Thursday, 15 July 2010

The new aggression

Last season was a season of many firsts – both on and off the pitch. Away from the field of play there appears to have been a great deal of work done on the club’s image and marketing strategy. Even if we are not quite there on the pitch, off it the club has adopted an aggressive, winning mentality that I think puts us ahead of the majority of other clubs worldwide.

Aesthetically speaking

Everyone can see that the club has gone through a major cosmetic overhaul. This is perhaps most stark in the kit department. Last season, fans were finally rewarded with three fantastic kits to wear, easily the best in the Premier League, and probably the club’s best kits since the 1960s. The home strip was the real statement, with the club going for the maxim ‘less equals more’. Simplicity was the key word here, with the kit being kept very basic, all light blue with a white round neck. A return to Umbro as our kit sponsor has proved a fantastic move, with the partnership producing some top class training gear.

City’s online presence has been wholly revamped for the better. The website now looks very slick, with plenty of video content, plenty of interviews with top players, and new downloads. More creativity went into selling match days last season too. The Big Four Campaign (referred to in greater detail later) was a massive part of this, but also smaller touches, such as turning the stadium lights off just before kick off at night games, and projecting shining blue moons on the stadium screen – this kind of thing contributed much to the atmosphere of the games.

Customer relations

The club’s relationship with its fans has also improved. There has been some setbacks along the way to be sure (seat relocations come to mind), but overall the club is connecting with its fans in new ways.

A great example of this has been the worldwide web. There are a dedicated group of City bloggers out there who follow and report on developments at the club religiously. City have made strong links here, inviting bloggers to Eastlands to test the new website, inviting bloggers to write for the match day programme, placing links to each blog on the fan sections of the official website. These are all nice touches of recognition to City’s online community.

The club is also listening to its fans. The front page of the City website always contains a quote from fan blog or the club’s official Facebook page on recent developments. That the club actually took the design of its kits back to an old school style is – I think – further evidence of a club that wants to pander to its fans interests.

Focusing aggression locally

In a broad marketing sense, all of these moves have been aggressive. Improvements to the club’s image, improvements to how the club deals with its customers are all designed to pull in more money through keeping existing customers on board, attracting new customers and making sure all customers stay loyal.

But’s there’s another side to being aggressive, and that is competing with your rivals – in this context other clubs. And locally, we all know who that is.

At the beginning of last season, the new aggression was focussed specifically in and around Manchester. Its messages: the Blue half of Manchester is resurgent, belligerent, controversial and is the new kid on the block. Of course this took shape with the now infamous Tevez ‘Welcome to Manchester’ poster, slap bang in the City centre for all to see. The poster certainly put the cat amongst Ferguson’s pigeons, and it did so because it was a master stroke. The significance of the Tevez move could not be overstated, a top class player, a 20 goal a season man making the switch from United to City in his prime. How that must’ve rankled the red half of the city.

Then throughout the season came the creative Big Four campaign. This was a campaign that reared its head every time City played one of the traditional big four clubs (Arsenal, United, Chelsea, Liverpool) at home. The key message was that the club wanted to “celebrate those cult players who relish [big four] occasions and transcend the barriers between culture and football.” The key objective was to put “Manchester City at the centre of the cultural fabric of Manchester.”

With Arsenal’s highly charged visit in September, the club chose Emmanuel Adebayor as its first poster boy. A huge graphic was rolled out on the floor of the Manchester Arndale shopping centre before the game, and on the day of the match, posters with the same graphic were littered all around the stadium.

In December came the visit of Chelsea and it was Shaun Wright-Phillips’ turn. Iconic images of the little winger dribbling with the ball were graffiti-ed near the East Stand reception. The image was 50 meters long and young fans were challenged to run the length of the artwork to beat SWP’s own time and win prizes. This artwork was also replicated up the side of the four story Printworks in the middle of the city.

In February the campaign was upped a notch again with the visit of Liverpool. This time, Craig Bellamy was the centre of attention. The Welshman was the subject of an edgy video entitled ‘I give my all’, which featured a cinematic recording of Bellamy getting ready for a big match. A special piece of artwork was commissioned that signified Bellamy’s style of play: a snarling beast. All very unique stuff.

Finally, as the season came to a close with the visit of United, Carlos Tevez once again became the focus of the campaign. Clearly the club’s best player of last season, the Argentinean was the subject of another artistic design completed by the same people behind Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign. The new design, entitled ‘Tevez Pasion’, was very chic and iconic and is still available to download from the club’s website.

Whilst the campaign achieved its stated aims, I felt that it was about much more than just emphasising key players. Here was a campaign specifically directed toward the traditional hierarchy of English football through emphasising the links of current City players with their former clubs. Of course, there was plenty of room for needle here. It was clear that the Arsenal fans hated Adebayor before his reckless antics last year – pictures of his face around the stadium weren’t exactly designed to calm tempers. Bellamy the player is disliked by all except the club that he plays for, and the Tevez link with United needs no explanation. In short it was a campaign that sought to antagonise, challenge and a threat all rolled into one, with the message: ‘we are coming for you’ emblazoned on its forehead.

Channelling the aggression for 2010/11

Backed by this aggressive philosophy, off the field last season was a highly successful one. The real trick of course is keeping that aggression flowing and channelled in the right areas for the coming season. Key challenges lie first in the realm of aesthetics. How on earth can the club improve on last season’s kits? I have little idea and await the new designs with anticipation. I have always wanted the club to take a nod to its own history and produce a kit in the fashion of the old St Mark’s (West Gorton) black and white strip. The other key challenge is this: so far the new aggression has worked well locally, but how will this translate as the club continues to grow globally? Developing the new aggression for the global football market will have a massive bearing on whether the club increases its global appeal to rival the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and AC Milan.

Monday, 5 July 2010

New blood and dead wood

Another transfer window in full flow, and once again we see the true colour of Sheikh Mansour’s intentions - and his money. New blood has already been injected into the club for the 2010/11 campaign, but the axe has also been ruthlessly wielded. Its clearer than ever that Mansour is going full steam ahead towards the target of winning the Premier League title. Whether he will achieve that feat is another matter, but he is certainly taking strides this summer.

Mansour’s gold buys Silva (and Yaya, and Jerome)

Within the space of a week the club signed the attacking midfielder/winger/striker David Silva from Valencia and defensive midfielder Yaya Toure from Barcelona. This is not to mention the earlier signing of German full-back/utility defender Jerome Boateng.

Of course all three signings are incredibly positive. Boateng is young, can play across the back four, and is already a full blown German international currently making his name in Joachim Loew’s surprise package team at the 2010 World Cup. The lad seems to have the right ingredients for the rigours of the Premier League – speed and strength – and given his European background will no doubt be handy for us as we mount our Europa League challenge.

Yaya Toure brings fantastic top level experience, and at 27 years old he comes to Eastlands at a good age. Once again we have added to our defensive midfield contingent: Barry, De Jong, Vieira, Kompany and now Yaya, but what is important is that we have added in a positive manner. Clearly this is a signing that will improve our midfield. It might even bring the best out of Barry by allowing us to rest the England midfielder a bit more. If we can hold onto Nigel De Jong though, I think it bodes for a formidable defensive midfield: steel, determination, aggression and now with Yaya, a bit more creativity and getting forward effectively too. But it is the signing of David Silva that heralds the most excitement and expectation. I must admit I thought we’d fall short in our efforts to secure this man’s services. Silva is one of those rare players that can drift between midfield and attack very effectively. Aside from his undoubted talent, which has perhaps been underlined more with the Spanish national team’s Euro 2008 victory rather than his exploits with previous club Valencia, what makes this signing extra sweet is that Silva was a target of Manchester United. Ferguson’s interest in the Spaniard has been well documented, but Silva rejected United’s overtures, saying that he wanted to play in Spain and would only move to Real Madrid or Barcelona. All the more surprising then, that Silva appears to have jettisoned this mindset to join City, and not United, Arsenal (perhaps the obvious choice), or Chelsea. Money has probably got something to do with it.

All three players have of course come for the money, but that is not the whole picture. For Yaya, the romanticism of finally playing in a club side with his brother Kolo must have also represented a strong gravitational pull towards Eastlands for the younger Ivorian. The other motivation of all three must be to play in the Premier League. Whilst I felt that the Premier League’s star waned somewhat last season, these signings show that it is still up there with the best Leagues in the world. That Silva and Yaya have both forfeited the chance of playing Champions League football with Valencia and Barcelona respectively throws more fire on the flames of that position.

Petrov, Sylvinho and Benjani jettisoned, Bojinov sold

Nothing irks me more than a player having a pop at an old club from the moment he has left. The words of Martin Petrov almost caused me to fall off my chair. The winger talked of City’s money and the club bringing in big stars. He went on to say that it doesn’t matter how much money you have if you can’t play as a team. He’s quite right of course, except to say that I don’t seem to remember Petrov being much of an overall team player when he was at Eastlands. An exciting winger yes, but I don’t recall him helping out his full back much.

I’m sorry Martin, but its sour grapes from you. Your real gripe is the fact that you didn’t play as much because we were bringing in better players. Injuries aside, you scored goals when you were in the team, but you couldn’t match Bellamy’s overall contribution to the team, and pretty soon you probably won’t be able to match Adam Johnson’s either. You are 31 years old, have injury prone knees, and were part of a club with a lot of money that wants to sign new talent and you were coming to the end of your contract. Martin – you did a great job for us under Sven and I wish you the best of luck at Bolton, but do us all a favour: stop moaning and get real.

The releasing of striker Benjani and full back Sylvinho also makes perfect sense. Benjani was never a real hit. Harry Redknapp definitely knew the right time to sell back in 2008. Of course, we will always thank Benjani for his winner against United at Old Trafford, but apart from that we didn’t get much return for the fee we paid Portsmouth. A terrible first touch will be my lasting memories of Benjani.

Sylvinho is another one that didn’t really work out. I don’t feel as if he ever got into the rhythm of the Premier League. His baptism of fire in League competition was away at Bolton, and what at baptism it was. We were defensively all over the place in that game, eventually drawing the match 3-3. Sylvinho I feel was more of a product of our new ‘big club’ relationship with Barcelona. I can’t ever see how he was a Hughes signing. Perhaps we signed Sylvinho to cure Robinho’s homesickness and instil a bit more discipline into the latter’s game? At any rate on the surface and in hindsight it feels like a worthless signing.

Finally, it is with a tint of regret that I see Valeri Bojinov appears to be leaving us to join Parma on a permanent basis. I always thought Bojinov was one of Sven’s better signings. He could have been great in the Premier League. Direct, powerful, a real bull heading up the attack. Injuring his cruciate ligaments against United in his first game meant that he never really got going. Once Mansour’s millions kicked in, there was always going to be limited chances for him at Eastlands now, but he deserves to be playing at a good club so I wish him the best of luck in Italy.

Once again, we return to that question

The big question come late August will be whether Roberto Mancini can forge these players into a team that wants to play for each other. The Italian missed out on 4th and was rightly granted a reprieve, but he cannot afford any more big failures. In signing these players (and perhaps we aren’t done yet) the club hierarchy has once again delivered its part, now the coaching staff must deliver theirs. A bad start could see Mancini discarded much in the same way as Petrov et al.

Of course, there is another more haunting question at the back of my mind this summer: the prospect of Stephen Ireland moving to Manchester United. This is a story that refuses to go away. If the signing of David Silva had a catch, then this will surely be it. Thwarted in his pursuit of the Spaniard, Ferguson is rumoured to be focusing on signing Ireland. This is something that must not be allowed to happen. For one, the Irishman is an academy youth product. And for two, every City fan knows that Ferguson will only go and get the very best out of a player that has underachieved massively for the past season. That would surely be a spectre that would haunt us forever.