Manchester City: The rug may be pulled away, but it could be a very long game

THE NEWS that the Premier League has charged Manchester City with breaching financial rules over 100 times was generally well received by the football community, with schadenfreude the dominant theme along with a sense of relief that common sense was at last prevailing. Ever since football clubs started benefitting from financial steroids (call it what you will), the rest of the game has longed to catch out clubs like City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain. All around the football stadiums of Britain, the cry of “gotcha” could vaguely be heard.

There’s no great wave of sympathy for City at the moment, firstly because everyone knows they have the financial clout to employ the best lawyers for the duration and fight out a war of attrition, and secondly, because you get the impression City are no mugs. Nevertheless, people want justice to be done. Henry Winter in The Times commented that it is “time to lawyer up” and “If Manchester City are guilty, the league must make an example of them”. That is exactly what the Premier League will do, but they must be prepared for the long game.

The Guardian’s Barney Ronay believes that if City have broken so many rules, they have betrayed football as a spectacle. “If they are found guilty, and this is a long way off, pegged between appeals, arbitration and the distant, dazzling prospect of a trip to the high court, then the punishment must be commensurately harsh.”

Manchester City’s performances – 2009 to 2018


Unsurprisingly, City’s “big six” rivals, who have been denied success by the club’s dominance, are among the loudest voices calling for punishment. “The matter will not be referred to an independent commission, but it is reported that many of English football’s top teams are eager to see City pay the price,” reported The Daily Mail

Talk of relegation, points deduction and even ceremonial cancelling of honours is premature, although it makes good headlines in newspapers and on TV and radio. Should City be forced to hand back the prizes they won between 2009-10 and 2017-18 (the period in question), then there will be significant collateral damage: “Nothing erodes the legitimacy of a sporting competition like titles being stripped and that prospect could come at a point when the Premier League is in an unprecedented position of power in the sport, when virtually everyone is concerned with keeping that going,” reported Miguel Delaney of the Independent.

Reputations will be soiled and the immediate repercussions on football could be significant – this is, after all, the most successful, heavily marketed competition in the game. Little wonder people are talking about doomsday scenarios such as Pep Guardiola leaving City along with star players. Indeed, Rory Smith of the New York Times, described the roll call of breaches like a “doom scroll of letters and numbers” that resembled a list of artificial colourings and preservatives.

Transfer activity 2009-10 to 2017-18

 Transfer spend (€m)Transfer income (€m)Net spend (€m)
Manchester City1,440380(1,063)
Manchester United1,010385(621)
Source: Transfermarkt

Of course, City have been here before when UEFA tried to charge them on overstating sponsorship, among other things, but the Court of Arbritration for Sport (CAS) cleared them of financial irregularities. This time, they cannot call on CAS.

Kieran Maguire, speaking to the Manchester Evening News, said the allegations are so powerful the outcome could be transformational for City, the FA and the Premier League. “If you look at the charges as an overall body of work, the Premier League have effectively said that Manchester City have systematically misrepresented their finances for a period of at least nine years in order to gain an advantage.”

Manchester City key financials 2009-10 to 2017-18

 Revenues £mP&L pre-tax £mWages£mWage to income Ratio %
Source: Manchester City financial statements

For the Premier League, the City case could be a defining moment. If they succeed, in an age when elite clubs are trying to form a super league, it could present them as having some pretty sharp teeth. On the other hand, humiliation for City may possibly boost the drive for that very breakaway competition – not forgetting that super league advocates Juventus have also been in trouble. Henry Winter pointed out that “the Premier League has struggled to cope with City’s delaying tactics, alleged tactical fouling outside the witness box”. He also added that a prolonged saga will damage the Premier, English football and build greater tension between fan groups. 

Everyone bar the lawyers (who always emerge as winners) will be hoping for a swift (and face-saving) conclusion, but don’t bank on it.

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