Saturday, 3 September 2011

The age of the 'Manchester duopoly'

Here's a guest post from Murray Withers, with some interesting predications about the future of Mancunian and Premier League football. Check it out below.


Sometimes the scores alone tell a much bigger story; Spurs 1 City 5, United 8 Arsenal 2 or why not Manchester 13 North London 3? Tabloid hacks and broadsheetcolumnists were in unanimous agreement; Sunday 28 August was the start of a new era that would see Manchester placed firmly at the centre of world football (if it’s not already). 

Leaving aside the shrill nature of such a big statement just three games in, both games being live on the same day as well as some specific circumstances helped the media to come to such a historical verdict – Harry Redknapp decided to fight with fire by naming no defensive midfielder (ignoring the fact that we usually have two performing that role, freeing the rest up) while Arsene Wenger, who wouldn’t have expected Djourou to be so easily shoved aside for the first or Van Persie to miss a penalty, of course blamed injuries (only on deadline day has he realised modern football is all about the depth of the squad!). However, that took nothing away from the sheer power and skill on display by Roberto Mancini and Alex Ferguson’s men. All the carping about wages, transfer fees and the general commercialisation of the game went away, as breathless commentators remembered that aesthetics over-ride ethics. Headlines swooned over the performances of Rooney and Young, Nasri and Dzeko.

For City, where we were often criticised last season despite our third place finish and Cup win because Mancini kept the handbrakes on, it all went through Tevez, other expensive buys hadn’t clicked, etc, now there’s varying degrees of admiration, respect and fear from the other clubs as we look the Real Deal. Wewere told our Champions League group was a ‘baptism of fire’ but I saw City as arguably the best of a strong bunch, as did Frank Ribery. Suddenly all the commentators are not looking beyond City or United for the major honours, overlooking the truism that nothing’s decided in August or September.

When Ferguson started as manager in 1986 with the stated intention of knocking Liverpool ‘off their perch’ he could never imagine then that the biggest challenge to United’s two-decade ascendancy would come from City. But for a man as schooled in the game as the canny Scot, he would have realised straight away in September 2008 that the football map was going to change following Shaikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nayhan’s takeover. City have since had their false starts – buying Robinho for a British record only to find him non-committal to playing at Fratton Park and the KC Stadium, trying to buy the likes of Kaka at blatantly inappropriate moments in the club’s development, finishing fifth in Mancini’s first half season. Our semi-final win was a major turning point, to overcome the early let-offs before charging back into the game and denying them a sniff proved a sea change. The final win over Stoke delivered another nail in the coffin of Cityitis. 

Yet continued criticism of City’s new found status usually has three lines of attack; ‘no history’; we have just bought success; and no team spirit aka they’re only in it for the money. Well it’s true we don’t have the success of the big three but share trophy space with the likes of Newcastle, Tottenham, Wolves, but a club like Chelsea had even less and that didn’t stop Roman Abramovich. City fans have had to rely on less tangible elements over three decades (the bananas, the loyal support, cult heroes like Kinky, Rosler and Goater, cult moments like the 10-1, 5-1 and Dickov in stoppage time) but that does mean that the wider perception of City as one of the teams that matter has been downplayed in the public eye. To the second we are, er, guilty as charged; the outlay from both Hughes (including in the last days under Shinawatra) and Mancini has been considerable, although inflated by City operating in a price bracket of their own and ultimately only about half the players have worked). The third is just ignorant of how football teams operate; anyone who’s played on a muddy pitch on a Sunday morning will appreciate how vital team spirit is to any side. There may be the odd disagreement between individuals or the odd uncontrollable ego like Tevez but it is swallowed up by the collective will. Make no mistake, it’s not just the paycheck that will make our ‘galacticos’ dig deep for each other.

But the armchair crowd should remember how it was a few years ago. Buoyed along by their Champions league harvest every year, the monopoly exerted by the ‘Big Four’ had become so powerful that ‘organic’ development of a team and club stood no chance of breaking the glass ceiling. Every season it was just a question of where Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and United would finish. The cartel needed breaking up by force. As a City fan, I’m just grateful for the chance we have to compete. People who lead perfectly capitalist lifestyles baulk at the beautiful game being thrown to the markets where regulation is a joke and inequality is a given, but that’s what’s happened. This is not the 70s any more. At the top level football is about investment, brands and capitalising on overseas support, survival of the fittest. United started it in the 1990s; the rest of us had to swim with the tide or sink. The business models, as in the real world, may be different, but it’s about the willingness to attract the top players that counts. Everything else is just excuses. Purists can head to the non-leagues if they don’t like it, but the majority just slag it off because their team isn’t the lucky benefactor, all the while praying for similar salvation.

City have stolen a march on the field – the fact that world-class players like Aguero now want to come to Eastlands tells its own story; the ‘project’ is working. There’s professional satisfaction to be had from being part of building up a new force rather than adding to an established presence. However, one thing the real business world usually won’t allow is continued domination and that’s why the so-called Manchester duopoly probably won’t happen as scripted, at least not for very long. Look at Liverpool’s American turnround (despite the odd gem in Suarez, Dalglish seems to have gone for quantity rather than quality), Abramovich’s ongoing investment at Chelsea and the wake-up call at Arsenal. Allow also that serious investment can strike a sleeping giant at any moment. The overinflated bubble cosseting football from the wider economic slump will survive a while yet.

Buoyed by the extraordinary tenure of Ferguson, Reds have had two decades of constant gratification. And just as City fans would love to do a Poznan all over the decline of United, wiser Blues know this isn’t going to happen either. The top teams stay top teams now, rather than burning brightly and fading away. The true test will of course be when Ferguson steps down, but there is much less likelihood of this rupturing the club and leading to a decline. A top-class manager will want to ensure the legacy, and so it goes. But they’ll have to get used to sharing the success.

So though the prospect of Mancunian domination whets the appetite, bet on neither a Manchester duopoly or a City monopoly in the long term. More likely a much wider playing field of a top five or six competing for the pots, and new oligarchs, petrodollar benefactors and American or Asian investors making contenders of other teams. 


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  1. Good article. As a long-suffering City fan, I'm still not convinced that City will win the league this season and a lot will depend on how they cope with the rigours of the Champions league. I think Arsenal will struggle this season and Spurs will improve on last week's performance. Six into four (Champions league places) doesn't go and the 'big' clubs will need to have a financial model that doesn't rely on annual CL qualification or else risk doing a Leeds! Its going to be an interesting season.

  2. Enjoyed the read Murray.

    I think like you say, with the signings we have made this year you can really see now how our project has moved in stages. I still don't think we are quite there for the League yet. Its a long season, and although we've strengthened yet again, United appear to be a lot stronger than they were last season. I know the 5-1 might suggest otherwise but our new players still have to bed in fully.

    Next season will be the one where we present the biggest threat yet to recent United-Chelsea dominance of recent years. Its been coming for a while and the big teams know this - it was always going to be a matter of time before we would seriously challenge.

    Like you say, United won't simply fall away when Ferguson goes - they'll probably still be favorites to win the League but perhaps they will lose a little bit of the mental steel that Ferguson seems to imbue his squads with. Perhaps other teams will also gain a bit more belief against United.

    As Ferguson approaches his last years in the job, the challenge will be not only be working out how to deter the growing threat from City like you say, but also leaving United with a squad that is capable of meeting the challenge of City in the years to come - because year in year out we will pretty much be challenging – how will United fans stomach that if they are not? I’m sure that’s unacceptable to Ferguson. On the European front, the challenge to both Ferguson and Mancini is obvious - how to overcome Barcelona when it really matters.

    As dj_corky says, certainly going to be an interesting season, made even more interesting now because we are probably at a juncture in the Premier League’s history. The era of the usual big four dominance has come to an end, the era of Ferguson will also come to an end sooner rather than later, Chelsea will soon have a lot of rebuilding to do, and then you have the likes of City as the new ingredient in the mix.
    PS: great reaction from Franck Ribery.