Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Building a City for success

September 1, 2008 is a date etched in Manchester City's annals. It heralded the injection of Sheikh Mansour's substantial investment and his commitment to transforming a club in a state of flux into a vibrant, ambitious organisation.
A banner at the City of Manchester Stadium shows the supporters' appreciation for the work on and off the field being undertaken by the club's Abu Dhabi owners.
A banner at the City of Manchester Stadium shows the supporters' appreciation for the work on and off the field being undertaken by the club's Abu Dhabi owners.

The head groundsman was sitting in his office. The club ambassador was playing golf. The club secretary was readying himself for a busy day of paperwork on the final day of the summer transfer window. And the team's England defender was sitting on the sofa watching television.

The day? September, 1, 2008 - the day Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed tilted the English Premier League on its axis by signalling his intention to buy Manchester City.

Yet there have been so many false dawns at City it is a wonder that anyone connected with the club knew what day it was let alone the potential significance of it.

"No, I don't [remember the day] but I should do really, shouldn't I?" Les Chapman, the kit-man said. Chapman doubles up as the club jester and was half joking but his response also illustrates the daily grind of working at a Premier League club then in a state of flux.

"I was either cleaning the boots or putting the kit out for training," Chapman said.

It would not be long before Chapman was ensuring Robinho, the Brazilian signed for a British record transfer fee, had the required City apparel.

The prospect of City signing one of the world's best players could not have been further from the mind of Lee Jackson, the groundsman, when he arrived for work at 7.30am on that late summer's day in 2008.

"I was sat at my desk thinking we are going nowhere, we have got no money etc, etc," Jackson said. "It then flashed up on the TV we have been taken over. It didn't sink in at the time the extent of what it really meant."

Mike Summerbee, the club ambassador and member of the club's league winning side in 1968, had been on holiday to Abu Dhabi and therefore had an inkling of the potential ramifications of the change in ownership. However, even he admitted to being "gob smacked" after starting a round of golf amid mutterings of a takeover and finishing the 18 holes to be greeted by news that City were on the verge of snatching Robinho from under the noses of Chelsea.

"I had been to the UAE a few times and I knew the calibre of the people there." Summerbee said.

"I knew we were going to take off and that we were in safe hands. You only have to look at the progress they make in Abu Dhabi. If they set their mind to do something then it gets done."

Indeed it does. The Abu Dhabi United Group signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Thaksin Shinawatra to buy 90 per cent of his stake and before the ink had dried, City faxed an offer to Real Madrid to buy Robinho.

"I was doing the paperwork and we only signed him at 11.50pm, 10 minutes before the deadline," Bernard Halford, the then club secretary, said.

"The fans were riding round in their cars outside the ground beeping their horns as we had signed Robinho for £32 million (Dhs188.7m). Five years ago we didn't have two bob. We were selling Shaun Wright-Phillips [to Chelsea] for £21m and now the boot was on the other foot."

Following due diligence, the £210m takeover was sealed on September 23, the same day as the groundsman celebrated his 34th birthday.

The coincidences do not end there. The shaven-headed Jackson blew the candles out on his 13th birthday cake the same day City beat Manchester United 5-1 in 1989; his son was born on the day of the last ever Manchester derby at Maine Road while his partner gave birth to their daughter on a match day.

Jackson would not have had to dash too far home when his partner's waters broke as he used to live opposite Maine Road, the club's old ground, and now resides on Platt Lane, where the club's academy players train.

Micah Richards is a high-profile graduate of the academy. It is testament to the defender's ability that he is one of the few survivors of the squad that has been transformed since Sheikh Mansour purchased the club.

The Minister of Presidential Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister has retained a low profile, the level of his investment speaking volumes for his commitment. The half-brother of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, Sheikh Mansour, 40, has attended one competitive game and picked the right one; the 3-0 home win over Liverpool last August.

"He seemed like a really nice guy," Richards said. "It's amazing that someone so young has so much. People talk about the money he has spent but look at [Carlos] Tevez. People said he wasn't worth the money - now he's probably worth double that. All the players were excited to meet him and when he came to the game we all made sure we put in 110 per cent. I haven't spoken to him personally, but he said to the players he wants big things here."

Jackson joked that Sheikh Mansour should "buy a season ticket" as his presence on that balmy night inspired City to arguably their most comprehensive win of the season.

The owner's arrival was shrouded in secrecy for security reasons and to avoid a media circus. The club's executive management team knew he was coming but the rest of the staff were not informed until half-an-hour before kick-off. Some only became aware when he was shown on the big screen.

"I thought it was brilliant the way it was kept so quiet," Summerbee said. "Everyone was just surprised how young he looked."

Chapman concurred. "I have met him once in Abu Dhabi and shook his hand," he said. "It is just incredible that a man of his age is in control of so much and has so much business sense."

Sheikh Mansour took his seat in the directors' box that night alongside Khaldoon al Mubarak, the chairman, sitting on one of the blue padded and heated seats. The vantage point gave him the chance to survey the team he helped build. His outlay on the playing staff rose to £340m following the purchase of Edin Dzeko in January but it is the investment in the infrastructure that is providing the platform for the club to flourish.

The training ground at Carrington has been revamped to a high specification and now includes a state of the art gymnasium, flotation tanks, a video analysis suite and a media centre.

Blackpool, another Premier League club, do not have undersoil heating at their stadium yet City have that luxury at their training ground. Chapman is based at Carrington.

"The kit room was 6ft square and now it's 20ft square with heaters, dryers, hundreds of pegs and a machine that blows the mud off the boots. The facilities have changed dramatically," Chapman said. "But the big thing is people have actually come in and asked me what I need to make things better and taken an interest."

The club have also ploughed more than seven figures of investment into the pitch at Eastlands.

"The pitch had deteriorated rapidly because of concerts etc," Jackson, one of three head groundsman, said. "So we had a new pitch and a perimeter track [in the summer of 2010] and new machinery [in 2009]."

But, as Jackson points out, there is not a bottomless pit of money: all the departments at the club have to work within a budget.

"We asked last year for a piece of equipment that basically sucks something out the pitch but we didn't get it," he said. "We spend the money as if it's our own so we don't ask for it unless we need it. There is money to spend but we have to present a case for it."

It is all a far cry from the days when, according to Jackson, "we couldn't buy marking paint without giving the supplier a cheque for £15 and having to hand them over at the same time otherwise he thought we might run away with both".

Every executive box at the ground the club took over following the Commonwealth Games in 2002, has undergone a luxury revamp while fans now congregate before home matches in the City Square entertainment zone - an outdoor hospitality area that has a stage for bands, contains outdoors bars and several plasma screens. The club store at the ground has been refurbished while another has been opened in a prime location area in the heart of Manchester city centre.

The operational side has been boosted by the recruitment of more than 100 new staff. Most of those are based at an office block, built in August 2009, at the gates to the stadium. The staff can help themselves to complimentary drinks from the in-house Starbucks and benefit from private health care.

"I wouldn't say morale was low before but I wouldn't say it was good either," Jackson said. "There was always a saga and you never knew what was going on. People are so much happier coming into work."

Halford, who was made Life President last year, added: "People out there are losing jobs in their thousands yet people here have got belief and security."

City rewarded Summerbee's 10-year playing career at the club by making him an ambassador in 2009. He described the honour as "the greatest thing that ever happened to me".

"People around the area are not so glum and have got smiles on their faces," he said.

"The club is based in a very run down area and some of the work around the ground has been done by local businesses and local people."

The club have, according to reports, cast their net wider and recruited the services of a South American architect to design a 200-acre training ground, which will be part of a reported £50m project to develop the land surrounding the stadium.

The project is, apparently, at the due diligence stage, although it has been reported that Rafael Vinoly, a Uruguayan living in America, has been commissioned to draw up the plans. Should the development get the go ahead it will be Vinoly's latest Abu Dhabi-related assignment having orchestrated developments at The Gateway, Al Raha Beach and the Mina Zayed Waterfront.

Overseeing everything club related both in Abu Dhabi and Manchester is al Mubarak.

"I find him a very normal person," Summerbee said. "The fans love him. He has got his feet on the ground, too. When I took my wife to Abu Dhabi we were sat watching the football with him."

In his guise as club ambassador, Summerbee often finds himself entertaining the associates al Mubarak travels with to Manchester.

"I've got to know them all well and they are lovely people," Summerbee said. "There is no edge to them. When Khaldoon came over once for a big meeting he brought his brother, Mohammed, and I looked after him for the day."

Al Mubarak's trips to Manchester often end in a game of football.

"I have to make sure we have a big enough kit as he is a big man," Chapman said. "He is very useful and has got a natural aptitude for scoring goals. We go easy on him in the games as you don't want to kick the chairman, but he is good."

He is not bad at revolutionising a football club, either.


Updated: April 15, 2011 04:00 AM



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