A quick scroll of Twitter and a peruse of the sports news pages can speak volumes about the mood of any particular football club’s fanbase these days.
Take the rivals of Manchester United and Manchester City, for example, two clubs whose fortunes have gone in opposite directions since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 – when City’s post-takeover glory years really started to kick in.
City have dominated English football under Pep Guardiola, winning four Premier League titles in five seasons, to go with the 13 other major domestic pots (including Community Shields) they’ve claimed since the 2008 takeover by Sheikh Mansour.
United, in that time, stayed afloat at the summit often enough under Ferguson’s expert stewardship until 2013, before mismanagement off and on the pitch precipitated a major fall from grace. The club are currently suffering their longest trophy drought in five decades.
But, such is the nature of elite level football, is everything about to change again? The answers in the depths of Twitter’s replies and the comments sections on major news sites suggest as much – and it’s not just down to Erik ten Hag’s Old Trafford rebuild and City’s patchy post World Cup form.
Inevitably, the answer lies in the clubs’ coffers. At 10am on Monday, the Premier League announced that an investigation into City has prompted more than 100 charges relating to Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. The club is accused of breaching rules in a period stretching from the 2009/10 season to the 2017/18 campaign and have been referred to an independent commission.
City, who successfully overturned an FFP-related ban from UEFA competitions, thanks to an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2020, said they were “surprised” at the charges and vowed to fight them.
But this is serious. Competition bans, points deductions and even the stripping of league titles have been mentioned in dispatches.
Naturally the reaction from non-City fans (especially United supporters) on social media has been less nuanced than the Premier League’s statement. The idea of City’s trophy-laden golden years getting torpedoed by the suits is manna from heaven for some; others have found it simply hilarious. City fans themselves have become defensive and confused.
It feels very apt (or is it ironic?) that later in the same week, talk of a United takeover has hit the same news pages. Reports on Wednesday claimed the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is interested in purchasing the club from the Glazer family, who are looking to sell, with offers to be tabled in the next 10 days.
Again, the majority of United fans rejoiced in response to this. Their reaction is a natural one in many ways – they want the troublesome Glazers gone, they want a cash injection from a new owner to support the Ten Hag project that is gaining momentum on the pitch. But should they be careful what they wish for?
There is no guarantee that a Qatari ownership of United wouldn’t break the rules in the same way their counterparts from the United Arab Emirates have done across Manchester, potentially landing United in hot water. There is already a UEFA complication around the Qatar Sports Investment Group given they already own Paris Saint-Germain. And then there’s concerns about human rights and the treatment of migrant workers and the LGBT+ community that still surround the country and were highlighted in the build up to the Qatar World Cup.
Amnesty International said this was “another wake-up call” to the Premier League in regards to changing its rules on who could own clubs. The Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle was heavily criticised for similar reasons, as was the purchase of City back in 2008 and Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea before that.
Whatever happens at United, it seems there will be a shift at Old Trafford to match the kind of wealth seen elsewhere among Premier League owners, for better or worse.
English billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe is another party interested in buying the club and he certainly seems the popular choice among supporters, as a boyhood United fan himself. Bids from elsewhere in the Middle East or the United States have not been ruled out, either; simply put it seems you have to be ludicrously rich to be in the running, with the Glazers asking for £5billion at least.
What seems clear is that football’s relationship with money can surely never be reversed. So Financial Fair Play rules – if they are fit for purpose – will continue to get tested to their limit, if not by City or United then maybe by Chelsea after their head-spinning January spending under Todd Boehly. Time will tell.
Whether we witness a power shift in Manchester over the coming months now depends on a large number of factors, by no means limited to between the white lines on the Old Trafford or Etihad pitches.