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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

The Man United-ification of Man City turned them from ‘noisy neighbours’ to the world’s best

Football's Front Lines: "You see it now day to day, kids wearing City tops all the time. When I was little, you never saw a kid in a City top"

In 2006/07, Man City scored their last home goal of the season on New Year’s Day.

These days, 90 minutes without a goal at the Etihad is almost inconceivable.

Once a charming club strongly associated with Manchester’s working class, City are now halfway to world domination with the Etihad having become one of the city’s premier tourist attractions.

From Psycho to Pep

AFP
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From Psycho to Pep

Sheikh Mansour’s takeover in 2008 has drastically revamped the club and produced a sustained period of success.

But how has the club’s transformation affected the fans?

As part of our Football’s Front Lines campaign, I visited the Etihad on matchday to speak to those who are City through and through — or should that be blue and blue?

You’re getting a different fan here now,” Jadie Hassell told me.

“Back in the day, when we weren’t great, it was just the die-hards. Now there’s a lot of tourists coming to watch us.

“The atmosphere has definitely changed, it’s not as good as it was at Maine Road.”

Jadie Hassell, lifelong City fan

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Jadie Hassell, lifelong City fan

Every fan I spoke to admitted the matchday experience has changed since the trophies started flooding in.

“The atmosphere’s dropped off slightly,” said John Baker.

“When we was at Maine Road, we were just there for the fun. But it’s a lot more serious nowadays.”

Serious is an understatement.

The fan zone outside the Etihad (dubbed ‘City Square’) boasts light-hearted entertainment – bucket challenge, table tennis football, cornhole, live music – but City couldn’t be more focused on the pitch.

In Pep Guardiola they have one of football’s great brains.

A disciple of Johan Cruyff, he drifts between perfectionism and obsession with undeniable results.

They said he couldn’t do it in England… then he started breaking records

PA:Empics Sport
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They said he couldn’t do it in England… then he started breaking records

“I think he’s actually surpassed what he’s done at other clubs,” John explained. “He’s just got to get the trophies to prove it.

“We’re just sat there in our seats in awe, watching the football.”

Whether it’s death by a thousand cuts or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rampage, City’s football has been unmatched in the last year and a half.

Not even Barcelona, spiritual kings of tika-taka, have blended entertainment, effectiveness and ruthlessness as well.

El Mago

Getty Images - Getty
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El Mago

A record-breaking 100-point campaign last season cemented their status as modern giants of the English game.

City have won more domestic honours than Man United since the takeover in 2008.

They’re on course to finish above their neighbours for the sixth consecutive season.

In many ways, this power shift owes a lot to the Man United-ification of City, though plenty of Mancunians would object to such terminology.

Dan Halifx, City season ticket holder for ’16/17 years’

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Dan Halifx, City season ticket holder for ’16/17 years’

“People hate us now because they feel like we’ve bought success,” Dan Halifax told me.

“Look at Man U over the years, they were paying £5million for players when everyone else was paying £100,000. They started this trend.”

Financial might has lured several world-class players to Eastlands in the last decade.

Not least Sergio Aguero, the clinical goalscorer responsible for one of the most significant turning points of the modern era.

The Argentinian’s last-gasp winner against QPR in 2012 signalled a turning of the tide.

Once the ‘noisy neighbours’ of Manchester, a debut Premier League crown laid the foundations upon which a legacy will be built.

Martin Tyler swears you’ll never see anything like it ever again

PA:Press Association
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Martin Tyler swears you’ll never see anything like it ever again

The moment remains sacred for Sky Blues everywhere.

“I sat next to the QPR fans and we were giving each other stick,” Dan recalled.

“We were all arguing then we scored that last-minute goal and suddenly we were jumping and cuddling each other. It were brilliant.”

“Best day of my life,” Jadie said, before a quick revision. “After having a kid.

“I was in tears. I’ve been in tears twice, first time was Gillingham and the second time was then [Aguero].”

What City heroes used to look like

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What City heroes used to look like

The contrast between Jadie’s two most emotional experiences as a City fan highlights the club’s metamorphosis.

Paul Dickov’s 95th-minute equaliser at Wembley led to a penalty shootout victory in the 1999 Second Division play-off final.

Escape from the third tier meant the world to City fans at the time.

Now the Etihad faithful are hopeful of a quadruple.

Shooting for the moon

Reuters
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Shooting for the moon

Bookies make them favourites for the league, the FA Cup and even the Champions League, having already retained the Carabao Cup.

The club’s hierarchy are desperate for European success to strengthen the club’s brand further — and make no mistake, City are a brand these days.

But the fans I spoke to don’t share the owners’ yearning for European glory.

I don’t think it means a lot to the fans,” Barry Lomas said. “It means more to the club. The fans want the Premier League.”

I know the owners want it,” Dan added. “But as a fan base, it sounds stupid, but we’re not going ‘we need to win it’, we’re happy with back-to-back titles.”

Barry Lomas and John Baker follow City all over Europe

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Barry Lomas and John Baker follow City all over Europe

There is a slight disconnect between the fans who were weathered by the pre-takeover years and those who have known nothing but prosperity.

“The young ‘uns are being treated totally different,” Barry explained.

“They expect us to win everything. Whereas us older ones, we know what it was like [before 2008].”

It’s impossible to gauge how many people became City fans worldwide because of the Aguero moment [and the resulting aftermath] but I was struck by the diverse range of accents and languages sat around me at the Etihad.

You see it now day to day,” Jadie said. “Kids wearing City tops all the time.

“When I was little, you never saw a kid in a City top.”

Many fans would prefer if their club didn’t attract tourists but day-trippers are the sign of a club at the very top.

If people are spending hundreds of pounds and travelling even more miles to watch a game, then the club in question is doing something right.

The trophy hoarder

PA:Press Association
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The trophy hoarder

The ‘Empithad’ joke is also something of a misconception.

Pockets of empty seats in the family stand are exposed by television cameras but viewers at home don’t see the packed rows high in the top tiers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere for the Watford game, aided somewhat by Raheem Sterling’s hat-trick.

When I say City have been Man United-ified, it’s a compliment.

A less raucous, more expectant atmosphere is the price you pay for ascension to elite status.

United remain the bigger club in terms of global reputation, overall honours, and fan base.

But the gap is closing with every pass, every cutback, every goal.

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