Manchester City are languishing at the wrong end of the table, as Ashley Shaw outlines the club's latest change in manager
Frank Clark’s final press conference was a subdued, almost tearful affair. Having presided over perhaps the most hapless performance witnessed in City’s most hapless season, the knives were being sharpened for yet another managerial casualty.
Bury had just inflicted a 1-0 defeat on Manchester City, ending a run of 17 games without a win. City, bereft of the verve of Georgi Kinkladze, created only two chances in the game (one a two-yard sitter for record signing Lee Bradbury which he contrived to head out for a throw-in) while they had been comprehensively out-battled in midfield and overpowered in defence.
Outside another demonstration could clearly be heard. And as the City manager entered, an uneasy silence descended on the smoky press room. Meanwhile director David Makin was laying into Francis Lee on a local radio phone-in, claiming he was orchestrating a move to oust the chairman, all of which made the action below stairs at Maine Road far more exciting than what had been served up on the pitch.
The contrast, just four eventful days later, with Joe Royle’s first post-match press briefing, could not have been greater. Royle, still beaming at his appointment earlier in the day, dealt disdainfully with the silly questions routinely asked of new managers and for once a City manager didn’t look like he was about to throw himself under the nearest train.
Before the Bury game, one supporter had summed up the management skills of Clark: “He’s not the type of man you would want to come to a funeral – everyone would end up crying their eyes out and wondering whether there was any point in carrying on.”
Another pointed out the situation the Blues find themselves in: “Six years ago we were the fifth best team in the country under Peter Reid. Now we’re struggling to be the fifth best team in Manchester. It’s so bad that I’m getting stick off Stockport fans at work – something has to change and change quickly.” For them and the other 30,000 Maine Road captives, the Bury defeat was the last straw.
Clark’s policy of buying obscure lower-League names and hoping to unearth a gem didn’t help his cause either, nor his preoccupation with paying too much for sub-standard players. Lee Bradbury and Tony Vaughan cost City a total of £5 million. Meanwhile an experienced player like Paul Merson had been snapped up for about that amount by Middlesbrough – a club still regarded as small fry by the Maine Road public – it was another sure sign that the balance of power in the Nationwide League no longer lay in the newly refurbished directors’ lounge at Maine Road, but in the modern stadia funded by share-options and City tycoons.
But the fans’ ire was not entirely directed at Clark – he was regarded as an unfortunate victim rather than a meddling influence. They reserved their hatred instead for Francis Lee. At the start of the season City’s chairman pledged to turn the club into an important European force by remodelling their ailing youth system along Ajax lines. His commitment to keeping Georgi Kinkladze and above all his desire “to get back to where we belong” persuaded 16,000 season-ticket holders to pledge themselves to another year in purgatory at Maine Road.
But a glance at the business done by Lee since he arrived shows that far from looking to recruit the best he has gone for the cheapest. The 1994 side boasted Steve Lomas in midfield, Niall Quinn in attack and Tony Coton in goal. Lee has sanctioned their replacement with Ged Brannan, Paul Dickov and Tommy Wright – hardly the backbone of a Premiership side.
Rumour has it that Lee, a great player in his time, couldn’t stand to see enthusiastic but, in his eyes, sub-standard players earning in one week what he used to earn in a season. Perhaps that is why City, with 53 players, now possess the biggest squad in the country, 16 of whom were recently put on the transfer list. Tellingly, they are yet to be snapped up by rival clubs. The club’s precarious position has led to any number of rumours. Juventus, the Sheikh of Oman, Richard Branson, Sheffield United chairman Mike McDonald and City vice-president Raymond Donn have all been linked with a takeover.
Then there is the growing influence of Dennis Tueart in his shadowy role as a representative of JD Sports, who hold a 19 per cent stake in the club. The ex-City forward (still a hero at Maine Road for scoring the winner in City’s last major triumph, the 1976 League Cup final), is now credited in some quarters with the appointment of Royle, which is believed to spell the end of Lee’s reign. According to this theory, Lee is now no more than a figure-head to be wheeled out for the occasional photo opportunity or, more recently, as a focus for fan hatred.
However, Stephen Boler, City’s largest shareholder with 24 per cent, has pledged undying loyalty to Franny. His extensive business interests in South Africa, where among other things he has helped to save the white rhino (there’s a joke in there somewhere), mean that he is very much a silent partner, but stories continue to circulate that he is ready to sell his shares to the highest bidder. Raymond Donn was rumoured, before the change of manager, to have a “top European coach” waiting in the wings if his bid was successful.
Last season’s revolving door policy, which saw four managers come and go before Christmas, should be a warning to Joe Royle that all is not what it seems at Maine Road. The notoriously capricious board, which has presided over 17 different managers since Peter Swales took the helm in 1973, will not stand for mid-table respectability next term even if the present incumbent avoids the ignominy of relegation and a likely derby date with Macclesfield.
If almost any other club in the country were at the foot of the First Division, crowds would struggle to top 10,000, never mind occasionally breaking the 30,000 mark. The status quo is fine for Lee at the moment – he still has a steady income at the gate, fans are still buying the shirt and they still have a projected £5-7 million to come from the sale of Kinkladze.
But if the fans stayed away and stopped buying all manner of merchandise, it would give the board something to think about. For the fans the time might have come to say “enough is enough”. One theory doing the rounds is that many supporters have finally lost patience with the sub-standard nature of the football at Maine Road – it will be interesting to see how the sales of season tickets for 1998-99 will progress.
Then again, since when did fans of any club – least of all City – act rationally in a time of crisis?
From WSC 134 April 1998. What was happening this month