As it’s cover would suggest, David Conn’s new book Richer than God: Manchester City, modern football and growing up is primarily a tale about Manchester City. It is both the story of the club’s shambolic fall from grace and then astonishing rise back to the top of the English game, backed by the millions of a sheikh from Abu Dhabi.
Taken in its entirety though, the book is about much more than City. It’s about the rise of the obscenities of modern football, or more specifically the Premier League, flush with its mega millions with players on hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, while the grass roots of the game silently rots away. For Conn, the rise of “the money game” as he describes it has destroyed the very soul of the game itself, along with his love City, the team he supported so fervently well into his twenties, which now due to its untold wealth is perhaps the clearest example of all that is wrong with the modern game.
Richer than God is a must read for City fans wanting to enrich their understanding of just how close the club has come to financial ruin over the past few decades. The rot started in the 1970s, when chairman Peter Swales – installed in 1973 and charged with the task of carrying on the club’s glory era of the late 1960s. City had the opportunity to dominate the era, but instead Swales appointed the wrong managers and oversaw a mass exodus of talent from the club, wasting a fortune on lower grade replacements. Conn describes it as a “great purge” and points to how traumatic it was for City fans. “Even now, writing this, I still can’t believe what happened,” he says. The desolation leaps off the page.
That experience alone must have been bad, but the years that followed, decades even, which saw relegations that eventually culminated in the club languishing in England’s third tier, were even worse. As Conn writes, this was the era when former City manager Joe Royle coined the phrase “Cityitis” – which tries to explain how good players seemed prone to messing things up whenever they put on a Blue shirt.
But as Conn expertly perceives, “Cityitis” is as equally uncomfortable for fans. “There is something more profound in [Cityitis],” writes Conn. “[It is] the nestling of misfortune deep in the bosom of triumph.”
Conn’s insight into the current regime running the club, headed by Sheikh Mansour, a member of the ruling family of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, is unparalleled.
After all the heartache and despair, City are now the richest club in the world and are the number one team in England, having won the English league last season backed by the Sheikh’s millions.
For Conn the new City, which as one would expect being owned by a Sheikh, is a slick, professional business operation geared toward achieving results of the highest order, is out of character with the club’s traditional personality of enduring “whatever life bloody threw at you”. He has a point, but to me how City became the richest club in the world is just another example of the club’s erratic, bi-polar history since the early 1970s. With City you have to expect the unexpected. Sometimes it’s been good, most times it’s been bad.
Conn’s access to Mansour’s people is unmatched. There’s analysis of where the club’s chairman, Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, fits into the Abu Dhabu government. Being chairman of City is just one of Khaldoon’s many high profile, strategic roles.
According to Conn, Mansour’s people have always been at pains to say that buying City was Mansour’s private investment – the deal had nothing to do with the Abu Dhabi state, of which Mansour is a minister for presidential affairs.
But I’m not certain how the political and the private can be separated in a situation such as this. It’s well known that Abu Dhabi is looking for ways to diversify its economy once the oil runs out. It’s looking for ways to tell the world about itself and Manchester City represents one way of doing that.
City will potentially serve a dual function for Mansour. As a businessman, the club stands to make him a lot of money if he gets the management of it right. As a high-ranking politician in the Abu Dhabi emirate, the club also acts as a projection of the emirate’s image overseas, boiled down to the bare bones, a softer element of its foreign policy.
The history of Mansour’s country, the reason for him getting involved in the club and the state that he found the club in, are all documented by Conn in detail here – once again essential reading for those wantingan insight into the mindset of the club’s current owners, about which not a great deal is known.
Any fan of the modern game should also cast an eye over these pages.
Conn speaks from the heart about the way football used to be and the way it now. This change is told through Conn’s own life trajectory, with City the vehicle through which he spins the yarn.
A City fan from the age of six, supporting the team from the mid-1970s onwards with unbridled devotion, Conn’s career turned toward investigative journalism. As millions of pounds flowed into the game in the early 1990s, Conn began to look into the financial side of football and came to realize his beloved club – just like many others – has become a business, owned by people who were at base only concerned about making large amounts of money out of the loyalties of the fans. As a result, Conn’s footballing innocence is lost to the point where he no longer feels comfortable being a part of a club he has supported since he was a boy.
The English Football Association (FA), the creators of today’s worldwide game, are put to the sword by Conn for gradually allowing the game’s commercialization to spiral out of control.
As Conn explains, in the beginning the FA were against clubs paying players and also against clubs becoming money making machines for those that owned them. Later on, the FA also prioritized financial equality through clubs sharing the proceeds of attendance at games, which, Conn says, made the game more competitive on the pitch, with smaller teams having a better chance of winning things.
In the face of pressure from the big clubs, Conn charts the slow, spineless retreat of the FA on each of these principles, which ultimately culminated in the big clubs threatening to breakaway from the football league if they were not granted a greater share of a lucrative SKY TV deal that ushered in the Premier League era in the early 1990s. Conn tells of how the FA acquiesced in the deal, thinking it could continue to control the game – a “fateful” decision that was the precursor to fans being screwed by higher ticket prices and many younger fans being priced out of attending, which in turn led to the decline in stadium atmospheres – especially given the onset of all seater stadiums.
For the clubs, “the Premier League is about making as much money as possible without having to share it,” according to Conn.
The calamity of City is reintroduced into the story here, when Conn analyses a takeover of the club headed by former City playing legend Francis Lee, and is rocked back by its details.
Far from really caring about the progress of the club, Conn potrays Lee as someone who was in it to make a fortune for himself, with plans to build a new stand with restaurants serving top class food charged at top class prices.
Conn comes to the realization that what he thought of as his club was in fact now a business, subjected to a “corporate tangle between businessmen looking to make money for themselves out of owning the shares.”
All this of course was just the start of football’s uber-commercialization. People talk about City ruining football with their untold wealth, but the City that many feel repulsed by today – owned by a Sheikh who has pumped millions in to win the league – is only the end, most extreme point of this process.
Businessman and tax exile Jack Walker invested tens of millions of pounds in Blackburn Rovers to fund their Premier League title in the mid 1990s. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich did the same at the turn of this century, but only to a bigger extent. Manchester United are not viewed in the same light because they have been at the top of so long (no foreign owner put them there). In reality though, United are no different. They complain about today’s ridiculous transfer market prices, but only after they spent somewhere in the region of 19m on Ruud Van Nistelrooy, 28m on Juan Veron, 27m on Rio Ferdinand, 27m on Wayne Rooney, 18m on Michael Carrick, 30m on Dimitar Berbatov, 19m on David de Gea and 17m on Ashley Young. United have spent big to retain their power at the top of the English game. Other clubs have spent big to get there.
Conn contrasts the obscene nature of the modern game with its antithesis – supporter owned football clubs. He visits FC United of Manchester, a club set up by Manchester United fans who did not want to line the pockets of their club’s new owner, American Malcolm Glazer, who has since loaded United with around 500m pounds worth of debt. Attending FC United, listening to their chants of resistance about destroying Glazer and SKY tv, Conn says is a “cleansing of the palate”. If there is another way to a more equal game, then this must be it.
The most compelling part of this book is Conn’s damaged relationship with City and modern football. His realization of the truth – that football clubs had become money making machines – and his revulsion at that truth, seemed to me at first to be a little naïve. But then I grew up in the era of Premier League. To me, clubs have always been businesses. Fans aren’t stupid. Many know they are being ripped off but they go along with it all, wanting to see their team win trophies. For most, it is a trade off. But Conn is a purist. His evangelism for a more equal game transcends colours of any team and is refreshing.
He seems resigned to never reconciling himself to the club and game that he loved, instead destined to roam the fields of objectivity, without a footballing home. Even as he charts City’s journey to the title last season in the book’s final chapter, Conn is still left questioning it all, and the message that City’s title win gives to impressionable young fans watching the game: “Reach for the stars, work hard, keep going until the very end and get a Sheikh to put in £1bn.”
In the end, it is hard to disagree with it all, wherever your loyalties lie.