A Question Mark
I received a flurry of email newsflashes last week from Manchester City Football Club. First the shock news on Monday that Sven-Goran Eriksson and the club had “parted company by mutual consent,” then the follow-up formality on Tuesday that Hans Backe and Tord Grip had also left the club. The surprises continued on Wednesday when a third email informed me that “Manchester City & Sven-Goran Eriksson have parted company by mutual consent” (I think someone pressed the wrong button) before a further email 25 minutes later announced that “Mark Hughes has been confirmed as Manchester City’s new manager.” My final correspondence the following day announced that Hughes had just given a press conference, and then it all went quiet. It had been quite a half-week.
A lot has been said about the Sven situation, and I was obviously agin his dismissal, but I decided to keep my powder dry, for everything to be settled before I said my piece. Then, a 5th birthday party and a 6th wedding anniversary intervened, diverting me (in the nicest possible way) from finishing this rambling, overlong discourse, but here it is now anyway, for what it’s worth.
First of all, despite the current well-aired criticisms of the sacking (yes, sacking) of Sven, it is worth saying that when he arrived he was not universally welcomed. I don’t think there was much outright antagonism, but there were quite a few misgivings from many City fans bearing in mind his reputation as England manager. In the end there was generally a wait and see approach, accompanied with the back-handed compliment that Sven had a proven record as a “good club manager” (whatever that means) who had won trophies wherever he had been; a record that was bound to founder at Eastlands, regardless of how long he stayed there. I’d say I was happier than most at Sven’s appointment, primarily because I was less critical than most of his time at England, where I felt it was hardly his fault that his team failed to live up to the unrealistic expectation placed upon it (although there were plenty of errors during his time there that he can lay claim to and call his own.) As City kicked off the season at breakneck pace, seemingly invincible at home and pretty useful away, most reservations disappeared, and I was happy that we had undoubtedly improved upon the previous season’s shambles, but cautious that our results were exceeding the quality of our performances, and that something was likely to give at some point.
Before the start of last season there seemed less talk around about the purchase of the club by Thaksin Shinawatra. There were a few grumblings for sure, but amongst the fans the majority seemed not to care about his background or the fact that here was another moneybags owner who was going to skew the league ever more in the direction of the big spenders (indeed, that constituted most of his appeal), and this opinion didn’t seem to change over the course of the season; some even cheered his allies’ success in the Thai elections a few months ago as another feather in the cap for “Frank”. Personally I was extremely uncomfortable with his involvement, in part because of the allegations of corruption and human rights violations that hung around him, but also because I don’t like this trend towards ever deeper pockets buying success in football, even if it is currently our good fortune to be one of the beneficiaries. You will never get perfection I know, but I would prefer for us to be moving towards a situation where a club’s success was mainly down to appointing a canny manager who could handpick promising, talented players to blend a team that plays in the most entertaining way. I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me to go to the Premier League page on the BBC Sport website and double-take when I see a Hull City hyperlink staring back at me; but wouldn’t it be even better if we thought it possible that with a few key signings they could rise up the league and even challenge for the title in a few seasons time? Instead we know they will be fighting the drop until the day they are relegated, and it seems we are heading in the opposite direction to the way I would wish, ever further towards a league where the teams that succeed are purely the ones with the with the most pounds, dollars or bahts. You could argue that it is just this trend that has led us to the situation where the Premier League is the strongest domestic competition in Europe, but who benefits? Not the majority of fans I know who couldn’t care less what happened in this years’ European Cup final.
As last season began I had no interest in what happened to my team, genuinely feeling that the club I had supported since a boy was no more and that the team now playing in sky blue were a new club – Thaksin’s – bearing an historic name; interestingly that emotion is one I have heard a lot of other people express more recently. But when I saw Richard Dunne wearing one of those blue shirts on the first Match of the Day of the season such feelings disappeared in an instant, but my doubts about the direction the club would be going in didn’t. “Prove me wrong, Thaksin,” I thought to myself, and with Sven’s hasty and blinkered dismissal my worst fears seem to have been realised, although I won’t say I told you so (especially when stories like this show how ridiculous it is to lump all foreign / rich owner together as if they are inevitably as one.)
Let’s be honest though. Taking last season in isolation Thaksin’s involvement has hugely benefited the club. It was his money that brought Eriksson, Petrov, Corluka and Elano to Eastlands, without his involvement we would never have finished where we did in the league. We are not the first or only club to sack a manager prematurely – indeed City are past-masters at it – but few dismissals seem as out-and-out stupid as does Eriksson’s. So thanks for last season, Frank, but since I am intending to support City until I die I am also looking to the future, and that is where I am concerned. So what of the future, and how will this episode affect it?
For Sven the future looks bright; he’s not all that bothered by events I’m sure. He’s rehabilitated his battered reputation in England, received a tidy bit of compensation, and now has another new job to look forward. In all he’s probably better off out of Eastlands, he’s sorted. But what of the future of the other actors in this story?
On the playing side of the club, in the immediate future there is the fact that Richard Dunne, the rock of our defence, apparently wants away; how much has his desire to leave got to do with the sacking of Eriksson I wonder – how will other players react when their contracts are up for renewal – and how easy will it be to replace someone who currently seems so irreplaceable? He certainly won’t be replaced by paying silly money to Ronaldinho just because we can as has been mooted, a deal that, if it goes through, seems more comparable to the time Melchester Rovers signed Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp than to an incidence of a serious football club building a team to challenge for a trophy.
Before the appointment of Mark Hughes I worried about who would accept the job, and why. I have no axe to grind with Hughes, regardless of the identity of one of his previous employers, and he has a promising record as manager; but what chance that promise is given the time to further develop at City? The sacking of Eriksson itself suggests an impatient, short-termism from the owners of the club, and short-termism can breed a short-termists, mercenary strain of manager who will happily sign a three-year contract knowing that the worst thing that could happen is for him to be sacked mid-contract and to be paid off handsomely. I don’t want to malign Mark Hughes’s motivation, but if I were him and considering trading in the stability of Blackburn for the supposed risk at City it would be a no-brainer, win-win situation; he can sign on the dotted-line safe in the knowledge that in the unlikely event that he is given the time to succeed then all’s well, but no matter how badly he fucks it up and no matter how short his reign he will still get his pay-off and a ready-made excuse that his failure was down to his inability to work for Thaksin. Then he can still get a new job based on his unblemished Wales and Blackburn CV.
And finally, to Thaksin himself; what has this episode done to his reputation, and what does the future hold? Well the main thing that has happened is that many of those who weren’t interested in his background in Thailand before and didn’t care what effect a monied and dictatorial owner would have on the club in particular and football in general have changed their minds. Football fans can be a fickle lot, and no one will mourn Sven’s passing or brook criticism of Thaksin if the club goes from strength to strength from here on is. But I can’t help worrying about just how many managers we may have to go through – at a potentially diminishing rate of return – in the hope that one may fluke a bit of success in their first season; and if success doesn’t come, how long before Thaksin becomes bored, loses interest, packs up and moves on? And if that does happen, where will City be then?