This article, by Bill Borrows, appeared in the Guardian magazine on Saturday 5th September 1998. Bill has kindly allowed us to make the article available to you from our site.
Manchester City were once among the greats of English football. But now, the Sky Blues have been relegated to the ranks of has-beens. What went wrong? And could it all have been avoided but for the ego-driven mismanagement of their former chairman, Peter Swales? One thing is for sure: it will take more than another round of corporate schemes and cold handshakes to stop the rot that has infested the heart of Maine Road.
By Bill Borrows
Thinking about it now, he must have been a senior official with the AC Milan delegation. At the very least, a prosperous second-generation Italian restauranteur with a distorted sense of self, caffe-latte tan and – notable, this, in the north of England at the onset of the Winter of Discontent – a hat with a purple ostrich plume.
“Move,” he said. Just like that, as if Solomon in all his glory…
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said move,” he repeated, adjusting his silk scarf. “What? Are you deaf?”
All this without either deigning or daring – probably the former – to make eye contact with my father, the man whose hand I held in a rigor-mortis grip in the manner of most ten-year-olds in the midst of a huge crowd of adults and cocky teenagers on their way to a football match.
There was something in the air. You couldn’t cut it with a knife, thankfully, but you could still smell it the next morning.
I can still smell it now. In hard times, northern men retreat into themselves, hands in pockets and shoulders hunched, bending into the wind like one of Lowry’s factory workers. On this December evening in 1978, however, the sheepskin car-coats and wind-cheaters, the denim jackets and tank-tops were walking tall and talking back.
“I think you’ll have to repeat yourself,” said my father. Eye contact at last, and then a circuitous route, perhaps even a journey, around my father, all conducted with the affected Italian insouciance that the French strive to emulate and the English find risible.
The crowd, wending its way through the terraced streets around Maine Road – the Manchester City stadium which, at the time, was universally held to be one of the best in the country – walked with a certain sense of purpose. Peter Swales had already been chairman for five years, but was yet to embark upon the final stage of his foredoomed, ego-driven mission to eclipse their great rivals, Manchester United. The confidence on that night stemmed, in part, from the first leg of this UEFA Cup third-round tie, in which City had come within ten minutes of being the first foreign team to win at the San Siro in a competitive European tie, before characteristically spitting in the face of glory to concede two late goals and draw 2-2.
Whatever surplus attitude was in the air for the return leg derived from the achievements of the previous ten years, during which time the club had won the League title, the FA Cup, the League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup (in the same season – the first English club to land a domestic and European double), and then the League Cup again. In 1977, they finished runners-up to Liverpool. Hopes for this second leg were not so much high as unnecessary, like worrying about the rain when you’re carrying an umbrella. As expected, City ran out comfortable 3-0 winners in front of a crowd of 38,000 to go into the draw for the quarter-finals.
That sinking feeling… after relegation to the third tier of English football for the first time in the club’s history
Next Saturday, Manchester City will travel 25 miles down the A34 to play Macclesfield Town in a mid-table Second Division league match in front of no fewer than 6,000 people. You must have heard the jokes. There is the one about the thieves who break into the trophy room at Maine Road (police are looking for two men with a light-blue carpet), the perennial Manchester City Oxo cube joke (laughing stock) and the story, probably apocryphal, concerning former chairman Francis Lee and an old woman laden down with shopping bags. This one was common currency for weeks after three high-profile managers publicly turned down the opportunity to join the club (Lee asks her, “Can you manage?” and she says, “No chance, you’re not catching me out that easily“). Most recently, there was the tale of the fan who threw his season ticket on to the pitch in disgust, and then received it back through the post three days later, with a short note that read, “I am returning your season ticket, because if we have to suffer this rubbish, so do you.”
All very amusing, but for the fact that the last one was actually a news story, and not a joke. “Bury had just scored the winner,” 36-year-old Chris Morris told the Manchester Evening News. “Another fan had ripped his ticket up on the pitch, and I couldn’t stand any more. So I took my ticket and ripped it up without thinking. People congratulated me. I had an immense feeling of relief, no more garbage, no more working around City matches, and no more overtime. But on Tuesday it arrived back in the post with the note… it seems you can’t get away from the club, no matter how hard you try, so I’m going back to Maine Road for the West Brom game next Saturday, and looking forward to it.”
There is never an impulse to invent stories about Manchester City, because the truth, based, as it invariably is, upon a cocktail of outrageous misfortune and breathtaking ineptitude, will always suffice. The club can legitimately claim to be home to the longest-running soap opera in the world. Manchester City remains the only club in the history of the Football League to be relegated the year after winning the title (1938), and the only one to both score and concede 100 goals in the same season (1958).
Some more improbable plots? In 1904, trialist Harry Kay scored four goals in a reserve game, only to be arrested as a result of the subsequent publicity. It transpired that he was an army deserter. Going head to head with Portsmouth for the last promotion place in 1927, City won 8-0 on the last day of the season, but still missed out by virtue of an inferior goal average of one two-hundredth of a goal. In the 1956 FA Cup final, former Nazi stormtrooper and prisoner of war, Bert Trautmann, playing in goal for City, broke his neck, but carried on playing. In the same spirit, City recorded their highest average attendance for 16 years last season, despite being relegated to the Second Division for the first time. That said, it was only marginally higher than the other peak average attendance from the past seven years, the season when they were relegated from the Premier League.
Understandably, the people who are addicted to this particular soap share certain character traits. “My work involves logic and rationality,” explains Howard Davies, chairman of the Financial Services Association and former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England. “Yet supporting City is clearly irrational. What is happening at the club is disastrous, awful, but, no matter how bad it gets, I have this emotional attachment to them that I cannot break… my support is not a matter of choice. I inherited two fatal flaws from my father: premature baldness and Manchester City, neither of which I can change.”
A certain stoicism is essential. Former derivatives trader Nick Leeson, a man with even less financial self-restraint than many of those who have signed cheques on behalf of the club he supports, opted to wear a Manchester City shirt on his way to prison to serve a sentence for what must still amount to the greatest embezzlement of the 20th century. “To wear the colours of a more presumptuous club might have been in bad taste,” he explained at the time. “To declare oneself a Blue seemed rather to take the edge off it [the crime].”
That is known as going for the sympathy vote, and is indicative of a requisite degree of self-pity. Meanwhile, Noel Gallagher, reprimanded by a steward for loutish behaviour at the recent Fulham-City game, has publicly voiced his concern at recent events in the City boardroom: “If I went in there tomorrow, the first I’d do is go, ‘You, f**k off. You, f**k off. You, make me a cup of tea. You, f**k off.'” That is the defiance and conviction that is an absolute must-have for every season. Noel Bayley, the editor of City fanzine Bert Trautmann’s Helmet, provides the final defining characteristic: hopeless optimism. “There are those who say we will never get back in the Premier League,” he sighs, “but that is not right. Supporting City takes a huge amount of faith, although faith in what, I don’t know. Of course we’ll get back.”
For the club’s first game in what is effectively the third flight of English football, 32,000 supporters turned up to watch City beat Blackpool 3-0. Two weeks ago, they attracted the fifth highest attendance in the country, including the Premier League, for the visit of Wrexham. This is the perverse and almost preternatural environment in which the people who run Manchester City Football Club have to operate. The usual laws of business do not apply. It’s what Bayley means when he says, “I’ve thought about whether every supporter considers their club to be ‘special’ or ‘unique’, and I don’t really know the answer to that. I suppose they do, but what I can tell you for certain is that there is no other club like this one.”
Last season, one month into the job, current manager Joe Royle – the seventh in four years, but a former player with some knowledge of the place – diagnosed the club, with elegant use of understatement, as “poorly”. It has, however, rarely been in rude health. Its history can be summarised in less than 100 words: form; change name; win FA Cup; bribe scandal; sell best players to Manchester United; move grounds; start wearing sky blue; win FA Cup again, break (and still hold) English attendance record; win league; bad times; win FA Cup; Munich air disaster and subsequent canonisation of greatest rivals; bad times; some more bad times; arrival of Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer; win everything; Peter Swales becomes chairman; win League Cup; ill-advised return of Malcolm Allison; terrible times; beat United 5-1; bad times; Francis Lee becomes chairman; really quite dreadful times and; to bring us right up to date, the very worst of times.
The current period of seemingly inexorable decline can be taken to have started in 1973 or, from the list above, with the words “Peter Swales becomes chairman”. He secured a seat on the board in that year by promising to act as a peacemaker between two rival factions who were attempting a takeover of the club. Involved in non-league football at the time, Swales’s rapid ascension to a position of influence at one of the biggest clubs in the country was, by his own admission, pure chance. “I was 38, and full of myself. I went into this pub and saw two City directors sitting there and I thought, ‘This is an opportunity.’ So I went over to them, and I said, point blank, ‘You know all this trouble you’re having, I could sort that out for you.’ I had no bloody idea, none whatsoever.”
Needless to say, he emerged from the stringent vetting procedure with a new job and went on to become the longest-serving chairman in English football. If longevity is a measure of success, then the appointment was a master-stroke. If rather more demanding criteria are required, however, then it can only be seen as an unmitigated disaster. The bare facts are that, under Swales’s stewardship, the club won the League Cup once, but was also relegated twice, and went 18 years without winning a trophy. In that time, he appointed 11 managers and sanctioned their judgment to the extent that City became the first English club to purchase three £1-million players, even breaking the British record for one of them, Steve Daley, who cost £1.4 million from Wolverhampton Wanderers. Daley failed so fundamentally in almost every regard that, almost 20 years later, his name, like that of Manchester City, is still synonymous in football circles with rank under-achievement.
Swales has said many times that his motivation as chairman was to overtake Manchester United, but it was, in the classical tradition of Greek tragedy, this hubristic flaw that was to lead to both his eventual downfall and the current plight of the club. The moment when that inevitable momentum became unstoppable was with the appointment of Malcolm Allison as coach. Allison had been one half of the managerial team (with Joe Mercer) that had delivered City’s glory years in the late 1960s. Allison and Mercer had split up as a partnership just before the takeover bid that brought Swales to Maine Road in 1973. But now, five years later, and with City having just finished runners-up and within touching distance of overhauling United’s average attendance, the temptation proved too great. In response to the incessant prompting of certain board members, if Swales is to be believed, he was going to bring the charismatic Allison back for the final push. As he put it himself years later, “It was a final bloody push all right.”
Allison promptly sold almost all the senior players, most of them internationals, and several highly rated young prospects (the father of one of them, Gary Owen, said that when he drove him away from Maine Road to sign for West Bromwich Albion, it was like taking a dog to be put down at the vets). City, not content with having one major character with a tragic flaw, had now recruited another. The club went into the transfer market led by the deal-making equivalent of Abbott and Costello. It was mischievously rumoured at the time (but never substantiated) that while Allison was negotiating to buy million-pound players for the club, the local branch of the Nat West bank had withdrawn his personal chequebook. Years later, he was to lose a fortune in the infamous BCCI collapse. Before he was sacked, he spent one for Manchester City. And, despite his subsequent protestations to the contrary, Swales let him do it.
Almost the whole of the next decade, but for one unsuccessful FA Cup final appearance in 1981, was a write-off. It was characterised by relegation twice, the familiar managerial merry-go-round, expensive signings for negligible returns and business decisions that could only charitably be referred to as naïve – selling off the rights to the club badge and agreeing a flat fee (still worth only £60,000 a year to the club in 1994) for the franchise to run the prime-site club shop, for example. To give some idea of the shortfall for the club, it is estimated that the new redeveloped merchandise operation will make £2.5 million this year.
This was one part of the legacy nurtured by Swales. Another was, as it is now fashionably termed, cronyism. That is to say, the accretion of a type of person, usually unsuitable and not upon a meritocratic basis, into the structure of an organisation by someone in a position of influence. These were the people Francis Lee would later call “the enemy within”.
As the team’s fortunes suffered, even a hint of the word “Swales” produced the Pavlovian response of “Out” from most City fans. Colin Schindler, author of both the best-selling book Manchester United Ruined My Life and the screenplay for the film Buster, is typical. “I hate him with a passion,” he says even now. “There used to be a magazine called Foul, and I was asked to write for them in 1974. I was the first person in print to slag off Swales. As soon as he took over and came on television, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this man makes City look like s**t.'”
Regardless of his popularity rating, however, while still backed by publicity-shy Manchester businessman Stephen Boler and Greenalls Brewery, both major shareholders, his position was secure. Until, that is, he sacked Peter Reid in autumn 1993, who had taken City to two consecutive top-five finishes in the Premier League and one ninth place in three years, and appointed a journalist, John Maddock, as general manager.
The unrest reached a new intensity given direction by the announcement of Francis Lee, a former player from the Mercer-Allison days and an England international, as well as a millionaire who had made his fortune from waste paper and, a nice touch this, toilet rolls, to buy into the club. The T-shirts on sale outside the ground talked of “St Francis” and “The Second Coming”, blasphemies excused by the presence of the Reverend Jim Burns, a vicar from Chorley, who initially became the public face of the soon-to-be-christened “Forward With Franny” campaign, a single-issue pressure group designed to oust Swales and install Lee as chairman, that would, it was generally conceded, solve everything.
Despite the urgent entreaties of the fans for Swales to leave, he clung on to power with unseemly determination. Even Nicolae Ceaucescu went with better grace. The situation was acrimonious and drawn out, and provided for everything from orchestrated press leaks to death threats against the main protagonists on both sides. It was all deeply unpleasant, and only came to an end when Swales finally agreed to stand down. Two years later, he confessed to Gary James, the author of Manchester: The Greatest City, the definitive history of the club, “Once Francis came in, I knew it was only a matter of time. He was the only man the fans would accept, and I knew that. It had to be Francis.”
Lee flew back immediately from a family holiday in Antigua and, having secured his permission to shadow him on the day he became chairman of the club he once played for, I met him off flight BA 254. It was eight minutes early. He was tanned and relaxed, travelling light, and was through immigration before the bags hit the carousel. “I’m hoping this will be done and dusted within an hour,” he said, as he made for the shuttle up to Manchester like he was late for a funeral. He was talking about the paperwork necessary for him to secure control of the club. It would eventually take nearly 14 hours. On the plane to Manchester, he talked about his plans for the future, a new infrastructure at the club, impressive corporate facilities and the imminent departure of certain members of staff (or “real s**ts” as he called them).
Current Chairman David Bernstein
On his arrival, the press corps were waiting, and he gave the first of several identical interviews that day. The rest of the day was taken up with meetings. The first, with the other members of the consortium – former City winger Colin Barlow and John Dunkerley, a small man with the nervous energy of Joe Pesci. Then to the bank to present them with a guarantee. Then there was haggling over the final details in a city-centre solicitor’s office (Swales, thinking big to the bitter end, was holding out for a car-parking space and a table in the pre-match hospitality suite before every home game) before Lee decamped to a country pub in Cheshire where, at half past midnight on Saturday February 5, 1994, he finally (in the words of the hastily-prepared press release) “acquired 112,337 ordinary shares in the club from each of Mr Peter Swales and Mr Stephen Boler at a price equivalent to £13.35 per share“. It went on, “Mr Francis Lee has been appointed to the board of the club as chairman.”
For me, the abiding memory of that night, however, happened half an hour before the various factions approved the press-release. As I walked into the gentlemen’s lavatory, I saw Swales at the urinal opposite. He looked over his shoulder and into my eyes, in the hope of identifying a glimpse of recognition, and delivered a weak smile. I smiled back. It was one of his last moments as chairman of Manchester City. He looked haggard and beaten. And small. The campaign to get rid of him, or rather his attempt to cling on to power, had exacted a shocking toll. Less than two-and-a-half years later, he was dead – his own personal tragic curtain-call.
Gary James conducted the last ever interview with him. “It killed him,” says James. “The struggle to stay on killed him.” Only in retrospect has it become apparent that the battle for the control of Manchester City Football Club was, as somebody once said about the Falklands war, nothing more than two bald men fighting over a comb.
“Do you know what I had to deal with at my first board meeting?” asks Francis Lee now, four years later, relaxing in the living room of his luxurious Wilmslow home as the former chairman of Manchester City. Before I can answer, he continues. “I’ll tell you, one of the directors wanted 15 grand to repair the boiler. Apparently, it had been in need of repair for three years, and some of the visiting teams had complained about having to wash with cold water. Washing with cold water at, supposedly, one of the best grounds in the country. I went down to have a look at it, and there were bits of sticking plaster all over it, it looked like the African Queen… the club needed saving because they needed to build a new stand, but couldn’t afford it. They were right on the limit of the overdraft. In fact, we had to change banks to get better terms. They owed money for players which had been spread over two or three years… Let me give you an example: if Keith Curle had been picked for England on a regular basis, he would have bankrupted the club, because we had to give [his former club] Wimbledon a certain amount of money, tens of thousands, every time he won a cap.”
The legacy of the Swales era has fully matured by the time of the Lee takeover to include a crippling wage bill, alarming levels of debt, and a number of people associated with the club that Lee will only refer to as “reptiles”, a word he can deliver with real venom. I remind him of our conversation on the plane the day he took control of the club, and of the hit-list of people he had determined to kick out. He sighs, possibly at my naïvety, possibly at his own. “They are not doing anything right up front, they’re not saying anything behind your back, but last Christmas they were dying for the team to lose. They all come out of the woodwork or slithering out from under the stones when you’re not there. That is the atmosphere, and you can’t get rid of them. All you can do is ban them from the club, but what do you ban them for? The moment you ban them from the club they pick up the phone to the tabloids and say, ‘I’ll give you all the dirt you need on that club.'”
These kind of people are usually small-minded panjandrums, anxious for status by association with a professional football club. Even Manchester City. More often than not, they are local businessmen with little capital input and a friend on the board. They believe the club is run exclusively for their benefit, that the paying supporter is a necessary evil, to be exploited at every opportunity, and will do whatever they can to keep it that way.
Lee believes his job was made unnecessarily difficult after Swales embarked upon the commercial equivalent of a scorched-earth policy before he surrendered control of the club, and he was forced, he says, to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get out of long-term contracts that were renegotiated and signed in the month before the takeover. What did he expect?
The facts remain that, in his four years as chairman of the club, it has been relegated twice, currently languishes in its lowest ever position and, including caretaker managers and Steve Coppell, who only lasted 32 days before apparently experiencing some kind of nervous breakdown (a record even at Maine Road), witnessed the appointment of another six managers. It is this record that John Hawkins, a veteran of several attempts to oust Swales (and also a founder member of the “Forward With Franny” campaign and, effectively, an adviser to the “Free The Manchester 30,000”, which last year sought to secure the resignation of Francis Lee), feels lays the former chairman open to charges of betrayal. More than that, Hawkins claims he received assurances from people close to Lee that there would be £50 million to spend on players. He says now, “They promised that it was just for starters, but then they also said that Franz Beckenbauer (legendary former player and coach of the 1990 German World Cup-winning side) would be manager.” I also remember being tempted by the possibility of the latter.
Lee issues the strongest denials. Hawkins asserts his conviction that Lee only returned to the club to make money, which the former chairman counters with the suggestion that he has lost money and that, if he really wanted to make money, he would have waited until the club had been relegated before buying it from Peter Swales at about half the price. I ask him if he considers his period in charge to have been a success. “When you look at what has happened to the club in terms of the actual league position, then, no, fair enough. If you think that, when I went there, the turnover was £6 million, and this year it will be £15 million, and that’s on the back of failure, well… the average gate last year was over 28,000, the average gate in the Premier League is 23,000. That’s marketing.” And, of course, the preposterous of Manchester City supporters.
The achievements just keep gushing forth. “In this time, we’ve built a new stand, which cost £13 million… The club is virtually a Premier League club, apart from where it is in the league, and what you can do about that, I don’t know. We gave the last manager [Frank Clark] £10 million to spend, and he bought ten or 11 players and, to be honest, if I’d have had a say in it, I might have bought one of them. I thought, with a bit of good luck and a bit of careful planning, we could go somewhere. But all you need to do is make a few bad buys that don’t come off, and then you are in trouble. That is the hardest thing in the world, the £2.5 million coming from the merchandising side of things every year can be blown on the whim of the manager’s phone call.”
To put all these figures into perspective, Manchester United, the very apotheosis of the modern professional football club, is currently valued at £420 million. As football went big-time and it became paramount to be in the top division in order to share the millions flowing into the game from television rights and other lucrative deals, City, endearingly, opted for relegation. Twice. Even by their standards, the timing left something to be desired, and something had to give. Somebody had to carry the can. And that person was Francis Lee.
As he tendered his resignation after months of pressure from the fans to step down, the traditional riots outside the front of the ground (still protected by the steelwork the previous incumbent had erected), death threats and personal abuse paying eloquent testimony to a dramatic fall from grace, he drew the attention of the press to “enemies of the club within and without” and the failure of his managerial appointments to buy enough “quality players and organise them right”. His vice-chairman, David Bernstein – also the chairman of retail/mail-order clothing company French Connection and initially involved with the club during the Lee takeover but now more closely allied with other major shareholders – replaced him. He explained, with a professional accountant’s gift for non-ironic restraint and dispassionate analysis that, as he had been a passionate supporter of the club for 40 years, he was “acutely aware of the depth of feeling resulting from our lack of success”.
Feet up in the refined and expensively decorated front room of his north-London home just days before the new season, Manchester City’s new chairman is a picture of calm, a crisis manager in a job that will thoroughly test his current perception of the word “crisis”. The club is, for the record, “in a satisfactory, stable position, financially speaking”, and he cannot be drawn on the comments about “enemies within” made by the departing chairman, or the observation of former manager Frank Clark that, “It will take a very, very long time to sort things out… it is a rat-infested place.”
“Stability is what is required now,” says Bernstein, the fact that a major new input of capital will probably result in his replacement, by yet another chairman, notwithstanding. “I won’t comment on the past. There were a lot of changes in the club, even before Francis left… we’ve got an excellent board and we’re highly organised. It’s being run as an efficient, 21st-century corporation.” There is no flicker of a smile. He means it.
So, although fans of this particular soap opera might conceivably have to live with less sensational storylines in the short-term, there is no reason to despair. Manchester City Football Club will always be an organisation that inspires a loyalty in those who, pathetically almost, strive to keep it alive in inverse proportion to the efforts of the constituent parts of that organisation, from the boardroom down to the playing staff, to satisfy even their most basic requirements. the thing is, however, the fans who recently queued up from 7am to buy tickets for the Macclesfield Town game, wouldn’t have it any other way.
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1998