His­tory re­peat­ing for Manch­ester gi­ants

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - SAM WAL­LACE

IN his splen­did his­tory of Manch­ester United, au­thor Dr Percy M Young wrote of the early 1900s: “In foot­ball fi­nances and their man­age­ment there was at that time a de­gree of an­ar­chy.” He is ref­er­enc­ing one of the great Manch­ester City sides, dur­ing a tumultuous pe­riod in the club’s his­tory and look­ing back it is hard not to think that noth­ing in foot­ball is new.

There were no Der Speigel doc­u­ment hoards or closed-loop pay­ments to com­pa­nies in the Bri­tish Virgin Is­lands in 1904 but there were, rel­a­tively speak­ing, just as many risks be­ing taken by those hun­gry for suc­cess in a game that was grow­ing quicker than any­one ex­pected. The late Dr Young was writ­ing about the great City team of 1903-04 who won the FA Cup, fin­ished sec­ond in the league and were then sub­ject to a devastating Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion (FA) in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The FA found that City had bro­ken trans­fer rules — al­though in those days their scout­ing did seem mainly to in­volve dis­patch­ing a man in a top hat to do ques­tion­able deals for Glos­sop’s best play­ers. There were also il­le­gal pay­ments to play­ers still labour­ing un­der the max­i­mum wage and for City the pun­ish­ment was se­vere. They were fined and three directors were sus­pended, one for life. In the months that fol­lowed the Billy Mered­ith bribery scan­dal broke, their star player turned whis­tle-blower, which led to more bans, fines and the sus­pen­sion of 17 City play­ers in 1906.

United ben­e­fited from the chaos at City, sign­ing Mered­ith even though he was serv­ing an FA ban for 18 months and by the time he made his de­but for them in Jan­uary 1907, the two Manch­ester teams were both in the top flight for the first time.

In his opus, Manch­ester: A Foot­ball

His­tory, the au­thor Gary James writes of that early 20th cen­tury pe­riod: “In the eyes of many, they [City] had ap­peared from nowhere to chal­lenge the es­tab­lish­ment and at this point in foot­ball his­tory, the es­tab­lish­ment would al­ways win.” Plus ça change, the City fans would no doubt say now. The Mered­ith scan­dal “led to the near de­struc­tion of City”, James wrote, “while it also in­di­rectly helped United es­tab­lish them­selves as a ma­jor side and was a key fac­tor in their first suc­cess.”

Which is a long way of say­ing that fi­nan­cial scan­dal is as old as muddy boots and mous­taches when it comes to foot­ball. More than 110 years on, the two great sides of Manch­ester re­sume this bat­tle for supremacy with to­day’s derby a chance for United to slow the run­away train of Pep Guardiola’s league lead­ers. The old tus­sles over talent still ex­ist, from Mered­ith to Car­los Tevez to Alexis Sanchez, and the temp­ta­tion for the two clubs to judge them­selves against one an­other en­dures.

For years it was City’s man­age­ment who were ob­sessed with United; now the roles are re­versed. Yet there has al­ways been so much that the two clubs would re­luc­tantly have to ad­mit that they have in com­mon.

As elite Euro­pean foot­ball re­po­si­tions it­self to try to max­imise its value, as cer­tain fa­mous clubs who dom­i­nate their own leagues to the detri­ment of those do­mes­tic games look for new sources of rev­enue, United and City have a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ship. They are the two high­est-rank­ing English clubs in the Deloitte Money League and what they think will go a long way, whether one likes it or not, to dic­tat­ing English foot­ball’s fu­ture.

While the likes of Bay­ern Mu­nich, Ju­ven­tus, Real Madrid and Barcelona have pur­sued the plan of a Euro­pean Su­per League, the Foot­ball Leaks al­le­ga­tions pub­lished in Der Spiegel have shown the English to be more re­luc­tant. United and Arsenal, part of that orig­i­nal group of seven, have not been at the fore­front of push­ing for change and while five of the Premier League’s top clubs at­tended that 2016 Dorch­ester Ho­tel meet­ing, they have since proved the least rest­less.

The Premier League does not need the Euro­pean Su­per League plan be­ing fi­nessed by Bay­ern Mu­nich’s lawyers or in the of­fice of Florentino Perez, who wants Real Madrid to own a greater per­cent­age of this new con­cept than any other share­holder. It does not need it be­cause the Su­per League has es­sen­tially been con­ceived to try to catch up with the re­lent­less com­mer­cial suc­cess of the Premier League, and that is be­fore we even get on to what the fans think.

But it will also need clubs such as United and City to have the courage, along with the rest of the rich­est teams in the divi­sion, to be­lieve in what they al­ready have. English league foot­ball has had more than a cen­tury of clubs try­ing ei­ther to break into the elite or block­ing oth­ers from do­ing so and, gen­er­ally speak­ing, the game has en­dured. In 1906, the dif­fer­ence was that the FA had the power to in­ter­vene, while to­day it feels like noth­ing in foot­ball’s multi-bil­lion glob­alised trade ever changes un­less the FBI takes an in­ter­est.

It has been a bruis­ing week for City, and if there are to be no sanc­tions then per­haps the re­ac­tion alone to the al­le­ga­tions will give cause for re­flec­tion for their se­nior man­age­ment. They have turbo-charged their club in the past 10 years and the team may well be play­ing the great­est foot­ball in City’s his­tory. His­tory also tells them that th­ese events are cycli­cal, and that boom and bust comes to all clubs.

In that 1906-’07 sea­son when both Manch­ester clubs first played one an­other in the top flight, City, for all the chaos wrought upon them, won away at United, drew with them at home and stayed up.

To­day’s derby, for all the re­sent­ment, jeal­ousy, and ag­gro, is the next part of that great his­tory — a league that is worth pro­tect­ing, es­pe­cially by th­ese two mod­ern gi­ants.

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