Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.
The original publication date for this piece was May 18th 2012.
With Manchester City’s extraordinary capture of the English league title, the issue of finances has taken centre-stage in the daily football debate again. Did Manchester City “buy” the Premier League title? If they did, is that wrong? And if it is wrong, what can be done about it?
I find myself with a somewhat unique perspective on this topic. I am Manchester United fan, so find myself opposed to City, with all their substantial economic excess which has so radically transformed their fortunes, as a matter of course. But, on a nearer basis, I also follow my local Irish club, Limerick FC, recently taken over by a new rich owner, with more support from billionaire JP MacManus, making them one of the richer teams in the League of Ireland (it’s all relative of course – Limerick are nowhere near the same financial level as Manchester City, but within the confines of the League of Ireland their financial stability marks them out and offers a significant advantage over other Irish clubs).
So, with that, I can offer a view that can look at both sides of this argument: I don’t like seeing Manchester City succeed but I want Limerick to. Money is a crucial part of both viewpoints.
For both Manchester City and Limerick, it has been a long time in the wilderness. 44 years without a league title for City, 18 years in the lower tier of Irish football for Limerick. In that respect, the fans of the two clubs might well be excused for thinking that it is simply their turn to spend time in the spotlight, having patiently waited for so long for something to happen that would get them back into prominence. Few fans of either club are going to heed the cat calls of others. When you spend so long without any kind of success worth talking about, you begin to see the arrival of financial acumen with rose-tinted eyes, something that your club deserves after living on scraps. If you are one of the faithful, this is long awaited moment when that loyalty through bad times turns into well-earned basking in good times.
That is all in the eye of the beholder of course but might explain why fans of either club disregard the taunts of others, regardless of how accurate the financial statistics are.
In today’s game, in England, Ireland and many other places, money has become the only way to break into the leading pack in a lasting fashion, the only way for Manchester City to seriously compete with the likes of United, Chelsea, Arsenal, for Limerick to contemplate life among Shamrock Rovers, St Patrick Athletic, Sligo. Things at the top of leagues tend to solidify and stay constant for very long periods of time. Before this season, only four teams had won the Premier League in 19 editions. In Ireland the number is eight, four of those from Dublin. In the 21st century sport, it seems like the injection of cash is the only reliable method to get someone else a permanent seat at that table, one lasting beyond a season or two.
It’s worked for City. The simple fact of the matter is that they would not have won the league under the regime of 2007. It’s starting to work for Limerick, who find themselves favourites for promotion to the League of Ireland Premier Division this season, even if the road to that goal has been strewn with dodgy moments so far. They may not even still exist today if it wasn’t for the takeover of Pat O’Sullivan.
Rich owners, substantial transfer funds and financial stability are the most reliable and consistently proven factors needed to break into the leading groups in leagues today. It leads to success and it ends the threat of extinction, brings better results on the pitch, results in winning more games.
I suppose Man City and Limerick could have tried it the extremely hard way, waiting interminably for the right set of circumstances, the right squad, the right coaching staff, the right manager, the right time to become footballing heavyweights, as Manchester United and Arsenal did, like Spurs arguably have done, but we are fooling ourselves if we think football clubs should have the patience of Job when it comes to the possibility of success. In 1990, few United fans would have turned down billions in transfer funds if promised a league title within five years. Why should we expect Manchester City to be any different?
And over in the south-west of Ireland, should those who struggled to keep semi-professional Limerick FC afloat for so many years have turned down the takeover of the club and accepted the inevitable end? Because taking the money impugns on the sensibilities of the fans of other clubs? Because it would upset the balance?
Balances are made to be upset. I can sit here and pretend that Manchester United and Chelsea winning every league from now until Judgement Day would be good for football, but it won’t make it true. Are those who would criticise Limerick and their money happy with Shamrock Rovers and the other Dublin clubs having the monopoly on Irish club success?
Are Manchester City and Limerick supposed to turn down such opportunities? Tell prospective owners and investors “thanks but no thanks; we’re going to just muddle on like we have for the past while”? Are they supposed to act like they aren’t interested in success, like there are better, quicker ways to get to where they want to be? Would you really turn down such an offer? Because it isn’t right? Isn’t fair? That’s just not logical, and the criticism of Manchester City and Limerick on that score betrays a bitterness towards others gaining success – something Manchester United have dealt with for a long time now – that leads to any aspect of the club becoming a target for attack.
And while money is important, it isn’t everything, as much as some of the detractors would love it to be so. You can have all the expensive players, big stadiums and huge salaries that you like, but that alone won’t bring you the trophies. You need a good manager, whom Man City found in the form of Mancini, able to just about best Sir Alex Ferguson, a man who has won far more then the “new” City in the last few years on a much smaller budget. If Mansour bin Zayed had purchased Manchester United in 2008, perpetual domination – at least until Ferguson departed – may have been on the cards, but it would be the manager who was the lynchpin, not the cash.
You need to foster an effective team spirit, create the right tactics. You need to get experience, of run-ins and big games. That is not the kind of thing that money buys. It’s why City didn’t win the league in 2008. They had to learn what to spend money on, they had to adapt to the new realities of top-of-the-table football, they had to get the right leaders. The same thing happened at Chelsea.
Over in Limerick, that’s what the club is struggling to do. They’ve had a few years under the new financial reality, brought in higher calibre players, have a higher profile manager, have plans for an 8’000 seater stadium to replace the 2’500 capacity place they have now, and have spent much of this year acting as if promotion is a forgone conclusion. Yet several months into the season, their second place position in the First Division is flattering, having lost all the “big games”, so far being unable to play to the potential that the squad has. The money is there, just as it was for City in 2008, and like them Limerick is still lacking something, whether it is the right manager or the right group of players. A few years from now, Limerick might be playing in the Champions League for all I know, but for now they are, like City four years ago, a clear example of money not being enough on its own.
The last point is simple: this is just the way things are now. The new Financial Fair Play rules look unconvincing to my eyes, and would appear to be potentially harmful to some of the “smaller” clubs. They would need to be far more sweeping and revolutionary to bring real balance to the game. They will not change the fact that football is ruled by those clubs that have the most favourable financial circumstances. Pretending that such a reality is immoral is pointless, trying to hold back a tide that has long since swept over the sport. The money is out there. Manchester City are now just another example of what it can do, when mixed with good management. Limerick, in all likelihood, will be another example of this within a few years even if it’s just a case of them being a competitive Premier Division club. I cannot criticise the excessive spending of Manchester City, say they “bought” the title as an insult, and then smile when Limerick sign former Irish internationals to play in the First Division.
This is how football works right now. Perhaps this will change in the future, if the quagmire of legal issues, loopholes and weaknesses within UEFA and FIFA can be overcome in terms of FFP, but for the moment I will not begrudge Manchester City their title success because they spent a gigantic amount of available capital in order to achieve that goal, anymore then I could begrudge Limerick promotion to the Premier Division this season, if it comes. They’ve both had their low moments over the past two decades, have both lucked out with new owners, and now the future is bright. They’re “buying success”?
Yeah. They sure are. Don’t you wish your club was?