By Sam Tomlin
Modern football is a complex beast. The constant acclamation of achievement and triumph at the construction of a world-wide brand, bringing entertainment and happiness to millions (billions?) is commonplace among proponents of the system. While at the same time, others, observing the same phenomenon, cry betrayal and failure for an experiment which has sold its soul for self-importance and corruption. Like any political system it promotes the game of ‘6s’ and ‘9s’ where some will say it’s a ‘6’, others a ‘9’ and some a ‘a badly drawn 8’.
David Conn is an investigative sports journalist. Growing up in Manchester in the 1970’s, like many young boys he fell in love with his local team, Manchester City. Ultimately the book, Richer than God, is about this love affair with his club and coming to terms with the reality that something he felt he had ‘ownership’ of was actually little more than a commodity to be bought or sold. Weaving constantly between joyful (and painful) memories growing up as a child in the Kippax stand in Maine Road, and the modern day acquisition of the club by billionaire Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Conn reaches into the depths of the philosophy not only of football but community, loyalty and belonging.
Manchester City of the 1970s, like all clubs, existed for the ‘people’, or so Conn thought. Low ticket prices and players who were in touch with the lives of ordinary people certainly suggested so, and the experience of hundreds of thousands of young people across the country was tribute to this – something which I am not sure young people today really feel when thinking about their club. Rooting the establishment of the club in the socio-political history of working-class Manchester (the club was set up by an ‘Anna Connell, with her father, the vicar of St Mark’s church in the industrial smoke-stack of West Gorton, east Manchester…to provide local youth with more wholesome ways to spend their time’), Conn paints a picture that the club really used to belong to the supporters and community.
As time progressed, both in the club’s history and Conn’s own life, the realisation began to dawn that this simply was not the case: ‘When I stood next to my cousin against a crush barrier in that cold midwinter at Maine Road…it never occurred to me that Manchester City was a company, that someone could own it. If I’d thought about it, I’d have said I believed it was a club, like it always said it was, and so it belonged to us all.’ Unlike German football which has ensured clubs were designed to avoid private ownership, most English clubs became ‘companies’ which could be owned by individuals. The story is told of the hated chairman Peter Swales being ousted by a returning hero, Francis Lee (or Franny), a former player who made millions and bought the club in the mid 1990s. Hailed as the saviour of the club, Conn, by then a young journalist, began to understand that the primary motive for this move was money and not some altruism or benefit for the club. This is a devastating blow for Conn, who appears to still be getting over the reality to this day.
In many ways the whole book is an exploration of this painful realisation, and extends into the moral maze of the ‘Midas years’ of Sheikh Mansour. Until the late 2000’s, although ‘owned’ by someone and participating in the gold rush of modern professional football, there was little to separate City from other Premier League clubs. That all changed in 2008 when the oil-rich billionaire bought the club from the disgraced alleged human-rights abuser who owned the club (Thaksin Shinawatra, underlining the absurdity of football’s ‘Fit and Proper Person’ owners test at the time). It is well documented that Mansour has poured hundreds of millions of pounds into the club since then, culminating in the Premier League trophy in 2012.
As a committed football revolutionary, Conn is caught between his childhood devotion and loyalty to the club, and the truth that in many ways it had sold its soul for success, plucked off the shelf like a commodity or chosen in a raffle. He beautifully describes the story alongside a social commentary of modern Manchester, outlining the vast discrepancies between the money spent on training grounds and players wages and the deprivation of communities abandoned by consecutive Conservative, New Labour and Coalition governments.
Yet, interestingly Conn describes the new regime as ‘the best owners Manchester City had had in my lifetime’. He goes into great detail (having interviewed many at the top) of the minute attention to detail Mansour and his team have gone to to achieve success – committed business plans, thoughtful appointments and the lack of ‘bravado’ personal ego-building (Mansour has only been to see the club play once). The problem is the structures which allow a billionaire to buy a football club in the first place.
According to Conn, ‘It is mega money which has only not only changed football for the obvious ways for supporters – the seats, the players and managers from all over the world, the corporate feel, the safety and comfort, the expense – but also sanitised and quietened the experience. It has, as I have found on my journey of discovery, shaped and penetrated the very heart and soul of English football and its clubs. Not just money itself, but the obsession with it, and the personal greed for it, in ways you can trace powerfully in the extraordinary story of Manchester City.’
Conn still supports City, but although he, ‘clenched [his] fist and roared when Aguero’s goal went in’, it is clearly not quite the same as it once was. Indeed, he has rediscovered his love of playing the game almost above watching, partly as a reaction to the ‘realisation’ as described above: ‘I do not want to live submissively, giving thanks for some superstars, bought by Sheikh Mansour’s millions…Even as City are restored by the power of Abu Dhabi oil money to the success we all believed we craved, I have found myself reaching the point the old wise man at the FA stated to me as a matter of fact when my education into football began. It is more enjoyable to play than to watch.’
Richer than God is a must read for any football supporter – the armchair variety all the way to the reserve-team watching variety. It is a story of collective and personal struggle, betrayal and identity which goes on to this day, even in my own ‘journey’ as a Bristol City fan. Football does still have a soul. But only just.