It is Sunday, the date May 11th 2003, and a blow of a whistle concludes not only Manchester City vs Southampton but 80 years of history. City fans would walk the concourses of Maine Road for the final time and continue it over the horizon into the impressive City of Manchester Stadium.
11,000 people were now set to join them on this walk at the start of the 2003/04 season, as 35,000 would become 46,000 on the opening day of the new stadium.
It was a step forward for this working-class club, one that would hopefully see them add to the two league titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups, and a European Cup Winners’ Cup that were being moved to their new home – a step that made the club even more appealing to eyes 3,500 miles away in Abu Dhabi.
Five years later, those in Abu Dhabi began to make their move and this walk those fans were on turned into a jog and quickly into a full sprint, as Manchester City grew from a working-class club into a globalised powerhouse; leaving the one’s incapable of sprinting behind and trampling over a huge part of their lives in the process.
With football clubs now turning into businesses and the continuous rise in costs of following a Premier League club, those fans who just wanted to walk and enjoy the sport they love, are now gathering in pubs or at home with their family and would give anything to fill one of those empty blue seats that gave rise to the ‘Emptyhad’ gags.
It is a problem that should spark unity amongst fanbases but instead is fuel for jokes. It somewhat encapsulates modern fans, but this is a problem that will not last long, so long as City keeps winning. On the other hand, the mocking of attendances by fans of ‘traditional big clubs’ is a testament to the work being done at Manchester City, as they continue to catch up on the trophies these other clubs have gathered throughout the years.
Rich Club, Poor City
Out of the fire Pep Guardiola lit by mentioning the support of the fans following Manchester City’s 6-3 win over RB Leipzig in front of just 38,062 fans at the Etihad Stadium, developed an avoidable story.
The media began to pour fuel on this and began to steer the comments towards ‘Emptyhad’ banter and one scroll through social media the following day was evidence of them succeeding.
All this resulted in a minor clash between the general secretary of City’s official supporters’ club, Kevin Parker and Guardiola, with Parker stating that his manager should “stick to coaching”.
Guardiola clarified his comments during his pre-Southampton press conference stating: “I am not going to apologise for what I said. What I said was we need the support. It doesn’t matter how many people come but I invite them to come and enjoy the game because we need the support. Always I’ve said, guys if you want to join us I will be incredibly happy because I know how difficult it will be. I prefer to be with my people than without my people. But if they don’t come for any reason, it’s perfect”.
It was all unnecessary drama that was bred from the continued banter that surrounds the Manchester club’s attendance.
Whichever way Guardiola’s comments are taken, like the banter from rival fans, the words lacked empathy and an understanding of how difficult it is for many modern football fans to follow their club.
The “Emptyhad” banter has worn thin on City fans by now, knowing that the lowest average attendance over the last five seasons in the Premier League has been 53,812 (not including COVID affected capacities); but the lack of supporters going to games in the other competitions points to underlying issues that all the big North West clubs face.
This issue and the heart of the problem lies with the rising costs of being a football fan. The highest season ticket price to follow the Citizens throughout their 2020/21 Premier League campaign is £950.
Add to that, the away days; where the price of the ticket, travel and food for all 19 away games could soar well past the £2,000 mark. Leaving a singular fan forking out a total of around £3,000 to follow their team.
That’s before considering that City goes deep into the other three competitions. More tickets, more travel, more food, and accommodation; the price could easily soar past £5,000.
These rising costs have made a working-class game alien to the working class. Manchester is one of the poorest cities in the UK with 620,000 people living below the poverty line according to a report from the organisation Greater Manchester Poverty Action.
It is a problem that the other big Northwest clubs suffer too but City’s is visible because of the lack of tourists that are visiting this newish phenomenon in English football.
David Mooney, creator and producer of the Blue Moon Podcast told Bleacher Report in 2019: “United can say, we’ll put tickets at this price and if people don’t want to buy them, somebody else will come along”.
This is a privilege Man City do not have yet, but why does that make them any less of a big club?
For rival fans, it is just a point to banter with. However, hearing a City fan tell Bleacher Report in the same interview as above that he ‘couldn’t go to the [2019 FA Cup] semi-final because he simply couldn’t afford to’ and how it ‘broke his heart’, should hit home the sad situation some fans find themselves in.
It is a problem that will only grow further for local Manchester City fans, as continued success will start to attract global fans to those blue seats and inflate the cost of tickets.
The Blue Moon is Rising
Away from the financial side, the reasons why the Etihad is not always full is apparent. You do not have to go very far to find the behemoth that is Manchester United, whose magnitude is not only felt in the city but worldwide.
No matter what Manchester City do, that monster will always be in their closet and the process of wrestling fans away from their city rivals has already begun.
There are obvious glory hunting tendencies present in fans of the big Premier League clubs, tendencies that City will be trying to take advantage of whilst their iron is hot.
The land across the Irish Sea provides a small sample of a behavioural pattern that expands to the worldwide Premier League audience. In Ireland, Manchester United are the most popular team amongst the younger generations, whilst you will find the older generations tend to lean towards Liverpool. No prizes for guessing why.
Three Premier League titles in four seasons is the type of consistency that leads to a dynasty being formed. If that should happen, as long as you give people a choice, there is no doubting that they will choose sky blue over red.
It is a reason why the “Emptyhad” banter is so popular because there are not many weaknesses to exploit in this ever-growing financial powerhouse.
The traditional big clubs around the world and their fans have an arrogance about them, in which they believe that their past success guarantees them the right to future success.
A great example of this is Barcelona, who thought they were too big to fail. Paris Saint-Germain, like City, have developed into a European powerhouse over the last decade to the resentment of many. The club made a massive statement in 2017 by signing Neymar, a move that led to Barcelona’s ego getting hurt.
In response, the Catalan club spent big to show the rest of Europe that they could match the Parisian club’s financial might, an ideology which has now culminated in the club’s downfall due to serious financial issues.
Does anyone care if Manchester City have empty seats and are sitting in the bottom half of the table? It is only highlighted to try and dampen the threatening fire, one that has the potential to engulf the whole league.
After scratching the surface, this animosity towards City is understandable. Clubs like Man United, Liverpool and Arsenal who have incredible histories are now all behind City when it comes to attracting the best players and competing. Many feel City’s rise to the top has not fully cooperated with the rules and therefore making it harder for other clubs to swallow.
That however should not be directed towards the fans. What we are seeing now at City is a local community struggling to keep up with the financial demands of following a modern-day ‘superclub’, a club that was once just their local team.
“It’s frustrating that there’s not the solidarity from other fans that you’d maybe expect. I’d travel to every single City game if I could”: these words from another young City fan to Bleacher Report should resonate with every working-class fan. Yet his absence on one of the Etihad’s many empty seats during the cup competitions is made into a joke.
That joke is old now and although it is a complement to City’s success on the pitch, it shows an ignorance to the situation off it and a problem all fans should be united over.