Manchester City’s owners have divided opinion over the years, but the latest incumbents have been welcomed deliriously. David Conn wonders if the fans’ loyalty is being exploited

The takeover of Manchester City was celebrated uproariously by most of the club’s supporters, but it prompted me instead to question the very basis of fans’ loyalty to their clubs. I am talking not about today’s surreal ownership by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, but a deal that looks positively homely by comparison, the 1994 City takeover by Francis Lee.

Then, the cherubic centre-forward from the glory days who had subsequently made a fortune in toilet paper ousted chairman Peter Swales after 20 years of loathing, and the Maine Road crowd rose to greet “Saint Francis: the Second Coming”, as one ­banner joyfully put it. 

To most City fans, Swales embodied the club’s fall from grace in his very being. He had become chairman shortly after City’s team including Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee had won everything, but after a few respectable years Swales’ defining act was to reappoint as manager Malcolm Allison, who had brought City success as coach under Joe Mercer. This time Allison, given his head, talked fabulous plans while taking the team to pieces.

City’s relegation in 1983 was a disillusioning experience from which many fans of a certain age are still struggling to recover emotionally. They never forgave Swales, who clung to office with a peculiarly inhuman stubbornness. When Franny finally arrived after 20 years, it seemed a biblical redemption – the sour-faced dictator replaced by a heroic vision of sunnier times.

Having cheered Franny in as a fan, I went to interview him as a journalist. I had expected to find him pure in his support, obsessed with restoring Swales-free City to where the fans believed they should be. I found him and his associates planning to take advantage of the Premier League era by floating City on the Stock Exchange and making money for themselves.

That utterly jarred with my idea of the football club and what, and who, it was for. It seemed to be exploiting the fans’ loyalty, and it made that loyalty seem naive. It sent me on a journey into the history of football and its clubs, which convinced me that if the clubs are to lay claim to supporters’ lifelong loyalty, they should be institutions that truly merit it.

The idea that clubs – the word, which we still use, meaning member organisations – should be owned mutually by their supporters is still hugely appealing. That way clubs represent their fans and cannot abuse their loyalty to achieve an ulterior motive held by the men in charge. If the fans do not like those men or what they are doing, they can vote them out.

Over the years, it has become clear that this ideal can only realistically come about at smaller clubs. Even then, many fetch a price beyond the pockets of fans. Meanwhile, the top clubs have become “brands” coveted and bought by a Forbes List-roster of international billionaires.

It is true that the clubs were only ever clubs for a short time, when they were originally formed in Victorian times, in work places, churches, or school old-boy groups, by people who wanted to play and never dreamt of crowds or glories. After football fired the imaginations of spectators and the clubs turned professional as long ago as the 1880s, most clubs became limited companies and their shares were ­usually bought by local backers.

It is not true, though, as some who run football are putting it about, that the clubs’ relationships with these backers was the same as it is now under the current round of owners, and that only the scale of money is different. For a start, the FA had clear principles that the clubs were not to be vehicles for profit. FA rules prohibited owners and directors from making money out of them and dictated that being a chairman – nobody ever talked of club “owners” until the past year or two – should be a kind of public service. Nor was there a tradition of throwing vast amounts of money in to buy success. Jack Walker first, then Roman Abramovich, blazed the sugar-daddy trail.

Franny Lee, to summarise his four years, was not the Messiah. He was supplanted by John Wardle and David Makin, two local men made good in J-D Sports, who loaned the club £20m and steered it into a cul-de-sac. They sold to Thaksin Shinawatra, a remarkable departure from the miserable Mancs mostly previously in charge. Facing corruption charges, on the run and with his assets frozen, Thaksin finally found a buyer for his Premier League “brand” among the richest individuals on earth.

Sulaiman Al Fahim, Sheikh Mansour’s initial front man, blathered about buying a lorry-load of galácticos, but by the time the takeover went through, Sheikh Mansour’s people had clearly understood the need to talk with a little dignity. In a letter to “fellow Manchester City fans”, Sheikh Mansour said the right things: he is in it for the long term, City will continue its work in the community and to nurture homegrown players. “I hope that you will soon see that I am now also a Manchester City fan,” said the letter.

Quite what this means is difficult to say, but few will trouble to challenge whether you can instantly become a fan of a club you never visited until you bought it with a droplet of your oil fortune. Most City fans clearly do not care. For them, having a truly rich man, from wherever, to buy the club success seems everything you could wish for.

For most, the Franny Lee era was just another failed dawn, not a shatteringly formative experience, leading them to question whether football clubs should be companies at all, to be bought and sold by men with varying shades of agendas. Far more enjoyable not to worry about it, and just to roar for Robinho – with or without a tea towel on your head.

From WSC 261 November 2008

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