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.
But 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.
Garry 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.