So, quite a lively month for Manchester City. Midway through August the club appeared to be in crisis, with owner Thaksin Shinawatra refusing to return home to Thailand to face a corruption trial. If he were convicted in his absence, the Premier League would have faced an unprecedented test of its notoriously obtuse “fit and proper persons” test. There were stories of the club operating on a hand-to-mouth basis with former chairman John Wardle having had to loan Thaksin £2 million on several occasions to pay wages. A shock home defeat to Danish UEFA Cup opponents was followed by a 4-2 mauling at Villa Park.
But events take a sharp turn for the better. City scrape through their UEFA Cup tie on penalties, and draw Cypriot opposition at the next stage, while winning their other two League games 3-0. Two of the goals at Sunderland come from the returning Shaun Wright-Phillips, one of four new signings made in a couple of days. Then on transfer deadline day it emerges they are to be taken over by the source of that sudden transfer windfall, a Middle East consortium (whose shortened name, rather unfortunately, is Abu Dhabi United). In a manic few hours, the new masters – not yet officially in charge – attempt to intercept Dimitar Berbatov’s move to Manchester United, while agreeing a deal to gazump Roman Abramovich and buy Robinho from Real Madrid. “Our goal is to make this football club one of the best not just in England but also in the world,” says the consortium’s frontman, Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim. “To reach that goal there is no limit.”
Soon the talk is of £135m January bids for Cristiano Ronaldo. “Ronaldo has said he wants to play for the biggest club in the world, so we will see in January if he is serious,” Dr Sulaiman adds, before suggesting that Fernando Torres and Cesc Fábregas will also be subject to offers their clubs will struggle to refuse. Also coming to the Eastlands All-Stars could be the other Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, David Villa... Back to the reserves for Wright-Phillips?
You almost feel sorry for Sven, rashly sacked by Thaksin in May. Instead it is Mark Hughes who is the, no doubt rather startled, recipient of this sudden largesse. Thaksin is to be made president for life or somesuch and will no doubt shoot the breeze on matchdays with Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee for many years to come, or until he is whisked off home in leg irons.
At the time of writing it is not clear what will happen to the staff brought in by Thaksin, such as his “executive chairman” Garry Cook, recently arrived from Nike. But to judge by an interview he gave to the papers in mid-August, Cook sounds like he will fit right in with the new regime. City are a “global franchise entity” now, one that should be in a ten‑team league with no relegation. Cook won’t rest until he has made the world aware of their name: “China and India are gagging for football content to watch and we’re going to tell them that City is their content. We need a superstar to get through that door.” Can City win the Champions League, Gary? “Growing up at Nike, you don’t sit around saying, ‘Can we?’ You say, ‘We will.’” Damn if that doesn’t make you want to salute.
There’s no danger of Cook posing any awkward questions. Asked about the morality of working for someone described as a “human rights abuser of the worst kind”, Cook said Thaksin was “embroiled in a political process and I’ve chosen to stay out of it”. Cook went on: “Is he a nice guy? Yes. Is he a great guy to play golf with? Yes. Does he have plenty of money to run a football club? Yes. I really care only about those three things.”
Behind the consortium lie the Al Nahyans, Abu Dhabi’s ruling family; according to an Amnesty International report to the United Nations in July, their regime offers all-comers detention without trial, torture, and public floggings and even the imposition of the death penalty (subsequently commuted) for “illicit sex”, but not the vote for the citizenry. In the old days defending the indefensible at City meant explaining away the latest relegation, but Cook is well practised at the new version.
Perhaps City will qualify for the Champions League this season, precipitating a steaming great financial crisis for whomever they displace – which, we have to concede, would be a sight worth seeing. But whatever happens, this is a madhouse. The takeover, like Abramovich’s at Chelsea, is nothing to do with the club; it’s to do with the Premier League and the Champions League, and the prestige they bring. It’s a public-relations exercise on behalf of Abu Dhabi, and the City fans celebrating are just part of the package the Al Nayhans are buying, just as they were with Thaksin.
From WSC 260 October 2008