Payback time for Manchester City's four-year plan
They've spent £930m and it's been a bumpy ride but one likely to end at the summit of English football
Even now, as the big domestic prize lies within reach, no-one dares discount another dose of what they call “City-itis”. For evidence that the disease has not been entirely eradicated, the Abu Dhabis may recall the bright crisp December day in 2010 when Manchester City's surging progress led chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak to confide, in his only lunch with his club's national newspaper correspondents that, he believed Roberto Mancini would deliver a title the following May. Within eight hours he was watching City lose at home to Everton and Mancini losing it on the touchline with David Moyes.
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The club have not lost at their own stadium since, yet this was just one jolt on the crazy four-year journey to the brink of English supremacy. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan has always felt that year four of his ownership was the year City "were going to go for it," Mubarak said last spring. But it's been a bumpy ride.
If the summit is scaled, then the individual who at times made it that bit bumpier – the former chief executive Garry Cook – is one fans have more to thank than they know. Cook did the hard yards, selling City to Sheikh Mansour, right back when it all began. The Abu Dhabis were looking at a number of clubs in the summer of 2008. They included Newcastle United and Arsenal, where the Sheikh's quiet purchase of the glitzy Hakkasan and Yauatcha restaurants in London a few months before settling on City would have provided an impeccable dining environment. Never confirmed, though less likely, is the suspicion that Everton were in contention, too.
That's how astonishingly arbitrary a City title will be, if it arrives tomorrow. It could have been Yaya Touré wearing black-and-white stripes, and Mancini a scarf to match. Instead, Cook, who made it sky blue, impressing the Abu Dhabis hugely with his pitch on the untapped potential of the City "brand"; telling how a single owner (Thaksin Shinawatra) simplified the sale and how a ready-built stadium and global awareness of the City of Manchester name would help. Cook had been brought in by Thaksin to sell the club but the job he did meant the buyers kept him on.
The early months bequeathed City an individual capable of creating an even greater storm in the newspapers than he. Sheikh Mansour settled on Sulaiman al-Fahim, an individual perhaps best described as the Abu Dhabi Alan Sugar, as his spokesman and envoy. Fahim could actually be reached on his mobile phone by journalists – not quite what you get with Manchester United's Glazers – and his proclamation at the zenith of his power that Cristiano Ronaldo might be signed from Manchester United contributed substantially to the Abu Dhabis' characterisation as owners lacking grace. "Sometimes they just launch into things without doing the planning," one observer of the Abu Dhabi way of doing things admits now. "You might say it's a bit like Terminal 5. Then they get proper people in and get it organised."
The club was unimaginably unprepared for its catapult to the big time. Cook had known the Nike way of doing things from his own time at its Oregon HQ, but had arrived at City to find that the human resources department was "a pay-roll clerk" and everyone had a go at marketing so there were "24 iterations of the word 'City' and everyone was adding stars and stripes." He explained this at a hotel in Pretoria, during a pre-season conversation which has remained a reference point in its crystallisation of a spending philosophy as unidealistic as it was realistic. "Our base costs for the next three years are never going to be at levels that would make economic sense," he said. "But your revenue stream is not going to come unless you get into the top four. That means bringing in players to get you there and spending above the odds on wages before the revenues start flowing. You've got to invest in one before you get to another. Any business does that."
But no business parameters could prepare City for the way that the assault on the top would require a direct strike on United. "We don't need to compare ourselves to United and Chelsea," Cook said, in that South African winter sunshine. "Having lived in the shadows of United you can see this competitive balance where we've always got to be better than them. Well actually, we've just got to be better ourselves first and that will lead us to a better place." Yet even as Cook spoke, Sir Alex Ferguson, leading United into the Far East, was spitting fury about the Carlos Tevez "Welcome to Manchester" poster, which demonstrated the United obsession.
The implacable foe Ferguson proved for the next two years made some of the most inveterate City fans wonder if this was a fight they could win. United's Carling Cup semi-final triumph on 27January 2010, overcoming a 2-1 first-leg lead given to City by Tevez, was one of the bumpiest moments for Gary James, supporter and an historian of the club whose book Manchester: The City Years is published in September. "When we lost to United, after all the boasts following the first leg, there was a feeling that we are always going to be the bridesmaids," he says.
That impression was not diminished by the way Mancini was introduced as the new manager, a month earlier, which descended into one of the most extraordinary of its type – Cook departing from a typed script extolling the Italian's virtues and ending up banging his fist on the table, amid claims Mark Hughes had been betrayed. Cook took the fire for Mubarak that day. He was ridiculed for explaining that Hughes' target had been upped to 70 points because of the previous summer's "accelerated player-acquisition activity" – though that was Mubarak's language. What Cook could not reveal does show the significance of the decision he and Mubarak took. When Mubarak asked Hughes what he intended to do about a poor run of results which culminated in a 3-0 defeat at Tottenham, the answer went along the lines of: "We were unlucky. We'll keep trying." Concerned by defensive failings in a run of draws up to then, Mubarak suggested additional defensive coaching expertise might be invaluable. Hughes said he would soldier on. Cook walked into Mancini's introductory press conference utterly convinced that this appointment would be celebrated. The Abu Dhabis, whose dealings lay largely with the financial press, shared his optimism.
Privately, Mancini says that his attempts to appease the pro-Hughes component of his inherited squad has been his most difficult challenge. It mattered that after Khaldoon offered him his private mobile number – and invited him to ring it – that he did so. Hughes never did. It was Hughes who showed a willingness to engage his considerable intellect at club level. Invited to a business away-day at the Shrigley Hall hotel in Cheshire, he unexpectedly turned up in a suit and tie while everyone else dressed casually, yet leapt to his feet to involve himself. Mancini has left the boardroom talk to his assistant, David Platt, concerning himself with the calls to Khaldoon instead.
Notwithstanding, the turbulence continued. Peter Crouch's "£20m goal" which took Spurs to the Champions League, rather than City, on 5 May 2010, was another moment of deep despair, deepening that sense that "maybe fate's going to go against us," as James puts it.
Even when the hex was broken – United were defeated at Wembley and the FA Cup was then won last season, allowing City to cross a huge psychological frontier – the rough ride went on. Last summer, there was a sense of time running out for City, as the strictures of Uefa's Financial Fair Play regime loomed ever nearer. Mancini dismissed this bureaucracy and seemed at odds with Cook and the club's football administrator Brian Marwood – the men tasked with making City break even. "Hold your horses, we have quantity now," Khaldoon said last May. But Mancini, the man with the chairman's ear, won out.
Neither had an inkling of the trouble still ahead. Tevez's "revolt" on that extraordinary night last September in Munich was what the public saw. The sight of Mancini, quivering with rage, not a million miles from tears of fury in the stadium, made you ask if he could take this final step. Ferguson would not have been reduced in that way.
Then Cook fell, his propensity to a communications disaster seeing him on his way for making – then seeking to cover up – some abysmal comments about the illness of Dr Anthonia Onuoha. As an unmanageable Mario Balotelli's second dismissal of the season drew discussion of a nine-game ban – and as Mancini's perfunctory departure from the touchline at Stoke allowed opposing manager Tony Pulis to enjoy some moralising about handshakes and old football values – it was tempting to say that it really was not written in the stars for City.
But in the end, those typewritten words Cook read out about Mancini seem destined to prove prescient and the money he persuaded Abu Dhabi to part with – £930m spent over four years, according to one exhaustive analysis this week – allowed the percentages to work in his chosen manager's favour. Mancini could depend on his full-backs (Gaël Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta) – and Ferguson was failed by his own (Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra) in the 4-4 draw against Everton which puts us where we are. Cook may be keener for a return to the Premier League than is generally known. Intriguingly, he was in the foyer at the Reebok for Bolton's FA Cup game with Swansea in January. "Always working," he replied to the question of whether he was there for work or pleasure. He was doing "this and that". He has been invited to step back inside the Etihad tomorrow, too, and if he accepts he may reflect on how he has missed possibly the crowning achievement of all he set up and the four crazy years it has taken Abu Dhabi to reach their destination.
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