Football / Fan's Eye View: Exiles on Maine Road: No 58 Manchester City

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The Independent Online
THE day after the Bishop of Durham said there was no Hell - at least 'not as a place of eternal torment' - Manchester City lost 2-1 at home to Nottingham Forest and City fans knew the Bishop was wrong. The turnstiles at Maine Road might as well have carried the legend above the gate to Hell: 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.'

Now not many people know this, but that quotation from Dante's Inferno actually begins: 'This way to the sorrowful city. This way to eternal grief. This way to join the lost people.' But the lost people at Maine Road are the ones who don't come any more. The only record likely to be broken is the lowest crowd for a first-team match.

I went to one match this season (a cup tie against Reading) mainly because - having been one of the famous 8,015 supporters who broke the worst attendance record in 1965 - I wanted to be one of the faithful few again. But 9,280 turned up so I needn't have bothered.

After that low point in 1965 the fans took action. A poorly publicised meeting attracted several hundred supporters. A 'ginger group' was formed, and the then City chairman, Albert Alexander, responded to the pressure by sacking the manager and appointing Joe Mercer. With Malcolm Allison as coach, City won the League within two years, playing attacking football in a style that many think has never been bettered by any English team.

City's success - and fans chanting his name (approvingly) - seemed to bewilder the ageing Alexander. It certainly attracted boardroom rivals. Albert died, his son Eric succeeded him, and faced a battle for control, eventually baling out to a takeover bid from the double-glazing tycoon Joe Smith, who became 'President', saying that his aim was to remove the monopoly of control of the club. His first act was to install one P J Swales as chairman, supposedly to reconcile the factions on the board.

Peter Swales promised much. Too much, in that he linked his own future with his first managerial appointment, Ron Saunders (who lasted five months), and said his ambition was to see City as the No 1 club in the country. Last autumn, after 20 years, after one trophy, Swales stepped down as chairman.

Even that change came only after mass protests by fans at the way the club was being run. John Maddock, a Swales appointment, then announced City were about to appoint a new manager as successor to Peter Reid and the fans would be delighted. The new manager turned out to be Brian Horton; the headline 'Brian Who?' truly reflected what the fans thought. Horton got a loyal welcome, but the campaign to oust Swales took off.

Although Swales alleges death threats, the main stuff of the campaign was 'Swales-Free Zone' T-shirts, and cries for a boycott of matches. Official boycotts failed; what we got was a simple voting with the feet.

But when the former star Francis Lee announced his interest in a takeover bid, revival broke out. Before the QPR match, there was even a preacher to announce the second coming. 'Be patient]' cried the Reverend Jim Burns from the steps of the main entrance. The revivalist atmosphere passed to the pitch and City won 3-0.

Swales was not to be budged that easily. Why should he go? He and his partner had a majority of the shares in a business that, despite City's crazy transfer deals, they say makes a profit. But a football club is not like other businesses: it is ludicrous to reckon that the directors' primary duty is to the shareholders (themselves). It might work in the hideous normal world of capitalism but, in that world, if the goods are of poor quality, you buy somewhere else.

Football supporters can't do that. If the product we buy doesn't work one Saturday, we'll still buy another one the next week, and perhaps go half-way across the country to buy it. So long as it's Manchester City.