As a Manchester City supporter I have become accustomed to the fact that my club will never get a fair shake from the media.
I don’t like it; more accurately, I actively hate it, but for so long now this has been an incontestable truth and at some point you just have to let it go or risk sliding into insanity.
The revolution will not be televised
Take watching them play in the Champions League on the telly, for example.
It used to wind me up no end seeing the Manchester United legends in the studio take pot-shot after pot-shot in their punditry before and after the game while in between a co-commentator – usually Steve McManaman – did likewise for ninety minutes straight. When City scored the commentator’s inflection would lower several octaves as he sombrely imparted the information that Sergio Aguero had found the bottom corner. When the opposition scored his shriek threatened to wake the neighbour’s kids.
Growing up it was the norm for networks to barely conceal their partisanship as English sides took on the might of the continent and the stark contrast between that patriotic coverage and this – not to mention the present-day love-in BT Sport reserve for Liverpool that has the punditry team respectfully remaining silent for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – genuinely stunned me. I railed against it. I wrote about it. For the little it was worth, I wrote about it again.
(In fairness I am putting myself down here. One article I wrote was included by Manchester City in an official complaint sent to BT Sport concerning their relentlessly negative coverage. It directly led to the removal of a smirking Paul Scholes as a matchday pundit and I was invited to interview BT Sport’s Head of Sport Simon Green, an offer that was declined.)
Nowadays though I am relatively serene when lounging on the sofa watching the Blues. I have learned to let it wash over me; to tune out as much as possible the pre-planned discussion points from the commentary team that are akin to two embittered Liverpool fans slagging us off down the pub. It is the same patter from the previous game, and the one before that as a side that has revolutionized English football play sensationally inventive fare before our very eyes.
“There’s the £60m man Laporte who passes to Cancelo, City’s exorbitant purchase in the summer of 2019. He in turn gives it to Mahrez, City’s record purchase at the time of signing……Pep doesn’t look very happy on the touchline, does he Steve? Anyone would think his team wasn’t winning. What’s his problem do you think?……Rodri, who cost the eye-watering sum of £58m plays it forward to…..(the commentator pauses as he realizes the futility of mentioning Aguero’s fee).….Aguero, who plays it back to £50m-buy Mendy……looking at the bench there, Steve, it’s another non-start for Phil Foden this evening. Are City handling him right do you think? Might he be better off seeking out a loan?…….a good reading of danger there by Ruben Dias whose fee raised a few eyebrows when he joined back in September…..going back to Pep, Steve, does he need to win the Champions League soon if he’s to be considered a truly great coach?”
And on it goes: the greatest team of our generation snided on repeatedly as if a side mired in crisis and not one winning 3-0 via a brand of football that steals the breath. The greatest team of our generation reduced to mere numbers as if such extraordinary artistry can simply be purchased. These soulless cretins would have totted up the cost of Michelangelo’s paintbrushes.
Except they are not cretins at all. In fact, they know exactly what they’re doing. For their targeted demographic during City games in Europe is not the 30% of the audience who are Blues. It’s the 70% made up of rival fan-bases who tune in just to catch a bit of footy and to hope the English team loses. The 70% want to be appeased as to why their team is currently trailing to City in the league. They want it all to be explained away by money, and BT and Sky are only too happy to propagate this comforting delusion. There are levels to this.
Recently my wife – who has precisely no interest in the game – was reading a book with the match on in the background. “That bloke talking really doesn’t like City, does he?” she said, referring to commentator Ian Darke. I actually thought he was being quite fair by his usual standards that particular day.
Yet, if that is how television has responded to Manchester City’s rise to prominence it pales in its vitriol to the treatment dished out by the press.
A good kicking
Going right back to City’s post-takeover days the Liverpool, Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal fans within the media thought nothing of going in two-footed on the club, throwing all manner of malicious slurs around. This only escalated when City began to break up the established order and win silverware. In the 2011 Community Shield – just three months after the Blues had won their first trophy for 34 years – Roberto Mancini’s men somehow contrived to relinquish a two-goal advantage over United, leading to The Sun’s Steven Howard to rapturously state in his match summary: “This was a result to make football itself stand up and cheer and not just because the Bad Guys took a punch on the nose from the Good Guys”.
The die was cast and the gloves were off. City were the ‘bad guys’.
In truth, it was a narrative that was already well in motion. A year earlier City had signed Yaya Touré for £24m, a player who would go on to attain legendary status at the club. For having the temerity to recruit one of the greatest midfielders of his generation for just a smidgeon more than what Chelsea paid for Yuri Zhirkov that summer the Daily Mirror went in hard. City was the ‘whore of world football’ screamed their headline. As for Touré – a ‘Barca reserve’ no less – the esteemed writer behind the hysterical hate-piece questioned whether he would ‘even get a game at City’.
There are many more examples, too many to mention, but what was infinitely more concerning than the attention-grabbing hit-jobs was the insidious tone that always accompanied any mention of the club in the tabloids and broadsheets alike. The drip, drip, drip of negativity. The detachment to success that amounted to an eye-roll.
Victories were covered with the same absence of emotion as a Vidiprinter read-out. This happened. Then City scored a second. Then everyone went home. As for any failings, well, let’s highlight here a classic of the genre courtesy of The Sun’s Chief Football Reporter Neil Ashton who, following a 4-0 defeat at Goodison six months into Guardiola’s reign, decreed that City had failed to make a successful signing since Sergio Aguero five years earlier. Kevin De Bruyne was a flop. Raheem Sterling was a flop. The article conveniently forgot to mention that many of these 42 ‘flops’ were responsible for City winning two league titles and all told it was a ludicrous assertion in the extreme.
Yet it was the headline that was most revealing: “569m reasons why City deserve a good kicking”.
To be clear, for losing a few games as Pep Guardiola transformed his side into an all-conquering, innovative and brilliant creation that would go on to heavily influence English football for the better; and for spending money like United and Liverpool spent money, City warranted not mild criticism but a ‘good kicking’.
Incidentally, Ashton is now a PR advisor for Manchester United.
Let’s pause at this juncture and consider why City have been treated so dramatically differently to other leading clubs since their transformative takeover in 2008, and why this treatment continues.
Well, the short answer is money isn’t it. Of course it is. Suddenly furnished with enormous wealth City embarked on a period of unprecedented, accelerated spending in order to break into the elite. After gate-crashing the party – and in doing so smashing up a cosy cartel that saw leading clubs spend, spend, spend to their heart’s content every transfer window and only be praised for doing so – they naturally made themselves immensely unpopular.
And this unpopularity extended to the many editors and journalists who supported Liverpool, Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea et al and who all took City’s rise personally. In their view – a view shared by the fan-bases of these clubs and indeed the clubs themselves – the ‘traditional top six’ (there is, by the way, no such thing) were the landed gentry whereas City were the Lotto-winning nouveau riche, cluttering up the Premier League boulevard with their flashy new motors. They didn’t have money ploughed into them in the thirties, fifties or sixties, but in the early 21st century. Who did they think they were?
Subsequently, the coverage of City back then reflected this attitude. They were perceived and demeaned as being one-dimensional. They were moneybags City.
This trope persisted for a good couple of years and served the media extremely well but it could never last: not with City, like Chelsea before them, becoming more and more absorbed into the establishment, and crucially too, not with the introduction of FFP in 2012, that demanded clubs spent within their means. We’ll return to this very shortly.
It was around this time, however, that the motivation behind downplaying City’s achievements at every turn began to change. For it was no longer personal – leading to random written outbursts that hilariously brought to mind toddlers throwing tantrums. Now it became sound business sense.
Simply put, City do not have as many supporters as United or Liverpool, nowhere close; and they certainly don’t presently have the same global reach with millions of overseas Reds of both allegiance clicking daily on websites searching for positive affirmations of their football club.
Additionally, Manchester City is a very unpopular club with these countless millions and resented too by a majority at home.
Therefore, it pays to hate on City, just as it pays to talk up Liverpool and United and having worked ten years now in this industry I can attest to this. Should I write a positive piece about the Blues and another article criticising Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, for example, they will each get X amount of readers. But should I be negative about City and praise the Norwegian supersub to the rafters those figures would treble at the very least.
So, it was with that that City stopped being painted with a singular stroke that was the colour of money, but continued to be disparaged and demeaned. Every article included a jibe. Every article was notably detached and devoid of sentiment, like lab notes on a test subject. This went on for quite some time.
Only then a problem arose for the media: their worst nightmare in many ways. Because entering stage left was a charismatic, fascinating and, yes, bald genius; a coach who built amazing edifices it was impossible not to admire wherever he went: Josep Guardiola Sala, whose arrival threatened to make City eminently likeable and engaging. With the club now firmly established within the elite maybe, perhaps this could be a turning point?
Narrator: it wasn’t.
Of course it wasn’t. From the get-go the media make it clear they were desperate for Pep to fail and furthermore they doggedly turned this into the dominant narrative. It was the Premier League that was the amazing edifice, they claimed while portraying Guardiola as a malevolent foreign entity seeking to invade it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our good old British edifice came crashing down on his oh-so-clever ‘philosophy’?
And it did, at first. The media duly lapped it up but that soon changed and fundamentally so when the Catalan created a side that played swishy, fluid, beautiful football, the likes of which we’d never before seen in England, that won games at a canter. It was the kind of successful and captivating football that would greatly appeal to millions, if not billions, of overseas fans who spend a huge amount of money on Liverpool and United merchandise. Neutrals in Britain meanwhile couldn’t help but purr.
This posed a significant problem for the two clubs named and – though it needn’t have been at all – it was a big concern too for the media. A solution therefore was needed and it arrived in the form of three new tropes that coincidentally began to spring up with increasing regularity across every strand of independent media.
These tropes were:
We are all very familiar with the sycophancy and respect afforded to Manchester United during their two decades of dominance. Those slightly older will recall the lofty reverence given to Liverpool in their seventies and eighties heyday. And let’s not even go into the embarrassing reservoir of drool and other bodily fluids left on the press conference floor every time Jürgen Klopp spoke during their title-winning season last year.
Yet strangely, during City’s recent zenith, which lasted for just two years, the notion that one team could dominate the league – an occurrence so common that it’s actually hard to think of a time in football’s history when one side hasn’t trumped the rest convincingly – became not a cause for celebration but instead a reason to be disturbed, as if something sinister was afoot. City were making the league ‘anti-competitive’ and what’s more they were finding it all far too easy. (In reality of course they weren’t finding it easy, at all. Winning a league takes any team to their absolute limit. But suggesting so insinuated that City were playing in cheat-mode).
Man City were making the Premier League boring. They were ruining football. And while for centuries gone by and for centuries to come champions will be lauded for their achievements, for a two-year window this entrenched habit inverted. City were damned, as if they were doing something wrong.
2/ Endless resources
This is an admittedly clever deflection, because at first glance it passes you by. Indeed, to a casual observer of newspaper columns it might seep into their consciousness as the truth, like a Derren Brown stooge unknowingly seeing subliminal messages on route to a show.
In recent years the term ‘vast resources’ – sometimes ‘limitless resources’ or ‘endless resources’ – has become ubiquitous in any article written about City. It feels almost compulsory.
With the club’s wealth no longer such a consideration due to FFP it’s ‘resources’ fills the void nicely; suggesting that by possessing extremely rich backers City possess an unfair advantage.
But of course that isn’t the case. City may outspend their rivals, for sure, but not by a substantial margin – again due to FFP. Their ‘resources’, therefore, are a complete irrelevance.
Even so, their coverage across two consecutive title-winning campaigns can essentially be boiled down thus: “Even with their vast resources City and Guardiola deserve our admiration for the manner in which they have scaled the Premier League summit.”
Question: When Man United were on their perch throughout the nineties and 2000s, and all while boasting vast reserves of funds that far out-stripped their rivals, was their wealth advantage ever mentioned in print? Ever? Even once?
As you were.
For ten long years everybody knew who owned Manchester City and everybody knew too that the individual in question was a member of a royal family from a region that has an abhorrent record for human rights.
Throughout that decade no sports journalist mentioned this. Not ever.
Until that is, City had Guardiola in their dug-out; and were playing incredible football and winning titles; their pariah status dwindling to one of begrudging admiration in England and outright admiration in the wider world.
Suddenly the articles began to appear. City were a promotional tool of a regime that interested Amnesty. They were ‘grubby’ and ‘state-run’ (there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that City are run by a state, only an individual). They were a marketing exercise, not a real club and therefore their successes did not count as real or meaningful.
For several prominent writers this quickly became a cause celebre, an issue they cared about deeply and which upset them greatly. The morality of the club was erroneously and misleadingly questioned. Unforgivably, the morality of City fans was questioned also.
Are these journalists so bad at their job that it took them over ten years to figure out who City’s owner was and where he was from? I refuse to believe that. So why now? And why the sudden and intentionally disingenuous linking of a Premier League club to a war in Yemen? We know why.
We’ll return to this very shortly.
The final straw
18 May, 2019. The FA Cup final; a pivotal moment in the ever-souring relationship between the media and Manchester City.
Guardiola’s men wallop Watford 6-0, a record-equalling score-line in this acclaimed fixture and it’s easy to imagine the hysteria that would have greeted Liverpool had they achieved this magnificent feat. There would absolutely be a slew of eight-page souvenir pull-outs in the tabloids and probably too a poll by the BBC to determine if Jurgen’s mighty Reds should be regarded as the best team in the history of the universe and any black holes yet to be discovered. There would be a jokey petition started up by a backbencher and raised in parliament to get Klopp immediately installed as PM.
Straight after the final whistle a City fan intrudes upon the press box. He, like the rest of us, has had enough of his club being denigrated and dismissed and bad-mouthed and has something to say.
“We’ve done the fucking domestic treble. No-one’s ever done it before. But you’ll all have Mo Salah on the back of the fucking pages tomorrow.”
The journalists present visibly flinch, scared. They are used to writing down to the hoi polloi, not encountering them face-to-face. It presumably put some off their vol-au-vents.
Language content: Man City fan gets into press box and complains about media covering Salah pic.twitter.com/mz2mm8J27n
— Rob Harris (@RobHarris) May 18, 2019
The man isn’t too far wrong as it goes because, the Chief Football Writer for the Independent refrains from writing a typical match report – on a FA Cup final no less – and instead commits to a greatest hits of bile intended to subvert City’s brilliance. The status of the tournament has apparently been ‘eroded’ due to the one-sided nature of the game. The war in Yemen is referenced as if it was in any way relevant to a football match played at Wembley. Once more City are damned, as if they are doing something wrong.
The touchpaper was lit and enough was enough for this was now just getting plain surreal.
That summer City fans went to war with certain journalists via the battleground of social media and shockingly, the journalists fought back. It got nasty. It got vicious. A collective of Guardian scribes – plus the Independent hack who won’t be name-checked here because he loves the attention – teamed up with ambitious Liverpool-supporting bloggers and bared their teeth, bizarrely stating an aggrieved fan-base had been weaponised by ‘paid shills’ who worked for the club and insisting we were mere apologists for an evil regime. An article in the Times called us ‘rats’. Seriously.
In reality, all we wanted was a match report on a cup final our team had just won; our team who were once shit and will no doubt be shit again in the future. We wanted details of the game and ideally, should we be so lucky, a glowing para devoted to Kevin De Bruyne. We wanted our side’s sporting achievement to be celebrated in the same manner every other sporting achievement is usually celebrated.
It escalated, this unprecedented stand-off between a fan-base and an increasing number of journalists, and with a new season on the horizon I for one was growing weary at having to defend my club whilst not knowing exactly why it was necessary to. Surely the ‘sin’ of usurping the established giants of the game didn’t warrant this much open and sustained hostility? Surely their entitlement didn’t run this deep? Alas it did, and it does.
Two weeks prior to City taking on West Ham on the opening day of the new season I received a phone call from a fellow journalist. He informed me that the hate campaign against the club was only going to get worse. He informed me I was on the wrong side.
The Blues ran out 5-0 winners at the London Stadium and an hour later, in lieu of a traditional match report, the Telegraph ran an opinion piece stating that their ‘near-perfection’ was becoming as boring as Arsenal winning 1-0 back in the day. I could only see this intensifying. My work opportunities were beginning to suffer. I was done.
Only then, just as suddenly as the inflamed criticisms began, it all stopped. There was no more allusions to ‘sportswashing’. No more mention of the war in Yemen. No more hating on a club and its fan-base at a level we’ve not ever seen before and will likely never witness again.
And the reason for this, plain and simple, is because Manchester City began to lose football matches.
Fatigued from two years of ‘near-perfection’ City slumped too often into being ordinary and in their wake came Liverpool, as ferocious and relentless and as astonishing as Guardiola’s creation had been. And if you read a newspaper last year, or turned on the telly or the radio, you do not need me to describe the nauseating slurry of platitudes and sycophancy that accompanied their success as journalists switched from being wannabe Woodward and Bernsteins into pant-wetting fan-boys.
It was all the praise City deserved in 2017/18 and 2018/19 and then some.
As for City, silence prevailed because they were no longer deemed a threat. They still had the same owners and the war in Yemen is still ongoing. Their fans are the same and the team was the same and their recent history remained the same.
But last year Liverpool won the league and Arsenal won the cup and for these journalists that was all they ever really wanted. These clubs who had money ploughed into them in the thirties and sixties and not the early 2000’s.
Only now it’s back. After an 18 month hiatus, it has returned. The predictable and contrived attempts to diminish City’s achievements with the Blues having overcome a Covid crisis and a prolonged drop-off in prominence to transform themselves anew, top the league.
Manchester City have turned an exciting campaign into a procession, according to both ESPN and the Daily Mail: the rotters, once more ruining football. (Where was all this procession-talk last season when Liverpool ran away with it you may wonder).
With City expected to do well in every tournament the Times have preempted this by publishing an article recently claiming that “trebles have lost their spark in the age of the superclub”. Demeaning achievements that haven’t even happened yet. This is a new one, even for City.
Our friend at the Independent meanwhile has suddenly remembered, after a lengthy absence from the subject, that he has a bee in his bonnet about ‘sportswashing’ from clubs “backed by the wealth of states and emirates”, but really if such an ethical stance is only taken when the team he supports is struggling, not decimating their rivals, is he even worth taking seriously anymore? A selective ethical stance after all, is no stance at all and should have no correlation with something as petty as a league placing.
Elsewhere the tone surrounding the club and its fans is oh-so-familiar to the previous times City have done well. We are doing something wrong again.
All of which has led me to believe that this will never change. That the City-bashing will always be the norm in the good times while they will largely be ignored in the bad.
As a lifelong Blue I have become accustomed to the fact that my club will never get a fair shake from the media. And it stinks to high heaven.