Sunday, 13 May 2012

Shades of 1968 as City and United complete 1-2 finish

In a blog about the unstoppable rise of Manchester, I couldn't not write about the final day of an exhilerating Premier League season for both clubs. Two weeks ago I wrote that City's derby win was good for Manchester - for all the same reasons, so is winning the league in such dramatic style (with Dzeko and Aguerro scoring two vital goals in injury time). My biggest worry was that such an exciting season would end in a huge anti-climax, with City building an unassailable lead against QPR and keeping possession through the second half, Barcelona-style. [I hadn't even considered the prospect of them not winning the match.] Clearly I needn't have worried. The closer it was, the better for Manchester-as-a-whole. I'd considered comparing the dramatic final moments to a photo finish in what had long been a two-horse race. But, such is the pace and excitement of the modern game, a better analogy would probably be the 2008 Formula 1 season, when Lewis Hamilton left it until the last corner of the last lap of the last GP to overtake Timo Glock to win the drivers' championship by one point. You were left thinking, did that really just happen!?

We've been here before. In 1968, the two teams finished 1st and 2nd (with City winning the league just two weeks before United went on to become the first English club to win the European Cup). But where did they go from there? In the 68-69 season, United finished 11th and City finished 13th (with City winning the FA Cup), the first of many seasons in which both clubs hovered around mid-table. United were relegated in 1974 and promoted the following year; City finished 2nd to Liverpool in 1977; United finished 2nd to Liverpool in 1980. City were relegated in 1983, promoted back in 1985 and relegated again in 1987. United finished 2nd to Liverpool in 1988 and City were promoted back to the top flight in 1989. In short the period following on from Manchester's last 1-2 finish was mixed at best. [It would be 25 years before another Manchester club won the league.] The period from 1976 to 1990 in particular was dominated by the two Liverpool clubs, who won twelve league titles in fifteen seasons. Obviously Man United went on to dominate English football in the Premier League era, but City's success raises questions about what happens next, for the teams and for the city itself.

What next for Manchester United?

United are still the most valuable sports franchise in the world, worth £1.4bn according to Forbes magazine. They are still third in the Deloitte Football Money League (well behind Real Madrid and Barcelona in terms of revenue). Of course, it's expected that they will still be there or thereabouts, but in a Man City-dominated world, will United have to downgrade their goal to a top four finish whilst still hoping to compete in Europe? Personally I'd love to see the young English players come through. Chris Smalling (22), Phil Jones (20), Tom Cleverley (22) and Danny Welbeck (21) should all be looking to break into or consolidate their places in the first team, with Ryan Tunnicliffe (19) and Will Keane (19) also good prospects for the future. Under Alex Ferguson, people have rightly associated United with success but we should also remember the club's longheld commitment to fielding young homegrown players and an attacking style of play. Ferguson's retirement has long been talked about and choosing the right replacement will be key to the club's success. Is it too outlandish to see Paul Scholes as a Pep Guardiola-at-Barcelona figure who can reconnect the club with its roots whilst going on to achieve unprecedented success and playing attractive football at the same time? Or will they just go for Guardiola himself? If the club is no longer successful, will the Glazer family come in for even more criticism (having never been that popular in the first place)?

What next for Manchester City?

City will need to achieve back-to-back league titles to match Chelsea's (relatively modest) success under the management of Jose Mourinho (and perhaps more importantly the financial backing of Roman Abramovich). In order to match United's success they will need to win three-in-a-row (twice) and win the Champions League (twice), possibly under the constraints of UEFA's financial fair play rules. In terms of off-the-field success, they will also be aiming to make their way up the Deloitte Football Money League (which measures revenue) and the Forbes rich list (which measures value). These all seem like realistic ambitions considering the amount of investment being made by the club's Abu Dhabi-based owners (and the return on that investment they've now received). Roberto Mancini's position has been strengthened and this can only be a good thing for the club. We should also remember that the investment also extends to a huge local regeneration project which involves turning rundown parts of East Manchester into a state-of-the-art training complex (and makes Gordon Brown's February 2008 decision to scrap plans for a Super Casino in the area look incredibly far-sighted).

What next for Manchester?

Manchester's global brand has been enhanced in a way that will make other European cities look on with envy. With not one but two teams battling it out at the very top of the English Premier League, Manchester can be confident of its place alongside Milan, Barcelona, Madrid, Munich (and I would also argue the Ruhr) as one of the undisputed football capitals of Europe. This will of course help with marketing the city as a football tourism destination. On a small level, it vindicates the decision of the National Football Museum to relocate to the city's Urbis building (which will open its doors on 6th July). On a much bigger level, I feel it also vindicates the BBC's decision to relocate to Salford Quays. You could argue that this is only relevant for their football coverage but, for me, it symbolises the fact that Manchester is the only city really challenging London for supremacy, and this is good for Britain-as-a-whole.

A thought for Lancashire's smaller clubs.

Paul Wilson wrote earlier in the season that the Premier League has become a tale of two cities, Manchester and London. A consequence of this is that clubs from smaller (or at least more peripheral) towns and cities yo-yo between the first and second tiers or fall down and don't come back. Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, who both came up in 2001, were both relegated this season (with QPR, a London club, staying up). [One of the most eye-catching moments in the madness of the post-match celebrations at the Etihad was a warm embrace between Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the chairman of Manchester City (and a member of the Abu Dhabi United Group private equity company), and Tony Fernandes, the Malaysian founder of AirAsia and chairman of QPR - both of whom have invested heavily in the squads of the two teams.] Wigan Athletic managed to avoid the drop for another season but may struggle to sustain their success. It remains to be seen whether Blackpool can make it six rather than five Premier League sides from the North West by beating West Ham in the Championship Play-Off Final on Saturday. If West Ham win then there will be six London teams in the Premiership (with West Ham's potential move to the Olympic stadium likely to provide financial stability in the years to come, perhaps in the form of a high-profile take-over like the one City themselves were subject to when they moved to the City of Manchester Stadium in 2003).

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