Brand-happy City dish out the blues

DECADES spent in the shadows of a two-club town have afforded Manchester City fans an endearingly dour sort of optimism, so when I asked a bitter blue of my acquaintance whether their 2008 takeover would alter the way the club are perceived, he could state with some confidence: “Nah, not City.”

Back then, he wasn’t to know that over half a billion pounds of Sheikh Mansour’s money would go on what Chief Executive Garry Cook calls a “project”. But while hundreds of millions in transfer fees have enhanced their standing on the field and millions more have made City look slicker off it, more modest sums have allowed them to completely alter the face of football elsewhere.

In the Europa League last night, City prolonged Red Bull Salzburg’s ongoing failure to buy success beyond Austria’s borders. It’s five years since Red Bull acquired and adulterated the ailing Bundesliga side Austria Salzburg; rebadging and renaming the club in line with its brand-leading energy drink.

Hyde FC's Ewen Fields - or is it Manchester City'sBut just last summer, Manchester City were involved in the transformation of hard-up Hyde United from a club with not only “United” in its name but red shirts, to one without the offending suffix and colours. All in “celebration of our 125 year anniversary” according to Hyde FC, but the club soon unveiled white and blue strips bearing the sponsor City In The Community, which certainly underlined the initiative’s claim to make “a huge difference to the lives of those around us”

The kindest thing there is to say about this is that the manipulation of Hyde United has slightly more to do with football than Red Bull’s of Salzburg. Hyde FC’s Ewen Fields received more than just a lick of sky blue paint before City’s reserves made themselves at home, but in a move indecipherable from audacity or stupidity, they too have been retitled as Manchester City Elite Development Squad.

City fans had no more to do with this nonsense than those of the former Hyde United, but the non-league club’s dire straits, just as in Salzburg, put them in the path of an irresistible cash whirlwind.

Hyde badges old and newGarry Cook isn’t a football man but the former Nike executive understands brands, and City’s foray into Hyde illustrates the complexity of a supporter’s relationship with their club’s brand. It’s a word that evokes consumer choice, but as a fan there is no other club for us so surely we must be more than merely consumers of a brand. Therefore there is no choice, so clubs must be more than brands and fans more than consumers.

However, brought up on tales of past success and derring-do, good times are what fans’ hearts desire and don’t the brand-minded know it. That’s why decades of tradition can be warped or slaughtered in subservience to other, bigger, brands and they still turn up in Hyde, Milton Keynes, Salzburg, New York and Leipzig to watch the resultant footballing Frankenstein’s monsters.

“When the real is no longer what it was,” observed Jean Baudrillard, “nostalgia assumes its full meaning.” In Wimbledon and Salzburg (I hear there’s even a phoenix team in Manchester) there are indeed reminders that so often branding sells football fans short. There we’ll find the inspiration that it’s history and tradition that invigorates communities; that fans are not consumers; and that football clubs underestimate the power we wield at their peril.

Punch-drunk love is all in the game

APPROPRIATELY for a chap with a rich seam of anecdotes, it was the North of England Institute of Mining’s splendid lecture theatre that hosted an all-too brief talk from Harry Pearson late last year. Before sharing an overheard tale of Peter Beardsley being spotted shopping for cheese in a local supermarket, he dispensed some advice for those inclined to slap some much-needed sense into football.

It was the same line as the one fed to Floyd Mayweather prior to fighting Arturo Gatti a few years ago: “He don’t need no strategy to fight Gatti,” his trainer and uncle, Roger Mayweather, said. “Close your eyes and throw your hands and you’ll hit him in the fucking face.”

The thing is, football’s got a knack of staying on its fucking feet. Time after time its weeble-like figureheads live to fight another day; and seldom has this been more evident than during the last week.

At Cardiff City, Peter Ridsdale wobbled but he wouldn’t fall down. The fog persisted at Notts County, who have less than a month to clear their tax debts. Chester City became yours for a pound, while Crystal Palace’s administrators had a hand in the line-up that lost at Newcastle United, where season-long chants continue to implore a “fat cockney bastard” to get out of their club.

Portsmouth fans, in a change of tune from those caught voxpopping gormlessly on Match of the Day at the time of Gaydamak’s takeover that they didn’t care about the money “as long as it all gets spent!”, demanded to know where it’s all gone and where it’s going to come from. With a hateful global brandname for a neighbour, you’d have thought that’s the last thing Manchester City’s fans would want their club to become – but it is, whether or not Garry Cook sees it through.

After seven days of distress for fans of the sides involved and delight to some of those who aren’t, it’s worth remembering that if nothing else, football is fraternal and its appeal would diminish without the presence of genuine, traditional rivalries. There’d be much more mirth to be had at the Glazers’ shenanigans if the themes weren’t so familiar.

Leeds United’s recent form slump brings missed sitters like Thorp Arch and expensive shanks like the £1.5m Levi libel bill back into focus. Some of those who actually do put money into the club are showing renewed interest in what the man who doesn’t is doing with it all.

We’re fans. We want the best for our club. We have no say in its custodians. All we can do is not wet our knickers every time its name’s mentioned in the same breath as some flash bastard we’ve never heard of, and keep fighting those that we have.

Our New Year’s revolution

WITH this fan’s world still a euphoric, mind-bending Escher-esque scene in which Simon Grayson smiles down from on high whilst a ruddy-faced knight of the realm slops out the sewers, let’s try and force yesterday’s events into some sort of perspective. One thing the national coverage of Leeds United’s humbling of all Mancunia elicits is that each step back towards the Premier League means we fans will rely less and less on Ken Bates for news and opinion.

“When the economy went to shit and profits tanked,” creative consultant Douglas Haddow writes in Adbusters magazine’s The Big Ideas of 2010 issue, “The sacred membrane that separated advertising and content was torn apart.” Same thing happened at Elland Road. The media strategy established by Bates after his 2005 takeover not only shielded him two years later from the club’s controlled demolition, but also supplied his best bet of digging gold from the rubble.

A £480,000 debt to the station was pivotal in Bates’ initial bid to regain control of the club, into which the broadcaster has done much in tandem with the Members Club and LUTV to welcome supporters with one hand while keeping them out with the other.

Naturally, on commercial media’s coattails came advertising, and the club established an in-house agency; precisely the sort that, Haddow insists, “spews their infectious bile over all that was once holy”. As if to dispel all doubt of this, Leeds United’s first signing of the 2010 transfer window today jumped a stricken south coast ship to join a regime which, in the last 12 months, has stocked its club shop with ready meals and target-marketed followers with pitchside ads for pornography.

Have no illusions that, as a database, the Members Club is infinitely more valuable to the club than it is to us, yet all it’s managed to glean so far from our names, addresses, dates of birth and purchase histories is that none of us can cook, or stop wanking.

The plum account at Elland Road is the selling of the L-shaped blockhead’s L-shaped block to anyone who’ll listen. The redevelopment of Stamford Bridge into what Bates dreamed as “one of the best grounds in the country” left it unfit for purpose with Chelsea on the verge of bankruptcy. But while external, contrary voices (such as David Conn’s ongoing distillation of the club’s offshore affairs for which the Guardian had their bottoms smacked) are dismissed as insubstantial, there remains little evidence that Bates’ scheme to replicate Fulham Broadway’s expensive mediocrity in, erm, Beeston is in our best interests – apart from his frequent say-sos on Yorkshire Radio, LUTV and in the programme that it is. Honest.

It’s with “a resounding shrug,” Haddow concludes in The Big Ideas of 2010, that audiences have “largely met the shift toward branded media” like Leeds United’s. However, as witnessed over the weekend, Ken’s stranglehold on the club’s message isn’t so fierce when it’s competing beyond the confines of the third division.

Gloriously anarchic, Leeds United fans are hard to chuck a blanket over but in 2010 our voices will crescendo to new, entirely authentic forms. It will be a year of mass individual expression as increasing numbers of bloggers, forummers and social networkers converge with new and existing independent initiatives run in the real world by fans, for fans. As Simon Grayson’s side flies higher, may the questions of those at the helm of our club become harder to ignore.

Here’s to 2010; to new friends and old enemies. Ha ha!

Ballparks figure

SINCE it’s the MLB All-Star game tonight (on ESPN America from 00:30 GMT), let’s talk a little baseball. And Ken Bates.

Like most things in life worth knowing, I learned of Shea Stadium’s existence via a Beastie Boys lyric. It wasn’t the first time I’d acted on a rhyme of theirs in New York (that was “Excuse me motherfuckers, can I beg your pardon / I’m gonna see the Knicks at Madison Square Garden”) but by the time I got around to taking the 7 train to Queens a couple of months ago, old Shea had been bulldozed car park flat.

citifield01Both the Big Apple’s Major League Baseball sides have miraculously built ballparks in the shadows of their existing homes: in the Mets’ case, the nipping new – if numbingly-named – Citi Field. It’s a similar story in the Bronx, except that one’s shit because it’s where the Yankees play.

Nevertheless, we’re talking $2.5billion worth of brick, limestone and granite here, brimming with improved facilities and concessions for match-goers: merchandise stores, multiple bars, restaurants, food and beer stands. Two goldmines of box office, catering and hospitality.

Once the FA realised it was going to be costly enough without any of Ken Bates’ further input, Wembley was developed along similar lines. If it’s accommodation you’re after at his raison d’être, the stadium hotel, there’s plenty of rooms at hotbeds of mediocrity like Bolton, Reading, Coventry and Oxford.

In recent years, three of the Premier League’s top four clubs have extended, or made plans to extend, ground capacities to cater for the sort of attendances that the fourth – Chelsea – are prevented from matching because someone left two empty hotels and a nightclub in the way.

It’s a complex that his successor as chairman, Bruce Buck, admits they wouldn’t have built as “all a football fan wants, really, is football.” And that’s from an American.

They may openly refer to fans as ‘guests’ in New York, but Citi Field’s no midweek doss-house for hoover reps. There wasn’t a single check-in desk, water feature or Corby trouser press in sight – and they hadn’t even the wit to include a basement nightclub. The schmucks.

On principalities

WHILE everyone waits for the winter ice to thaw on Austria Salzburg’s season, let’s take the opportunity to gather up some of this blog’s underlying strands.

The two months since Austria’s unterligas went into deep freeze has seen match-fixing rear its pug-ugly fizzog in Spain, Bulgaria and Poland, serious question marks emerge over who was in referee Steve Bennett’s earhole during his last minute penalty u-turn, and Graham Poll claim he often ‘deadened’ the later stages of level cup ties in order to collect bonus match fees from replays.

Speaking of arseholes, the Premier League’s Richard Scudamore, true to form, bounced into the sack with the governers of some of the most corrupt football on the planet while continuing to assert his own competition’s airworthiness while all around him nervously eyed the emergency exits.

With the transfer window flung open to allow in the tumbleweeds and let ‘Appy ‘Arry give bookies’ mate Stephen Appiah the once-over, up for sale West Ham, Blackburn, Everton and Arcadi – sorry, Alexandre – Gaydamak’s Portsmouth remain unfloggable.

chelsea01Just as Newcastle United’s Mike Ashley stopped looking for some other cash-rich sucker, fans of Manchester City were staring up the league table wondering why chief executive Garry Cook ever bothered and Ken Bates’ Stamford Bridge bailers were having to shelve attempts to resuscitate his deadweight developments.

If all this seems a bit Machiavellian, then small wonder it should lead to the man who in a previous life sneered ‘You’ve lost!’ in the faces of clubs – Leeds United among them – who had unsuccessfully opposed Sky’s bid to de-terrestrialise the top of the English game.

Governing, these days, from a principality far from his own, Ken Bates channels as effectively as ever Niccolò Machiavelli’s tracts that it’s always better to be feared than loved, and a good prince should only seem to have certain humane qualities because it’s often necessary to act against them.

Acquired more by force than skill, and unwilling to move there himself, Bates’ only secure way of retaining Leeds United was to destroy it and re-establish it in his image.

Deep within the vacuum of the self-same Football League the Sky deal he backed was designed to smash, Bates’ toytown media appears to be a godsend to fans who, despite the lack of evidence that his mediocre longview is in their best interests, are often informed over a bed of mind-numbing 80s and 90s pop efforts that it is.

Old Machiavelli would’ve approved.

Blyth Spartans 0-1 Blackburn Rovers

HAVING made the trip up north from the Ally Pally following Phil Taylor’s humbling of Raymond van Barneveld, I exchanged the self-proclaimed ‘hottest ticket in world sport’ for quite possibly its coldest last night.

Blyth Spartans haven’t seen anything like it since a last-minute Wrexham equaliser from a thrice-taken corner kick robbed the Northern League side of a quarter final home tie against Arsenal back in 1978.

Fitting, then, that denied my semi-regular spot in the Swamp, I decamped to the Kingsway End where a barrel-bellied Northumbrian in a four-foot wide green sombrero belted out Slade numbers at the top of his voice while another passed around a tartan thermos flask brimming with Brown Ale. If someone had have offered me a Spangle, I would’ve barely flinched.

What Blyth lacked in shirt-sleeve length and white shoe leather, they compensated with mascots (all fourteen of them), hard graft and good, old fashioned luck. But for a Chilean’s free kick on the hour, Spartans manager Harry Dunn’s sagacious cup patience might just have sent Blackburn Rovers the same way as Whitby, Buxton, Sheffield FC, Shrewsbury and Bournemouth.

But just as Lancashire hearts quickened and Croft Park dared to believe, an Andrew Wright shot missed a post by the width of a Phil Taylor opening dart at double sixteen and it was Blyth who were left, in Waddellian terms, as sick as a chip.

Blyth Spartans 1-0 AFC Bournemouth

CROFT Park quivered with a mixture of excitement and hypothermia last night, and there were so many people there, they had to put two burger vans on. It was all a bit too much for one of floodlights, leading to a scene which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Buster Keaton flick, as Blyth’s chairman and assorted club blazers scratched their heads whilst peering into a smoking fusebox.

Two second half substitutions swung it Blyth’s way. Bournemouth’s came on to get himself sent off within seconds, while Spartans’ – a 19-year old blessed with the name of a carnival strongman – scored from their only real chance in three hours of trying.

Ged Dalton’s goal couldn’t have been better timed, as floodlight bulbs were starting to pop with alarming frequency. When a second pylon blew, Bournemouth’s players made a vain attempt to get the game abandonded but it was so dark by then, the ref couldn’t see them.

Quite what the fuck Blackburn Rovers are going to make of all this, I have no idea.

Wow and flutter

AN FA statement last week gave short shrift to allegations of match-fixing as it shutdown a probe into betting patterns surrounding October’s Championship fixture between Norwich City and Derby County.

Football’s overseers claim they ‘received assistance from the Gambling Commission and individual UK bookmakers, who confirmed that no suspicious activity took place on their markets around the match at Carrow Road.’

westhamThat’s that, then. Except, er, the activity didn’t arise in the UK. The heavy half-time money came from the Far East through Singapore-based SBOBET, who flatly refused to co-operate with the FA’s enquiry. Curiouser and curiouser, the FA’s unfounded confidence on Friday in the offending fixture came just in time for them to welcome SBOBET into the family as West Ham United’s brand new shirt sponsor at tonight’s televised visit of Harry Redknapp’s Spurs.

Despite Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore’s parliamentary defence of his league and its mountainous liabilities, worldwide interest in buying its hugely-indebted clubs has all but dried up. One such club’s predicament is unique, and provides a decent wormhole into the way football is heading.

West Ham United have been shafted left, right and centre by an international financial crisis and are on the receiving end of a whacking great compo bill thanks to their own illegality and Scudamore’s failure to conceal it.

On the bones of their arse, they turn like the barrow boys they are to the cream cookies. Overseas betting markets offer a tonic for not only ailing Premier League clubs but also, as speculated a few posts back, the woes of the entire league in the form of Game 39.

Quite where all this sucking up to bookmakers leaves a competition which entrusts the majority of its televised matches (and therefore its biggest worldwide markets) to one of only three referees is unclear, but it hasn’t done one of them, Mike Dean, any harm whatsoever.

Suspended just three years ago for his involvement with a betting website, he’s now not only a FA Cup Final official, but hope personified for the alive and well Mark Clattenburg.

If it ain’t fixed, don’t break it

IN THE grand scheme of things, back-to-back draws aren’t much of a reality check. But on the way to their latest stalemate, Austria Salzburg’s supporters took in the village of Fuschl am See, where lies the corporate nerve centre of a company which, in 1984, adapted a Thai stimulant of which they now sell more than 3 billion cans a year worldwide. In 2005, the same firm bought their ailing football club and placed it in the ranks of other heavily-branded non-entities bearing their drink’s name and colours.

fuschlThose who chose to support 11 of Red Bull GmbH’s 4,000 employees have discovered that habitually topping Austria’s Bundesliga is scant consolation for routinely failing to secure salient European exposure for their brand. Those who didn’t have found the path from the country’s basement league, unlike the winding road to Fuschl am See, to be straight and true.

This season, however, the real Austria Salzburg are experiencing some resistance to their progress, with recent draws at Grünau and Strobl and an uncharacteristic away defeat at Bürmoos. Nevertheless, with just Saturday’s home date with as-yet winless St Georgen to go before the winter break, they’re tucked neatly behind Kuchl in second place and alle ist gut.

Since the Austrian fizz magnates unfurled their template in New York with the fanfare ‘We’ve changed the name, now we’re changing the game’, they’ve learned that, just as in Salzburg, old habits die hard and the team formerly known as MetroStars are still the league’s longest-running joke.

When two of their players were recently suspended for doping, one of the deputising soft drink adverts, rookie goalkeeper Danny Cepero, scored an 80-yard free kick on Giants Stadium’s hallucinogenic pitch and football entered new realms of synthesis.

But how ‘real’ is football anyway? If a recent spate of accounts are anything to go by, Eastern ingenuity distorts the game in more than just Salzburg and New York.

In his book, ‘The Fix’, Canadian journalist Declan Hill tells of meetings with Chinese-Malaysian fixers at the 2006 World Cup, focusing on Ghana’s 3-0 loss to Brazil and, hilariously, the failure to fix England’s game with Ecuador because Sven Goran Eriksson’s side weren’t considered good enough to score twice.

zenithMore recently, a Spanish judge’s taped Russian boasts that Zenit St Petersburg’s UEFA Cup semi final second leg defeat of Bayern Munich was bought, as well as suggestions that the final – in Manchester, against Rangers – was also compromised, preceded suspicious half time Asian betting patterns on a Championship match at Carrow Road in which Derby goalkeeper Roy Carroll was dismissed and subsequently dropped.

The rise of in-running betting has not only lead to the presence of ‘spotters’ in UK grounds exploiting the momentary gap in TV transmission to China by informing syndicates of what’s unfolding by mobile phone, but also the violent Newcastle murder of a Chinese couple known to be recruiting others to beat the Asian bookies.

The object of such obvious market appeal would have to be pretty robust to withstand the temptations money can bring, and we know how flaky the Premier League can be. If it didn’t come over all light-headed around the folding stuff, ‘Grand Slam Sunday’ would be a once in a lifetime event instead of occurring twice a season, West Ham would’ve been relegated for Carlos Tevez’s illegal registration and the likes of Thaksin Shinawatra and Arcadi Gaydamak wouldn’t be allowed to hold stakes in its precious member clubs.

newcastleunitedSeeing Garry Cook’s ‘Virgin of Asia’ became the latest side to benefit from Rob Styles’ over-assertive manner in the box, made me wonder what effect the boom in the Premier League’s overseas finance, aided by lax application of the fabled ‘Fit & Proper Persons Test’ and other excuses for governance from Richard Scudamore, has on its integrity.

Was the Professional Match Game Officials Board unprecedented last-minute wholesale changes to so-called ‘Select Group’ appointments recently an indication that whatever familiarity breeds, it ain’t good? And what’s happened to Mark Clattenburg, suspended days before the season fresh from having an expensive-looking hair weave?

Is it really appropriate that in Sky, the Premier League has paymaster, broadcaster and bookkeeper? How can they talk about the global appeal of the Premier League when there’s empty seats when its teams go on tour? Is the real reason that Game 39’s still on the agenda to tap into massive overseas gambling markets, extending Scudamore’s working relationship with those he really ought to be protecting the game from?

Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.

Sheikh, rattle and roll over

How do you passionately support a PLC? How do you maintain the undying devotion that makes you a fan when the club is doing its damnedest to turn you into a customer? One answer is that you simply blank it all out and focus on the team, on what happens on the pitch. But what if the team is a rotating cast of millionaires with no more connection to your world than Tom Cruise…?”

~ Gary Imlach, ‘My Father and Other Working Class Heroes’

LAST weekend, as Sulaiman Al-Fahim was preparing to take one small step for man, one giant leap for Manchester City, Mike Ashley was downing a pint of lager as if it were his last in the taught black and white nylon of Newcastle United. Within days, in the wake of Kevin Keegan’s exit, the self-same Mags who had cheered Ashley’s every gulp from the pubs of Grainger Town were urging each other to boycott the brands and retail outlets which catapulted him to billionaire status.

They should count themselves lucky. As anyone who’s dared to peek inside a Geordie’s wardrobe will tell you, they pack considerable weight in this sector and furthermore, at least the source of Ashley’s wealth is targettable. What are Manchester United fans supposed to do the day Fergie leaves, go and picket Malcolm Glazer’s sausage skin factories?

cashpointPerhaps the Premier League could learn a thing or two from Austria, where one glance at the Bundesliga table or just couple of minutes spent reading the adverts on a club’s kit leaves little doubt as to who’s running the show. Witness last season’s clash between FC Superfund and Cashpoint Altach (above).

It’s fairly amusing to think that Liverpool’s jerseys might bear the name of George Gillet’s meat plants or Tom Hicks’ brand of Argentinian pet food. Then again, until last Monday’s stroke of a pen in Dubai’s Emirates Palace Hotel, I shudder to think what message Manchester City’s shirts could’ve carried. In reality, it seems that for a follower of ‘The Greatest League in the World’, ignorance is bliss as far as club ownership’s concerned. As long as Sky’s in town and there are signings to slaver over, who really cares where the money’s coming from?

Perhaps the commercialised landscape of Austrian football’s not so crass after all. Maybe its abundance of brandnames perversely affords Bundesliga clubs the sort of integrity most Premier League sides lack. After all, unlike in this country, Austrian fans are left in no doubt whatsoever that to the clubs they’re a just another revenue stream.

Uppermost in the minds of the new Arabian suitors at ‘Middle Eastlands’ is a document penned by Executive Chairman Garry Cook entitled ‘A New Model for Partnership in Football’. Within its 83 pages, ex-Nike executive Cook foresees a Premier League of 10-14 teams with no promotion or relegation (‘Fans would find a way to get passionate about it,’ he insists) and a re-branded Manchester City becoming ‘The Virgin of Asia’ by branching into the automotive, fashion and telecommunications industries, as well as endorsing a range of energy drinks manufactured by, well, who do you think?

garrycookNot keen on how commercial the Premier League’s become? Tough. By Cook’s reckoning it’s actually undervalued: ’10 years behind the US,’ he says. Anyway, it’s none of your business. ‘China and India, 30% of the world population,’ Cook observes, ‘need a league to watch and we want Manchester City to be their club.’

Their club. The message is clear: if you want to support a successful side, you’re going to have to let it go. Garry Cook. Remember that name. You are a football fan, and he is your enemy. This blog’s been three years in the making and the object of much long-distance finger-pointing in these pages is rapidly becoming the reality for the English game.