Any Manchester City fan is acutely aware of the amount of money the club has spent in recent seasons. It’s impossible not to be – if it’s not the newspapers splashing figures around for potential targets and the wages they’re likely to be on should they switch to the Blues, then it’s opposition fans who talk about “buying success”. They’re the ones who seem to be personally offended that it’s not their club that’s been blessed with the depth of pocket that Txiki Begiristain and Manuel Pellegrini can boast. Worse are the ones who seem to think it’s fine when their club did it – because historically it’s what’s been done in football – but not when anyone else has the audacity to try it.
Of course, it hasn’t always been like that for City. While the current owner can hardly be deemed to be frugal – headline transfers like the up-to-£49m club record fee spent on Raheem Sterling are not the move of a man who’s pinching the pennies from the bottom line – he’s working from a position where he doesn’t have to be. He’s investing in his business, with the ultimate aim of making it more successful. He’s just doing it from a position of being absolutely loaded.
In days gone by (and days that are a lot closer than many from both inside and outside the club seem to remember), it used to be the case that the manager wasn’t allowed money to spend on his team because there wasn’t any available. Or he’d blown all the funds on one Greek lummox of a centre-forward who he promised had a lot of potential but then kept playing on the left wing for some godforsaken reason.
Going slightly further back and there were fears that the club could be on the verge of going out of business. It’s often rumoured that would have been the likely outcome had City failed to win the 1999 Division Two Playoff Final, but in an upcoming interview with the Blue Moon Podcast former chairman David Bernstein thinks claims the club could have been wound up were hyperbole.
“I don’t think [the club would have gone] out of business in the real sense,” he says. “I think if we’d been a normal commercial company then the answer might have been yes, but football clubs have a way of carrying on. I think what might have happened is that circle of decline could have continued.”
Indeed, Bernstein was one of the key figures in the revival of the football club. He took over as chairman from Francis Lee in March 1998, a few months before the Blues dropped to the third tier of English football for the first (and only) time in their history. While he – and the fans – were distraught that the relegation had happened, the former chairman now describes it as “a blessing in disguise”, since it allowed the club to restructure completely. He describes the Manchester City he took over as “pretty much in the 19th century” – with a stadium needing work, no proper training ground, a tiny official shop, and offices in a house in Moss Side.
When the brakes were applied and the team began to climb back up the football league, their ascension was even quicker than their demise. Back-to-back promotions saw the club back in the Premier League two seasons after being at their lowest point. Despite that, Bernstein says he was disappointed to have gone down after a year in the top flight – and the decision was made at the end of that campaign to sack the manager.
Fans may well look back at the Kevin Keegan era as one of the best in recent years. Certainly at the start, there were some excellent displays and the Blues ended up winning Division One at a canter – it was telling that they had one of the worst disciplinary records in the league that year and yet they could produce dominant performances with ten men on a regular basis.
But towards the end of Keegan’s second season in charge, there were concerns from the then-chairman that the club was beginning to take unnecessary risks. From a sensible start to his stewardship of the club, there were worries they could find themselves in financial difficulties if the gambles they were taking didn’t come off. In the end, it was that risk that saw him resign his post.
“When life it tough and when things are difficult most people don’t want to know,, they’re happy to leave things to you,” he says. “When City were in that real problem in 1998, a lot of people were scared – the fans were angry and it was a very volatile situation – and I had a very, very free hand. It enabled me, with a team of some very good colleagues, to do a lot very, very quickly.
“As we started to get more successful, of course, more people started to want to get more active,” he continues. “There were some differences of views about some key things like management and certainly about buying players. I thought we were beginning to throw money around that we shouldn’t have been.
“There were one or two signings, that I won’t go into specifically, but you’ll probably know which ones they were, which I disagreed with strongly – and I was proved to be right,” he says. “In the end, I felt the strong role I’d been able to play over four or five years was becoming dissipated. I wasn’t a major shareholder. In the end, the people who provide the money have the final say.
“Having had a wonderful time with the club that I love so much, to step away wasn’t easy. But I wasn’t prepared to compromise on things like that.”