A Tradition Maintained

7th November 2017

I turned up at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday knowing that Manchester City had made an impressive start to the 2017-18 season: maximum points from their 4 Champions League games to date, 9 wins (and one draw) out of 10 Premier League matches and safely through to the quarter-final of the Carabao (or League) Cup. In the Premier League, they were five points clear of second-placed Manchester United and nine points ahead of Arsenal in fifth spot. As Sunday’s game was against Arsenal – and United were playing fourth-placed Chelsea – there was the possibility that City would put further daylight between themselves and their title rivals.

I had wondered what to expect. The latest (2017) estimates of Forbes magazine are that the ManchesterCity and Arsenal corporate entities each have a value of approximately $2 billion. They are global brands in a global market. City are owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group; Arsenal’s major shareholders are an American sports tycoon and a Russian billionaire. The respective managers are a Spaniard (or, more accurately in the current political climate, a Catalan) and a Frenchman. Both clubs spent over £50 million on single players during the last transfer window. In the starting XIs, City fielded four Englishmen and Arsenal none (though there was one Welshman).

The question in my mind was whether – for the home supporters on this occasion – there was still a local connection. Do the City faithful still have a sense of identification with a club that will mark its 125th anniversary in 2019: the club of Billy Meredith and Bert Trautmann and Colin Bell?

There was plenty of evidence to indicate that the ties between club and supporters are still very strong. In this regard, the appeal to tradition is clearly significant. It was no coincidence that my seat was actually in the Colin Bell Stand. Moreover, the player described by the mc as probably the greatest ever to wear a Manchester City shirt was present to take his place before the kick-off in a guard of honour for Sergio Agüero who, in the previous match against Napoli, had become the club’s record goalscorer. Agüero’s total of 178 had taken him past the 78 year-old record of Eric Brook, whose daughter was on hand to make a pre-match presentation. She was accompanied by Mike Summerbee, a “club ambassador” and, of course, a colleague of Bell’s in the great City side of the late 1960s. In turn, Summerbee’s article in the match programme having made reference to Remembrance Day, a separate piece recognised some of the City players killed or wounded in the First World War trenches 100 years ago.

When Agüero scored his 179th goal – a soft penalty awarded five minutes after half-time to give his side a 2-0 lead – it looked as if the floodgates might open, given Arsenal’s occasional tendency in recent years to concede large scores to sides at or near the top of the table. Instead – prompted by the Welshman, Aaron Ramsey – they enjoyed their best spell of the match and a goal by the lively substitute Alexandre Lacazette duly reduced the arrears. For the third City goal, the naked eye suggested that David Silva was at least three yards offside before setting up the tap-in for Gabriel Jesus: the later television replay indicated it was perhaps half a yard, but offside nonetheless. 3-1 was the final score.

Much is made of ManchesterCity’s playing style: a passing game, built up from the goalkeeper and the back four, so that the skilful presence of Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane can threaten in the final third of the pitch. De Bruyne was announced to have been the man-of-the-match – he had struck the first goal and posed a danger throughout the afternoon – though Silva must have run him close, as also Fernandinho. The last of these is generally less-heralded, I suspect, but is clearly a vital component of City’s midfield machinery.

Earlier in the day, I had visited the NationalFootballMuseum in the city centre. I had been meaning to go for some time, partly because, when it had previously been located in Preston (as it was from 2001 to 2010), one of the trustees was the late Brian Booth, whom I got to know when I was a Scottish Executive civil servant and he was a non-executive director of the Glasgow-based Student Loans Company. Brian was a proud advocate of the Museum and its Lancastrian location.

The Museum, which is free to enter (and invites donations), is well worth a visit. For the traditionalists and historians amongst us, there is some fascinating older material, including a hand-written version of the Rules of Association Football (from 1863) and an England shirt from the first international football match (against Scotland in 1872). One should be prepared to be overwhelmed, however, as there is scarcely an aspect of (English) football history that does not seem to be covered. I’m not really sure if the exhibits need to include the shorn locks of Robbie Savage’s hair or the pickled knee cartilage of Willie Cunningham, though I suppose one of John Motson’s sheepskin overcoats just about qualifies.

The “sport-in-society” theme of my occasional blogs was certainly captured in some of the Museum’s displays, not least the dreadful array of knives carried by some of the members of the 1980s football gangs. On a more uplifting note, I was taken by the small model of the old Wembley Stadium – sculpted out of concrete – the concrete itself having been rescued at the time of the demolition of the old Wembley Stadium.

The usual rules apply, I think. If one seeks to understand the current state of affairs of something – in this case, of football in general or a club such as Manchester City in particular – it is immensely useful to start with its history. Some traditions are maintained, others are re-interpreted, yet others are broken.

For the present, ManchesterCity go from strength to strength. By the close-of-play on Sunday, their lead at the top of the Premier League had stretched to eight points, courtesy of Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Manchester United. There is still over two-thirds of the league season to run, of course, but it is looking ominous for the rest of the field.

As for Arsenal, the traditions of my personal relationship with the club have been maintained. I have seen them play three times – against Leeds United at Elland Road in 1971, against Manchester United at Highbury in 1985 and now against ManchesterCity at the Etihad Stadium in 2017. They have lost on all three occasions.

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