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

 LeagueFA CupEFL CupUEFA CL
2009-105R5SF 
2010-113WR3 
2011-12WR3SFGroup
2012-132FR3Group
2013-14WQFWR16
2014-152R4R4R16
2015-164R5WSF
2016-173SFR4R16
2017-18WR5WQF

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)
Chelsea1,120689(426)
Manchester United1,010385(621)
Liverpool867675(192)
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 %
2009-10125.1(117.8)133.3106.6
2010-11153.2(194.8)173.9112.9
2011-12231.1(96.1)201.887.2
2012-13271.0(79.4)233.186.0
2013-14346.5(22.9)205.059.2
2014-15351.810.7193.855.1
2015-16391.819.6197.650.4
2016-17473.40.1264.155.8
2017-18500.510.4259.651.9
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.

Stop knocking the FA Cup – games at Brighton and Wrexham have kept the flame burning

THIS SEASON’s FA Cup has reminded us why the competition has such an important role to play in football. The games at Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday in the third round and at Brighton and Wrexham in the last 32 have lit-up gloomy January weekends and left people calling for more. We love a giant-killing, but we also clamour for cup-ties that have atmosphere, goals and twists in the tale.

Every year, a debate rages on about the terminal decline of the FA Cup, but at the same time, TV and radio keep telling us the competition is so special. They want to encourage viewers and listeners to tune in, but while they do this, managers are fielding weakened teams and sacrificing a cup run for the sake of Premier League mediocrity. In fact, the universal obsession with the Premier League overshadows everything, from cup runs to European trips. There seems to be no value in the glory of a cup run for some clubs. And frankly, when most clubs have absolutely zero chance of a Premier title or a Champions League place, surely the FA Cup and EFL Cup represent the best chance of silverware.

And yet, the FA Cup is won each year by one of the big Premier clubs, so nobody can accuse them of not caring. Since 1992-93, when the Premier League was formed, 26 of the 30 FA Cups have been won by members of the big six: Arsenal (9), Chelsea (7), Liverpool (3), Manchester United (5) and Manchester City (2). Moreover, these clubs have also been runners-up 14 times between them. The only four clubs outside the “big six” to have won the Cup since 1992-93 are Everton (1995), Portsmouth (2008), Wigan (2013) and Leicester (2021).

Clearly, the Premier clubs that field occasionally-seen squad members for their FA Cup ties feel they can either afford to go out cheaply or they have confidence in a second-string XI can do the job. In most cases, they are right, for the size and strength of their squads can overcome opponents in the lower divisions with some comfort. Sometimes, they even field weaker teams when they face another Premier side, such as Arsenal when they made wholesale changes to play Manchester City. As Roy Keane said on TV that evening, they sent a message to everyone that the game was relatively unimportant, and if you’re chasing a first Premier title in 19 years, it may well have been less of a priority for Mikel Arteta.

When Chelsea and Manchester City met in the third round, it was three days after they had clashed in the Premier League. The first game ended 1-0 to City, but on January 8, the two sides made a total of 13 changes to their starting line-ups for the FA Cup tie. City’s weakened side was stronger than Chelsea’s and they won by four goals at the Etihad. But how would you feel if you attended a game and realised you were not watching a set of first choice players?

The managers would probably argue that when the fixtures are coming thick and fast, making changes is a pragmatic way to keep the squad fresh, and they have a point, but it does highlight the change in status of the FA Cup. Perhaps clubs could play fewer meaningless games on summer tours?

In days gone by, the league was the bread and butter, the everyday, and the cup competitions, particularly the FA Cup, used to provide a little bit of gilding among run of the mill fixtures. In 1970, Arsenal versus Burnley in the league was humdrum fare, but if it was Arsenal versus Burnley in the FA Cup, it was a different story. The FA Cup was a distraction from the trials and tribulations of an attritional 42-game league programme. It is now a 38-game fixture list, but somehow everyone believes it is more intense, more demanding in an age of bigger squads and soaring wage bills. It is true that every defeat is treated like the end of days, whereas 50 years ago, cup defeats were the ones that really hurt and league defeats could be quickly forgotten by winning your next game.

The best teams always win the league, that’s for sure because of the format and the need for consistency over a long period which marks the elite. There are no lucky league champions. The FA Cup, traditionally, was a way for clubs to achieve success regardless of their league position. Although there have been fairy-tale FA Cup triumphs, such as the three post-war second division winners of Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham, over half of the FA Cups since 1946-47 have been won by teams that finished in the top six. Only one team has won the FA Cup in this timeframe and been relegated in the same season, Wigan Athletic in 2013.

Wigan Athletic’s win in 2013 was against Manchester City, creating one of the biggest shocks in the final. The act of giant-killing is thankfully still with us, although it’s harder and harder for the minnows to spring a major surprise. This season, Sheffield Wednesday’s victory against Newcastle United and Stevenage’s win at Villa Park will take some beating. Wrexham of the National League almost pulled off a major shock when they were 3-2 up against Sheffield United with seconds remaining in their fourth round game. It ended 3-3, so as the modern day cliché tells us, “we go again”.

The game at Wrexham, along with Brighton’s 2-1 success against holders Liverpool showed everyone that the FA Cup is alive and well and capable of thrilling the public. The competition is a genuine national treasure and should return to the social calendar alongside the Ashes, Wimbledon, the Proms and Henley. There was a time when it was seen as a special day in the English way of life (Brian Glanville, 1970), so attempts to tamper with its place in the game’s heritage should be absolutely discouraged.