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Building an empire


Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini talks to his players before training at the Etihad Stadium

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini talks to his players before training at the Etihad Stadium

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini talks to his players before training at the Etihad Stadium

From a viewing platform above the Etihad Campus, a £200m monument to the cultivation of football as the finest craft, the astonishing extent of Manchester City's ambition unfurls.

Across a swathe of brownfield wilderness once home to the Clayton Aniline dyemakers, whose effluvia had turned the ground a toxic shade of purple, 80 acres of the lushest greensward – the giant carpet for a production line of sky-blue starlets – are reaching the final stage of fruition.

If the Premier League's great pretenders do truly aspire to a mantle as the 'new Barcelona' then this sprawling talent foundry, lit by pale winter sunshine on the eve of City's defining confrontation with the Catalans, is the most dazzling manifestation of that dream.

Privately, City executives reject the label of 'Barcelona-fication'. They do not perceive their 'campus', their pride and joy linked directly to the Etihad Stadium through a bridge across Alan Turing Way, as a direct emulation of Barça's La Masia school or the gilded compound at Sant Joan Despí that has superseded it.

Instead, the club have drawn inspiration from an eclectic set of 30 templates, encompassing the Los Angeles Lakers, the Australian Institute of Sport, the New York Giants, Nike's laboratories in Oregon and – almost out of a sense of duty – Barcelona.


Brian Marwood, the leading architect of City's academy structure, talks effusively of replicating the "DNA and philosophy" of the Catalans, as if imitation could indeed be the sincerest form of flattery.

And yet the notion of copycat tactics is over-simplistic. The Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan-sanctioned vision, of juxtaposing first XI and youth team within a huge catch-all complex embedded in a once benighted corner of east Manchester, was in place long before the Barça brains trust of Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain even arrived here.

From the initial takeover in 2008, it became clear that the powerbrokers in Abu Dhabi were intent on forging a system far removed from Thaksin Shinawatra's Eastlands regime.

An emirate that has imported its own versions of the Guggenheim and the Louvre to a 'cultural district' on Saadiyat Island resolved at the outset to apply the same high production values to a football club.

There is a story at City of how, when former chief executive Garry Cook reported for his first day at the office, he asked where the human resources department was, only to be told: "We don't have one." Such duties rested, the incredulous Cook was informed, in the hands of "Pam from accounts".

That chaos has given way, in just five years, to the slickest streamlining. But chief executive Soriano, the urbane 46-year-old whom City waited a whole year to prise from Barcelona, is eager not to project any impression of boardroom remoteness.

On the night of City's scheduled home match against Sunderland, the atmosphere in the Colin Bell Lounge is a vibrant one, if slightly subdued by the game's abandonment 30 minutes earlier due to tempestuous weather.

Signs of the club's increased global reach are everywhere: Jason Kreis, head coach of New York City FC, the club's US franchise, is in town, while staff talk of having to conduct evening teleconferences in four time zones – from the East Coast to Australia, where City have just acquired A-league side Melbourne Heart, and from Manchester to the Abu Dhabi mothership.

On high table itself, the chatter is largely in Catalan. Soriano is accompanied by Jorge Chumillas, the kindly chief financial officer with whom he used to work at now-defunct airline Spanair, and during dessert Begiristain comes over to scrutinise Arsenal's performance against Manchester United on the plasma screen.

Their interest in the Arsenal threat to City's league position is acute and yet it is the prospect of tonight's Champions League collision with Barcelona, and of reunions with several former compadres in the Nou Camp hierarchy, which looms largest.

For this Barcelona confrontation has the feel of a signal moment in the fulfilment of City's ambitions.

Soriano, in his 2012 book 'Goal: The Ball Doesn't Go In By Chance', identified the 10 global leaders in club football as Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Milan, Inter and Bayern Munich.

"Others, like Manchester City," he noted, "are trying to be in that group."

The time of noble endeavour has since passed. The manner of City's maiden qualification for the Champions League knockout phase, beating the all-conquering Bayern away, confirms that they belong in this rarefied realm.

The next two matches will illustrate how far advanced they are to realising their hope, and in some places the fear, that they can burgeon into the dominant force in Europe.

In Manuel Pellegrini, City have the man they want to sustain that quest.

Any assumptions that the scrupulously low-key Chilean is a stop-gap figure, an interim appointment until Jose Mourinho next becomes available, are misplaced.

In the eyes of Soriano and Begiristain, the 60-year-old Pellegrini provides the perfect antidote to the madness of life under Roberto Mancini, satisfying every criteria they seek in a manager: measured, cerebral, wedded to the pursuit of play of great artistic merit, and sufficiently pliant to tolerate the input of a director of football.

Ultimately, it was not Mancini's failure to retain the league title for City that triggered his sacking, but the chaotic culture he engendered.

There was the fight with Mario Balotelli, the public isolation of Carlos Tévez, the attempt to import doctors from Lombardy not registered to practise in the UK.

City's rationalisation for removing Mancini – that they desired a more "holistic" environment – invited mocking suggestions that they should bring in the Dalai Lama and hold training talks in air thick with scented candles.

While the word might be alienatingly corporate, the ideal is one in which the club are passionately invested.

On the wall of the staff refectory there is a montage of photographs, featuring everybody from Soriano to the night porter, under the banner 'One Team'.

Soriano has absorbed enough lessons throughout his amazingly varied career, which has comprised banking, venture capitalism and the thwarted efforts to establish Catalonia airline Spanair, to appreciate that no company benefits from being too rigidly stratified.

Those who have served at City through fair weather and foul, from a third division defeat to York to tonight's engagement against the most feted club team on earth, attest that the working ambience is the best they have known it.

Having witnessed the machinations of Shinawatra, the alleged human-rights abuser who lavished absurd salaries on under-achieving players like Felipe Caicedo and Nery Castillo, City's longer-serving, battle-hardened employees recognise a charlatan when they see one. And the Abu Dhabi owners appear very far from that category.

Granted, there were mis-steps, not least in their choice of Sulaiman Al-Fahim – a 'Dubai Del Boy' noted mainly for his fondness of Lamborghinis – but their enticement of a coveted leader like Soriano reflects a readiness to enlist the best possible candidate for each role.

Soriano serves as a corrective to City's earlier extravagances – the desperate bid by Cook to secure Kaká for £100m at Milan Malpensa Airport, or the 2008 deadline-day signing of Robinho for £35m – which all supported a theory they were nothing more than vulgar arrivistes, propped up by petrodollars.

Under his guidance, the club's expansionist impulses are more carefully controlled. The purchase of NYC FC, for example, is an opportunity that Soriano claims "many others were looking at".

Rival Major League Soccer clubs have expressed doubts over whether the New York fan base can support a second franchise, next to the existing Red Bulls in New Jersey, but City are pressing ahead in their annexation of the US market with a rare fervour.


Already the partner club have a substantial Manhattan office close to Grand Central Station and are understood to be targeting a stadium site in the Bronx, harnessing the passion of Hispanic constituencies, in time for their first match in April.

Claudio Reyna, the ex-City midfielder who combines popularity at the club with a respected record as US Soccer's technical director, is installed as the perfect salesman as NYC FC's director of football.

The addition of Melbourne Heart to their global empire represents a further significant step, raising a possibility that future academy products could move between continents, spending their entire careers playing for teams under the club's care.

But it is the central citadel of the Etihad Campus that constitutes City's most emphatic statement of intent.

Spanning 15 full-size pitches, on-site accommodation for 32 first-team members and a 7,000-capacity stadium for youth games, it affirms a commitment – bred by Barcelona, who fielded eight homegrown players in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley – to form a self-perpetuating centre of excellence.

The new Barcelona? Not exactly, but Manchester City are an institution who could soon be very much more than the sum of their exorbitant parts. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent