Now City must match Keegan's ambitions

The gift of a new home
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The Independent Football

New ground, same lovable old Manchester City. Already in Europe, by virtue of having received fewer yellow cards than most Premiership teams, they now plan "to turn Manchester sky-blue" no less; Kevin Keegan has been offered a job for life and "can take us all the way"; and but for the little matter of losing eight home games last season, the manager points out, they could have been preparing for the Champions' League instead of a Uefa Cup qualifying round against Total Network Solutions, the pride of Llansantffraid.

Whatever City may be faulted for - and the list is long - it is not a lack of ambition.

Nor will delusions of grandeur be tempered by moving into the handsome former Commonwealth Games venue, now renamed the City of Manchester Stadium. With a whole new lower tier having been excavated since the Games a year ago, and the roof completed without a visible join, it has a capacity of 48,000 - third highest in the Premiership - and is being spoken of as a future international venue.

So at City's first function there last week, the club chairman, John Wardle, was in understandably buoyant mood. Ushered rather reluctantly into the chair after a characteristic boardroom fall-out last spring, he is seen as a big spender, replacing the more prudent David Bernstein. Despite having amassed a fortune with his partner David Makin from the sportswear firm JD Sports, even Wardle was not in a position to finance a new stadium at modern prices; but unlike Arsenal, Bolton, Derby, Leicester, Southampton and others, City knew that would not be necessary. They have simply been given one, originally costing £110m of public money, on astonishingly generous terms - a percentage of all gate receipts above the club's previous capacity of 34,000 will be paid "after costs" to Manchester City Council and Sport England. The City Council also get Maine Road in Moss Side, nobody's idea of a prime location.

"We've been very fortunate," Wardle admits. "It's like all our Christmases have come at once." He says improving the new stadium has cost £20m that might otherwise have been spent on players, but rather suspects that Keegan, having restricted himself so far this summer to Bosman transfers in David Seaman and Bayern Munich's Michael Tarnat, might just be asking for more Christmas presents soon: "I think he'll say all season he'd like to bring more [players] in, and there's a good possibility that'll happen, though it's squeezed us having to put money into the stadium. Kevin's so ambitious, he wants success so much it's unbelievable. Matching his ambition will be one helluva task, but we'll do our best."

In winning the First Division championship and finishing ninth in the Premier- ship, the profligate former England manager has worked his way through £40m. He has implied in the past that once any club's aspirations fail to meet his own he will walk, but Wardle does not accept the popular conception that when the going gets tough, Keegan gets going - back to the golf course. "I think that's a load of rubbish, I really do. He's the opposite of a quitter, this guy."

Keegan is now 52, and Wardle would be delighted if he stayed until retirement age and beyond: "I'd love Kevin to stay as long as he wanted. He's a great guy to work with, with vast knowledge and a great commercial brain - he under-stands the whole business. And I think he can take this club all the way. He almost did it with Newcastle. I wish we could bankroll him more, because I know without doubt he could do it."

No wonder the recipient of this praise, and money, says: "I love the chairman. He's great. He's been very supportive of the club as a major investor, and terrific to work with. I think the money that's had to go into the stadium is money well spent, an investment in Manchester City for what could be hundreds of years. And so far we've got two terrific signings who haven't cost a penny."

Even the ultra-ambitious Keegan had looked a little taken aback when the managing director of City's new kit sponsor, Reebok, announced: "We intend to turn Manchester sky-blue in the months and years to come." "It would be fantastic, but it won't be easy," was the manager's more measured response, mindful, perhaps, of the 32-point gap last season between his team and the institution Wardle refers to as "the other people down the road".

But it was not long before Keegan's natural optimism reasserted itself in response to a question about City's prospects over the coming months. "The top four looks like no-man's-land, doesn't it, when you look at the clubs there and the investment they've put in, but that's the challenge for us. It's been done before by clubs not spending a lot of money but with a good spirit.

"I'm sure we can make this a more difficult place to win than at Maine Road last season, where we lost eight games and still finished in the top half. We've got to go forward again and I think we will."