In the first few days of this week, some close to Pep Guardiola were debating whether the Community Shield should be counted among next week’s celebrations if Manchester City win the domestic treble, thereby changing the very language around it all. Something else around this FA Cup final, however, has already changed. Not least the discussion.
It is a historic fixture that could see City complete their greatest ever feat with that unprecedented treble, or Watford enjoy their greatest ever day with a first major trophy… but you wouldn’t think it from any of the build-up. You sometimes wouldn’t think City were celebrating anything at all.
The days leading up to the 138th FA Cup final have been dominated by the most modern of football controversies around the English champions.
One did admittedly come from celebrating that Premier League title, as footage was released of City employees singing a terrace chant that references supporters of title rivals Liverpool being “battered in the streets” and “victims of it all”. There then followed a New York Times report that Uefa investigators would suggest City are suspended from the Champions League over allegations of lying about violations of Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations. Thursday brought the confirmation from the European governing body that the English champions have been referred to the Club Financial Control Body adjudicatory chambers following the conclusion of the investigation.
City responded to this with highly assertive statements . In the case of the footage, where arguments had been made the chant referred to the attack of Liverpool fan Sean Cox and the Hillsborough disaster, the club wholly denied either meaning.
“The song in question, which has been a regular chant during the 2018-19 season, refers to the 2018 Uefa Champions League final in Kiev. Any suggestions that the lyrics relate to Sean Cox or the Hillsborough tragedy is entirely without foundation.”
However, there was no acknowledgement of why a chant featuring the lyrics “battered in the streets” was being sung by employees in the first place.
In terms of the FFP case and the New York Times report, City declared themselves “disappointed, but regrettably not surprised by the sudden announcement of the referral to be made by the CFCB IC Chief Investigator Yves Leterme” and that “the accusation of financial irregularities remains entirely false”. This was despite the fact that the club is, in this case, actually accused of misleading investigators, not FFP violation.
With both statements, the nature of City’s response actually prolonged the news cycle, and brought more questions – not to mention emotional responses from fans.
It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for Watford in all of this, as preparations for a special day in the club’s history have been greatly overshadowed.
Part of that is down to modern football, and how we in the media admittedly don’t view the FA Cup with a traditional reverence anymore. It is now a lesser competition, and a lesser story. Much of it, however, is down to the modern Manchester City.
Previews like this would at this point usually look at previous attempts to win the treble, where they fell, why this has never been done before and why it is such a novel feat.
The reality is such a history would be almost irrelevant, because City’s campaign bears virtually no relation to anything that has come before it.
The Abu Dhabi takeover is simply unprecedented. It is beyond the issue of inflation in football, and even separate from the damaging economic stratification fellow super-clubs have been responsible for, which has so eroded the status of competitions like the FA Cup. Football has always been dictated by money, yes, but until City 2.0 came along it was never to such a degree dictated by this level of money. It is genuinely on a different scale, and they have consequently been capable of achievements on a different scale.
A treble would really just be a logical – perhaps inevitable – end point to the extent of this investment, that represents the most lavish and intelligent football project in history. It would be a fitting feat of total domination.
Hence, we have a situation where the best manager in the world in Pep Guardiola can have a club almost perfectly constructed to his preferences.
Hence, we have a situation where some Uefa sources actually worry about where this FFP story could go, because it might require the governing body to take on immense legal power funded by Abu Dhabi’s infinite resources. It was only in October that leaked emails obtained by Der Spiegel showed chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak stating “he would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years.”
Hence, we have a situation where it almost feels futile to treat this FA Cup in the traditional manner of such a showpiece, where the tactics of a potential upset are discussed. City have put in place a formula where a brilliant manager and his exceptional squad are maximising the greatest resources, and it’s yielding the greatest results.
There’s first of all the fact City have won 64 of their last 76 league games over the past two seasons. There’s second of all the fact they’ve won all eight fixtures against Watford since the latter were promoted by in 2015, with an aggregate score of 25-4. Troy Deeney statements about “cojones” pale against stats, and power, like this
It is why this has long been a treble that has felt entirely inevitable, rather than in any way sensational. That would instead be how to describe Watford denying them that feat. The figures indicate it would probably be the greatest upset since Wimbledon beat double-chasing Liverpool in 1988. It would certainly be greater than City’s own defeat to Wigan Athletic in 2013, since the club are a different entity to then. The full effect of the importation of an entire technical department from Barcelona – described within the game as “the Apple of football” – has been seen. It has meant, in the words of Arsene Wenger, that City have added the highest intelligence to the highest investment. That is in severe contrast to an otherwise similar project in Paris Saint-Germain.
Watford’s own ownership structure has come under criticism in the last few years, not least for the high turnover of players and managers, and how it has been so difficult for supporters to identify with so many transitory figures.
One of Javi Gracia’s many managerial masterstrokes – along with his tactics, and general approach – has been restoring a sense of identity to the team and the club. There is a core there, an idea there. A cup run has done wonders for this. A first ever trophy would do something else entirely, and maybe confirm the start of a new Watford era entirely.
Many City supporters have similarly wrestled with their identity over that time, albeit in a different way. It often feels like they are still in the midst of a long adjustment process as they continue to adapt from being one of the most endearingly neurotic English clubs to – yes – the most lavishly-funded project in football. It is, in truth, probably more difficult to mentally square the two than it is for Watford to beat them.
Before the takeover, there was a club infamous for spectacular failure and players being given socks with holes in the toes. Since then, there is the most polished football product imaginable – right down to glossy documentaries showcasing it all – but also owners from a country that bring much uglier questions.
Abu Dhabi has been accused of the most grave of human rights abuses and is a key actor in the war on Yemen, where it stands accused – among other things – of funnelling money to groups accused of war crimes and of subjecting detainees to electrocutions and sexual assaults.
It’s just a different world and some of the adjustment to it has been visible in the emotional – usually angry – responses from City fans to some of the news stories of the last week.
There have been obvious celebrations of the title win, but they’ve also been underlined with anger about how those stories were reported, how this is all an agenda, whether rivals would get the same coverage – much of the usual stuff.
And yet there are also some elements here outside the norm. You don’t have to scroll too long on social media to find supporters defiantly referring to their club’s statements and talking about how they’re up for the battle; where they're almost litigating on behalf of the club against Uefa.
Some sources familiar with Middle Eastern politics have already noted how this is a strikingly similar media approach to that in Abu Dhabi, and the United Emirates, where “criticism is not tolerated”. Instead, it is assertively struck back at. The issue, again, is how this might just bring further questions.
Scroll along a bit further on social media and you get more than defiance. You get City fans – and many at that – actually going further and openly defending the Abu Dhabi regime. They talk of the benefits of living in the Emirates, high-quality free health care, whether Matthew Hedges was a spy and even weigh in on the war on Yemen. Much of these involve a series of responses like “what about Saudi Arabia?” and even accusations of “anti-Arab bias”.
While it is unreasonable – and, frankly, psychologically unrealistic – to expect fans to in any way disconnect from a club they have invested so much of their lives into because of who buys them, this is something else. It does warrant criticism of those supporters. It is the sort of effect any public relations office would dream about. Some sources would even argue it is just one reason why City were bought in the first place.
It is why this all feels a bigger story than an FA Cup final that is fairly predictable, and a treble that has become fairly predictable. That is what this City have done.
And sure, the possibility remains that Watford might genuinely do something spectacular, which is what any upset would be. That alone is illustrative. All of this is infinitely more meaningful for football than what an almost inevitable feat like a treble would be.
This is the modern City. This is modern football. This is the curious context of this year’s FA Cup final.
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