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."
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