Champions League final: Man City fans eye European glory to cap new era for Manchester

Abu Dhabi investment brings changes on and off the pitch in English city

Manchester City fan Gary Butterfield is crossing his fingers for a positive result in Saturday’s Champions League final – but first he needs a negative one in a Covid test that will clear his way to travel to the match.

A season ticket holder at City since 1984, Mr Butterfield, 55, is one of the 6,000 City fans with a ticket for the showdown in Porto.

“I’ve been through plenty of downs and now I’m hopefully reaping the rewards,” he said of his years as a City fan.

“To say in years to come that you were there, after the journey we’ve been on, it’s something greatly to look forward to.”

City’s march to the summit – spurred by heavy investment from Abu Dhabi United Group, which bought the club in 2008 – is a vindication for fans who stuck by the team while it languished in mediocrity in the 1990s and 2000s.

The revival for City after years of domination by Manchester United comes alongside a wider transformation in the city’s fortunes, helped by investment in the Etihad Stadium and its surrounding area.

“Manchester’s been on the up for a while now,” said Labour MP Jeff Smith, a City fan who represents Manchester Withington in the UK Parliament.

“What’s happened around the Etihad Stadium in east Manchester has been fantastic for the city. It’s taken what was quite a run-down area of the city into the modern times and into a new era.”

After a year in which Manchester was battered by the pandemic, the fan community that helped many people through the dark days of lockdown is now gearing up for the final, with restrictions at their lightest for nearly a year.

Bars, cinemas and living rooms are available again for fans to meet up and watch the game against Chelsea. And the trip to Portugal became possible after the UK lifted its ban on foreign travel on May 17.

City fan Chris Phillips is taking the opportunity of the Porto final for a week's holiday in Portugal. Darren Robinson Photography 
City fan Chris Phillips is taking the opportunity of the Porto final for a week's holiday in Portugal. Darren Robinson Photography 

City fans gear up for whirlwind Porto trip

City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, the UAE’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, is covering the cost of supporters' flights to Portugal.

Collecting their paperwork for the final outside the Etihad on Tuesday, City fans saw the trip as a reward for their loyal support over the years.

Tickets were allocated based on a loyalty points system to favour longstanding supporters.

Paul Ramsden, 69, one of those with a ticket for Porto, has been watching City since 1963. Another travelling fan, 56-year-old David Perks, got his ticket through a colleague.

If we win then I expect there will be impromptu street parties all over Manchester

Ric Turner

Chris Phillips, 71, is using the opportunity to take a week’s holiday in Portugal.

Flying out on Wednesday, he was booked on a Ryanair flight rather than one of the official City-arranged trips. “I just thought – why not?,” he said.

Fans on the official package will be going on a day trip and returning to Manchester on Sunday morning.

Others are going to Portugal without a ticket for the match, to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy a visit to one of the few countries on the UK’s green list.

Frank Wolf, 69, spent more than £400 ($565) on Covid tests for his three-man travelling party and will be anxiously awaiting his result before Saturday’s flight. Reflecting City fans’ reputation for self-deprecation and persisting through adversity, Mr Phillips said: “We’ve always moaned about City.”

City fan David Perks outside the club shop at the Etihad Stadium. Darren Robinson Photography 
City fan David Perks outside the club shop at the Etihad Stadium. Darren Robinson Photography 

Etihad campus makes a mark in Manchester

City moved to their current stadium in 2003, leaving behind their old Maine Road ground, which today gives its name to a chip shop opposite the Etihad.

A short tram ride from the city centre, the Etihad complex – which began life as the venue for the 2002 Commonwealth Games – entails much more than the stadium itself.

City’s training facilities have 16 pitches and are used not only by the first team but also by youth players.

Football courses run by the British Study Centre include language teaching and a curriculum on the football business developed partly by Manchester City officials.

“Our students actually have access to all of the facilities used by the first team,” said Charlie Tweddle, the BSC’s director of operations.

The courses were cancelled this year because of the pandemic, but past students have come from the US, South America, Africa and the Middle East.

“It’s a really good international mix we get on the programme,” Mr Tweddle said.

Feature on Manchester City FC at the Etihad complex and Manchester city centre. PIC shows Etihad complex.
Feature on Manchester City FC at the Etihad complex and Manchester city centre. PIC shows Etihad complex.

The Etihad complex helps to make the football industry a significant player in the economy of Greater Manchester, an area of about 2.8 million people.

Manchester was once the world’s “first industrial city” but has undergone major economic changes in the past 25 years.

More affordable in which to live than London, Manchester has a large tech and digital sector that employs about 10,000 people.

Thousands of BBC employees are based in Salford, a borough of Greater Manchester. Amazon opened offices in Manchester last year and Google has a presence in the city.

Meanwhile, United and City are global brands that bring in millions of pounds from TV rights, sponsorship and sales of tickets and merchandise.

An official City shirt costs £65, while shoppers in Manchester’s Arndale centre could spend £20 on a City-branded duvet cover or an autobiography by Belgian defender and former club captain Vincent Kompany.

Aside from United and City, grassroots football is thought to add about £290m a year to Manchester’s economy.

“It's obviously great for Manchester as a city to have arguably the best team in Europe at the moment,” said City fan Ric Turner, 43, who runs an online fan forum called Bluemoon.

“The rivalry with United has made it perhaps the football capital of the world, which can only benefit the region.”

Shoppers on Market Street in Manchester, which saw its footfall slump during the pandemic. Darren Robinson Photography
Shoppers on Market Street in Manchester, which saw its footfall slump during the pandemic. Darren Robinson Photography

City’s rise to global status

City’s growing success has given the club a greater international status, which many fans see as a good thing.

“When I go abroad, I don’t just see Barcelona and United and Liverpool’s shirts, I see City shirts,” Mr Smith said. “For me, as a born-and-bred City fan, that’s a source of great pride.”

Sue and Rob Booth got engaged at half time in a Manchester City game in 1976, married on the day of the Manchester derby in 1980 and have watched City games with fans all over the world since.

“Wherever we travel, we link up with a supporters’ club,” said Mr Booth, 62. Abu Dhabi was one of those destinations.

On Saturday, the couple will watch the Champions League final at home. “It’s paradise for us,” Mr Booth said.

Mr Turner, the Bluemoon editor, said the club retained a strong local support despite its global status.

But he said there were some who felt that City fans had become impatient, even spoilt, as a result of the team’s success in recent years.

“There is danger of us losing the humility and self-deprecating humour which once defined us as a fanbase,” he said.

Man City fans Sue and Rob Booth got engaged at half time during a City game. Darren Robinson Photography 
Man City fans Sue and Rob Booth got engaged at half time during a City game. Darren Robinson Photography 

The club's relationship with fans was frayed by the aborted Super League proposal in April, which sparked outrage well beyond the world of football.

But Mr Smith said there was an understanding in Manchester that City were not the ringleaders in the Super League fiasco.

“I think it’s kind of been forgiven now, to be honest – as long as it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

The Champions League is the one trophy missing from the glittering collection assembled by City in recent years.

Five of the last 10 Premier League titles have gone to City, but their European campaigns have ended in a series of disappointing defeats.

That could change on Saturday when a victory over Chelsea would make City the sixth English team to lift the trophy, 53 years after United became the first.

“If we win,” Mr Turner said, “then I expect there will be impromptu street parties all over Manchester."

Updated: May 27, 2021 03:46 PM

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