The beautification of Manchester City is a complicated thing and, as the Stakhanovite hit squad from Uefa’s financial control team might yet demonstrate, not without blemish. That City should be hounded about the corridors of power on an FA Cup final weekend when they could seal an unprecedented domestic treble, is in one sense just another zany plot twist in the vicissitudes of a club which, in the modern era at least, has been in perpetual search of a positive identity, of recognition.
Before Munich, before Law, Charlton and Best, there was little sense of inferiority at Maine Road. Indeed City were able to respond with their own Hollywood three-ball of Bell, Summerbee and Lee, winning the old First Division in the same year United won the European Cup for the first time. Two years later in 1970 City followed United across the European threshold with victory in the Cup-Winners’ Cup.
Yet in terms of the stuff of life; drama, tragedy, romance and fame, City were not in the same ballpark as a club recovering from a global news event via the aegis of arguably England’s finest footballer and a blue-eyed Ulsterman laying down the pop cult template for today’s groomed glamour boys. When United got it right again under Sir Alex Ferguson to dominate the first decades of the Premier League, City were driven underground by the Beckhams and the Ronaldos, a rudderless husk of a footballing subculture drifting aimlessly in the game’s nether regions.
Now look at them, among the finest club sides in the history of the English game, playing lavish, attacking football under the aegis of an agenda-setting coach. Reconciling their gargantuan lottery win with the privations of their post-Seventies, minimalist past is still a stretch for the Kippax diehards who cheered Shaun Goater, Trevor Horlock, Paul Dickov, below, et al to play-off victory against Gillingham at Wembley. That win 20 years ago earned promotion to the second tier of English football four days after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham added another fabled chapter to the United legend in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
That kind of status deficit has a way of eating permanently into a fan’s soul so that no amount of monied aggrandisement can shift that sense of place and downtrodden scale. Believe it or not there are some heading to Wembley, such as City lifer Peter Thornton, the copywriter responsible for the literature in the national football museum, who will enter the stadium believing Watford have a decent shot at winning this.
Thornton is a refugee from the days when the portrayal of City fans centred on their eccentricity and their defiance, their attachment to a hopeless cause, turning out in great number to watch home games against opponents such as Wigan, Walsall, Carlisle and Colchester. The troubling tension that would always be there before games still pools at the back of his mind in a way those who jumped aboard the train only at the Etihad station will never know.
Any who watched the Premier League TV production of the title race through the eyes of fans might have recognised Thornton as the supporter representing the City perspective alongside his son. “On Sunday [Brighton] it was only when the fourth went in that I started to relax. The game that scarred my generation was in 1989. We needed to beat Bournemouth to go up to the First Division. We were 3-0 up at half-time. We drew 3-3, Bournemouth scored a penalty in the last minute. That scarred us to the point that last year when we were beating United 2-0 at half-time and we were going to win the title on derby day, all the kids were singing ‘we are going to win the league’. I was thinking ‘no, don’t start singing too early’. What happened? We lost.”
Now City’s difficulties are all off the field, contesting a financial fair play dispute with Uefa that threatens the club’s carefully choreographed reputation as well as future participation in the Champions League. City will do as they always have under the present regime, throw money at the problem. The endless reserves that have shaped the divine squad that takes on Watford today will doubtless dizzy Uefa’s legal team with the same unanswerable movement and possession, leaving them begging for the final whistle.