Much of the hard work in modern football occurs off the pitch, something that the club's owners understood early on
Ten years on, what the acquisition of Manchester City tells us about Abu Dhabi, Arab culture and the beautiful game
There’s a moment near the beginning of an engaging TV documentary about Manchester City when the club's chairman and manager sit together following a humbling home defeat to Liverpool. The chairman, searching for a way to arrest the club’s dip in form, tentatively suggests a change of personnel to his manager.
“You won’t like this one,” he says. “Do you know who I think would do well for us now? The fella who we let go …”
He mentions the first name of a player the club had sold a few months earlier, an announcement that is greeted with an eye roll by the manager.
The chairman’s name is Peter Swales, the manager’s name is Malcolm Allison and the programme in question is City!, an hour-long documentary produced by Granada Television in 1981. Welcome to a football club clad in oak-panelled dysfunction and disagreement.
The programme features a redemption story of sorts: the team reached the FA Cup final that season, but only after Allison had been sacked. The revival engineered by his successor, John Bond, soon turned out to be nothing more than a false dawn and City spent much of the next 25 years in a tailspin of failure and debt.
Watching All or Nothing, the recently released Amazon Prime series about modern-day Manchester City, there is a comparison to be made between the late Allison, a title-winning coach who was years ahead of his time in methodology and thinking, and Pep Guardiola, the club’s record-breaking incumbent.
Read more on Manchester City 10-year Abu Dhabi anniversary
But it is the differences between the club's corner shop mentality in the 1980s and the slick corporate giant of the modern era that provide sharp contrasts.
Being released a few days before the 10th anniversary of the purchase of Manchester City by Abu Dhabi United Group on September 1, 2008, All or Nothing informally marks ten years of transformation from underachiever to three-time Premier League winner.
Today it is easy to forget that that the club’s modern-day achievements were never guaranteed, despite the many experts who have suggested over the years that City have travelled down an easy path and bought their way to the top.
Throwing money at a problem is no guarantee of success – a point that was forcefully made in the 1981 documentary.
City also had two sliding door moments in 2008, which could have produced vastly different outcomes to those with which we are now familiar.
The most prominent is the club's Abu Dhabi acquisition. Who knows where the club would be now without that investment? Its average finishing position was 12th in the six Premier League seasons prior to the purchase, following five relegations in the 20 years before that. By 2008, City were a big club only in the dusty pages of football history and, perhaps, in terms of match-day attendances.
The other, less obvious, moment had occurred a few months before. In early 2008, the UK Government ditched a controversial plan to build a super-casino close to City’s new stadium. The scheme would have transformed the area, but not necessarily for the better.
Since the proposal collapsed, a community hub and leisure centre – jointly funded by the club, Manchester City Council and Sport England – have sprung up, part of a broader area regeneration project. There would have been far less community surrounding a casino and City might have been viewed as a far less attractive acquisition. Certainly, the Etihad Campus and its associated academy, an important part of the club’s development over the past decade, would have been much harder to deliver.
Abu Dhabi itself makes a fleeting appearance in All or Nothing when the first-team travels to the UAE for a few days of warm weather training.
The programme makers record a meeting between Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Khaldoon Al Mubarak and Guardiola, although given that a group of photographers are also in attendance, there is nothing remotely confidential about the sit-down. Instead, the trio discuss playing padel, a racquet sport popular in Spain.
What is implied in this scene, however, is the ease of communication between owner, chairman and manager of the club. It makes for an interesting contrast with the City of old and, indeed, the club’s rivals, Manchester United, where manager and management appear to be at loggerheads over transfer targets and playing style.
Mr Al Mubarak’s regular appearances in the Amazon series tell us much about the club’s philosophy and values.
Early on in All or Nothing he is clear about the season’s objectives: “Our ambition every year is to win the league.” Later we see him talking about two transfer targets – Virgil van Dijk and Alexis Sanchez – who the club drop their pursuit of when the price starts rising unreasonably.
Of one, he says, “we are perfectly comfortable walking away”. Of the other, “the economics didn’t work anymore”, he says. Both statements confirm City’s style is now to make strategic investments rather than gambling at the Premier League’s equivalent of a super-casino.
We also see this region’s traditions surrounding family in his interactions with Fernandinho, who is negotiating a new contract to extend his stay at the club, in part because his wife and children are settled in the UK, and with David Silva, whose son is born prematurely in Spain.
In both cases, the concern for player welfare is paramount and we see a club where the walls between high-ranking officials and playing staff are broken down in the most appropriate way.
We see a similar sentiment in a final meeting with Yaya Toure, who left the club at the end of last season. Mr Al Mubarak tells him “you will always be part of this family”, at a ceremony to mark the Ivorian’s years of distinguished service.
And that, perhaps, is the strongest takeaway from All or Nothing and the greatest achievement of the Abu Dhabi years at City: a club that is at one with itself and clear about where it is going and how to get there.
Most chairmen, club owners and coaches strive for years to find that balance, to secure success on the pitch. Right now, City have found it.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National