Man City's rise to the apex of club football wasn't pre-ordained – nor is its future

The road to success since Abu Dhabi's takeover of the club 15 years ago has been long and winding

Manchester City players carry the Uefa Champions League trophy, the FA Cup trophy and the Premier League trophy during the Treble Parade in Manchester in June. PA Wire
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For Manchester City fans, August has been full of reminders of the winding road the club has travelled over its long history.

This month marked the 100th anniversary of the club’s arrival at its former but much-loved Maine Road ground in Manchester, as well as the 20th anniversary of leaving Moss Side to move into what is now known as the Etihad Stadium.

The first match at the new home was a 2003 friendly against Barcelona, who mixed in different circles back then. The Spanish side were then (and now) European football royalty, while City were only about to start their second season back in the English top flight. Today, Barca and City are champions of their respective leagues and both clubs attend the same parties.

The end of August also marks the 15th anniversary of the takeover of the club by the Abu Dhabi United Group. The memorandum of understanding between UK Sports and Investments Group owned by Thaksin Shinawatra and ADUG was agreed on August 31, 2008 in Abu Dhabi.

The following day, a transfer deal was agreed with European giants Real Madrid to lure Brazil’s Robinho to City. It was a stunning piece of business that shook the football world and announced the arrival of the club on the European stage. Good results on the field of play would take a little longer to achieve, however.

Fifteen years later, the benefit of hindsight makes the purchase of the club look like a surefire investment, given the fact that the men’s team won an historic treble last season, culminating in winning the Uefa Champions League for the first time, and has already claimed the European Super Cup this term.

How Man City became a super club under Abu Dhabi ownership

How Man City became a super club under Abu Dhabi ownership
In 2023, there is blue sky and a collection of clubs looking at City as a target to aim at

When the story began in 2008, many fans might have hoped for the best for City, but few could have predicted that the club would turn into the trophy-winning machine that it has become under manager Pep Guardiola. He has guided the team to five Premier League titles in the past six years, as well as achieving that previously elusive European dream. A tilt at the Fifa Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia awaits Guardiola’s team at the end of this year.

Five men’s players made the PFA Team of the Year at an awards ceremony this week and Erling Haaland was recognised as the players’ player of the year, to add to the two individual awards the Norwegian superstar had already picked up from the Premier League and the football writers’ award he won at the end of last season. Three players for the club’s Women’s Super League team also made their PFA team of the year. Both individual and team honours are regularly won nowadays.

There is a tendency to view City’s rise into the top as if it was ordained, but the facts from 2008 paint a different story.

Commenting in Killing The Game, Daniel Slack-Smith’s 2018 book on the takeover, former chief executive Garry Cook, who left the club in 2011, said “everything was broken” at the organisation in the weeks before the takeover agreement was reached. City’s long-serving chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak said the scale of the task after the takeover was much greater than expected and there was a need to build “infrastructure, processes, systems and strategy” from scratch to support the club, which had endured a series of stumbles and mishaps in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.

The side’s return to the Premier League in 2002 and move into the new stadium in 2003 were seen as arrival points back then. There was a clear ceiling on further progression given the clubs that were ahead of them and the distance that needed to be travelled to catch up. In 2023, there is blue sky and a collection of clubs looking at City as a target to aim at.

Only the few would predict the golden years the club are now living in will go on forever, however. Football dynasties, particularly those in England, rise and fall at the most unexpected moments and turn on the least anticipated eventualities. There are always circumstances to be dealt with and situations to be managed. In that regard, the City story is no different, as some of the events of this year illustrate.

City were referred earlier this year to an independent commission over alleged breaches of Premier League rules dating back to 2009. For their part, the club have said they are looking forward to the independent body impartially considering “the comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence that exists in support of its position”.

Some of those outside officialdom who have accused the club of wrongdoing, appear to be motivated in part by a mix of tribalism and jealousy. Guardiola, in particular, has been strident in his criticism of the general discourse around the charges.

That City are now regarded with such envious eyes speaks once again to how far the club has journeyed in 15 years, although that can only be regarded as a fact of life rather than as a demonstrable achievement.

What is undeniable, is that not many would have imagined 15 years ago that the level of success on and off the pitch would be quite so wide-ranging. Not just domestic and now European glory, but urban redevelopment on a large scale around the stadium the club moved into two decades ago and, of course, the establishment of a global network of clubs under the City Football Group umbrella. Taken together, they are quite a collection of achievements.

Published: August 31, 2023, 2:00 PM