We never win at home, and we never win away

Harry Stopes

I became a Manchester City fan out of principle, or contrariness. Most of the other boys at my infant school were United fans. ‘City are rubbish,’ they said. ‘No one likes City.’ After a couple of years I managed to persuade my dad – a South African with no interest in English football – to take me to a match. It was 12 December 1994 and we lost 2-1 to Arsenal. I don’t remember much about the football. I noticed the parking signs on the lampposts with distinct rules for ‘First Team Match Days’. Men were shouting and singing in the street. Football meant that the normal rules and habits of behaviour didn’t apply.

When I was born City hadn’t won a trophy for ten years. When I was ten we were relegated from the Premier League. The season after that we had five managers, none of them any good. The season after that we were relegated again, to the Second Division. A favourite song of the era, which still gets an occasional tongue-in-cheek airing, begins: ‘We never win at home, and we never win away.’

When I was 25, in 2011, City won the FA Cup, their first trophy since 1976, and the following year we won the Premier League, Sergio Agüero scoring the winner in the final match of the season with almost the last kick of the game. The scene outside the stadium afterwards made me think of one of Kevin Cummins’s photos of clubbers at the Haçienda. The sense of disarray after a high was potent. ‘Is this real?’ I posted on Facebook. For months afterwards I couldn’t watch replays of the last few minutes of the match without a lingering fear that this time Agüero would miss.

Mishka Henner, an artist from Manchester, made a slow-motion video of his father walking across the pitch as the crowd made their way back to their seats after a post-match pitch invasion. ‘Wish my old man was alive to witness it with me,’ one comment on YouTube says. ‘I’ve watched this video loads of times and I’ve cried every time,’ says someone whose username makes a reference to a City hooligan firm. ‘This day made all those times on the Kippax worthwhile. I’m crying now. This day will never be topped by anyone ever.’

When the European Super League was mooted, writing explicitly into the rules of the competition the unwritten rule of total dominance by the rich clubs (and City, owned since 2008 by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, are among the richest), many fans felt it as a kind of betrayal, though no one could precisely articulate what was being betrayed. Did the Super League mean football was selling its soul, or was it the payment falling due? ‘I will never ever forgive them for stealing from me the opportunity to make the memories with my boy that my Dad made with me,’ a friend wrote on Twitter.

It’s hard to make a coherent critique of the current state of the game when there is no substantive programme of reform around which to begin a discussion. The media tend to focus on the nationality and motivations of individual club owners rather than the game’s system of governance, the role of money more broadly, or the experience of the fans. The whole discussion of English football is characterised by mutual antagonism: the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of a given set of fans with the current state of affairs is put down by their rivals as merely a reflection of how well or badly they’re doing in the league. The only unhypocritical positions seem to be total disengagement or total acquiescence.

Any expression of a sense of loss at the nature of the contemporary game is overshadowed by the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died because of police failures. You want to return to the bad old days of crumbling, dangerous stadiums, degraded facilities and habitual police neglect? This week saw the collapse of the trial of two former South Yorkshire police officers and a former police solicitor for perverting the course of public justice. They had altered police statements given to Lord Taylor’s Hillsborough inquiry in 1989, but the judge ruled that as a non-statutory inquiry, Taylor’s investigation was not a ‘course of public justice’; they therefore had no case to answer. Campaigners aren’t going to let it rest there.

Supporting City was a way for me to make sense of myself as a Mancunian in the absence of a family connection to the city I grew up in. This has only become more important the further I’ve drifted from home. For now I continue to opt for hypocrisy. City are playing Chelsea in the Champions League final at the Estádio do Dragão in Porto tonight. I got my hands on a ticket for a seat in the ‘neutral’ section earlier this week.


  • 29 May 2021 at 5:01pm
    Robert says:
    So glad I took you to that match. Usually the son gets to follow his father's team. Eternal thanks for turning that rule on its head. Although I might be cursing later tonight!

    • 30 May 2021 at 9:59pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Robert
      Thanks Dad.

  • 29 May 2021 at 9:08pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    “ You want to return to the bad old days of crumbling, dangerous stadiums, degraded facilities and habitual police neglect? ”
    What, when we could stand up to watch the game, didn’t have to endure VaR and felt that every season, no matter who you supported, you might have a chance of winning SOMETHING?
    Yes please.

    • 2 June 2021 at 3:51pm
      Steve McGiffen says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Totally agree! I want to go back to the days when in a good season we had a third as great a chance of winning something as did Man Yoo, our crowds being a third theirs, rather than no fucking chance because none of the ignorant dickheads in the far east, etc, want to buy our shirts, and we haven't got an "official contraceptive partner". yes yes please! I want my fucking game back!
      Boro fan, with a City-supporting stepsons.

  • 30 May 2021 at 11:54am
    Robin Durie says:
    It's hard to think that there's much connection between the City of years (not so many years, though) ago, & the Citeh of today. It's not really good enough to seek to bracket (out) "City, owned since 2008 by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, are among the richest" - since this really is the beginning & the end of it, because without the overwhelming investments from this most dubious of sources, City simply wouldn't be contenders.

    In the post-Super League "fiasco", there's been a rush to sanctify Gary Neville for his "unscripted" live tirade on Sky (as if, somehow, there was no continuity between the Super League & Sky's decisive hand in the Prem circus). Amusing, therefore, to learn that the team that he owns, with his fellow 92'ers, Salford City, should be deemed amongst the five worst teams for fan engagement in the whole football league structure:

    (declaration of interest: I am a trust member, & therefore co-owner, of Exeter City)

    • 30 May 2021 at 10:04pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Robin Durie
      I agree with you about the importance of money to City's recent success - although I thought that 'total dominance by the rich clubs... and City are among the richest' made that clear enough already. Beyond that though I'd repeat my remarks about the limited use of focusing on the nationality of individual owners while neglecting the role of money in the game in general. As for 'Citeh,' a nickname designed to mock the way the -ee sound at the end of a word can sound with a strong Manchester accent, I don't see why you think it's more apt now than it was in the past.

    • 6 June 2021 at 9:35am
      Archilochus says: @ Harry Stopes
      On your point about focussing in on the nationalities of the owners/investors, I think there's more implied here than you've addressed in the post.

      The top end of the sport is swimming in money and there's no getting around that. There are obscene amounts spent each year by the top clubs (and increasingly smaller, though top-league clubs), but this isn't the point when it comes to City (and Chelsea, PSG, etc.).

      Man United and Liverpool both have majority owners from the US, and those owners chose their respective clubs because they wanted to cash in on the history, success, and fanbases of those clubs (hence the outrage of selling an 'asset', i.e. heritage, that never belonged to them through the ESL).

      With City and co. it's a different story. These clubs were not bought for their sporting prowess or history, but because they were a cheap (relative terms for a mega-rich city state) vehicle for other means. Those other means we could speak about all day but that's not really the point of the nationality comment so I won't get into it too much.

      Fans and the media will refer, as you imply, to Arab or Russian etc owners as shorthand for those owners looking to polish up their image (Roman the oligarch becoming a household name, human rights abusing UAE and Qatar 'sportswashing'). This is obviously an uncomfortable position for fans of the clubs, but over time I've seen fans readily defend and champion their owners (City's owner being seen as a good lad for paying for tickets in Porto a recent example).

      More to your point, this nationality-shorthand is used (rightly or wrongly) because it flies in the face of the established order, particularly the established European order. See the reaction of German fans to Red Bull's purchase and rebranding of 'SSV Markranstädt', a fifth-tier club, into RB Leipzig. This is a more blatant example of the theme: purchase a smaller club for a relatively small amount, use them as a vehicle for your brand/interests.

      I'm spelling out things you already know but I think it's important to make sure we're not allowing ourselves to feel that other fans and the rest of the sport are simply recoiling against foreign ownership - this simply isn't the whole picture. It's a reaction against a cynical land grab of history and tradition to prop up unsavoury characters and those looking to take advantage of the meteoric rise of football and its potential advertising reach through TV deals over the last few decades.

      For what it's worth, I'd gladly boot out our American owners and return to a football with less money, but while I have a general unease about a hedge fund, a bank, or a private investor owning my club for profit, I rest easy knowing they're not doing it to cover up human rights abuses or some other cynical motive.

    • 10 June 2021 at 10:19pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Archilochus
      Thanks for taking the time to write this. I think there's some common ground between us and I suspect we'd agree on many things if we could discuss in person rather than via commenting here. One thing you mention is the tendency of City fans (and I suppose you mean fans of Chelsea, etc too) to defend their owners against all comers, and especially the media, online. I'd certainly agree that some fans (what proportion it's hard to say, given the distorting effect of online spaces on voice size/volume) twist themselves in knots to defend the club's every action. I presumably spend more time than you in City-related online spaces and I find some of the excuse-making pretty embarrassing. Examples include the idea that City only joined the Super League so that they could fatally undermine it by withdrawing at an opportune moment, or that it's racist or Eurocentric to judge Gulf states against human rights standards.

      That said, City fans I know personally - and I don't think this is just a case of selection bias - have a much more nuanced range of responses to City's owners. You don't need me to tell you that social media (probably the place that you encounter most City fans yourself) is not the best place to find a range of considered opinion. I suggest you watch this interview with David Mooney, the host of a City fans' podcast, on the subject of Abu Dhabi:
      (Disclosure: I've been a guest on David's podcast in the past.)

      But this isn't the main thrust of your comment. You focus on my remarks about 'nationality and motivation.' First of all, I don't think we should be so quick to declare that City's owners have a completely different motive to United, Liverpool, or Arsenal (or Burnley, or whichever US-owned club one would care to name). They've spent a lot of money on the club but it's not yet obvious that that money is wasted if considered as a long term investment. The roughly 20% of the City Football Group they sold to a US hedge fund and a Chinese state-owned investment fund (neither of which is presumably interested in laundering their own reputations in the same way that Abu Dhabi perhaps is) was sold at a price that could imply a substantial potential profit if the whole club was eventually sold. As you write, 'the meteoric rise of football and its potential advertising reach' makes it a potentially very rewarding business for club owners, and it's not necessarily the case that it's reached the top of its potential. To be clear, I am not saying this to defend City's owners. I don't think it's 'good' if they are smart business people, I just don't necessarily agree that reputation laundering can be their only motivation.

      But this gets to the heart of what I was trying to say with my comment about focusing on 'nationality and motivation.' To me, it doesn't matter that much whether the influential people in Abu Dhabi who surround City's ostensibly 'private' ownership see the club as purely a vehicle to promote the state, or as another useful Europe-based asset to own as a hedge against declining oil stocks. My issue, like you I think, is with the fact that the heritage and history of a football club can be bought and sold like any other financial asset. Unlike you, however, I don't find the prospect that someone is doing so only to make money to be especially reassuring. On that basis I'm much more interested, as I wrote above, in the governance of the game, the role of money more broadly, and the experience of fans.

  • 31 May 2021 at 5:25am says:
    I thought the problem was that City cheated because they spent too much on players in relation to their income. They appealed and obviously had paid for better lawyers. Even City fans acknowledge they cheated. I don't even consider them as a team in the league so just ignore them. What is the point of other teams competing with a team that has a squad so ludicrously packed with world talent? The reason it was a joy Leicester or even Liverpool won the league (after so many years) was because everyone was sick of the richest clubs dominating the league for the last ten years. It's not so hard to work out what is wrong with football without positing a fake dichotomy between foreign ownership and the bad old days. The reform of football like the reform of society and politics in general will be to collectively take back control of the club/political process. I'm guessing that the riot at Manchester recently is an inkling of what is to come. Fans will take back control of clubs and they will be run in their interest. However long it takes. In the meantime, best just to ignore city, or football all together and watch snooker instead. Ha ha.

  • 7 June 2021 at 11:10pm
    Ian Sheperd says:
    I love that you two have Communicated here, really beautiful

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