Manchester City’s relentless rise to dominance breeding little more than indifference
Even as the car radio crackled in and out, there is just no mistaking that patented style of verbal slugfest that slowly escalates from ‘here’s a question for you…’ to two blokes seemingly on the verge of knocking seven shades from one another on live radio. That’s the illusion, though, and the more of these you sit through the more that sneaking feeling that the entrenched positions are pre-agreed, the inflammatory takes carefully crafted, creeps up on you.
I’m not knocking it; engagement is king and nobody does it more effectively. But as debate raged over which treble is the more impressive – Manchester United’s in 1999 or the seemingly inevitable Manchester City 2023 edition – an oft-overlooked difference between these two great sides went unmentioned again.
People hated United under Sir Alex Ferguson. The phrase ‘anyone but United’ has disappeared somewhat from the football lexicon, mostly because their mediocrity has made it obsolete, but it was once uttered with equivalent vigour as Scotland fans applying a similar principle to England.
There is a reason why TV camera operators knowingly cut to the now 81-year-old Ferguson having a thoroughly miserable time following United up and down the country provokes such glee. The level of sheer revulsion they attracted was testament to how dominant, and how good, his United teams were.
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Their influence gave rise to the probably-exaggerated-but-with-a-grain-of-truth allegations that most United fans of a certain age were not born anywhere close to a Manchester postcode. Their downfall post-Ferguson has, understandably, been a source of great satisfaction for anyone whose team he crushed over a 26-year dynasty.
On Saturday, United’s closest neighbours can match his greatest-ever feat by winning the Premier League, the FA Cup and Champions League in a single season – and somehow it feels like nobody is really that bothered.
There seems to be very little of that same anger provoked by City’s sweeping success, an absence of jealousy with their plethora of world class stars and box-office manager. They have played football on another level to arguably any other Premier League team, smashed points records and platformed some of the best players ever to grace English football. They have won three league titles in a row and are 90 minutes away from cementing their status as all-time greats by matching United’s legendary clean sweep of 24 years ago.
Lump all that in with everything you think you know about football fans and there should be a collective desperation for Inter to stop them this weekend in Istanbul. If there is, I appear to have missed it.
The established norms of football fandom have long dictated that everybody moans about the team that wins everything. With each passing Celtic treble in Scotland, the voices equivocating their success with that video of Michael Owen smashing volleys past a 13-year-old goalie grow ever louder. And while you will hear United fans grumbling about City and their wealth, all they are achieving is simply washing, pardon the pun, over everyone else. Even those radio debates about where the stand in football’s pantheon of greats feels a bit obligatory, a bit forced.
It is an odd phenomenon.
Is it a case of the other-worldly football City produce on a regular basis winning us all over, that the product on show is too relentlessly, brutally magnificent to dislike? Not really.
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There are few admirably stubborn rival supporters rushing to make a fool themselves in claiming what Guardiola and his band of footballing supermen have conjured up is not approaching aesthetic perfection. There is widespread appreciation of their talent and collective excellence, but it’s an appreciation more akin to that band whose music you know is technically flawless, and yet it does nothing to move you. Contrast with how great sides of even the recent past – Guardiola’s own Barcelona, for one – are held in much greater reverence, and it’s clear this City team just do not capture the imagination in the same way.
Where they have come from is surely of considerable significance. City were the perennial also-rans of Manchester football before winning the sportswashing lottery in 2009, albeit the vision and execution of their Abu-Dhabi ownership’s plan to make them world-beaters has been vastly more impressive than projects of a similar ilk. Countless clubs have shown that throwing fortunes around is no guarantee of success, but City have perfected the model; they are the ultimate combination of unlimited wealth and operational efficiency.
But that does not distract much from the main point that this inexorable rise has been turbo-charged by a morally-dubious, state-affiliated entity with bottomless reserves of cash.
It may have taken a few years to get there, but watching them treat Real Madrid’s status as the Champions League’s most successful club with near-contempt in last month’s semi-final was a sure-fire sign this machine is approaching the peak of its power. It is FIFA career mode five seasons in when you’ve hoovered up the best player in every position twice over, and all sense of jeopardy has gone out of the game, even on the highest difficulty setting. How long before Ederson tries to run the length of the pitch with the ball after City go 5-0 up at home to Crystal Palace? Or Guardiola sticks Erling Haaland in goal, just for a wee laugh?
Football is an emotional pursuit, and for anyone who is not a City fan, it’s understandable this mechanical, methodical crushing of everything in their path leaves people feeling rather cold. The elite game, in general, has a way of making you feel detached, and the litany of Premier League charges alleging financial impropriety currently hanging over the Etihad has undoubtedly strengthened the sense of ‘so what?’ surrounding City’s achievements. But this collective shrugging as they continue to rewrite the history books was apparent before those accusations, and will remain after it, regardless of outcome.
That, seemingly, is the price of this route to success; you can spend your way to the very pinnacle of football, but you can’t make people feel any sort of way about it.
City supporters will not care one iota about a word of the above and, to be honest, why would they?
This was a club which, for decades, was lorded over by gloating rivals down the road, with their conveyor belt of trophies and deified manager. Having spent so long in the shadows, they are entitled to bask in the glow of success. Winning the Champions League this weekend would be an utterly unthinkable outcome for any punter who followed them into the depths of England’s third-tier less than a generation ago, and how anyone on the outside feels about it will be of absolutely no significance. It is difficult to begrudge any football fan such a moment.
And that’s fine, maybe the rest of us don’t matter. But is it really a good thing for the sport that Manchester City’s pursuit of perfection has bred little more than indifference?