03 August 2009

All virgins are liars, honey: two

"And we are not allowed to spend as we are told that this is the end..."

Money. Part two of two. Part one here.

And what of the particular kerb-crawler in whose vehicle Adebayor is currently rifling through his handbag?

Manchester City have been the subject of derision and scorn since they got plugged directly into the Emirati national grid. Those players who have subscribed to the project, as Garry Cook has surely called it at some point, are laughed at for telling us that they did so out of ambition. The cynicism is justified, in part: why do so few players (Adebayor is at least a pioneer of sorts) just come out and say they're in it for the money? (But we know the answer to that: because they would be excoriated.) But to believe that City's ideas are necessarily above their station (I mean, they finished tenth last season. Tenth! Pfah!) is to ignore two things.

Firstly: spending a lot of money is a pretty neat way to get good. The translation between wealth and success is notably efficient in soccer; Moneyball it ain't. And while reputation and honours talk, so does money (with a potty mouth, maybe, but still).

Secondly: City may not currently have the prestige to attract all of the kind of players they have been seeking; but the point is that they don't yet have such prestige. It would start to come with success: with breaking into the top four, with shaking the establishment. City's grander transfer bids may have been follies, but they may not ultimately have spelt failure. They may still have amassed enough talent to make a dent.

This is no mere insolent speculation on my part. We had definitive proof last weekend from Alex Ferguson. As usual with Sralex, it wasn't so much what he said as what he didn't say that told the tale. His words were reminiscent of the comment by a North Korean official last week in response to Hillary Clinton's claim that the country had "no friends left" in the international community:
Her words suggest that she is by no means intelligent [...] Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping. Anyone making misstatements has to pay for them.
One does not need the truth spelled out here, I trust.

It's the apparent vulgarity of City's approach that disquiets so many. It's interesting that even though there is general agreement that the radical stratification the top of English football has undergone is undesirable, there still exists a certain resistance to efforts to smash it. A resistance to the wrong sort of effort, that is. Everton, for instance, are going about things the right way: with prudence, by paying their dues. Of course, it is a rather easy policy to follow when you don't have the means to do otherwise. (Maybe they would reject an ADUG-type approach. Who knows?)

But City's method, their (the irony) Dubai-esque proclivity for grandiose statements of intent, for commissioning unignorable status symbols (and even the failed bids were status symbols), is all a bit gaudy — very nouveau riche. But nouveau riche is still riche. City are basically doing what big teams do, except that their giddy inexperience has led them to chase uncatchable quarry and make themselves occasionally look somewhat foolish. Anyway, the Premier League's engine is its artificial economy, and this, coupled with the not dissimilarly-ring-fenced Champions League, have given it plenty of cocaine confidence, the compelling urge to triumphantly compare penis sizes. The City plan is a suitably artificial — tacky, if you like — response to this. It is not an aberration: it is the very stuff of calcio moderno al inglese, the product whose shapely assets and pert TV deals have the rest of football wondering whether they too should go get themselves sliced up.

City fans seem fine about all this — for now, at any rate, when dreams can still be dreams. How things would be if all this upheaval wound up yielding nothing is, one suspects, quite different: the guilt-ridden burning of tea-towels in the streets of Manchester, no doubt. What if it is a success, though? Forget about the outsiders' view of the club for now — how would the fans feel about the club, about themselves?

Certainly, fans of Chelsea Autonomous Okrug appear to have few qualms about their situation. The patrons of this football-related subsidiary of a large energy concern are famous for their club song "Uncle Vlad, Best Friend of All Sportsmen", and they delight in waving sushi and plastic replica ice-picks in the direction of opposing supporters. Suggest a reversion to their pre-Year Zero standing and they would stare at you, befuddled, struggling to compute your words.

Or, if I may, here is an example from nearer home. Drogheda United were the definition of mediocrity in Irish football. For years, while Dundalk, their rivals from the opposite end of County Louth, were doing stuff like winning trophies and playing in Europe, Drogheda were doing nothing much of anything. Yes, there were two FAI Cup final appearances, a League Cup win and a second-place league finish (the outcome of their consequent venture into the UEFA Cup will go diplomatically unmentioned here). But their league history is more accurately characterised by the fact that since the League of Ireland introduced a second tier in 1985, Drogheda have moved between the divisions eleven times. In one spell, they enjoyed and endured seven consecutive promotions and relegations — almost a world record.

In the oughts, things changed. The club, in a perilous financial state, was taken over and the new board sank big money into the team. Their wage bill swelled as they went full-time and bought players they could not have dreamt of signing before. And, verily, Drogheda got good. They became resident in the top half of the Premier Division table. In 2005, they won the FAI Cup — their first major honour (if you don't count the League Cup. Few do.). They won a pair of Setanta Cups, and in 2007, they won the league. In last season's Champions League, they came closer than this close to eliminating Dynamo Kiev in the second qualifying round — the same Dynamo who would beat Spartak Moscow 4-1 and 4-1 in the third round, the same Dynamo who would make the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. It would have been the greatest ever result for an Irish club.

(All the while, Dundalk were in Division One, suffering the worst era in their history. Also, penguins flew from Dublin Zoo, the sky became the sea, the sea the sky, etc.)

Throughout, and despite a hike in the price of admission, attendances soared. More than that: the town took the club to its heart like never before. The first team squad was bloated and paid more than was economically reasonable. All the players had been brought in from outside; there was not a single local player involved, and upward mobility from the under-21s, which did contain locals, was non-existent. Yet the club now became a core part of the town's identity through the success of a squad constructed for no reason other than to win.

Towards the end of the 2008 season, the owners pulled out: their hoped-for All-Ireland league had failed to materialise, and their plans for a new out-of-town stadium had been abandoned after Meath County Council re-zoned the land it was set to occupy. Suddenly, Drogheda were left with a big, expensive squad and no money to pay them. The players dispersed at season's end, free agents the lot. Examiners took over the running of the club, which faced imminent extinction should they be unable to pay off the enormous debt they had accrued.

Then, in a way that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago, the town rallied round and raised enough money to stave off extinction; their High Court triumph was as thrilling as any they had met on the field. It was a small miracle.

Now, Drogheda have an entirely new squad and are looking to avoid relegation to the netherworld of the First Division. They have reverted to semi-professionalism, their wage bill an eighth of what it was last year. They are not assured of their survival yet: they are a League of Ireland team not a team at the top of one of the big leagues, after all. Drogheda lived the dream; in doing so, they found their soul and nearly — still might have — brought about their own demise.

So: what about City?


Adrian Russell 4/8/09 1:47 AM  

But isnt the question 'what about football' rather than 'what about City'?

they're just enjoying what plenty of other clubs have experienced already; United, Chelsea etc.

And if youre going to leave these clubs be run like this - compared with, say, Germany - than what do you expect?

And just because the new investors aren't local, does this diminish the club? The Drogheda investors were all - as far as I know - local businessmen, much like what used happen in England for decades. I think Peter Swales was a Manc, and he made a complete balls of it.

Very interesting post as usual Fred. It'll be another compelling EPL season anyway, we know that much.

Fredorrarci 4/8/09 3:40 PM  

Cheers Adrian. "What about football?" is probably a better question alright. Yeah, the investors at Drogheda were all (or mostly, I can't remember) local. And, of course, Vincent Hoey has been a constant at the club. A club's identity is about far more than the birthplace of the players, and I don't think that Drogheda's successes were diminished for the fact that there were no locals.

I just think that what Drogheda did raised some interesting issues. Supposedly, a large part of the appeal of sport at the level of the LoI -- any sport beneath the super-dee-duper elite, I suppose -- is that you get to see members of your own community playing for your local team. Of course, given that the LoI has always had an element of professionalism, this could never be there to the same extent as it is in the GAA, but it's still there. What Drogheda did when they ploughed all that money into the team was distance themselves from that local on-field connection. If they were going to pursue that big-bucks method, that was inevitable, because most of the real talent in the league obviously does not come from the Drogheda area. (They did try to sign Killian Brennan, but that's another story...)

And despite this, United really became the town's club, to the extent that even when the investors pulled out and it was apparent that the glory days were very much over, they realised what a precious thing they had and dug deep.

Or to put it more simply: the identity of a club is damnably complicated...

Fredorrarci 4/8/09 3:42 PM  

And of course, Franny Lee was meant to be City's saviour from Swales, and that didn't exactly turn out too well either...

Red Ranter 4/8/09 8:00 PM  

What about Adebayor, even?

Great post as always. It's a good thing you split it in two parts, though.

Adrian 5/8/09 6:08 PM  

Yeah, you're right. Cork City - my own club, i should admit - flew too close to the sun too.

Though their highest paid player in the mad days was a local lad (Georgie).

Fuck it though, at least we lived (irresponsibly).

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