of their own financial clout, not the subsidy of an owner, Bayern and other German clubs are a model Uefa admires.

In the great Premier League experiment of ownership by rich individuals from foreign countries, Blackburn Rovers have exhibited some of the worst, remoteness coupled with flapping mismanagement, whereas Manchester City have applied vast resources with professionalism and attention to detail.

And with their four-year target achieved, however breathtaking its manner, they were not staying on for the parade, but moving on to the next stage of their plan. - © Guardian News & Media 2012

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