Saturday 21 September 2019

History repeating for Manchester giants

'For years it was City’s management who were obsessed with United; now the roles are reversed' (stock picture)
'For years it was City’s management who were obsessed with United; now the roles are reversed' (stock picture)

Sam Wallace

In his splendid history of Manchester United, author Dr Percy M Young wrote of the early 1900s: "In football finances and their management there was at that time a degree of anarchy." He is referencing one of the great Manchester City sides, during a tumultuous period in the club's history and looking back it is hard not to think that nothing in football is new.

There were no Der Speigel document hoards or closed-loop payments to companies in the British Virgin Islands in 1904 but there were, relatively speaking, just as many risks being taken by those hungry for success in a game that was growing quicker than anyone expected. The late Dr Young was writing about the great City team of 1903-04 who won the FA Cup, finished second in the league and were then subject to a devastating Football Association (FA) investigation.

The FA found that City had broken transfer rules - although in those days their scouting did seem mainly to involve dispatching a man in a top hat to do questionable deals for Glossop's best players. There were also illegal payments to players still labouring under the maximum wage and for City the punishment was severe. They were fined and three directors were suspended, one for life. In the months that followed the Billy Meredith bribery scandal broke, their star player turned whistle-blower, which led to more bans, fines and the suspension of 17 City players in 1906.

United benefited from the chaos at City, signing Meredith even though he was serving an FA ban for 18 months and by the time he made his debut for them in January 1907, the two Manchester teams were both in the top flight for the first time.

In his opus, Manchester: A Football History, the author Gary James writes of that early 20th century period: "In the eyes of many, they [City] had appeared from nowhere to challenge the establishment and at this point in football history, the establishment would always win." Plus ça change, the City fans would no doubt say now. The Meredith scandal "led to the near destruction of City", James wrote, "while it also indirectly helped United establish themselves as a major side and was a key factor in their first success."

Which is a long way of saying that financial scandal is as old as muddy boots and moustaches when it comes to football. More than 110 years on, the two great sides of Manchester resume this battle for supremacy with today's derby a chance for United to slow the runaway train of Pep Guardiola's league leaders. The old tussles over talent still exist, from Meredith to Carlos Tevez to Alexis Sanchez, and the temptation for the two clubs to judge themselves against one another endures.

For years it was City's management who were obsessed with United; now the roles are reversed. Yet there has always been so much that the two clubs would reluctantly have to admit that they have in common.

As elite European football repositions itself to try to maximise its value, as certain famous clubs who dominate their own leagues to the detriment of those domestic games look for new sources of revenue, United and City have a mutually beneficial relationship. They are the two highest-ranking English clubs in the Deloitte Money League and what they think will go a long way, whether one likes it or not, to dictating English football's future.

While the likes of Bayern Munich, Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona have pursued the plan of a European Super League, the Football Leaks allegations published in Der Spiegel have shown the English to be more reluctant. United and Arsenal, part of that original group of seven, have not been at the forefront of pushing for change and while five of the Premier League's top clubs attended that 2016 Dorchester Hotel meeting, they have since proved the least restless.

The Premier League does not need the European Super League plan being finessed by Bayern Munich's lawyers or in the office of Florentino Perez, who wants Real Madrid to own a greater percentage of this new concept than any other shareholder. It does not need it because the Super League has essentially been conceived to try to catch up with the relentless commercial success of the Premier League, and that is before we even get on to what the fans think.

But it will also need clubs such as United and City to have the courage, along with the rest of the richest teams in the division, to believe in what they already have. English league football has had more than a century of clubs trying either to break into the elite or blocking others from doing so and, generally speaking, the game has endured. In 1906, the difference was that the FA had the power to intervene, while today it feels like nothing in football's multi-billion globalised trade ever changes unless the FBI takes an interest.

It has been a bruising week for City, and if there are to be no sanctions then perhaps the reaction alone to the allegations will give cause for reflection for their senior management. They have turbo-charged their club in the past 10 years and the team may well be playing the greatest football in City's history. History also tells them that these events are cyclical, and that boom and bust comes to all clubs.

In that 1906-'07 season when both Manchester clubs first played one another in the top flight, City, for all the chaos wrought upon them, won away at United, drew with them at home and stayed up.

Today's derby, for all the resentment, jealousy, and aggro, is the next part of that great history - a league that is worth protecting, especially by these two modern giants.


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