Sam Wallace: Sheikh Mansour is great for Manchester City – but is he great for the city?

The connection between a city’s social history and its clubs is complex

On my way to the Etihad Stadium from Manchester's Piccadilly station a week ago yesterday, I walked past Ancoats Dispensary, a grand old Victorian hospital built in 1873 to treat the working people in that part of the world's first industrialised city.

It is soon to be demolished. Last Sunday a hardy group of protestors in the drizzle were proffering a petition for signatures. I signed. It is Grade II-listed and featured in a Lowry painting. The dispensary is the birthplace of my father-in-law, one of the baby-boom generation and a lifelong Manchester City fan. The plans to renovate it collapsed when the government's spending cuts kicked in and now the walls are buckling.

In Ancoats, where some of the world's first industrial mills were built, there have been admirable attempts at regeneration by different agencies. At the football club up the road, the good Sheikh Mansour has spent around £1bn and is pledging £100m-plus for the construction of the Etihad Campus, a state-of-the-art new training ground and academy for City on what was once contaminated land.

This week City's officials travel to Monte Carlo for the Champions League draw for only the second time in their history and the first time as champions of England. There is no argument: Mansour's City are part of the European elite and there to stay.

One of the paradoxes about many English clubs is that their stadiums are situated in some of what are now the poorest parts of the country, and City are no different. The adjoining boroughs, Miles Platting and Newton Heath, Harpurhey, Gorton South, Gorton North, Charlestown, Ardwick and Bradford are the top seven in Manchester's most deprived. On certain indicators, Manchester is the fourth most-deprived urban area in Britain.

The connection between a city's social and economic history and its great football clubs is complex but extremely important and it is one brilliantly examined in the best football book I have read for a long time, "Richer Than God", by David Conn, who has a talent for blending a personal memoir with his own specialised style of investigative journalism.

Conn's book is about the modern Manchester City as well as the old Manchester City, a club he has supported since childhood. It is about Manchester itself. It is about modern English football. It is about club owners, good and bad. It is about the significant changes in football's value system since the Victorians created the framework of the sport.

But more than that, it is about football's place in Britain and the now former industrial cities that are home to many of our famous clubs. It is about what has been lost from those communities and what has survived, which is, in most cases, the clubs and the powerful allegiances we feel to them.

It is an analysis of the complex circumstances that led us to the point where a famous club came to be revived by the world's new-money elite and what that says about English football and modern Britain. The title "Richer Than God" is from a conversation Conn has with an American working in Abu Dhabi who reassures him that Mansour and the ruling elite there are, so to speak, as wealthy as the omnipotent.

This is not an anti-City thesis. The Glazer regime at Manchester United does not escape Conn's shrewd analysis either. With owners who have taken £500m out of United, as opposed to putting £1bn in, the lines are more clearly drawn. What makes City such a fascinating case is that, on the face of it, the club, and east Manchester in particular, should be celebrating a miraculous rebirth but Conn demonstrates there is more to the debate than that.

He points out that modern Manchester has experienced jaw-dropping economic decline with little to fill the gap left, for instance, by the 150,000 manufacturing jobs lost between 1978 and 1984. There are other depressing indicators such as the one that rates the district of Collyhurst, from which a certain Norbert Stiles emerged in the late 1950s, as Britain's second worst neighbourhood for "income deprivation affecting children".

These problems are not the fault of football and nor are they the responsibility of Sheikh Mansour, a man who is investing a considerable amount of his private wealth in a part of the country in which – put bluntly – few agencies have been able to effect major change. Nevertheless, Conn writes, billionaire employers of elite footballers are all well and good, but it should not be mistaken as a substitute for the regeneration of jobs and communities.

The problems with regenerating Manchester, and how football can reward the wrong people, is illustrated best in Conn's analysis of City's deal to move into the stadium built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The stadium cost a total of £127m from the National Lottery via Sport England and Manchester city council, initially in order to build and then later convert for use as a football ground.

In return City paid a revenue share on attendances exceeding the capacity of Maine Road, which works out at £2m a year, having also given their former ground to the council. The deal was independently audited. Under the current regime, City pay the council a further £2m a year for the naming rights.

Crucially, there was no facility agreed whereby the council could claw back money in the event of City being sold at a profit, although the new stadium undoubtedly made them a more attractive proposition. In 2007, Thaksin Shinawatra bought the club – spending a total of around £60m, Conn believes, in acquiring it and over the single year he was in control.

In August 2008, with Thaksin on the run from Thai authorities and the club forced to borrow to pay the players' wages, he sold out to Mansour for £150m. Thaksin creamed off £90m profit. For the people of Manchester whose taxes had contributed £49m to the stadium there was not a penny, despite it being key to the price Mansour paid.

Mansour's investment is a welcome alternative to the New Labour "supercasino" that was originally earmarked for regeneration of an area that saw a 60 per cent rise in those claiming job seekers' allowance in 2009-2010. It has given City's supporters a chance to dream too and the Etihad Campus is a lot better than the very little that east Manchester had before.

Conn visits the building site and is shown "a cemetery of Manchester's industrial past", the remains of factories, a dyeing works and even the coal shafts of an old colliery. He is not advocating a return to the hardships of Victorian working-class life. Instead he mourns for what this part of Manchester lacks – and what not even Mansour's investment can provide – which is the 21st century version: well-paid, sustainable jobs in thriving industries.

As Ancoats Dispensary faces the bulldozers, with no Middle Eastern saviour of its own, we are fortunate that the last 130 years of English football have built up such a globally-renowned history that there are wealthy men from foreign countries willing to invest in it; a sentiment reflected in the banner at the Etihad that says, "Manchester thanks you, Sheikh Mansour".

Conn accepts that the future Mansour has given east Manchester and his beloved club is far more preferable to the alternative. But is it ideal? "It is just," he writes, "that saying thank you quite so explicitly to a rich absentee does not seem quite in character with the independence, entrepreneurship, fighting spirit and radicalism of Manchester which have always, at least partly, been expressed at its football grounds."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game