By October 20011, fear of stoppage time at Old Trafford had evolved to the point that it resembled a numb sense of expectation by the vast majority of wary opponents. Near two decades of dramatic late winners and a procession of titles had morphed Manchester United into the most feared side in the land.
Their psychological dominance meant most opponents were beaten before they had even set foot on the hallowed pitch at the Theatre of Dreams. However, something changed during stoppage time in a rather auspicious Manchester derby in the Autumn of the 2011/12 season.
Chasing shadows for most of the game, United battled bravely during a high octane clash with their bitter city rivals. Weary legs though were no match for the energized second-half display put in by Roberto Mancini’s charges. They smelled blood and went for the kill.
A 1-3 home defeat was never in the lexicon of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, but it could at least be justified, given they were down to ten men. However, three rapid-fire goals in as many minutes of added time gave a completely different complexion to the defeat. Humbled in stoppage time in their own back yard; it wasn’t supposed to be like this for the reigning champions of England.
The nature of the result marked a seismic swing in the balance of power. Mancini summed it up well a few years later, telling the Manchester Evening News:
“United had dominated for decades in Manchester and we changed history. The 6-1 at Old Trafford remains an indelible memory…”
Indelible it was. A shift was set in motion that afternoon which had its roots planted as far back as September 2008. It would ultimately go on to break United’s hegemony in the city and transform the Premier League.
Manchester City’s penchant for setbacks had seen the club corrode in the shadow of their illustrious rivals. They were a likeable but ultimately flawed club that had, as recently as 1999 been playing third-tier football in a crumbling old stadium in Moss Side.
Residency in a smart new ground, built for the Common Wealth Games coincided nicely with their re-acclimatization in the top-flight in the early 2000s. For a time they looked to have stabilized somewhat despite some differing results. However, in true Man City fashion their first flirtation with foreign ownership backfired spectacularly.
Thaksin Shinawatra was a charming billionaire who had served as the Prime Minister of Thailand for five years. His stewardship of the club from 2007 to the summer of 2008 was eventful but ultimately ended in farcical circumstances.
In a summation that would come back to bite him former City CEO Garry Cook was overly positive when asked about the shady history of his new boss: “Is he a nice guy? Yes. Is he a great guy to play golf with? Yes. Has he got the finances to run a club? Yes. Whether he’s guilty of something over there, I can’t worry too much about.”
Despite the decent golf handicap, it turned out “Frank” Shinawatra was in fact a convicted criminal. Back in his homeland, the former PM had his billions seized and was found guilty of fraud and massive tax evasion. There were also allegations of human rights abuses in a charge sheet that made for very grim reading.
A stark lack of due diligence had come back to haunt the club. By May 2008 there were recording losses of almost £30 million and the club was borrowing money from former chairman John Wardle. A few weeks later, Cook was frantically looking for a buyer as a crisis loomed.
The club was not exactly an easy sell. Saddled with debt, anchored in mediocrity and the shadow of the Premier League and European champions across town. Yet as luck would have it, Cook would be introduced to well-known financial intermediary Amanda Staveley that summer and a subsequent presentation on the eve of the 2008/09 season was all it took to change the fortunes of the football club forever.
Staveley’s contact book was a who’s who of Gulf billionaire investors and pride of place in it went to an Emirati royal by the name of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Just six days after digesting what must have been a pretty nifty PowerPoint show, Staveley worked her magic and the Sheikh was ready to put a wet signature on a deal that would make Manchester City the world’s richest football club.
Immediately they hijacked Chelsea’s deal with Real Madrid for Robinho signing the Brazilian for a club record £32.5 million. It was a spectacular opening foray by the new owners that left everyone slightly dazed and confused. Inevitable comparisons were made with Roman Abramovich and Chelsea. However, this was an altogether different beast.
Yes, there were obvious similarities between the two. By September 2009 just north of £200 million had been already been spent on 11 new players, the old manager was ousted and an ambitious new power in English football was being forged. All very similar to the Russian dynasty in West London, but there were also huge and not so subtle differences.
Sheikh Mansour has access to the wealth of an oil-rich Kingdom as opposed to the assets of a successful business empire. It also soon became clear that the new owners were after more than just cherry picking the game’s best talent.
Khaldoon al-Mubarak was sworn in as City’s new chairman soon after the paperwork was filed on the takeover. To people in the know, this was a serious move. Al-Mubarak had his finger on the pulse of the Abu Dhabi royals and has been trusted to oversee some of the state’s grandest infrastructure projects. He was a respected man of influence and his appointment showed that the new owners meant business.
This was more than just a vanity project for a bored billionaire. A huge chunk of east Manchester, surrounding City’s modern new home was set for significant investment. An 80-acre former industrial site was transformed when a £150 million state of the art training academy was opened close to the stadium. Other facilities such as a new college building and swimming baths were built as money flooded into a deprived corner of the city.
In the history of the Premier League no other team had received such a makeover. Clubs would normally take out substantial debts to get anywhere near this level of regeneration. City’s owners did it all in just over half a decade and with their own money. Even Vincent Kompany marvelled at the installation of an espresso machine at the new training ground, where previously he’d only been able to sip tepid Mancunian tea.
Running alongside this tale though was a darker subplot. As with Shinawatra in 2007, there were murmurs in the background. Dissenting voices soon began to crank up the volume and City’s owners became subject to serious scrutiny.
Sheikh Mansour is an important member of a powerful ruling family in Abu Dhabi. However, this is no European-style constitutional monarchy. It more resembles an absolutist regime that has been accused of all manner of human rights abuses. From imprisoning journalists to the suppression of women’s rights; there were some pretty dire reports from some very serious people.
Amnesty International cried foul play and questioned the morality of a Premier League football club being used as essentially a PR vehicle for a totalitarian regime. For the first time, the phrase “sportswashing” was bandied around with Amnesty International’s Gulf researcher Devin Kenney pulling no punches in his summation of an indecent relationship:
“The UAE’s enormous investment in Manchester City is one of football’s most brazen attempts to ‘sportswash’ a country’s deeply tarnished image through the glamour of the game. As a growing number of Manchester City fans will be aware, the success of the club has involved a close relationship with a country that relies on exploited migrant labour and locks up peaceful critics and human rights defenders.”
This was uncharted territory for the Premier League. Where some had scoffed at the authenticity of Chelsea’s success or bemoaned their inflation of transfer prices, there was now a huge moral question that became something of the elephant in the room during City’s new era of success.
Further leaks in Der Spiegel’s sensational series of articles painted a picture of owners who would simply not comply with new UEFA rules on financial fair play. This would be an issue that would fester away in the background before culminating in an outright ban on Champions League participation in 2019.
However, there was nothing in the Premier League rule books to stop any of this. Never before had a club been implicated in such terms. City’s owners were infuriated by what they saw a smear campaign but their case was not helped by the uncomfortable truth that Mansour had only once attended a Manchester City match since his purchase. Many saw this absenteeism as further proof of the Royal’s desire to paint a more favourable picture of regime to the outside world.
Regardless, City’s march to inevitable success was not hindered. A dramatic title win with the very last kick of 2011/12 campaign laid the foundations for one of the best football teams in the history of top-flight English football.
No longer lovable losers, the club was able to attract the biggest names in world football as they left everybody choking on the dust of their success. Their emergence as a force was game changer. Nobody had foreseen a sovereign state buying a club and transforming it in such a momentous and irreversible manner.
A new shudder of forbearance must have gone through almost every chief executive and board member in the land back September 2008. The fear of a football dynasty from Manchester remained but now it was to be the players in sky blue who made everyone tremble as they conquered everything before them and established a new era of Premier League dominance.