“I always tell the Gareth Barry story,” says Brian Marwood, as his mind drifts back to June 2009 and what were still the early days of overseeing the recruitment process for Manchester City’s new Abu Dhabi owners.
“Gareth had been courted by Liverpool the summer before and, for whatever reason, they didn’t get him but that summer they came back in for him and were actually offering him more money than we were. People probably still don’t realise that because everybody was saying, ‘Oh, he’s going to City for the money’. Anyway, I picked him up from The Grove in Watford, where he was with the England squad, to take him for his medical.
“We’re in the car and TalkSport is on the radio and Adrian Durham and Ian Wright were absolutely caning him. ‘He’s only going there for the money. Plastic club, plastic owners, what are they ever going to win, I thought more of Gareth Barry than that, he’s lost my respect’. I looked at Gareth and said, ‘Do you want me to turn this off?’ And he turned and said, ‘No, I want to listen to it.’ But why? ‘Because I am going to prove them wrong. Because I know what I’ve bought into here.’”
Barry had turned down Liverpool and the offer of Champions League football for a club that had just finished 12 points and four places worse off than the Aston Villa team he was leaving behind, primarily in the belief that something special was dawning in the blue half of Manchester, for so long the city’s poor relation in football terms.
It was, of course. It is 10 years on Saturday since City were bought by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan and had their ailing fortunes transformed by one of the world’s richest men. But even nine months into the most ambitious takeover project in English football history, around that time Barry joined, there were still plenty who seemed unconvinced by the legitimacy of it all.
United had not long won a Premier League and Champions League double and Pep Guardiola was still at Barcelona. There was no Catalan brains trust at City then. No record breaking centurions. No material evidence of a Barcelona-style playing philosophy. No stunning £200 million training ground, no history or culture of winning, no bulging trophy cabinet, no global network of feeder clubs, no stadium naming rights deal, no soaring income streams.
The Etihad was still known as Eastlands, City were still a club associated with cock-ups and that defining “Aguerooooo” moment under the watch of Roberto Mancini was still several years from happening. City had not even been christened the “noisy neighbours” by that stage.
The English football landscape a decade ago was awash with tales of owners who had promised the earth yet wreaked destruction and City were in a tailspin of their own under the dysfunctional ownership of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister. “So many takeovers had ended in tears so why should City have been regarded any differently?” Marwood acknowledged.
We had two things – the resources and an ability to sell the vision of what we wanted to createBrian Marwood
It was into this maelstrom of cynicism and mistrust that the Abu Dhabi United Group walked on Sept 1, 2008 and instantly wrote a deadline-day cheque for £32.5 million for Real Madrid’s Brazil forward, Robinho. It was an extraordinary statement of intent, the first signing of what, over time, would become a near £1.4 billion expenditure on players, and yet the first staff and players heard about it was on Sky Sports as they watched the news unfold in sheer disbelief. “That was probably my least productive day work wise ever!” Lee Jackson, City’s long-standing groundsman, joked this week.
A week or so earlier City’s chief executive, Garry Cook, who had been brought in by Thaksin from his role heading up the Nike Jordan Brand, invited scorn with a declaration many considered delusional. “Can we be as big, or bigger, than Manchester United? Yes,” Cook said. “Can we win the Premier League? Yes. Can we win the Champions League? It will take time, probably 10 years or more.” Cook knew change was coming but what many did not know is that he, along with City’s former owner John Wardle, had been supplementing the club’s coffers with their own money at that time to help prop up a failing regime, a stark indication of just how perilous the club’s financial plight had become.
Watch Guardiola’s balletic team unpick opponents through a blizzard of passes, walk around the City Football Academy (CFA), a sprawling 80 acre monument to the club’s success, or listen to their current chief executive, Ferran Soriano, talk persuasively about turning City’s parent company, the City Football Group (CFG), into a Coca-Cola of soccer and it all seems so obvious now. But, long before then, City were selling little more than a dream with the help of the deepest pockets football had ever seen.
“For me, we had two things – the resources and an ability to sell the vision of what we wanted to create,” Marwood said. “We had to get people to buy into that. Of course, there were some who came for the money but there were a lot who came because they wanted to create history.”
It would have been largely unthinkable then for City to walk away from a player such as Alexis Sanchez, as they did this January. But it is a reflection of how far they have come that they were happy for the Chile striker to join United amid fears his £500,000 a week wage demands would obliterate their wage structure and compromise dressing room harmony.
I’m not convinced United ever saw us as a threat but obviously that’s changed nowBrian Marwood
By the time Carlos Tevez left City for Juventus in 2013 – more on whom later – the club were paying the Argentine striker £326,000 a week, including bonuses, a sum higher than any current player earns. Whereas salaries accounted for 114 per cent of turnover in 2010-11 – when City posted English football’s biggest ever losses of £197 million and faced relentless attacks about ruining football with irrational spending – wages now equate to 56 per cent of annual revenues nearing £500 million.
Did they inflate the market? Almost certainly, but they were never going to get anywhere by pandering to an established elite eager to keep them in their place and which Uefa’s subsequent Financial Fair Play model seemed, in part, designed to do given how it effectively outlawed the prospect of another City, Chelsea or Paris St-Germain-style takeover. As Vincent Kompany, City’s long-standing captain, says: “What is fair? The status quo?”.
Marwood likens the changing landscape at the club to the one he encountered at Nike, where he previously worked as a marketing executive with Cook. “When Nike were really trying to break into football in the late 90s, we overpaid to get assets because we didn’t have the product,” the former Arsenal midfielder said. “But when all that changed, 10 years later they were actually paying less for players because those people wanted to come to the brand for the right reasons and I think that’s what’s happened at City.”
City certainly had to swallow situations in those early years that they would not even contemplate entertaining now. Take the signing of Emmanuel Adebayor from Arsenal, for example. Mark Hughes, the manager, was desperate for the deal to be done. But there was never much belief at City that Adebayor wanted to come and those opinions hardened after an executive was dispatched to the Togo striker’s house, a palatial flat at the top of a Victorian mansion in Hampstead, in a bid to convince the player to join. Doubts immediately set in when City were told Adebayor had had “a really hard day” and would not be able to meet them until 10 o’clock at night.
By the time the City official arrived, the striker was fast asleep and did not awake until 1.30am, at which point he ambled out of his bedroom to be served an enormous plate of chicken, rice and peas by his girlfriend and wearing a look on his face that said, ‘Who is this in my living room?’, as he stared vacantly at the man who had just spent the past three and a half hours twiddling his thumbs.
In the first year alone, City spent £200 million on just 10 players. The arrival of Robinho was quickly followed by Craig Bellamy, Nigel De Jong, Wayne Bridge and Shay Given in the January and the following summer Joleon Lescott, Roque Santa Cruz, Barry, Adebayor and, most famously, Tevez, prised away from United for an eye-watering £47 million in what would prove the catalyst for an explosive rivalry. “The team acceleration was like putting the roof on before we built any walls,” Marwood concedes. “We went very big, very early. In hindsight, we did the right thing. The previous five to 10 years there hadn’t been a huge investment in the team so there needed to be a catch up.”
Robinho actually only lasted 18 months before being loaned and then sold. Kompany believes the Brazilian would have fared better had he joined later in their development but he understood the club’s thinking. “It raised the profile,” said Kompany, who was signed 10 days before the takeover, completely unaware of what was about to materialise. “As soon as he was there, you were looking at him and thinking, ‘Okay, he’s extra-terrestrial’. But then you start measuring yourself up against one of the best players in the world at the time and think, ‘You know what, I can do it’.”
We went away for international games around that time and by the time we came back they had changed everything at the training groundVincent Kompany
City were characterised as vulgar nouveau riche, a view encouraged from the outset when the brash Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim – who had fronted the initial takeover bid before quickly being cast aside by the serious men actually running the show – talked about snaring Cristiano Ronaldo from United and spending their way to the league title inside two seasons. Cook’s declaration that AC Milan “bottled it” after a deal to sign Kaka from the Italian giants collapsed in January 2009 entrenched public perceptions of a club with a lot of cash but little class when, behind the scenes, a very different picture was emerging.
“We went away for international games around that time and by the time we came back they had changed everything at the training ground,” Kompany reflected this week. “It was like one of those shows where they’re building stuff and next thing there’s a big reveal. The upgrades kind of tied into this attitude of, ‘We’re going to ask a lot from you, so before you come back with any excuses, we’re going to make sure we do our part’.”
City were still at their Carrington base then – the move to the CFA would be another five years away – but the changes were about a lot more than bricks and mortar. It was about creating a culture and environment that fostered trust and togetherness, empowered people, encouraged best practice and strived for sustainability. Marwood remembers encountering a lot of frightened staff but gradually change took hold. “People used to laugh when we came out with words like sustainability and holistic,” he added. “I don’t know whether a siege mentality developed but the more people took shots at us, the more it helped to create a greater togetherness.”
The City chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, who headed up Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority and was given the task of driving the club’s transformation, had been at a loss to discover there was only a four-line report to show for a £100 million investment in transfers, wages and other costs under Thaksin. No one could even put an exact number on how many people the club employed. Departments were overhauled, new ones created, budgets rapidly inflated. A multilingual four-man player care team was established and placed on 24-hour call, a valuable operation given the need to swiftly integrate a constant cycle of new signings.
The team’s remit was extensive although no one required as much attention as Mario Balotelli, who joined in 2010 from Inter Milan at Mancini’s insistence. They would organise regular trips to Knowsley Safari Park for the Italy striker after learning of his interest in wildlife, anything to limit the usual trail of destruction and, by the end, as everybody’s patience wore thin, they even found him a matriarchal housekeeper in a bid to keep a closer check on him.
A global scouting network was developed. Information would no longer be stored in people’s heads but on exhaustive databases. Dossiers were compiled on players under a rigorous 12-point plan. For example, the file on Yaya Toure, who arrived in 2010, amounted to 30 pages but it was still six shorter than one the club had on a promising 15-year-old schoolboy at the time.
And yet, for all the investment, by December 2009 results under Hughes remained disappointing. Al-Mubarak had actually let his heart rule his head since he had wanted to sack Hughes in the summer, unconvinced the Welshman had the personality to help City make the jump they wanted. It sounds minor but the chairman would like a quick phone call from the manager after games and Hughes seldom seemed to oblige. So the decision was taken to appoint Mancini, who had recently led Inter to a third consecutive Serie A title.
Mancini met with City’s hierarchy a fortnight before Hughes went into his final game, a 4-3 victory at home to Sunderland, knowing the axe was about to swing. The backlash was furious and City’s unveiling of Mancini descended into farce, with the Italian contradicting Cook’s claims about when the first approach had been made. Yet there is little doubt, in hindsight, that it was the right move.
Mancini’s own reign as City manager ended in acrimony and bookended the most volatile period under Arab ownership. His indulgence of Balotelli, who even got away with smoking in the dressing room showers, a feud with Tevez that sparked an extraordinary five-month stand-off between player and club and his autocratic, abrasive management alienated players and staff to such an extent that, even if City had not been humiliated by Wigan Athletic in the 2013 FA Cup final, the Italian would have been sacked regardless. But there is a strong case to say Mancini was just as important to City as Guardiola has since become and certainly fundamental to creating the winning mindset that provided the cornerstone of the club’s first title success.
With Toure and David Silva joining from Barcelona and Valencia respectively in 2010, and Sergio Aguero following a year later from Atletico Madrid, City had assembled a formidable side. Boy was Mancini high maintenance, though. Some of the most bizarre stories revolve around his many superstitions, not least about the colour purple. In one European game, City had to ask Uefa if they could wear the gold bibs the other team had been allocated to warm up in after Mancini’s horror at discovering his own players were being told to don purples ones.
Any meetings he was involved in were prohibited from starting on the hour. At meal times, salt and pepper pots could not be passed hand to hand but had to be moved across the table, like a chess piece, released and only then could they be picked up.
One of the targets was to play a different style of football and under Manuel we did that but, after that, we had to change the squadTxiki Begiristain
One tale, in particular, still tickles staff to this day. City’s players had eaten meatballs on the flight home from one European trip and then won their next Premier League match. So when the club’s next European away day paired them with Real Madrid, Mancini was adamant that his squad were to have meatballs on the flight home from Spain and wanted City’s chef to cook up a huge pot of the things that could then be transported on to the plane. When it was explained that would not be possible, Mancini proposed players take individual portions on to the plane in cartons. Again the answer was no.
For all his histrionics, though, he delivered landmark results that guarantee him lifelong affection from City fans and for which the club will always be eternally grateful. The 1-0 victory over United in the FA Cup semi-final in April 2011 was a game-changer that paved the way for the club’s first major trophy for 35 years and there was even better to follow the next season. The 6-1 drubbing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side at Old Trafford in October 2011, less than 48 hours after Balotelli had set fire to his bathroom, and then a Kompany-inspired 1-0 win over United at the Etihad six months later would lay the foundations for an extraordinary title comeback and the most dramatic final day. “That 1-0 win when Vinny scored, that was the only time the chairman stressed that we had to win,” Lescott recounted this week.
City had irritated Ferguson when they tried to gazump United’s move for Dimitar Berbatov on the day of their takeover but it was the “Welcome to Manchester” poster to mark Tevez’s switch from Old Trafford, which lies just outside the city boundary, that so riled the Scot. It was an inspired piece of marketing that prompted Ferguson to furiously deride City as a “small club with a small mentality”, an anger that was still festering several months later when, after a thrilling 4-3 win for United at Old Trafford, Ferguson delivered his memorable “noisy neighbours” put down. The battle lines were drawn. Marwood was opposed to the billboard at the time. “Do I feel any different now? Maybe,” he said. “I think it got under their skin. I’m not convinced they ever saw us as a threat but obviously that’s changed now.”
It changed for good on May 13, 2012. United had boasted an eight point lead with six matches to go only to implode and leave City needing to beat relegation battlers Queens Park Rangers on the final day to secure their first title for 44 years. What could possibly go wrong? As the game entered stoppage time, City were losing 2-1. News had filtered through that United had beaten Sunderland and, on the touchline at the Etihad, a frenetic Mancini appeared to be steadily losing the plot. Fortunately for the Italian, his players kept their heads. Edin Dzeko equalised and then, as the clock struck 93.20, Aguero popped up to score that historic winner.
“The drama, the emotion, the highs, the lows, everything we had been through seemed to crystallise in that moment,” Marwood said. Lescott remains thankful City scored as many as they did at Old Trafford. “The 6-1 was a big surprise but it was one of the reasons why we clinched the title on goal difference at the end,” he said.
One of the remarkable things about that season is that the conflict with Tevez did not derail the campaign and it said a lot about the operation in place at City that they were able to reintegrate him into the team as well as they did. Tevez had submitted two transfer requests in the space of eight months the previous season, largely a consequence of a breakdown in relations between the player’s representative, Kia Joorabchian, and Cook. But even that could not properly prepare the club for the storm that would soon await.
After refusing to warm-up during a Champions League game away to Bayern Munich in September, Mancini declared Tevez “finished” at the club and the player ended up returning to Argentina without permission for three months, where he was photographed playing golf while his team-mates pressed on with the business of winning matches.
City held a conference call every morning bar Christmas Day on the matter until, eventually, Tevez returned in late February and issued an unreserved apology. The odd thing about it all is that Tevez was well liked by many at the club. This was a guy who would buy all the laundry ladies wide-screen TVs for Christmas. “I remember after he’d disappeared for a few months and sitting with him in my office,” Marwood recalled. “He missed football so much. He was so upset with all that had gone on.”
As for Mancini, even on the day of City’s greatest triumph, the seeds for the manager’s exit were being sown. For a club determined to create a sense of oneness, the sight of Mancini, who had battled with the medical department all season, choosing not to shake the hand of club doctor Phil Batty as he walked down a line-up of staff on the way to collecting the trophy appalled colleagues. It was clear the manager was spoiling for a fight, and after a summer in which City missed out to United on Robin van Persie, and relations with Marwood worsened, his behaviour became increasingly confrontational.
When Van Persie rubbed salt into the wounds by scoring a dramatic late free-kick to clinch a 3-2 win for United at the Etihad in December, Mancini tore into Joe Hart in the dressing room for not organising the wall properly, even though to most observers it was Samir Nasri’s fault for ducking out of the way of the ball. There was no way back from there. “We had this volatility and tension around the club and I always saw my job as not to go to war with that but to make sure the whole club did not get fragmented,” Marwood reflects.
The axis of power at City was already changing, though. Soriano had arrived as chief executive in September 2012, a year after Cook resigned after sending an email to the cancer stricken mother of defender, Nedum Onuoha, mocking her illness, an unsavoury end for a man who was loved by staff and had put so many key building blocks in place. Soriano was followed eight weeks later by Txiki Begiristain, the club’s new director of football. Colleagues at Barcelona who watched first hand as Guardiola redefined football, they would usher in a new era of ambitious thinking at City that would elevate the club to another level entirely. Their first intention was to try to entice Guardiola. “Immediately we went to talk to Pep because he was the best coach in the world,” Soriano recalled. With Guardiola determined to enjoy a sabbatical year in New York, though, and then later keen to join Bayern Munich, City would have to wait.
In the meantime, there was a vacancy to fill. Step forward Manuel Pellegrini. In the statement that accompanied Mancini’s sacking, City said they had “an identified need to develop a holistic approach to all aspects of football” but aside from wanting a calm, composed coach who would end the divisions and breed harmony, Soriano and Begiristain also demanded a more entertaining brand of football. City, in their eyes, had become too functional under Mancini.
“We are looking to play good football and to win and I said that in the right order,” Soriano said in New York shortly after Mancini’s departure. “We want to play better.” It was also then that he spelt out his desire for five trophies in five years, a target they hit with last season’s record breaking march to 100 points under Guardiola.
No one can dispute that Guardiola’s football has brought about the “next level of tactical sophistication and intensity” that Soriano craved but, equally, no one should underestimate the entertainment value Pellegrini brought – on the pitch, if not off – in his debut season. A thoroughly dour man off the field, his approach eventually bred a lethargy and indifference that, in its own way, was as damaging as the volatility Mancini spread but, for the first 12 months under the Chilean, City were an exhilarating watch.
“One of the targets was to play a different style of football and under Manuel we did that but, after that, we had to change the squad,” Begiristain explained. “It was a generation who had become winners but we needed to bring in a new group who could be winners in the future. Myself, Ferran and Pep worked together at Barcelona and we know each other well. We enjoy seeing the hunger of the young players and we have to keep that. It’s very different working here to Barcelona. Here the owners are happy to let us do our work. At Barcelona there was so many board members, politics.”
The scary aspect for City’s rivals is that the average age of Guardiola’s squad is still so young. Nonetheless, there are big challenges ahead. Not only are the club yet to retain the Premier League, the Champions League has so far proven beyond them and, while there are high hopes for Stockport-born teenager Phil Foden among others, City really do need to deliver on their promise of producing academy graduates good enough to not just get in the first team but thrive in it. That is on the field. Off the pitch, Soriano and Al-Mubarak are just as eager to turn City into the sport’s biggest hitters. If the past decade is anything to go by, the possibilities over the next 10 years seem plentiful.
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