City's Abu Dhabi decade bred expectation – and that's not easy for some
Warning: Story contains coarse language
Back in the bad days, Manchester City fans subsisted on their trademark self-deprecating humor and the kind of blind love a mother gives her criminal son.
One tactic to help them through the years of Peter Swales’ ruinous attempts to outshine Manchester United (assisted by Malcolm Allison’s fire sale and gross overspend upon his return in 1979), the broken promise of Franny Lee’s heroic comeback as chairman, and losing to teams like Wycombe Wanderers (twice) during a solitary third-tier season, was to air a certain backing track.
We never win at home and we never win away,
We lost last week and we lost today,
But we don’t five a fuck ’cause we’re all pissed up.
The chant has enjoyed a strong reprisal in recent seasons but since the Abu Dhabi United Group took over 10 years ago, they are renditions saturated with irony. It is sung when Manchester City are winning at places like Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium last month. Before the goals go in, there sometimes isn’t much crooning while attendees wait for something to happen and maybe become irritated by profligacy from lavishly paid employees. A £1.4-billion transfer outlay over a decade might have that effect on any fanbase.
In Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Newcastle United, the fans expected the three points. It’s a disparate world from how things used to be.
Sing when you’re losing
The Kippax at Maine Road, City’s old home, used to be one of the most respected supporter pens in English football. It was a gurgling sea awash with waves of excitement, but also crashes capable of unsettling visitors. In the mid-1990s, Lee – a City great from his playing days, who seemed to prefer horseracing and flogging toilet paper to football when he hung up his boots – decided it was a good idea to ram corporate suites into a Kippax facade that by then was already tiled with seats. It should have rammed a dirty sock into the mouth of Maine Road.
But it wasn’t silenced. Swales’ earlier renovation of Platt Lane made it resemble a sad, weathered doorstop rather than the leering, steep Kops at places like Anfield and Bramall Lane, and no one wanted to drown out Helen, an elderly lady who sounded a bell (in reference to club legend Colin Bell) at that end of the ground. The Main Stand was for the richer, quieter folk. So the noise migrated to the North Stand, which was shared with the away contingent.
When the traveling throng weren’t especially vocal, the home fans would instead hurl abuse at one another. Quite regularly it was spurred by the blue-clad North Stand lot mocking the Kippax for not being famous anymore. If not, the gallows humor would be evident in songs that poked fun at their own team’s underachievement. Ringing ears was a common byproduct of attending a match at a Maine Road still packed out when hosting matches from English football’s third rung. The babble and banter was a convenient distraction from what was happening on the pitch. In fact, the misery provoked a carnival fueled by sarcasm.
When a big result was procured, such as the 3-1 defeat of Manchester United at Maine Road under Kevin Keegan in November 2002, it was pandemonium. Elation was caused, naturally, by derby day, but also three points that very few foresaw.
Expectation sets in
Nowadays, it is different. Manchester City supporters were beginning to find their voice in the Etihad Stadium between the club’s move there in 2003 and the takeover in 2008, but the influx of cash heralded an expectation culture that is detrimental to the din. Players who spent the few years prior to the takeover had an excuse for off-color performances – you got what you paid for with purchases like Laurent Charvet and Ousmane Dabo – but now the huge outlay, beginning with Robinho on Sept. 1, 2008, had to deliver success.
There was loads of excitement and a stirring, yet familiarly light-hearted atmosphere on Robinho’s debut – a 3-1 loss at home to Chelsea in which the Brazilian scored the opener from a free-kick – but as the expenditure rose, so did the number of column inches devoted to the ambitious project in Beswick. A club more attuned to a yo-yo existence had to learn how to be an outfit in the limelight that was meant to habitually compete for silverware. It was a whole different pressure.
So when a pass is misplaced by a £50-million midfielder, there are groans. When the scores are level at halftime, there can be murmurings of discontent. For those who watched City scramble out of the third tier, it is a peculiar transition.
Even when a win is being neatly executed, there can be an almost relaxed, nonplussed atmosphere, like when City palmed off Bournemouth with four unanswered goals last December. It was tepid in the Etihad Stadium that day. Relief for those reared on the merry noise of unsuccessful decades is found at away games, like at Newcastle United four days after beating the Cherries in the 2017-18 term. The 1-0 win on Tyneside was criticized for Rafa Benitez’s tactics suffocating the flow and frenzy but, just like in the old Maine Road days, it didn’t matter for City supporters. They just sang.
The change in atmosphere at home is partly the consequence of other things. Some may point to the growing number of tourists in the stands, others would legitimately gesture toward Premier League ticket prices that are closing turnstiles for working-class supporters. However, in City’s case, the biggest difference is the expectation. It’s a credit to the business model of the Abu Dhabi United Group that the club has changed so much from the one riddled with failure, but for some supporters, there was a perverse fun in a level of mediocrity that is now lost. That is still taking some getting used to.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)